Coleslaw shall not live on carrots alone

It’s all going a bit pear-shaped. Or rather carrot-shaped. I’m getting weekly Government food boxes at the moment, though they keep texting me to inform me that I have said I no longer require them – which I haven’t – and so they will no longer arrive – which they continue to do. I get them because I am shielding and have no other human being (sob!) that I could bring myself to ask to do supermarket shopping for me. The neighbours all have their own problems, and many of them are shielding too.

I am grateful for the food boxes, though possibly not for the reasons the Government imagines. I look forward to Fridays all week because that is the day when Something Happens. Throughout the rest of the week Nothing Happens.

The food box is one-size-fits-all, I suspect, ie I get enough for a family of three. Every week, 2kg of potatoes, plus rice, plus pasta. Well, I like potatoes, in moderation. Every week, a monster bag of carrots. I must admit, I don’t like carrots, but I have been doing my best, because the carrots are free, and waste not, want not. I made a couple of hot-pots every week, eating one third, freezing two thirds, eating another third…until I could not face even opening one  of the little plastic tubs. They gave me wind. This was because of the tin of baked beans that went into each.

I coincided with my neighbour at the bins. She is a little deaf but we mimed and shouted a kind of conversation whilst remaining socially distanced. “Make coleslaw with them,” she said, as if it was obvious. Well, she’s a school teacher and I’m not. I imagined grating that giant bag of carrots – enough grated carrot to fill a kitchen. And then what? No onion, no cabbage, no – anything you could make coleslaw out of. Coleslaw shall not live on carrots alone, as Jesus might have have said, had coleslaw existed in those days.

Also in my box – every week, more or less – a bottle of Lynx men’s shower gel – a black bottle with an impenetrable top and writing so tiny I couldn’t read it. Until I finally wrenched it open, I wasn’t even sure what it was. Something esoteric to do with shaving, perhaps. I’ve tried it out – it smells gruff and medical – the way you’d imagine a man would want to smell – but I’d rather smell of pine disinfectant than sweat. Shower gel every week (my sister suggested I open a shop) but no toothpaste. I suppose if I ran out I could use baking powder. You can use baking powder, can’t you?

Handfuls of teabags kind of scattered randomly throughout, each tea bag in it’s own little paper packet, so you have to undo them all, but then – what else would I be doing? It’s therapy.

Tomato soup and tinned tomatoes. Two tins of each, per week. Tomato pasta sauce, two jars of each, per week. Sadly, though I gather tomato soup is the most popular kind, I simply cannot force it into my mouth. I can get the spoon half way there, then the smell makes me retch. So much tomato. Tomato soup can be made palatable by putting it in a hot-pot. But I am all hot-potted out. Which reminds me of that rather lovely older Scottish chap in Primeval – that series about dinosaurs and monsters falling through a rift in time. Eventually he left the series and the reason he gave was that he was “All Oh-My-Godded Out”. Oh My God, it’s a miniature pterodactyl! – Oh My God, it’s a super-sized flesh-eating futuristic super-killer!” Etcetera.

Six oranges. I wish I liked oranges, because they’re so good for you. I like the taste, but not the dribbly, squelchy texture. I bought an old-fashioned lemon-squeezer on Ebay (that thing you impale the fruit on is called a reamer, did you know? Ex always used to be talking about reamers) and now I squeeze all six oranges and drink the juice, an Orange Vampire.

I could go on. I am grateful for the boxes, for as long as they continue to arrive. Like the curate’s egg, they are good in parts, and those parts that are not good are a great boon to my mental health, providing me with amusement when there is absolutely no other amusement to be had. I tell a lie – this morning I went out with the secateurs and cut back some of the brambles.

It occurred to me the other day that, given the Underlying Health Condition, etc etc, I cannot safely un-shield, ie emerge from lockdown, apart from my weekly engine-boosting circuit in the car, until there is a vaccine – and there might never be a vaccine. Even if there is a vaccine – I did the math – I keep forgetting how old I am – by the time there is one, and I can get my paws on it, I may well be seventy. I cannot imagine being seventy. I cannot imagine being under house arrest until I am seventy, though equipped to survive, after a fashion, being solitary by nature.

Some days it feels like the ending of “2001” – that bit where he goes through the whatever – all those tedious lights, some kind of wormhole – and ends up in an olive-and-other-shades-of-green mansion of incredible dullness, being studied by unseen aliens – or possibly not, who knows? – whilst growing older and older (and older and older) and eventually dying, whilst reaching out to that blasted monolith yet again! What was that all about? Does anybody know? Does anybody care any more?

And some days it feels like all my Christmases have come at once. Sitting out in the sun on my plastic garden chair, an unread paperback and a mug of bitter-tasting Government coffee on the pile of paving-stones beside me; looking down the garden at a lawn somebody else has just mown for me; looking at the ratty old roses, now visible where the brambles have been thinned out; listening to the birds – so many birds – and the silence, otherwise; imagining what the world would be like if entirely emptied of human beings, if I was the only one left…

At those moments I am mercifully thinking of nothing, at one with the sunshine, thankful and at peace. At last my torment is over. The outside world is leaving me alone.

What happens in Imagination, stays in Imagination

There is a kind of logic behind obsessive worrying, which would be instantly understood by the citizens of the alternative universe from which I was, at some point, expelled in error.

The idea is that if you lie awake night after night, and every spare moment, rehearsing some terrible future scenario in the minutest of detail, that scenario will not actually happen. This is the deal the worrier strikes – with God, the Universe, the White Mice or whoever:

Dear God/Universe/White Mice

I will put all my spare energy into imagining infinite variations on post-apocalyptic Britain. I will decide, in grim detail, exactly what I will do. I will foresee everything, I will act it all out and I will also prepare for it in real life, laying in stocks, building that nuclear bunker at the bottom of the garden, so that if it should accidentally come to pass I will be ready for it.

As recompense for all that effort-expended and anguish-experienced, You will not allow said scenario to happen. I am using my imagination inventing this nightmare future-scape, but the very fact that I am imagining it means it cannot then take place in real life. My inner world is one place, my outer world is another, and the equivalent of the Red Sea stands between them. What happens in Imagination stays in Imagination.

So what has gone wrong? I spent all those years imagining exactly this – plague, panic, confined to the house for months with an army of cats, ever-decreasing supplies of Felix and Whiskas in the supermarkets or online – and now this actually seems to be taking place. I spent years devouring all those Mass Observation books about the Bulldog Spirit – How We Coped In The War – How We Nearly Didn’t Cope In The War – How Mrs Nella Last Coped In The War – never thinking it would be me needing to Cope. What sort of glitch in your vast, mathematical computer model is this?

Or perhaps it’s not a glitch. Maybe you just got bored – hmm, Conservative Party conference – hmm, discussion of strawberry propagation on Gardeners’ Question Time – 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire – meh! Bored! Let’s run a proper plague. Let’s get some lager in, and a couple of bags of crisps. We’ll veg out on our celestial sofa with the entire box set.

I’m doing my best to be entertaining. I’ve knitted half a string bag and unravelled it. I’ve watched the first four episodes of This Country and discussed them with my sister by email. I’ve been washing up, and washing clothes, and doing more washing up, and then washing more clothes. I’m planning a patchwork quilt. Are you really going to be be entertained, up there on your giant sofa, as I count my tins of cat-food and hand-sew endless tiny squares onto endless tiny other squares?

Hello?

Anybody there?

Did History Happen?

My father had this weird idea about history. Every now and then he would repeat it, which would embarrass my mother and bewilder me. My mother told me not to get into arguments with him about it, because Dad was a bit like the Incredible Hulk – you wouldn’t like him when he was angry. However, I did get into arguments with him about it. I was one of those horribly logical children, and if I had to say something I had to say it, even if it earned me a slapping. I couldn’t bear that he would come out with anything so obviously wrong and not at least attempt to explain why he thought it was right.

The only thing he ever said was this: when he was at school, which I suppose must have been in the thirties, he was shown a map of the world and a huge part of it was coloured pink. The pink bit was the British Empire. I can’t remember exactly what his teachers told him about the British Empire, but it was something to do with the British Empire stretching from pole to pole, destined to go on for ever and full of grateful natives who just loved us for bringing the gift of civilisation to them. Hideous claptrap, obviously. So far so good.

Then he got conscripted and shipped off to India, where he discovered that things were not as he had fervently believed as a child. So far so good, again.

But somehow he extrapolated from this that no history had ever actually happened. He seemed to literally believe this. I remember trying all the usual teenage arguments on him. But what about your memory? You can remember the past, at least that bit of it that took place in your lifetime. And what about fossils? And books, written before we were born? What about pieces of music written in the past, and paintings painted? What about the stories my grandmother told me, about her past, her mother, her sisters?

None of this had any effect, apart from calling forth the Incredible Hulk, in his green, shirt-bursting form.

Many years later, my parents and I used to go to Leeds Castle. We all enjoyed Leeds Castle. My mother saw it as a magnificent addition to her small garden at home. I liked the lake and the quiet, being able to see to all the way to the horizon, no houses in between. Mum and I used to repeat the tour of the castle every now and again, to see the Queen’s Bed and Henry VIII’s (amazingly broad and short) suit of armour and a cupboard full of gorgeous, if dusty, 1920s shoes. My father refused to go in. He would sit on the wall and read his newspaper because – yes, the past had never happened. Did he believe that Henry VIII’s armour was a fake? By this time I knew better than to ask. It still annoyed me, though.

Dad is long gone, but that argument with him has gone on in my head. It’s like being haunted, not by him but by this one bizarre conviction, because in all this time I haven’t been able to prove the reverse – that the past does exist. In despair, I googled it.

It is always a relief when you find that other people have googled the same question as you, and even discussed it amongst themselves – seriously, at length.  It seems that philosophers – actual philosophers – have done work on this problem, intermittently, and have come to the conclusion that no proof is to be had. Everything you remember, the whole of history, might just have been implanted in your mind. This is the “dinosaurs were put there by the Devil” argument.

There is also something called “Thursdayism” which holds that all memories of the past were constructed at the creation of the universe – last Thursday. Though this seems unlikely, it cannot actually be disproved.

I was listening to an interesting podcast yesterday, about problems people have with their brains. One of the cases was an American lady who runs, and regularly wins, the most extreme marathons on the planet, ie hundreds of miles over many days, without stopping, hardly sleeping. As a child she suffered a prolonged seizure which, although nobody realised it at the time, damaged a small area of her temporal lobe. As an adult, she began to have seizures again. In the brief warning period she would put on her running shoes and run – at first to the mountains but eventually for hours and hours. Running enabled her to avoid the seizure altogether.

However, eventually the balance tipped in favour of the seizures. She no longer got any warning, so could not run. As she had children, she opted for removal of that part of her brain that was causing the fits. And it worked. She had no fits after the operation, though she now had problems with short-term memory, and time. It was as if she was living in a permanent now. She also lost the ability to read maps, and navigate. However, she continued to enter extreme marathons. She says when she is running she has no idea how many days she has been running for. She runs, alone, dropping pieces of ribbon at forks in the road so that she can find her way back, if lost. She runs until she reaches her destination, being only aware of the rhythm of her feet and of her breathing, and because she does not know how tired she ought to be, she does not feel tired.

If “time” can be cut out of a person’s brain, doesn’t that mean that time is a product of the brain, something imposed on reality? This would make the brain a kind of gatekeeper.

The explanation I find easiest to accept is this – that all time is happening at once. Therefore it is meaningless to talk in terms of a ‘past’ or a ‘future’. Maybe if we substitute ‘awareness’ or ‘knowledge’ for ‘memory’ it might be closer to the truth. From the present moment we have a sense of the ‘past’ (going on now) and of the ‘future’ (also going on now). We only think of them as taking place ‘then’ and ‘now’ because a small part of our brain is designed to limit us to a linear experience of time. Maybe that is all we can cope with, without going mad.

What do you think?

Stranger In A Strange Land

It takes me by surprise, every time. I can be driving up the hill towards my house – the house – or staring out of my back window. I can be crossing the unmade, pot-holey road between my neighbour’s house and my own, invited – as I was yesterday – for a coffee. Even after seven – nearly eight – years in this village-at-the-end-of-the-world, I can get this feeling of unfamiliarity. I am not really here, something inside my head is saying. Any moment now I will find myself, as if by magic, in the place I actually inhabit, living the life I am actually living.

I am not here, the voice says. I am actually somewhere else, living a completely different life. I do not look like this. My name is familiar – and yet different – I am well, I am happy, I am where I should have been for the last seven – nearly eight – years and

I have never been here.

This, here, is an illusion.

What’s that called, psychologically-speaking. Alienation? Anomie? Ontological Insecurity? And what might be its cause. Something dire, I’ll be bound.

I typed it into Google and got Mumsnet, and Mumsnet, predictably, completely misunderstood the nature of my query. Back and forth these Mumsies kept assuming I meant “not being satisfied with what I’ve got” and quoting endlessly at one another some old body by the name of Joseph Campbell:

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to live the life we have waiting for us.”

But that wasn’t what I meant, smug Mumsies! It’s some sort of existential angst, not a vague conviction that I landed on earth with the intention of being a millionaire/ess. I mean, I know all about lemons and lemonade. I have made so much lemonade out of my manky old lemons, honestly.

It’s more a feeling that any minute now I am going to wake up. Except I don’t. I am a stranger in a strange land.

Which got me wondering where I heard that phrase, and I remembered reading a very good sci-fi novel with that title, by Robert A Heinlen. 1961, he wrote it. And having remembered it, I’ll have to read it again, forthwith. Or rather she will – the version of me that’s inexplicably here, as well as being wherever else she is.

Now I discover that Robert A Heinlen was quoting someone else – The Bible. It’s in Exodus 2:22 and it’s about Moses and his wife Zipporah – or Tziporah – which means “bird”.

And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for, he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

And then, of course, I had to look up Gershom, for why should being called Gershom have anything to do with the case? And I find that in Biblical Hebrew, Gershom means Stranger There or Stranger Is His Name or Exile, Expelled.

So now you know.

And I know.

But who, exactly – am I?

Synchronicity… and The Knot

Synchronicity is one of those interesting-sounding concepts, but when it comes down to it no one can explain exactly what it means. Jung is supposed to have started it. He was trying to analyse a lady who was very resistant to analysis – sceptical; firmly rooted in the practical, provable world. During one session, so the story goes, she was telling Jung about a dream she had had, involving a scarab beetle. At that moment a rather gorgeous beetle appeared outside the window, which Jung opened so that it could fly into the room. From that moment, the woman was able to accept the possibility of non-logical, inexplicable happenings and her analysis could proceed. I wonder if Jung made that story up? If so it’s a good one. Synchronicity – strange but meaningful coincidence.

I have never struggled with synchronicity. I read a lot, and I have always noticed that bits of information pop up in unexpected places – unexpected books, but also films, television programmes, overheard remarks, dreams – and these pieces of information tend to be connected, with one another, and with whatever problem one happens to be trying to solve at the moment.

I am currently re-reading my huge collection of ancient paperbacks before they, or I, crumble to dust.  For want of a better system, I am going from A to Z. There are an awful lot of A’s. Today it’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, my copy of which is pretty near disintegrated already. I am reading about Zaphod Beeblebrox, an irresponsible, manic, two-headed and three-armed gentleman who has been appointed President of the Imperial Galactic Government.  He is described as ‘ideal Presidency fodder’. He has been chosen for his qualities of ‘finely judged outrage’, his ability to fascinate and infuriate. He has no actual power – no one knows who or what actually has the power, though something does. Beeblebrox’s role is to ‘not to wield power but to draw attention away from it’.

And I suddenly thought – well, the obvious. Who does that remind you of? A bit prophetic, eh? Especially when you remember The Hitchhiker’s Guide was published in 1979 and Douglas Adams died young, in 2001. But then – I couldn’t think exactly who – or what – might be wielding actual power in America, that You Know Who would be needed to distract from. And I mean, quite a lot of people must actually have voted for him. So that didn’t fit.

(Another bit of synchronicity: I was watching a Sandra Bullock/Hugh Grant film on Prime last night – Two Weeks Notice. Not a terribly good film, but free, therefore good enough. And lo and behold, the ghastly Trump popped up at the end, looking younger but sounding just as smug. He was playing himself, naturally, a cameo role. You’d think a Hugh Grant film would be a reality-free zone, all floppy hair and romantic charmingness… Is there no escape? I thought.)

And then I thought – Zaphod Beeblebrox – or rather the concept that a figurehead leader could be appointed solely to draw attention away from power, actually fits my country better. I have often wondered exactly what our monarch and her extended family were for, nowadays. Don’t get me wrong, I have always been glad they were there, for history’s sake, and at least vaguely interested in their improbable and expensive ‘doings’. I have always had great respect for the Queen, who has been on the throne for my entire lifetime, and is the same age as my mother, just as her mother was born in the same year as my grandmother.

But we are constantly reminded – and recently more so – that the Monarch has no real power. Hence, if the Prime Minister recommends that she prorogue Parliament, she has to do it. I am very glad Parliament was prorogued, and would be very happy if they stayed permanently prorogued until someone bundled them all up in a big sack and made off with them, preferably in the direction of the River Thames, but it occurred to me at the time – what if she hadn’t wanted to prorogue? What if she had put her foot down and said no?

Part of me so wants her to put her foot down. Part of me wishes we could have a Queen – or King – with all the powers of Queens or Kings of old. I know it’s dangerous, but right at the moment, wouldn’t it be a relief to have a Monarch who could actually do stuff, rather than wearing fancy robes and strings of pearls and drawing attention away from the politicians, civil servants or – worse, even – those nameless, faceless others who actually wield the power? Someone who could stride into the Houses of Parliament wielding an axe or a – something really big and scary-looking.

I was also reading about Alexander the Great. He wanted to be ruler of all Asia but there was this prophecy. The future ruler of all Asia, it was said, would be the person who untied a fiendishly complicated Knot, to be found in a place called Gordium, the capital of Phrygia. (So, the knot was called the Gordian Knot.) Alexander marched to Phrygia and tinkered around with this appalling Knot for a while, but he, just like all those who had tried before him, could not undo it. This was annoying, because he jolly well intended to be ruler of all Asia.

And then the answer came to him. Simple! He raised his great silver sword above his head and brought it down on the Knot so that it simply fell apart. Problem solved, he said. Now can I be ruler of all Asia? And eventually, he was.

Well, we now have the Knot – oh, the mother and father of all Knots. And surely Her Majesty could lay her hands on a great silver sword. Isn’t the Tower of London supposed to be full of them?

synchro

Sink Or Swim

Naturally gloomy, daughter of a depressed, introverted mother and a controlling, extraverted father, more than a little neurotic, probably ADD – and of course living alone for the last twenty-seven years. It’s not exactly a recipe for success. One of my neighbours said to me recently ‘But you’ll cope with it, my dear (serious illness diagnosis) because you’re a Strong ‘un!’ Am I? The possibility had never occurred to me, but I suppose it must be true, otherwise how come I’m still here?

It seems to me that if life is like being adrift at sea after some kind of shipwreck, people can be divided into three groups –

Floaters: those – not necessarily the nicest or the most deserving – who will come out on top no matter what, eg President Trump.

Sinkers: those – they could be sinners, or saints-in-the making – who have so little support and so few advantages, that they were always likely to end up behind bars of some sort, whether in jail or in a mental hospital. These are the ones who are going to be found dead in the gutter, overdosed in a squat; splatted by the swimming pool having falling from a hotel balcony during a drunken party, and so on.

Survivors – these are the ones that carry on not-exactly-sinking even as they don’t-exactly-float, the ones who are mostly on the surface but sometimes under it, who are battered and submerged by every passing wave but somehow carry on bobbing along, year after year after year.

I suppose I am one of the latter, though recently this prolonged Brexit business has really begun to get to me. I find myself alternately glued to the radio or refusing to listen to it, weeping for no reason over situations that might happen but haven’t happened yet and – in the cold light of day – seem quite far-fetched. It’s only politics, after all. Many people manage to spend their whole lives not actually knowing what politics are, and not caring. I have one friend who refuses to think about anything but her next shopping trip. I worked with a woman once who said she had never bothered to vote and couldn’t see the point. I said: Women campaigned and suffered to get that vote for you. One woman threw herself in front of the King’s horse and was trampled to death so that women like you should have the vote. You owe to them. She sniggered. That was about it.

Perhaps I should just snigger. If only that were possible.

Emily

Death of suffragette Emily Davison in 1913

I think the problem is the length of time it has gone on, and the uncertainty. I mean, I would be very angry if the decision of the majority in the referendum were to be side-lined, somehow, or ignored. I would feel – I would know – that my one, but precious vote had been stolen from me. I would no longer be living in a democracy. However, I would rather take that defeat and get it over with than carry on in this state of muddle and uncertainty. I am (possibly) ADD, designed for perpetual change, for quick, instinctive decisions then moving on. New subject. New idea. New project.

I am already trapped here, in this house, in this less than scenic corner of England. I will never have the means to move again. I used to move house a lot, and each new place would refresh me, somehow. I would have shed past me and become new me. For a time. Not a very long time, but better than nothing.

I used to escape through reading, and day-dreams. Now I can’t. Escape through fantasy is only possible when one’s every day life is more or less secure. Currently we are not secure and I need to focus my imagination, what’s left of it, on working out ways to survive in any number of potential futures. I don’t feel British anymore, merely Unspecified Human.

But on the lighter side, I was listening to a radio programme in which a Polish girl explained that  the comedy series Monty Python had been a huge hit in Poland, possibly even bigger than in the UK. She said she thought it was because the Poles and the British shared a sense of humour, quite different from American humour, which she described as ‘darkly absurdist’. I liked that phrase. But then she went on to say that now it seemed as if the whole of the UK had become Monty Python Land, the sort of place where a granny in a phone box would leap out and set upon passers-by with a rolled umbrella.

Trying to find an image for The Way We Live Now (to steal the title of one of my favourite books) I lit (?lighted) up one in another radio programme. It was a nature programme, about butterflies. When the speaker first learned of the bizarre, amazing life cycle of the butterfly, he had vaguely imagined that once a caterpillar had turned

butterfly2

into a chrysalis, inside that hard outer casing all the incipient butterfly was doing was adding a few legs, growing a pair of pretty wings. He said it had come as a bit of a shock to learn that inside the chrysalis what had been a caterpillar was completely dissolved into a kind of primordial genetic soup. And out of that liquid a butterfly was made from scratch, chemical by chemical and cell by cell.

It seems to me that this is what is happening to us now. It’s a deathlike, painful, but perhaps ultimately hopeful process. We are becoming nothing. We are chaos. All the things we believed ourselves to be have proved to be untrue. All the people we placed our trust in have shown themselves unworthy of that trust. All of our history may or may not have been true. We have no place in the world, no purpose, no national identity.

Yet, maybe we are becoming something else. Maybe, battered and bruised, half-drowned as we are, we are about to emerge as something different. Maybe nothing as glorious as a butterfly but something new. I’m going to have to hang on to that hope. Just hang on in there.

We can ask and ask…

The title comes from A Month In The Country by J L Carr. I have read this slim novel twice now. I also recently found the film on Prime – one of the free ones, of course. It was so old I didn’t recognise Kenneth Branagh as one of the lead actors till half way through it. I kept thinking Why does that chap look familiar?

The quote comes from the last page and I am going to type it out in full, partly because it chimes with what seems to be happening in my country right now, but mostly because it’s great writing:

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

Having recently been accused of Nostalgia – which in the course of the three years since the Referendum has become seriously politically incorrect, or at any rate a laughable aberration – I gave myself over to a few thoughts on the matter. I wondered what it was that made me able to re-read the lyrical, romantic, A Month In The Country with great pleasure, and yet suddenly find myself unable to stomach a non-fiction work of 1968/70 – John Hillaby’s Journey Through Britain. 

Journey Through Britain is about the long walk from Land’s End, Cornwall, to John O’Groats at the top of Scotland. Completing this trek by whatever means – walking, cycling – even naked-cycling once – I saw the photo – is one of the challenges foolhardy and/or energetic Brits have traditionally set themselves, like swimming the Channel, climbing all the ‘Wainwrights’, ie all of the 214 peaks (‘fells’) listed in Alfred Wainwright’s seven volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, and the 182 mile Coast To Coast walk (also devised by Wainwright).

Was it something about the book itself? Partly. Grubby and second-hand to begin with, it has an unattractive cover and has not aged well; too many house moves, too many winters stored in a damp garage have done for it. Though I only read it once, and treat my paperbacks with care, the spine was broken and its crumbly, brown-tinged pages were beginning to fall out, as too was a dull but prolific interleaving of black-and-white photo illustrations.

So, Journey Through Britain had become an uninviting object, but that wasn’t it. “It” was Brexit. Somehow, as the ghastly process grinds on (and on) I have entirely lost any hankering for either our geography or our rural past, and particularly the wandering-hippie 1970s kind.

And yet I had no problem reading A Month In The Country for the second time, or sitting through a film of the same with the ubiquitous, and miscast, Kenneth Branagh in it. I came to the conclusion that A Month In The Country is not really a love song to rural England, though the county of Yorkshire, still largely unspoiled in the 1920s is so ever-present it is essentially another character in the book. It could in fact have been set anywhere quiet and remote, in any summer month, anywhere in the world. A Month In The Country is about youth and memory, healing and loss, and the speaking of one artist to another over the centuries.

It is as if – and this is hard to explain – a whole swathe of my country’s past has now ceased to be accessible to me. It is as if I can no longer allow myself to escape in that direction. The Past never really seemed Another Country to me before, but now it does.

I was trying to write it down last night, if only to get it out of my head so that I could get to sleep. But I couldn’t really capture it, this post-Referendum, pre- (possibly) Brexit sense of desolation and dissolution and the sheer numbing tedium of it all. At this point MacArthur Park sidles back into my brain again – someone left the cake out in the rain, all the sweet green icing – etc., etc. When will that dirge go away?

Maybe in the next post I will type out a few of the more comprehensible of my midnight Brexit Angst jottings. That done, perhaps it will leave me in peace for a bit. I might even write something about Poor Wet Dogs In The Middle Of The Road, or The Coming of Autumn, which I recently had to explain to a computer helpdesk operator in, if I remember correctly, the Philippines.

Yes, it’s the one when all the leaves fall off the trees. No it happens before the Winter but after the Spring… He said they only had two seasons in his country and was fascinated by the idea of four. I suggested maybe he could come over and live in my country for a year, and then he would experience all of our many seasons at first-hand. Yes he said wistfully. But very expensive to live.

My Kindle Fire is still un-helped, woefully un-fixed by Mr Philippines although he did his best. Irretrievably and infuriatingly dead, it is. All now rests on this giant, clunky old desktop and a mobile phone with a dodgy battery and a superiority complex.

Eat, drink and be merry – or not?

Funny how one passing thought leads to another, and another, until you end up with something completely divorced from the original thought. Especially now, with the internet. You can whisk through any number of random associations in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

I can’t believe I just typed ‘two shakes of a lamb’s tail’. I have never said that in my life.

I was thinking about my garage, and how it seems to be inhabited by tins nowadays, mostly cat food. This is because I am nervous about Brexit, or rather apprehensive as to the incompetence of civil servants in managing the transition from – oh, you daren’t even discuss this nowadays – from the way we were to the way we will be.

That lead me to think of an old episode of Alaska: The Last Frontier (before I gave up my TV licence) in which there was an earthquake. I have never been through an earthquake and it didn’t look much fun. The root cellar of one young couple had been badly shaken and much of the foodstuff they had worked so hard to gather/make over the short Alaskan summer had been thrown about and ruined. To please his wife the husband, ever practical, set about building shelves out of second-hand timber, with high boards at the front and sides. The idea was that in any future earthquake, supplies would be contained on the shelves rather than smashed on the floor.

And then I got onto, accidentally of course, the Parable of the Rich Fool. I knew there was a thing about a man smugly heaping grain up in his barn, then dying overnight, but I couldn’t remember what it was called or where to find it. There’s a bit in Matthew 6:19 which starts:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in…

The parable itself seems to be Luke 12: 13-21. A rich man has had a bumper harvest and is rejoicing over all the excess crops he has. There is so much, he hasn’t got room to store it all, yet he means to save it and be able to live the good life for many years, eating, drinking and being merry, which must be the origin of the saying Eat, Drink and be Merry, for tomorrow you die.

He makes a plan. He will tear down all his old barns and build much bigger ones in their place…

Now, here is one of those logic holes. I just love logic holes, which tend to leap out at me. Star Trek is an excellent source. If were the rich man, and didn’t yet know that God was about to thunder at me “You fool! This very night your soul is being demanded of you. And these things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

If I were that rich man, I would be saying at this point: what a waste of time and assets it would be to pull down all the barns I have already got. Why don’t I just build a number of additional barns? Then I can store my grain mountain and eat, drink and be merry etc till the cows come home.

I can’t believe I just typed ’till the cows come home’. I sound like my Nan.

But then of course God would commence his Thundering and I would realise that all my crops and possessions were of no use to me. I should have been concentrating on storing up ‘treasure in heaven’ instead.

I did come across a children’s bible ‘translation’ of this story, that began something like:

There was once a very rich man, and he grew fruit on his farm. We don’t know exactly what sort of fruit, children, but he grew so much of it he was beginning to wonder how he would store it all…

What was with all this mysterious fruit? There was no mention of fruit, surely. So I checked it back in the King James version. What it actually says is:

The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully:

And he thought within himself, saying. What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits and my goods.

And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.

The writer of the children’s translation has taken this literally. What ‘fruits’ actually means is crops, ie ‘the fruits of his labour’. Fruits are crops, and goods are possessions, as in ‘all my worldly goods I thee bestow’. 

But to what extent was the parable itself mean to be taken literally? Should I not be storing cat food but trust in the lord not to let my nineteen cats starve. Should people not be saving some of their earnings, if they can afford to, because in the event of some financial crash Jesus will provide?

I am still thinking this one over. Where is the line between blind faith and fecklessness? Surely if you don’t worry a bit about the future and try to provide for yourself, you will end up in the gutter, or with other people having to take care of you, or unable to look after anybody yourself? Surely it is a person’s responsibility, as a member of society, to at least try not to be too much of a drain and a nuisance?

It all hinges on time, and predictability. The Rich Fool was called foolish because he decided to horde his excess crops (crops, not apples, pears, cumquats etc) against a future that, in the event, he was not destined to have. But he didn’t know that. If he had known it, maybe he would have made a different decision. If he had known it, maybe he would have given it all away to the poor and needy, and then sat down happily to await his transport to the next world.

Can we live as if there will be no tomorrow? What happens if there is a tomorrow after all?

Taken to its logical conclusion, if we brooded constantly on the thought that we might die at any moment, wouldn’t we all just curl up on the living room carpet and do nothing at all, ever again?  Isn’t everyday life only possible because the future is unknown?

4: Imagine

Continued from 3: Send in the clowns

I was also saved by my imagination and, if you like, the weird alternative-brain thing itself. That was – and is – by far the strongest form of defence, less costly than human relationships, far more flexible/portable than a husband. I always had the ability to tune right out, and this happened automatically whenever I began to get bored or things got rough. When things got very rough indeed I used to practice Silent Singing, most often The Sun Has Got His Hat On. I had my own way of distributing my consciousness between several places at once. I disappeared into books and stories, daydreams and plans. Inside my head was something like the Holodeck on the Spaceship Enterprise – the entire range of alternate universes on demand – and I spent many aeons away on my holidays on distant planets.

Later I started writing poems and stories. I found out how I felt through the poems and learned how I worked and what I thought through the stories. Together they became my Voice. I didn’t fret greatly that little I wrote was ever likely to get published – that wasn’t why I wrote. Much later I came to understand that a poem written (or a song sung, a painting painted, a love loved, an experience experienced) is engraved on the fabric of the universe, and will never be lost. You may have forgotten all the words or lost the old envelope it was scribbled on, but the poem is still there: all is taken in by the All That Is, which is constantly Becoming, in us and through us.

My parents were pretty bad until I left home. Almost as soon as I did they became pretty good. They did what they could to support me through the trials of what passed for my ‘adult’ life, though I never ceased to bewilder and exasperate them. I relied heavily on them for company as Ex seemed to be drifting further and further away, and when I found myself divorced, as a middle-aged ‘teenager’, basically – I had to learn how to change a light bulb and get petrol – I was glad of their support. I think they loved me. If only they could have told me so when I was young enough for it to have made a difference.

I would say to parents: even if you don’t understand what’s ‘wrong’ with your child – even if there is no medical word for it yet – even if (he or) she seems uncomfortably different to you or anybody else you have ever met – even if she is neither what you wanted nor what you anticipated – try to accept and love – or at least appear to love – what you did get. It works both ways. Your child has absolutely no choice but accept and love you, even as you shout abuse and raise your hand to strike.

When you are many years dead, do you really want your now elderly child to remember in technicolour what it felt like when you slammed her head into a door, trumping any good memories – like the day you taught her to swim; those Stanley Holloway monologues that made her laugh; the communal singing in the car?

If one approach fails, try and think of another. Watch and listen to your new child, as you would a new and exotic pet: work out what she needs. If you can’t work that out, talk to other people and be willing to ask for help. Be kind. Be gentle. Be creative. Think about what you are doing.

Who’d a thunk it?

Firstly, I have realised something about my fridge-freezer. It isn’t. I bought it thinking the bottom half was a freezer because, after all, top or bottom, one half of a fridge-freezer is always a freezer, isn’t it?

I suppose I did vaguely wonder, over the eight months or so that this great white monster, larger than any fridge I ever owned before, purchased in a fit of post Brexit/Apocalyptic prepping, was not actually making the many loaves of cheap sliced bread I stored in it rock hard. I had a vague memory of having to defrost frozen bread before eating but this – this was just a bit on the parky side. Half an hour in the fridge proper and Bob’ yer Uncle.

Yesterday, the on which the British Heat Record of 2003 was broken – the hottest day in Britain ever – I staggered out to the garage in search of my acrylic heart-shaped ice-cube moulds. Why they were in the garage is a long story. To do with ill-fated soap-making. I filled all the wobbly moulds with tap water and wobbled them back across the kitchen to the “freezer”, spilling quite a bit. I left them in the “freezer” and forgot about them.

The hottest day has come and gone. Canadian Sis rang up and, after an hour of (once again) advising her how to deal with her intrusive, borderline bullying next-door-neighbour and (once again) explaining that negotiating with, defending against or manoeuvring around Other People is not a generic Man’s/Husband’s Job, but something that, male of female, we all need to set our minds to sooner or later. She is so angry at her deceased husband for leaving her with all these unsuspected complications that she actually berates his Ashes, in their Urn on the mantel piece, in passing. How could you go and get cancer and leave me to deal with all this… stuff? You weren’t supposed to do that! Anyway, after that hour, I peeled the landline phone from my left cheek to find it – the phone, that is – running with sweat. No wonder it crackles.

After an appalling night spread-eagled naked on top of the bed (not as exciting as it sounds) which had somehow been wheeled into some sort of nightmarish oven full of itchy, hot cats, aching heads, lightning flashes and distant thunder, waking at fifteen minute intervals to drink lukewarm water from a row of plastic bottles, and then at thirty minute intervals to totter out to the loo to spend a penny – after which my face still looks like some puffy, puce balloon – I staggered to my “freezer”, remembering my “ice cubes”. Which of course were still unfrozen. A bit colder, perhaps, than they would have been in the fridge but definitely still liquid.

I can’t say I understand, but I think the best and cheapest option is a change of nomenclature: my fridge freezer is, henceforward, the fridge-and-ever-so-slightly-colder.

Secondly, we have a new Prime Minister. I doubt if anybody is very hopeful. Pity us poor Brits, all hope has been leached out of us – leached, I say. How could the Government have stuffed things up so very badly? How can we possibly escape from this dreadful mire? All is lost. We might once have hoped for greatness from Boris, and maybe we still do, secretly, in a dull, dispirited sort of way. However, he is if nothing else telling us to lighten up. He is standing at the Dispatch Box, waving his arms about, laughing, joking, and assuring us that everything is going to be all right. Better than all right, in fact. Fantastic! Somehow. And it’s the greatest relief. Not the extravagant promises, not the fractional likelihood of success, not the grim political odds against him, not the likelihood of this brilliant but careless man making some gaffe or blunder and thereby ruining it for himself, but the humour. Humour is our national medicine, like grass to cats. It’s the way we cope. It’s that Monty Python thing. It’s our weird, homegrown kind of courage and it’s the glue that holds us together. Irreverence, bad jokes, the refusal to take our opponents, however formidable, at all seriously; wild, wonderful laughter – is perhaps, right now, our only faint hope of a cure.

And finally, the Meaning Of Life. Never say I don’t end with a biggie. Many years ago when I was still, if precariously, living with Ex, I was driving home from work one day and fell into a kind of reverie, and out of the blue it came to me: The Meaning Of Life. Which was (wait for it) The Two Worlds Are One. I remember being overjoyed as I drove down this long, twisty country lane across the Marsh, avoiding deep ditches on either side, that The Meaning Of Life had miraculously been vouchsafed to me.

The next day, although I could remember that The Two Worlds Were One, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what that meant – or what I had thought it meant during my Road to Damascus moment. I suspect I am not the only person that has happened to.

Every since, at intervals, I have wondered whether The Two Worlds Are One meant anything at all. I mean, how likely was it that a mediocre legal secretary would intuit something that people like Einstein had been unable to tell us? But finally, cheeringly – today I opened a book called “You Are The Universe” by Deepak Chopra. It had just come through the door. I stripped off the Amazon cardboard, took a sip of coffee and opened it randomly at page 232, and there was this (subtly ungrammatical) paragraph:

“The great pause can be found in the words of a scientist, including Heisenberg and Schrödinger, who suddenly sees, quite clearly, that there is only one reality, not two. There is no inner and outer, no me and you, no mind and matter, each half guarding its own marked off territory. The realisation is like a pause because the mind has stopped conceiving of reality and now starts living it.”

Ta da!

2: Supping with the Devil

Continued from 1: A house divided (technically, published on 29/7. You might need to use the Search box)

It’s a hopeless task, really, trying to explain how an alternative brain-wiring scheme works. I don’t know what it feels like to be inside a different kind of brain. Each of us has either the one experience or the other, so in what terms can I describe my experience?

Dad used to hit me. I think maybe later in life he realised he could be fond of me, but not in those early days. I soon learned not to meet his eye, not to answer back, not to say anything, but he didn’t like that either. He knew I was afraid and he just couldn’t resist the challenge. It would start off in the third person: She’s not saying much – what’s up with her? Then it would go to the first: Cat got your tongue, has it? Hey, you, I’m talking to you. He used to taunt me until I rose to the bait, until I snapped, answered back, pleaded or cried. And then he used to hit me.

I remember crouching once against the front door, with its bobbled glass panels. My head was against the lowest row of glass panels, my left arm covering my head. I remember the fancy sculpted shape of the wooden bits that divided the glass and the rough texture of the cocoanut doormat through the thin cotton of my school dress. I remember waking covered in vomit (the bedroom wall was the background that time) because I had cried myself to sleep. I remember rocking, rocking and howling, and saying over and over to myself for hours, or so it seemed: I will never, never have children. I will never, never do this to them. Sometimes I wonder if that was why. If on that one day, rocking and howling, at the age of eleven I actually killed off all those little eggs.

He used to get off his bike and wheel it round the side and into the garage. I would be listening to his heavy footfall and the sound of his bicycle wheels slowly click-clicking by his side. A monster, a giant was about to burst through the back door. There would be the urgent, whispered conversation between the two of them, before the door was even closed – that was me being reported on. A quick look in my direction, that frown, and then he would hit me. Or maybe he would just send me to my room; or sometimes, for variety, grab me by the collar and drag me to my room. If I resisted he might drag me by the hair along the polished passage floor to my room, blubbering. I would be in there for hours, until I wrote a note apologising in general terms – since in specific terms I didn’t actually know what I had done – crept out and pushed it under the kitchen door.

Whether Dad’s bullying had anything to do with me being odd I will never know. It was beyond my limited understanding. Another thing I didn’t understand at the time was why Mum never stood up for me. Knowing the consequences, why hadn’t she dealt with my crimes herself, before he got home? As it was, the minute he got in from work he was faced with a whispered, unfavourable report. She expected him to ‘do’ something to stop her being upset. And he certainly did.

In retrospect I think Mum was like me, or maybe mildly autistic. Dad was her prop and her shield against the world and she knew she couldn’t – or didn’t want to – cope without him. If he could burn off most of his frustration on me, he would be closer to her. Nothing would be her fault and she would keep him on her side, at her side whatever the cost, no competition. I suppose that’s scapegoating. She fed me to him, that’s what I feel.

Godmother has been around since I was just a bump. She babysat for Mum and Dad in the early days, when they had weekly meetings at the Cycling Club. Recently I asked her about some of this stuff, half expecting that she would say no, it wasn’t like that, you misunderstood – but she had seen it too. She said my father probably shouldn’t have got married and had children. I said maybe he would have been happier staying single, having serial girlfriends, going out on his bike whenever he wanted, not having to work so hard to support all those great lanky girls. He was a handsome enough chap, after all. But she said he probably couldn’t have got away with that. In the 50s marriage and children were the norm.

What that ’50s childhood taught me was that I wasn’t going to win. An unnatural, un-cuddly sort of baby – according to Mum – morphed into a fractious, defensive child, an automatic arguer and questioner of authority; an impulsive blurter-outer; a foolish answerer-back of people much larger and stronger than herself; a raging, hysterical demander of impossible justice. I learned that I was fatally flawed and that my Achilles’ heel was a combination of femaleness and my difference. I realised that I would not be able to get through life without some sort of bodyguard, and bodyguards were usually husbands.

My mother married my father in 1949 or thereabouts. He was six foot four inches tall, athletic and seven years older than her. He could be charming. He had a sense of humour, plenty of funny stories, a few silly songs and poems. He was at ease talking to  strangers when she was definitely not. He could tell her what to think and what to do. She never once voted a different way, she had no friends but their joint friends. At one point they were both agnostics, and then they were both humanists. They’d sent for all the pamphlets and signed all the forms. It was impossible to talk to one of them independently of the other or even catch one in a different room to the other. Especially towards the end they seemed to have merged into a single being. They stayed happily married until his death, after which Mum got increasingly deaf, then distressingly psychotic, finally settling into a less dramatic kind of dementia.

In ’70s I married a man nine years older than me. He looked like Dad and – guess what – was very definite in his opinions and would brook no argument. On one ‘courting’ visit he won an argument with Dad, and it was at that precise moment that I knew I had found the one. Later on I realised that he talked all the time – droned on, in fact – and since he never paused for breath everyone had to listen to him. In any case, since he was very clever and pretty gifted in several different fields, people admired him. It was as if they were in the presence of royalty. In the pub they would gather round in a circle and gawp at him open-mouthed as he held forth on art, music, model engineering or whatever. I used to watch them sometimes; their expressions. They never noticed because their eyes were glued to him. I didn’t need to join in, couldn’t have done if I had wanted to, and nobody expected me to. When we were alone he barely spoke. This suited me well enough for the first fifteen years or so, although I knew within the first week that it wasn’t going to be joyful.

That seems to be the thing with ‘shield’ relationships. The stronger one shields the weaker, but the power they use to shield you they are draining from you. In the presence of Ex, I would not have dared make a joke. I couldn’t have launched into one of my interminable ‘tales’. I couldn’t have showed off or spoken up, contradicted, criticised, interrupted, sung, recited a poem or laughed. An overbearing husband can hide you from the world, but will also hide you from yourself. Gradually, from behind the shield of his loud voice, broad shoulders, manly tweeds (Germaine Greer’s expression) or whatever, you find yourself fading away. You merge into the wallpaper and turn into a living ghost.

It’s a cliché, isn’t it, escaping your father by marrying someone just like him. On one of his alternate weekend ‘courting’ visit to my family (he used to camp in the living room at mine, I was installed in the spare room at his) he won an argument with my father. He didn’t shout – well, neither of them shouted – but there was this tense, gruff, masculine thing going on. They both just continued ‘reasoning’ at one another, going round and round in circles. Mum and I cringed quietly in our armchairs, waiting for all the windows to shatter and bricks and mortar start crumbling around us. No one contradicted Dad. Except, it seemed, Ex.

See 3: Send in the clowns

I Wish I Was A Wizz

Or should it be: I Wish I Were A Wizz? Suspect latter, but grammar purists free to comment/vote. Unlike UK Parliament at the moment. If I was or were a Wizz, I would no doubt be able to sort out what was going on, politically speaking. Or perhaps only a Sorting Hat could do that.

I always had a bit of a thing about wizards. Not witches, for some reason. I saw myself as a bit of a wizard, only I was a green (with stars) robed wizard, not a blue one. Suspect green is more elevated and wonderful than mere blue, in my imagination. Well, if you’re going to have fantasy fantasies, you might as well be the hero.

It’s been a funny old day. I was meant to go to some sort of ‘do’ at the Over 50s, which is now not, technically, the Over 50s but the Tea and Bingo Club, or possibly the Bingo and Tea Club. All ages welcome. As it turns out I didn’t quite make it to the meeting, in the Scouts Hut in the next village, but suspect 99% of the members playing Bingo and drinking tea will still be Over 70, just as they were when they were the Over 50s and met in the pub.

I did try to go, even though I didn’t want to. It was the Christmas one and would have involved purple tinsel, Christmassy paper plates with red and green elves and reindeer on, and Christmassy tablecloths. I know because I helped with the sourcing of these items in one shop after another in town, and the lugging of them around afterwards. And the driving of them home in the boot of my car, and later re-delivery.

I gave myself a good talking to all morning, trying to work up the enthusiasm.

You know you’ve got to go.

It’ll only be a couple of hours – or three, or four… time will soon pass.

It might be fun, you never know. There’s always a first time, in a fun-less lifetime, for something to turn out to be fun.

They might have made special vegetarian sandwiches for you, the only vegetarian. What are they going to do with a mountain vegetarian sandwiches if you wimp out?

And so on, and so forth. And I did set out, honestly. I drove all the way over to the next village, repeating the above backbone-stiffening mantras in the car, and wound my way through the snarled and tiny streets in the hope of a) avoiding loss of wing-mirrors and b) finding a parking space.

And there was a funeral on. Outside the little, scenic, Christmassily decorated church, a horde, a veritable Ghengis Khan’s Army of self-conscious, shoe-polished, black-clad mourners.

I did try the tiny car park outside the Scouts Hut but, as anticipated, it was clogged to the muddy fences with large, shiny mourners’ car, everything double-parked and blocking everything else in. With difficulty, I extracted myself from the car park and, with even more difficulty, got back out onto the village street again without losing a wing mirror or getting dented. Dented already, of course, but that dent was self-inflicted, which is different.

And I did look for an alternative parking space in the narrow village street, honest, but there was nothing I could get into without parallel parking skills or one of those cars that does it all for you.

And so I panicked and came home. Unlike the Prime Minister, I am not Admirably, but Quite Exhaustingly, Limpetishly Resilient. Or it may be that when I see quite clearly that something is not going to work – never, ever going to work – I instantly give up. Make a new plan, Sam. Hop on the Bus, Gus. Don’t need to discuss much… Etc.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

A Einstein

And so I went home, texted

(apparently only old people say texted, everyone else says, ungrammatically ‘text’. I text… the ‘ed’ which would have made it clear that I am not texting right this second but actually text some hours ago – being silent)

my plate-and-tablecloth buying friend and told her the plain truth, that the funeral had prevented me parking. Which she will not believe. Sigh!

And then, as if in retribution, the Jehovah Ladies turned up again – smiling, anxious, warmly wrapped up against the cold. I have written before of the Jehovah Ladies, who like me. I usually manage to deflect them into discussions of cats with three legs, the weather, my-mother-in-the-home (they had it on their secret card index system that she was passed or gone beyond or whatever and I had to correct them on that – still technically alive). This is where being probably ADHD is an advantage – your mind works on digressions and cul-de-sacs. A veritable quagmire, a bottomless pit of irrelevancies and non-sequiturs is at one’s command… Normally, the difficulty is to avoid sinking into it…

So I got my coat on and stepped out into the back garden to have the usual little chat and accept the limp leaflets – two, this time, because they missed me last time. I don’t actually listen to what they say, to be honest, but I value the fact that they care about my soul, and my salvation. No one else does.

A moment of inattention and they had managed to wrangle me back from three-legged cats, vets, mother-in-the-home, weather etc – to tell me that I need not worry. The world appeared to be in a dreadful state but God would step in. God was just waiting for his opportunity to step in and save us all from ourselves. Didn’t I find that comforting? I would find that comforting indeed, if I could only believe it.

Maybe I should try the back-stiffening mantra thing, as above:

God will fish all the plastic out of the sea…

God cares what happens to us stinky old polluting naked apes…

We really don’t deserve to make ourselves extinct, the sooner the better…

And then they told me the story of Adam and Eve, and how Eve ate the apple because the Devil was disguised as a snake. Strangely enough, I knew that. I remarked that people will always feel compelled to do the one thing they are told not to do, it’s like children. And cats.

And then I foolishly remarked that that would be all very well but it said in the Bible that God granted man dominion over all the animals, which was why man felt entitled to eat said animals and perform horrifically cruel experiments on them. They said ah yes, but dominion only means caring for. God instructed us to care for all his creatures, to love them as He loves them. I said I thought dominion didn’t mean that at all.

So they tried me on another word, subjection. They showed me the relevant verses in Genesis, though none of us had our reading glasses on so it was all a bit out of focus. And they said subjection also meant caring for. And I said, to me subjection meant more or less the same as dominion, it meant imposing your will on something or someone weaker than yourself because you felt you had a right to.

But no, apparently subjection also means caring for.

And then I think I managed to non-sequitur them back to cats, and the price of cat food.

Do you possess a Bible, by any chance?

Actually, yes. Do you possess a cat?

In no particular order, 50 things without which life would be intolerable

  1. Cats
  2. Blue summer skies
  3. Grey winter skies
  4. Any skies
  5. A hand, or paw, to hold
  6. Thomas Tallis
  7. A Nan and a Grandad, deceased or otherwise
  8. Books
  9. Ice Cream
  10. Vanilla essence
  11. Newly-sharpened pencils
  12. Boxes of B2 pencils as yet unused
  13. A4 refill pads, wide feint
  14. Inbuilt BS detector
  15. Grim sense of humour
  16. Tears
  17. Bumble bees
  18. God, or a concept of similar
  19. Faded things
  20. Worn things
  21. Lost things found again
  22. The Lark Ascending
  23. Knitting needles
  24. Poetry
  25. Silence, inner
  26. Silence, outer
  27. A sister, or someone you can giggle with
  28. Five minute naps
  29. Freesias
  30. Snowdrops
  31. Bluebells
  32. Paper tissues
  33. A healthy scepticism
  34. Grief, preferably past
  35. Exultation, preferably past
  36. Daydreaming
  37. Memory
  38. Forgettory
  39. Log fires, present or remembered
  40. Singing
  41. Vincent Van Gough
  42. Cave paintings
  43. The ability to listen
  44. The ability not to listen
  45. Snow
  46. Rain
  47. Thunderstorms
  48. Aspirin
  49. Death
  50. Cats again

Why not start your own list?

The Antipreneur

I thought of this snazzy little title on the way to the vets, with Winnie. In fact, when approaching an awkward mini-roundabout. That beastly little roundabout is particularly good for popping blog post titles into one’s head, I’ve noticed. No wonder cars always seem to be having collisions there.

Money or the lack of it always crosses my mind (multiple times) on the way to the vets, with a cat. But today being the Sabbath it was a locum, and he mightily impressed me by not extracting money from me when he undoubtedly could have, since having nineteen cats (as he could see from his computer screen) tends to give the game away – that you will do anything for a sick or suffering moggie, even if it involves remortgaging or maxing out the plastic.

But he spent a long time making a gentle fuss of poor Winnie and listening to her alarming breathing, and then told me it was a difficult one. He said he asked himself, if this was his own cat, or a human being, would he put them through an anaesthetic, an x-ray, a battery of blood tests, to find out what was wrong. Long experience has equipped me with a mental calculator for veterinary investigations. You’re looking at hundreds, I thought. Hundreds and hundreds… in fact maybe a thousand… Simultaneously trying to recall the PIN for my credit card – the one I swore I would never again buy anything on.

There is some sort of process going on inside Winnie, he said, but without the investigations it is hard to guess. I can tell by the flecks in her eyes, he said, that she is maybe fourteen or fifteen years old (this is news to me, as she was a stray, but I am not surprised). Winnie is an old lady. As long as she is eating and drinking, and seems to be happy, I think it might be better just to watch her, and wait. Bring her back to me when the time is right.

And with that he restored my faith in human nature. I hope he won’t get into trouble for not selling anything this rainy sabbath. I seemed to be their only customer this morning, so his lack of financial killer instinct will be pretty obvious when they come to do the till at lunchtime. I hope poor Winnie’s “time” will not come for a while yet, but when it does I will know, because he also restored my confidence in myself, my own instincts.

As for Anti-preneur – I guess that is I what I must be. At intervals I research into ways of supplementing the meagre income; preferably very, very quickly; without a huge outlay for three years of evening classes in upholstery, or the purchase of a stack of books on website design. Apparently website design is now becoming a bit “niche” as an income-generator, since the technology for building one’s own website is nowadays available to all online. I throw out that hint in case any of you are also making long lists of How To Make Money.

Truth is, I just haven’t got the mindset. I need money but I am not interested in it. I need money but I am not terribly willing to do – or terribly capable of doing – any of the things that are necessary to get it. I found a very useful article in The Guardian – Fifty side businesses to set up from home.

What is a side business, I wonder. I suppose if you are making oodles in the City, a side business would be something you did in your back bedroom, after spending three hours commuting home on a tightly-packed train. I have never had a front business, let alone a side one.

I run through the list, listlessly, trying to convince myself that I could manage one, or any of them:

Antiques dealing – what do they think I am going to purchase the antiques with? (Sigh!) And would I know an antique if I saw one? (Sigh!)
Babysitting. No one would let a childless old baggage like me near their children. And I don’t even much like children. I would be like Nanny McPhee… without the magic.
Bed and Breakfast, it says. I don’t want another person under my roof – unless they are my sister, for a week, in January – and anyway, I would have to hoover, relentlessly. And what about the nineteen cats?
Biscuit-making – oven broken
Cake-making – ditto
Car boot sales (Sigh!)
Car cleaning/valeting (Sighhhh!)
Census distributor – not till 2022, and I have a feeling I somewhat failed to impress at that the time before last…
Computer repairer/trouble-shooter – if only I could, I could save myself hundreds of pounds in visits from Scary Computer Man…
Become a DJ – seriously?
Be a doula – OMG, no….

Every time I think about making money my subconscious, which utterly refuses to stick to the point in any situation, however dire – in fact the direr the situation the more it is tempted to stray from/misremember any conceivable point – reminds me, visually and facetiously, that I need only to purchase a Red Hat and walk up and down the High Street murmuring… whatever ladies in Red Hats are supposed to murmur… Hello sailor! Got a light, dearie? Maybe ladies in Red Hats did murmur that sort of thing in the days when there were plenty of sailors and everybody used to smoke. Maybe. I doubt if they wear Red Hats nowadays, and suspect that whatever they now murmur to passing gentlemen, it is  direct, and graphic.

Deceased Devon Aunt once informed me that if I bought a bottle of Devon Violets perfume I would smell like a Lady of The Brook (or, as her Deceased Brother – my Father – would more likely have put it – like a Whore’s Handbag). Perhaps I should look on Amazon to see if one can still purchase little bottles of Devon Violets perfume – or red hats for that matter – and if so set forth to supplement my pension in this time-honoured way.

If only I wasn’t so old. And if only I could bear the thought…

So I suppose I will just have to write the novel. But that will take years. And what sort of novel. And whatever sort of novel, nobody is likely to publish it. And…

(Sigh!)

Not yet the flaky roses…

(Sofa In Multiple Occupation)

(Shadow: Sunday Morning Chillin’)

I just typed into Google Is ADHD the same as flaky? (should it have an ‘e’? why does it sometimes have an ‘e’ and sometimes not? distracting…) and Google reckons it is, sort of.

To be exact, Google opines that flaky seemingness (to one’s friends, employers etc) is in fact but one symptom of high-functioning ADHD. So whilst one is not technically or actually flaky (or flakey) everybody will always be convinced that one is. Furthermore, flaky-seemingness is but the visible tip of a very large iceberg when it comes to the daily struggle for survival in a world where 99 out of 100 brains are wired the opposite way to your own.

This is depressing, and the thing is, since I retired – or rather, since the world decided it could no longer be bothered to pay me for being bad at various kinds of work I really didn’t want to do – the ADHD, or whatever it is, has got distinctly worse. I used to be able to read, for instance. Spent hours engrossed, rapt, with my nose in some novel or some abstruse metaphysical text, trying to figure out how exactly I seemed to have missed Birmingham and been taken on to Crewe.

Oh Mr Porter, what shall I do?
I wanted to go to Birmingham but they’ve taken me on to Crewe.
Take me back to London as quickly as you can –
Oh Mr Porter what a silly girl I am!

Now I can read for twenty minutes, as long as it’s something lightly-ish and historical and I’m immersed in hot soapy water. My current in-the-bath read, by the way, is The Posy Ring by Catherine Czerkawska. It’s good, even in damp, twenty minute instalments. About antiques seller Daisy Graham who inherits an ancient house on a Hebridean island. She put a little publicity card in with Blanket.

Because, believe it or not, this is the same lady who, under a different name, sold me Blanket the rickety wartime blanket bear (or just possibly sheep) via eBay, and posted him to me in a shoebox from Scotland. I have now knitted Blanket a warming yellowy-browny scarf, by the way, and fastened it with a big yellow kilt pin. I would have posted a photo (as requested when he last appeared) but it is too dark indoors to take one at the moment. I will put it on my To Do list, which I very occasionally manage To Do something from. (Done)

(This is because it’s dark outdoors too, which seems to happen at intervals.)

The trouble is, you spend your life trying to appear not-flaky. Today, for instance, I agonised for several hours before texting a friend to say that I would not be able to come on a coach trip to Southend because I wasn’t feeling too well. The thing is, I am not feeling too well, so it’s a perfectly genuine excuse, this time. But I know she does not believe me. And if I were her I would not believe me either. But what do you do? The constant battle against flaky-seemingness results in a lifetime of ghastly events sat through with gritted teeth or perspiring brow. Boredom or pain, and no escape in either case because to flake out would be viewed as… flaky. Or flakey.

I think I reached some sort tipping point today. I realised I have to stop trying to explain myself, otherwise I am in for an Old Age as dire and dull as my Youth and Middle Age have been. Well, Bog It, I think, I just want to do what I want. Or at least not continually have to be doing what I don’t want.

And finally… another quote, this time from author Claudia Carroll, writing in an old Woman’s Weekly Godmother passed on to me on Friday:

When you’re in your 20s and 30s, life gives you things, if you’re very lucky. Love, a partner, maybe even kids. But you hit good old middle age, and that’s pretty much when life starts taking things away from you…

A cheering thought there, from Claudia.

It set me thinking, what Life did actually give me in my 20s and 30s. Certainly not children. It took away my husband and gave me a lover who was nice while he lasted, though he didn’t last very long. It gave me wrinkles round my eyes… and violent toothache… or was that in my forties?

But I suppose it did give me a few things. A giant(ish) healthy body inherited from my father, which has served me faithfully till recently. Now not quite so faithfully, but it’s doing it’s best, poor thing. Nineteen cats. I do believe the nineteen cats are my equivalent of the nine lives cats are supposed to have. Every time I lose a cat I lose one of my lives. Conversely, of course, every time I gain a cat I gain a life, but that can’t go on. Moggie Gathering Must Stop. And it’s given me a sister who, if not quite as flaky-seeming as me, is getting there. Or maybe equally as flaky-seeming, but a kind of variant. Same reason (backwards brain wiring) but different manifestation. However, it means that she understands me, and I understand her, and so we can love each other, which is a blessing indeed.

flaky1

Saturday… again!

I was thinking it might be time for another of those rambling roundups of random events. Why not?

I was trying to make an inventory of all the things I have done today, but find that most of it I have forgotten. Or have I? Leaving out things like washing up, drying up, watching five minutes of Phil and Kirstie not managing to find a house in the Cotswolds to suit someone with shedloads of money; hearing yet another analysis of President You-Know- Who’s scant chances of denuclearise Kim Jong Un whilst simultaneously prompting Iran to reunclearise when it hadn’t been (nuclearising) for quite a while…

Among other things I have:

  • Done three lots of washing and two lots of tumble drying. Because it’s Saturday and because it’s grey and spitty outside.
  • Removed cat from ironing basket and folded said tumble-dried washing in the hope of ironing it sometime.
  • Stuffed three knitted Captain Cat-Battler mice with British Standard something-or-other stuffing and a catnip sachet. (Fought off drooling own moggies.)
  • Cut out a stack of dull squares for patchwork money-making enterprise.
  • Put three more items up on eBay. There are only so many ways to photograph an electric hot-plate with a mobile phone and make it look attractive.
  • Eaten four Activia yoghurts. Will probably have diarrhoea tomorrow, but who cares.

Tonight, the Eurovision Song Contest. We will of course come bottom, or maybe thirty-second. We have the most successful pop music industry in Europe and nobody votes for us. Although perhaps they might vote for us a bit more this year, out of sympathy for the Russians practising their extermination techniques in one of our remoter cities.

Noticed that my neighbour has demolished his decking this morning and stacked all the wet wood at the end of what was once but is no longer a rather nicely kept garden. Now he just has the framework. The jury is still out as to whether this might be a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. Most things to do with my neighbours are Bad, like the black fridge-freezer they fly-tipped in the road outside their own house four weeks ago, thus making it semi-impassable for everyone. I was just celebrating the arrival of the Special Bin Men yesterday to remove it (thank you, bin men, even if it did take a nail-biting three-quarters of an hour for you to find room for it in your special fly-tip-collecting truck). I was just celebrating and today… he demolishes the decking. In the rain.

It depends, really. It is a Temporary Good Thing because all the while there is just a framework of wooden struts out there, with pretty dangerous gaps, they are not likely to be holding any of their loud drinking, smoking, swearing and guffawing parties beneath/around their ugly garden umbrella and chair set, and staring drunkenly down into my kitchen.

It might turn out to be a Bad Thing a) if he damages my fence panels, not knowing or caring that they are my fence panels and not his fence panels (I would guess Land Registry Plans and T-marks are probably beyond him) and I can’t afford to replace them. Neither do I stand any chance of persuading him to replace them, if he damages them. Or b) if he has plans to replace the old decking with even higher new decking, meaning they will probably be able to spy on me down the chimney as well. Maybe from Outer Space. Oh no, that’ll be when they get the drone.

I hate neighbours. Well, not all neighbours, just the ones who trash their gardens, play mega-loud music at all hours and dump black fridges out in the road.

Good News, possibly. My Stalker has been read the riot act via some secret aspect of Facebook, apparently. I don’t really understand (or care) how Facebook works. He has promised, apparently, via the Dark Side, that he will not attempt to contact me again by any means. He has apologised, apparently. But my friend says not to get too hopeful that I have seen the last of him. She predicts his next move will be to write a long letter of apology, inviting me to reply, or possibly stop by his house to discuss the situation in more detail, which as far as he is concerned will not count as “contacting”.

This is entirely possible. I mean when, out of desperation you are forced to resort to Plain English and text someone “Do not write, do not send photos, do not text and do not come to my house” – and the next day you receive a five page email referring to “your curt text”, the email being headed “Not a letter, not a photo, not a text…” anything is possible. You block his email address, of course… but is he likely to stop?

He has been told that I will go to the police if he doesn’t, but I currently have as much faith in them as I do in him, or the neighbour’s competence to demolish his decking without seriously damaging something.

Yesterday (whizz – it’s now yesterday!) above friend and I drove down to the next village for a coffee and to exchange information about this and that. We ended up in one the amusement arcade cafés drinking indifferent coffee from white china mugs and not able to hear ourselves speak over the noise of all the whizzing and whirring machines and rides. There were no customers, except us, just the Noise. Early Season, late afternoon I suppose. And I thought, how strange this is, how All Things Come Round In The End. I have always despised and feared amusement arcades and here I am, hardly noticing that I am sat in one. All that working-class seaside stuff. Kiss Me Quick hats, candy-floss, tattoos… We bought a couple of pink and white ice creams to finish off and pottered down to look at would have been the sea, if it hadn’t been so far out as to be practically invisible.

I suppose that mud is treacherous?

Only in some places.

There is a dog on the beach. There are not supposed to be dogs between May and October or whatever. We decide the owner must be classifying his dog as a Small Horse or maybe a Dog-Like Ferret.

For a second or two, in the late afternoon sunshine, with the ice-cream melting, the sea gone out, green weed on the rocks, the amusement arcade still clearly audible, it felt like being on holiday. I almost felt, if I had a brightly-coloured plastic bucket-and-spade I might build a sandcastle. If there had been sand and not mud. It seems strange to live in a place that feels so unlike being on holiday most of the time. People pay good money to stay here while residents would pay good money not to have to.

kiss me quick

Existential Angst

Years ago there used to be a TV programme with that actor… He later ended up as one of the Star Trek Captains and – possibly in between the two – as the head of NCIS Somewhere Or Other – Scott… Bakula? Yay, the memory’s still working.

The cat photos don’t have much to do with the post – they’re a bonus.

But this thing I’m thinking of that Scott Whatsit/Bakula was in, it was a kind of gentle TV sci-fi series called Quantum Leap. I watched Quantum Leap religiously, and not because of Scott Bakula – he’s not my type – but because I’m a sucker for sci-fi and fantasy, however dreadful. Quantum Leap was pretty dreadful.

Gosh, the bin-lorry just backed up past my window. The bin-lorry, on a Monday, and on a Bank Holiday…? The Universe gets less and less explicable every day.

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But I’m sure I could help. And only one rubber glove required…

Anyway, Quantum Leap, starring Scott Whatsit, he of the unshaven manly jaw and the one-trick inscrutable acting style. I was glued to it, possibly because it made some sort of resonance, struck some sort of chord in my imagination. The basic premise was simple enough: by reason of some long-forgotten scientific mishap, the hero finds himself materialising in one episode of the past (possibly also future, I can’t recall) after another. He is obliged to Leap throughout the whole series and any number of series after that, into one body/life not-his-own after another.

The moment of his arrival could be quite startling. He would (always) just happen to look into a mirror/see himself reflected in a shiny car/lean over a conveniently still pond and discover that he looked… different. Sometimes he was young, sometimes he was old; sometimes he was black, sometimes he was white; sometimes he was male and occasionally he was female. Occasionally, presumably because full drag was required and Scott Whatsit was about the most masculine actor you could possibly imagine, short of Vin Diesel, who is my type.

Vin Diesel ought never to smile, by the way. It completely spoils the effect of simmering sullenness.

So – and this is the bit I could never quite grasp – when Scott Whatsit looked at himself in the mirror/shiny car/untroubled pond he was actually someone else. I mean, there was another actor or actress looking back at him with approximately the same expression. But when he turned round to face the camera he was Scott Whatsit again, but with lipstick and a curly wig or whatever. I could never quite get my head round this.

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If I can’t help I’m just gonna sit here and sulk!

And there often came a point – and here I am gradually getting to the point of this post – where he assumed he had achieved whatever he had been drawn back to that particular life for, ie he had managed to reconcile that warring father and son, or neatly solve a sixty-year old murder mystery – at which point – being by this time an old hand at Quantum Leaping – he would be expecting to Jump – ie for the screen to go all fuzzy and for him to find himself in yet another life – and that would be the end of the episode, till the next time, when the yet another life would unfold. Cliff-hanger.

Except that sometimes at this point he didn’t Jump, and he couldn’t understand why, and he spent a lot of time puzzling over this, and consulting with a dozy colleague back in the Lab, with whom he remained magically in touch via some sort of multi-coloured plastic box with flashing lights.

And that’s how I feel, often, now. I suppose it’s depression-in-disguise (isn’t everything?) or some form of Existential Angst, but I’m walking along and suddenly into my mind pops this self-same question: Why Am I Still Here? Mum’s “gone”, Dad’s Gone, one sister’s in Canada going through her own trauma, and I am guessing may never come over again, the other sister finds me uncool and embarrassing or something, and so has ceased to communicate. I did think I might read through all my 2,000 paperbacks again, or maybe knit a very long scarf, but I can’t seem to get started on either project. I seem to be in this kind of limbo-land, perpetually poised to find myself somewhere else, on some far distant shore, in some other (please!) younger body, and hopefully minus the red lipstick, the five o’clock shadow and the cheap wig – and yet nowhere Else materialises.

Every morning I peer into the bathroom mirror and no, I am still, relentlessly, surprisingly, me.

What’s going on? Apart from feeding nineteen cats twice a day, what part of my quantum mission have I yet to fulfil?

Answers on a postcard, please.

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The silent battle of the tails…

Featured Image: This sill ain’t big enough for the three of us..

Keep Calm And Carry On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

keep calm 2

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.