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.

A letter from the Land of Cockaigne

Not that I have ever been in the Chill Out Room of some Rave, but this carries the same atmosphere with it, all the way from 1567. It I called The Land of Cockaigne and was painted by Pieter Breugel the Elder. Cockaigne was a mythical land of plenty much written about by poets, and was a reaction to the harshness of peasant life. It is a kind of heaven on earth, a place where nobody has to work, where abbots are beaten by monks, and nun show you their bottoms. It is a place where the sky rains cheeses and where grilled geese fly directly to one’s mouth. The weather is always mild and the wine flows freely; sex is always available and nobody grows old.

However, Breugel has turned the original concept on it head, and shows the end product of gluttony and excess. It seems to be affecting all classes – the man at the front is a labourer, sleeping on what could be a scythe. The man at back has discarded an armoured glove, as if he were a knight. The one on the right, sleeping on some kind of fur cloak, has a book next to him, and papers beneath his head. Maybe he is a lawyer, or a merchant. In these old paintings every object symbolises something; if you had been viewing The Land of Cockaigne as at the time you could easily have read the subtext of these apparently random, scattered objects.

Nothing is as it should be. Everything is at odd angles, and disorderly, from the loosened codpiece of the guy on the right to what appear to be rows of tarts about to slide off a roof. An egg has sprouted little legs and seem to have a knife or spoon poking out of it; a pig wanders around cheerily with slices already cut from his side. It looks like the afternoon after a particularly sumptuous Christmas Dinner. You are fascinated, you are drawn in. You so want to be there too, or to have been there, and yet you don’t. It’s uncomfortable, it’s queasy. It’s – worrying.

It just reminds me of something my sister said when we were having our awkward chat about Brexit. I knew, but until that day in the café she did not, that we had voted on opposite sides in the Referendum. It had reached the stage where I had to tell her. The thing I remember most from our conversation was her reaction to a comment I made. She is seven years younger than me, and I started to say that I actually remembered what it was like before we joined the European Union, and everything seemed to be OK, no one was starving or…

But that’s nostalgia! she gasped, as if it was the dirtiest of dirty words. This bewildered me, and still does. I hadn’t been about to launch into a dreamy chat about the wonder of little steam trains chugging through the green English countryside, or eulogise about a time when wondrous wizards inhabited every cave and gauzy-winged fairies lurked by every burbling stream. I wasn’t even going to say that I was particularly happy in those days, because I wasn’t.

I was just trying to explain that life seemed normal then. Usual. Everyday. We didn’t feel deprived. People didn’t feel that their children and grandchildren’s futures were blighted by our not being in one trade agreement or another. Things seemed to be more or less Under Control. Under Control – isn’t that all any of us long for, now?

I am a sad old person with only her radios and her many cats for company, and so I spent more or less the whole day yesterday, dribbling cats on lap, knitting in hand, listening to politicians tearing themselves and – though they don’t seem to be aware of it – every one of us to bits over this blessed Brexit. Last night I couldn’t sleep, at least not for a while. It was all going round in my head. In the end I got up and wrote pages and pages of notes. Most of them have not found their way into this particular post. Might use them later.

One thing that struck me was my sister and I. For years we have hardly spoken. We belong to different generations and don’t have a lot in common, apart from half our genetic material. And of course a mother with dementia, to whom we are both still tied, emotionally, and for whom we are jointly, legally responsible. In a way it was Mum who tore us apart, unwittingly, after years of – also unwittingly – holding us together.

And after years of this we finally managed to resume negotiations, at least to the extent of meeting for joint visits to the Home, for coffee afterwards, chats, and texts. This Brexit thing probably hasn’t reversed that small amount of  progress but it might have. And for what? In the event our two votes meant nothing since hers cancelled out mine, and vice versa; but even if we had both voted one way, both voted the other or neither had voted at all, the result of the 2016 referendum would have been exactly the same.

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?

3: Send in the clowns

Continued from 2: Supping with the Devil (technically, posted on 6/7 – you might need to use the Search box)

It should have been funny, and it kind of was, looking back. Looking back, I can recall the struggles and contradictions of that afternoon as Mum and I listened to these two monolithic men droning on at one another about politics or whatever, beneath the ’70s artex ceiling and ghastly pine wall-covering, giant mugs of tea at the ready: exhilaration, a rather spiteful kind of satisfaction, sadness, anxiety and loss. Part of me knew that Ex had got to win, another part couldn’t bear for Dad to lose. Ridiculously, now, I am reminded of battling silverback gorillas and David Attenborough. (Who can picture a gorilla without David, whispering reverentially close by?) And I recall that last scene in The Railway Children – Daddy, my Daddy!

After twenty-three years or so I screwed up the courage to tell Ex I was leaving. He seemed unmoved, relieved as much as anything. Not long after that the lady I usually refer to as My Replacement came along – well, she’d been ‘along’ for quite some time, I just hadn’t really realised. That was probably the most painful bit.

On one particularly memorable occasion , which I now think of as my Send In The Clowns moment, I had driven across to the small town where Ex still lived. I had an appointment to get my hair cut at my old hairdressers. I had not anticipated that there would be a carnival procession going on, and so had to park some way out of town and walk back in. As I was walking along the road I realised that he – and she – were walking towards me in the far distance, hand in hand. I suppose they must have been out watching the carnival. There was no convenient side-road or alleyway to swerve into, and in any case they had already seen me. I just had to pin on a gruesome attempt at a smile and keep walking forwards on the pavement, one foot in front of the other – and so did they, of course. I found myself feeling sorry for them at the same time as I was feeling sorry for me. It seemed to take years, and he couldn’t exactly drop her hand. I can’t remember another thing about that day. That one memory was enough to last me for ever!

Although most of me knows that leaving, even in middle age, was the right decision, some disconsolate little remnant continues to prowl around my house on sleepless nights mewling Where are you? Why did you stop looking after me? Why didn’t you come and find me?  Didn’t you love me? And I realise it is not just the lost wife crying, but the lost child looking for her father.

daddy

 

In the 1980s Canadian Sister, also ADD-ish, married a man who looked not so very different from Dad. He was very definite in his opinions, very clever, very competent, would brook no arguments, etc., etc., but they remained married until his death earlier this year. Now she rages at him, in his urn on the mantelpiece. He was supposed to be her shield and protector, and in return she knew she must do what she was told and never argue; she went where he wanted to go, watched whatever he wanted to watch on TV; pretended not to be embarrassed when he was rude to shopkeepers and Indian waiters, resisting the urge to apologise on his behalf. That was the clear bargain struck on a cold May day in a black old Northern church all those years ago, and he reneged on it by going and getting cancer.

I have been wondering what conclusion to draw, what ‘advice’, with the benefit of hindsight, I would give to my parents, or any new parents of an unconventional child. Of course I have no right to advise. If I had been able to have children or my own I’m sure I’d have got it just as wrong, and probably more so.

The fashionable motto is that all you really need to be is a Good Enough parent. I would extend that a bit – I think you can be a pretty bad parent and your child will still stand a chance or surviving, more or less, if only she can get what she needs from alternative sources. Which is an argument for old-fashioned rural communal parenting as opposed to the nuclear family, in which any evils are concentrated, hidden and likely to be perpetuated.

I was saved by Nan and Grandad who, by the most enormous stroke of luck, lived at the other end of our street. Nan walked along to see Mum most days, and I spent every Sunday from about the age of three along with Nan and Grandad. To start with this was because Mum and Dad were engaged in building their own house, with Grandad’s help, whilst expecting my sister at any moment. After that it just became a tradition.

Nan and Grandad had a huge garden with a cherry blossom tree, a swing suspended from an apple tree, a lawn full of daisies and buttercups, and all sorts of flowers and vegetables. They also had a smelly old golden Labrador, a roaring fire in winter, stacks of Woman’s Weekly and Carpenter & Joiner magazines, a bookcase full of pre-War hardback books, an etymological dictionary (my favourite) and a tiny black and white TV set.

Nan cooked great Sunday dinners. She washed my hair and I sat in front of the fire to dry it. I was included in whatever she was doing. We put down newspaper and polished a mountain of brass with Brasso and blackening yellow dusters; we picked mint for the mint sauce – she chopped it fine then I stirred it in a little pot with sugar and vinegar. We sat on the back step shelling peas into an enamel bowl whilst staring up at the sky.

Over the course of the years she told me about the recent War, and the War before that. She told me about my Great Grandmother Sarah and her own many sisters. She told me the facts of life, taught me how to darn a sock and sew on a button. She chatted to me unselfconsciously as if I was just another grown-up, or she was just another child. On those Sundays with Nan I was a relaxed, ‘normal’ human being, but as soon as I returned to the other end of the road I became once again the freaky “Prima Donna” or “You Little Bitch”.

In writing this it has occurred to me that Nan had the advantage of having finished bringing up Mum – who had many of the same traits as me – considerably more pronounced, some of them – less than six years before, since Mum married at nineteen. Mum hadn’t had that advantage.

See 4: Imagine

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.