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

“Words That Stung”

Yes, it’s come to this: in desperation I have printed off a list of Interesting Personal Essay Ideas. Sigh! And this was on there – the title, not the wasp, or wapsie as Canadian sister used to say when little, several millennia ago. I know why the current lack of inspiration: things have been happening in my life as usual, but for various reasons nothing I can actually write about here. This always stymies me, since my usual method is simply to ask myself What am I obsessing about/ ruminating over/ pondering/ remembering right this minute? And however unlikely the subject is, I sit down and ‘splurge’ about that.

I usually avoid internet lists of essay titles. They mostly seem to be aimed at schoolchildren and involve school, teenage crushes, dreams and plans for the future, lurve or parents – none of which I have, in any useful sense. Note of gloom creeping in here – buck up, do, you old misery!

Words That Stung – hmmm, we all have some of those, don’t we? And how not to turn a feeble attempt at an entertaining Monday Morning Post into All The Nasty Things People Have Ever Said To Me. Let’s just select a few, then over to you for your examples.

There was the time my mother told me I had to keep my face still when we were out shopping, because some lady had said What a pity your little girl has St Vitus Dance, or words to that effect. My mother explained that St Vitus’ Dance was when your face kept twitching, kind of grotesquely. I wonder who St Vitus was? Somebody who danced, obviously. Will have to look him up.

There was the time Canadian Sister and I entered a children’s writing competition in the local newspaper (Uncle Mac’s Corner). The title was something like Why My Mummy Is The Best In The World. I wrote it really, but sister provided some enthusiastic input. She was probably too young to write at that stage. I was so proud when it appeared in Uncle Mac’s Corner the next day, and expected Mummy to be pleased (chocolate cup cakes for a week, I imagined) but she wasn’t.

Instead she launched into a – to me, at seven or so – inexplicable and hysterical rant, to the effect that I sent that to the newspaper, secretly, for all to see and laugh at, and I could write all that but I could never tell her to her face. It was true that I had never told her to her face. It had never occurred to me because what kid goes up to their Mum and says all that sugary, embarrassing stuff? And anyway writing was my telling, my speaking, my confiding – was then and has remained so.

And then I had to walk to school, with my face all red and puffy, hiccupping, and get teased and stared at all day for the mess I was in. I maybe understood a bit better when I got older, but I never forgave her.

There was the time – no, I can’t tell you that one. Or…that one, either.

And then there was the time a supervisor told me the ‘bosses’ regarded me as some kind of slightly addled old hippy – nice, but vague – or words to that effect. I wasn’t actually nice, and I wasn’t actually vague, and if only I had been a hippy.

There was the time a visiting financial advisor remarked that of course the root of all my problems was a) insufficient income and b) all those cats. The sensible thing, he said, will be to dispose of all, or most of, these stray cats. I wondered whether he had children, and how many of them he would dispose of in times of financial stress, and which of them he would choose.

There was the time the doctor told me my bad back would get better if I lost some of the excess weight when actually I was just bundled up in an old winter raincoat with the belt bunched up funny round the waist (à la little Meghan’s posh white coat in her official engagement photo, but nobody said she could do with shedding a few pounds because it happened to be a chilly day and her belt was tied sort of funny!)

On similar lines, and talking of fat, these Stinging Words are not mine, but were related to me by a colleague. She said she had gone to the doctor one Winter’s day wearing a puffy anorak with her woolly gloves poked into the pocket, and he had asked her how far along her pregnancy was – when she wasn’t. Mind you, she was a bit chunky.

And one from my sister, when she and her husband were trying unsuccessfully for a baby, who kept receiving pamphlets in Air Mail letters from her mother-in-law, about female infertility. Her husband had been trying to intercept the post on his way out to work, to fish out any pamphlets before my sister saw them. But that’s not so much a Stinging Word as a Stinging Action or a Stinging Assumption.

Have any Stinging Words (not too painful to share at this distance in time) remained indelibly seared into your memory over the years?

Send In The Clowns

Well, now they have given my mother wheels. I don’t know why they didn’t think of it sooner – or why I didn’t think of it. All those months of visiting and she’s stuck in that heavy chair in front of the TV, and she’s still managing to move it around. She can’t walk, but she heaves it, by instalments, this way and that. Sometimes she’s facing the brown plastic linen basket (an object that seems to worry her greatly), sometimes she’s half way out of the door, and setting off that under-the-carpet alarm thing so the carers have to come running and heave her back. Now – light bulb moment – they’ve removed the alarms, turned off the TV, taken away the heavy chair and put her in a lightweight wheelchair she’s off – like a road runner.

And now, with one of those sudden swerves of pace/tone/logic/emotional atmosphere for which I am famous-or-at-least-mildly-well-known:

It occurs to me that we all have within us all the ages we have ever been – from ancient crone to grown-up woman to surly teenager to vulnerable three year old child – and can  switch – and in fact can’t help switching – backwards and forwards between these versions of ourselves, minute by minute, second by second. Today I woke up three years old, and needing my Mum. Well, Dad would probably have done, but he’s dead. At least Mum’s this side of the veil, pro tem.

On some rare days, friends are not enough: neither is logic is enough, or courage enough, or adult conversation, either in person or over the telephone. What would be enough – what you really need – no longer really exists in this world for you. But that doesn’t stop you needing it.

Well, I was going to visit Mum anyway, and so I went, hoping that maybe Old Mum was still lurking somewhere inside that wizened old shell. Hoping against hope, really, that the Fraction of her that knew me so well before I was even born, and the Whole of her that will know me again in the next world, might be tuned in, today.

And there she was, on wheels. And I do believe it was the funniest visit I have ever had with her. Well, the only funny visit. Firstly she ran over my foot, then she spent some time experimentally backwards-and-forwardsing on her new wheels, bumping her knees against mine crying wheeeee! and brrrrroooom!

We obviously weren’t going to stay in her room this visit, dolefully watching The Simpsons together. Oh no. Off we went up the corridor, with Mum branching off at intervals to enter and inspect other people’s rooms. At one point she paused behind a carer who had just gone into a store cupboard, craning her neck around in an exaggeratedly casual way to ascertain what was in there. Only sheets and stuff, nothing to interest you! came the muffled comment from inside the cupboard.

Next minute we were in the almost deserted dining room, and Mum was helping herself to a banana from the fruit bowl on the side. She looked at it for a moment. Yer ‘as to peel it for e’r came a hoarse old voice from the corner. It was a lady waiting for a haircut. Been ‘ere all morning, she grumbled. They left my toast in the microwave and it’s gone stone cold, but I’m about to eat it anyway.

I ended up following my mother around, with an increasing amount of ‘stuff’ – a cup of tea in a white mug; a glass of that anonymous pink water the carers keep giving them, and insisted on giving Mum as well as the cup of tea; a brownish and wilting banana skin; my own bag; five unwanted grapes. We skedaddled into the Day Room and watched the traffic out of the window for a minute or two, then Mum ran over my bag. I moved it. She carefully ran over it again.

You’re…. daughter, she said suddenly. Proud of you.

And I’m proud of you too, Mum.

I stayed half an hour longer than I normally would have done. After that I could see she was getting bored with me and wondering when her Friday Fish was going to get here. I too was hungry. And the cats would need feeding. In the lobby, a teenage carer was sitting with a trolley load of croissants and sweet rolls of various sorts. Can I interest you in one of these? he enquired. For a small donation? Maybe £10?

£10?

Only joking. Most people are putting in about £1.

I put in £1.50 and selected a chocolate croissant. I picked it because it was the only one wrapped in cellophane and total strangers had no doubt been fingering the others.

And on the way home I thought – that’s just what she would have done when I was three years old, and tearful. Distraction. And a memory came to me – a long-lost occasion I know she had forgotten even before she forgot everything, because I asked her about it once and she had no idea what I meant.

Mum and Canadian Sister and I are in the kitchen, eating lemon cup cakes. How old am I on this day? Eight, maybe? Twelve? And my chubby little sister says: Mum, what shall I do with the wrapper? And my mother says, How should I know? STICK IT ON THE WALL!!! And proceeds to stick her own gooey cake wrapper to the kitchen wall (tiled, luckily).

So, in a way, I found both the Old Mum and the New Mum.

(PS: I had to look up ‘rube’, the English-English equivalent of which would probably be bumpkin, or yokel. I thought Clowns was probably near enough.)

For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it. (Proverbs 8:11)

Of Olive And Her Ankles

This will not be a long post, being simply a response to a ridiculous prompt: mnemonic.

It will not be a long post because although at school – when mnemonics are most useful – I was quite good at thinking up mnemonics, I was not at all good at remembering what they stood for. I was interested in the mnemonic for its own sake, not the boring thing that originally necessitated it, and I had a tendency to forget boring things.

The one everyone recalls from school, I suppose, is Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – EGBDF. This is something to do with Music – maybe the notes on a piano? There is also FACE. I never had the faintest interest in learning to read music, so I instantly forgot what they stood for and was persecuted by Miss Spokes the music teacher for ever after. Miss Spokes was going thin on top, and her false teeth occasionally fell out on the piano whilst she was playing. She had a voice like Hilda Ogden from Coronation Street (on a bad day) all cracked and hideous. She told me I was a soprano, and forced me to sing – or rather mime – the soprano part in every single song we ever sang, even though I was, and knew I was, and have for ever after continued to be, an alto of severely limited range.

At school I was even less interested in Maths than I was in Music. This was partly my mother’s fault. Just before I started infant school, aged 4.5 or possibly 5, she foolishly told me she had never been any good at Maths at school and didn’t expect I would be either. Instant fear. Instant failure. They sat me on the ‘bottom table’ for Maths and the top table for English, and in these locations I remained, either metaphorically or actually, for the rest of my school career.

In my thirties, however, I decided I needed to teach myself Maths and get a Maths ‘O’ level. I bought that year’s text book in Smiths – a great, fat thing it was – and taught myself. I did it mostly by working backwards from the answers. One of the Engineers at work taught me some basic algebra. So – this is where the mnemonic comes in – for the exam I had to memorise the rules for calculating sines, cosines and tangents.

In those days, by the way, there were no calculators. You had a skinny, dog-eared set of tables full of tiny, tiny numbers and you had to look them up, and since I have the kind of eyes that cannot follow a row all the way along, but will skip up and down at random  I would have to put a coloured ruler underneath the row and follow it along that way.

I recall that sines, cosines and tangents are something to do with right-angled triangles but have no idea now – and I suspect had no idea when I passed my Maths O Level with flying colours – what possible use one might make of them once one had calculated them. I invented a mnemonic to remember them, which was:

Olive Has Always Had Orange Ankles
Opposite over Hypotenuse, Adjacent over Hypotenuse, Opposite over Adjacent

Olive, by the way, was the receptionist at the Power Station where I worked (hence the availability of Engineers to help with the algebra). Olive was harshly made-up, sour faced and completely lacking in a sense of humour. She once crashed her car on the way to work, I remember, by ‘just looking down on the floor for her handbag for a moment’. She did not like me.

Poor Olive: presumably she’s dead by now. And what a way to be immortalised – in a mnemonic invented by someone you didn’t much like, for something nobody much understands or ever wanted to much understand in the first place.

Barberous

Nan used to tell me tales of her Granny Sarah, her own mother – she of the permanently- escaping-from-the-skirt-waistband white blouse, who accidentally killed her favourite chicken in the kitchen by sweeping it up with a besom broom and then burst into tears. I think I would have both liked and feared Granny Sarah, whose rages and whose sorrows swept over her and all who surrounded her like clouds on an English summer day.

One of the things Nan told me was that, like many Victorian ladies, Granny Sarah never cut her hair. And she washed it once a year, in the water-butt outside. The water in the water-butt was softer, since it had come down as rain. As an adult I have wondered about that green algae you get floating on top of water-butts – all the mosquito eggs and the floating bits of detritus – but as a child I did not, just accepted that Granny Sarah’s hair remained clean and glossy because she only washed it once a year, presumably around midsummer since they didn’t have hair-dryers in those days, and because she brushed it with a hundred strokes of a soft hairbrush every single night before retiring to bed.

For most of my adult I felt compelled to wash my hair every single day, until it was as dry as dust. This was because my mother had believed in washing children’s hair once a week and no more, which was probably standard for the 50s. By the end of the week it was itchy-itchy-itchy and dripping with grease, or so I felt. Mum rarely did this herself – I seem to remember soap in the eyes, and tantrums. Nan took care of the hair-washing, on Sundays, providing a folded flannel for me to cover my eyes and keep out the stinging soap. Hey presto! no more tantrums.

Now it’s more like every other day. Your hair gets dryer as you get older, like the rest of you. A sere leaf you are, by the end. Just dangling there waiting to drop ‘orf.

Today I went to the hairdressers in my old town. It was very cold, and having miscalculated I arrived there far too early. I seemed to have left the car heater on windscreen defrost all the way down and my feet felt like solid blocks of ice.

I was still early, but I went in. They had given me a male hairdresser. I knew technically it was a unisex salon but I had never, hitherto, seen a man in there or a male hairdresser. I tried to make polite conversation as he washed my hair for me – the hair-wash girls must have Saturdays off – asking him about the difference between barbering and hairdressing. He said barbering you could learn in about twenty minutes, hairdressing took years. In the old days, he said, you learnt them both at once. Now there were separate courses and people only did one or the other. I sighed, mentally. I had a feeling he was going to be hard work.

I remembered my last haircut. I couldn’t remember her name but we talked non-stop, about men (of course) about love and life, about iron deficiency and constipation, about her D&C – something to do with afterbirths – and my infected cat bite, about hospitals and children and cabbages and kings. I was exhausted by the time I came out, but happy. Women talk like that. Women, on the whole, say more than is necessary. Men say less than is necessary. Far less.

It is quite scary having your hair cut by a man when you’re not used to it. He zoomed around me on that stool of his, chopping bits away here and bits away there. Why had I let him persuade me to have it cut shorter and sort of shaped in at the back? I was going to end up with some sort of short-back-and-sides thing, or even shaven. I was sure he was going to… barber me.

And then he started sneezing, loud horrid sneezes. Eventually he had to go off and blow his nose trumpetingly somewhere out the back. So much for avoiding infection, I think. What’s the point of all that disinfectant soap and hand-washing if barbers are going to sneeze at you. And then he couldn’t find the hairdryer, and when he did, having hunted all round the salon for it, it turned out to be held together with black duct tape, and huge. It was the longest hairdryer I had ever seen. I said something to the effect. He spent some time explaining to me the difference between professional hairdryers and the paltry sort I would have at home. Professional hairdryers dried the hair more quickly, he said, so they had to be huge.

I closed my eyes at this point so as not to be staring at parts of him I didn’t want to be caught staring at, as they circled around me at an ever-increasing rate. With women it’s the cleavage. No, look at me they coax as they start on your fringe, squinting in concentration. And there you are, faced with some vast, pink unwanted cleavage. With men it’s… even worse.

He kept donking me on the head with that ultra-long hairdryer. No woman hair-stylist had ever done that. After the second painful donk I was wondering whether to make some tactful little joke about it? Just casually? The third time, he noticed, and apologised, but the fourth time, he didn’t notice again. This is getting beyond a joke, I thought. I hope this new hairdo is going to be really good to make up for this battering.

And was it? Well, it was certainly different. And that’s all I’m saying.

victorian hair

Men Don’t Make Passes… full stop.

When I was a mere slip of a girl in the 50s and 60s there used to be this horrid, patronising, sexist saying: “Men Don’t Make Passes At Girls Who Wear Glasses”, and in my experience this was true. Of course, it may only have been true in my experience. It is possible that other girls with glasses were having a whale of a time.

At least part of this may have been due to the ugliness of glasses in 50s and 60s Britain. From 1948 to 1985 there was a phenomenon unique to Britain – the National Health Spectacle Frame. Apparently these were the envy of other countries, who had neither a National Health nor its spectacle frames, but they were loathed in this country. The range was – limited – to say the least, and what there was seemed to have been designed, either to discourage you from availing yourself of their extreme cheapness, or to advertise to the world that you were too poor to be able to afford anything else. Which of course, you were.

I remember a little boy called Steven Savage (forgive me little Steven, if you are still alive). All the kids used to call him Steven Sandwich, since it sounded like that. Poor Steven Sandwich had National Health specs, and worse, one of the lenses was permanently covered in pink sticky plaster. I believe this was a technique to strengthen a weak ‘other’ eye, by forcing it to do twice the work. Either that or the glass was cracked.

And glasses or not, I had other issues. It wasn’t just the glasses that failed to attract men to me, but me being taller than all of them and possessed of what a doctor once (erroneously, a it turned out) referred to as “child-bearing hips” or was it “child-bearing thighs”? My Dad was 6 foot 4 inches tall and all my female relatives on his side were Amazonian in build. I had an aunt and a sister both pushing 6 foot, and another sister 5 foot 10. I was actually the lucky one – I was the shortest.

And I didn’t know how to talk to them. I grew up with sisters. I went to school with girls. Boys were – alien. They guffawed a lot. They patronised. They obviously felt themselves to be superior. And the advice then was not, under any circumstances, to appear to be cleverer than them. Men liked clever girls even less than they liked girls who wore glasses. So I tried to be stupid but could never quite pull it off.  Unable to speak my actual thoughts, I was left with nothing at all to say. Banter was beyond me. Giggling – just couldn’t manage it. Flirting – never quite got the hang.

Eventually I managed to bag a man or two, but only by signalling my availability really, really obviously, and how I even did that I can’t remember. And even then these chaps didn’t exactly rush to take advantage of me. Special Offer, and all that. It was more like an unenthusiastic amble.

And then I didn’t fancy them anyway, because:

Premise Number 1:

Who would want a man who only ambled? I wanted my Hero, my Knight on a White Charger, that man who would pursue me desperately to the ends of the earth; somebody driven frantic by my very presence in a room. I wanted romance, I wanted passion.

But even if there had been a Mr Darcy I would have instantly lost interest in him, because:

Premise Number 2:

If he was the sort of man desperate enough to want me he couldn’t be a proper man. He needs must be wimp, a total loser; there had to be something seriously wrong with him.

Premise Number 2 is the killer because there’s absolutely no way around it. For an entire lifetime your logical mind can argue the self-defeating ridiculousness of Premise Number 2: some primitive, damaged part of your subconscious will continue to know it is true.

At one point I had an inspiration. I could be a Lesbian! I wasn’t sure, to be honest, what Lesbians did with each other, but I knew I was already built for the part. All it would take was one of those shaven hairdos and perhaps a silver stud through my tongue. My niece – she of the pink hair, the Doc Martens, the many exotic tattoos and, sadly, now, the failed kidneys, once shared a flat with a gaggle of Lesbians and it didn’t seem to do her any harm. In fact my exotic niece seems to have had an awful lot more fun in her life than I ever did.

Anyway, so I looked around at women and attempted to find at least a few of them attractive but, inconveniently, could not. (My old friends Rose and Daisy will be relieved to hear this.)

And now – well, now things are better. I don’t feel obliged to attract men at all, and certainly not in that competitive, trophy-hunting, 1960s kind of way.  I like men – mostly and I like women – mostly. And mostly people are just people to me nowadays. I treat them alike, whatever they are.

And – bonus – the National Health Spectacle Frame is no more – abolished, I believe, by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I can wear any specs I like. I can send for them through the post, I can try them on at home and send them back if I don’t like them. I can have three pairs. I can have purple ones, or tortoiseshell, or knicker-pink.  I can go Dame Edna or John Lennon. I can – what else can I do…? Oh well, you know what I mean.

nhs

The Poemworm

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

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

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

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

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

She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces thro’ the room,

She saw the water-lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

She look’d down on Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried

The Lady of Shalott.

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

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

‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said

The Lady of Shalott…

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

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

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

ophelia

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

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