Boggarts In My Back Garden

Ow, I have just been landed on by the three-legged cat, and when you have been landed on by a three-legged cat, you know it. He does like to push the keyboard back in, on its slidey-shelf, so I end up with access to the bottom two rows only.

I thought I would let you know about the writing. I have been very good, surprisingly, producing a rough version of one of my little flash fictions every day. Today I started on part II of my plan, which was to also second-edit one. It’s a system, you see. I have a stack of plastic trays and the printed out stories progress down the trays until they settle, sedimentishly, in REJ – rejected. Of course, if any were to stick at ACC, the tray above REJ, I would be extremely pleased.

I am planning to publish more stories on the blog, but have to start being disciplined about it. The aim of writing them was to try to get them published in internet flash fiction magazines, maybe even earn a cent or two. Research suggests it would only be a cent or two, too.

But when I first attempted to publish an e-book of – longer, older – short stories on Kindle I had problems. Amazon’s automated-bot-crawling-thing became convinced that I had filched my short stories from some other writer. They refused to publish the book and started emailing me, rather scarily, like I was a criminal.

I had to do quite a bit of panic-stricken emailing back before they/it accepted that ‘I’ was in fact ‘Me’ – ie the Elsewhere their had software had detected my stories in was Here. I’ve long since deleted that e-book anyway – approximately three and a half people bought it – but all the stories it contained are here. See dedicated Page at top of blog/menu for how to find them.

Anyway, my plan is to put up a new very-short-story every two weeks. That way I’ll still have the pleasure of sharing stories with you and getting your feedback. If I can continue to write one story a day there should be plenty to spare.

What else? That’s the trouble, nothing non-fictional ever seems to happen to me anymore. That’s the trouble with getting old, at least without money. The high spot – last night I had to pick up my down-the-road friend from the hairdressers in town. She likes to go to the training college, because it’s cheaper, but they are very, very slow – take aeons to complete a single hairdo to the satisfaction of their supervisors. Plus they only open on Wednesdays afternoons and evenings, finishing after the last bus has gone. So I have to wait for a text, jump in the car and drive for 25 minutes, at night, with all those headlights coming towards me. When I would normally be watching some rubbish film on Prime, or dozing.

I never did much like going out at night, especially in winter. I know it’s the same things and places exactly, only with less sunlight, but it doesn’t feel like that. The world seems altogether a different place when it’s dark. Things may be lurking in my garden when I come back. I am afraid to turn away from them to put my key in the lock, and so I fumble. Yes, readers, there are boggarts on my back lawn and they are creeping

I’d better be careful about that or I might end up like Mum. She was absolutely sure there were people, out there behind her drawn curtains, standing in the dark, invisible but watching. How terrifying a genuine psychosis must be. Note to self: remain sane.

Another elderly acquaintance phoned this morning after a long gap. She always looks kind of, well, you know, at death’s door. I hadn’t seen her over Christmas as expected, and for a horrible-creepy-man related reason I wasn’t able to phone her at home to check she was all right. The longer the silence went on the more dead I feared she must be. However, she phoned this morning and she’s not. Not that I actually asked her if she was. She isn’t too well, though.

And tomorrow – tomorrow I think it is lunch with above nocturnally-coiffed down-the-road friend, in the subterranean canteen of the local hospital. It’s a bit like eating in a fish tank. Unfortunately since I have gone gluten-free I am confined to cheese-baked-potato with whatever vegetables they happen to have. Nothing much else is safe. I now have to have cheese-baked-potatoes everywhere I go, whilst others are consuming heaped, delicious steaming great platefuls of pie, chips, pasta and so forth. I will soon begin to look like a baked potato.

To make it even more exciting, we might have to take a ticket and wait for several hours so that she can get her blood test. Note to self: take a book.

Instead of a handbag…

The Rusty Post Box

Well, I have voted. I am registered for a postal vote and they arrive about two weeks before the election. I could actually walk the dull, fifteen minute walk to the village hall to cast my vote among my fellow villagers but it’s just – so depressing. So, I climbed the dull, two minute climb up the hill to the Rusty Post Box to post my vote – I always return it the same day, before any cat can widdle or vomit on it, or decide to shred it for the pure catty amusement of it.

It was several years before I dared risk inserting anything into the mouth of the Rusty Post Box, assuming the Post Office had abandoned it to its fate, forever to moulder beside the overflowing, never emptied litter bin, steadily encroached upon by vicious triffid brambles from a nearby garden… I have never seen a place like this for Things Falling Apart. It’s almost artistic.

Have you ever thrown a book away?

This was a question posed in a Radio 4 broadcast yesterday. I must say – yes, and no. I recently managed a mass throw-out and taking-to-charity shops. However, a good two thirds of my book collection remained, mouldering in the garage. I only managed it by not stopping to look at what I was throwing into the bags-for-life. However, then I chickened out, and now I have a house full of the remaining books, comfortably warm and dry, but with weird gaps. One or two books missing from a run of the same author, books, like missing teeth. All that random throwing out… So of course I am having to replace them.

It made me think of The Life Of King George V. This is the worse book ever but I find myself unable to throw it out. It came in a job lot with the £2 Odhams’ Encyclopaedia, which I did want. I suspect the owner was glad to get rid of it. It is the ghastliest, grubbiest, dullest, most foxed, most sycophantically fulsome old book I have ever had the misfortune to come across, full of full page brown, smelly old pictures of Royalty in all their medals and jewels, looking unforgiving. To give you just a taste:

The next year saw the King “do his bit” in another way. He gave £100,000 out of his private fortune to the Exchequer to be used for the prosecution of war. It was a notable gesture of self-sacrifice in the common cause, and the extent to which this generous gift crippled the King’s resources was shown by the difficulties of the Royal Household after the war.

So it goes through his life, year by year, one praiseworthy Kingly deed after another. But can I throw it out? No. I find myself hovering with the filthy, dusty old thing over the waste bin. Can I let go of it? It’s managed to survive this long with nobody reading it, nobody caring about it… etc.

Instead of a handbag

Another marathon conversation with Canadian Sister last night. She worries about things, and because she always had a husband to make decisions for her she struggles to make even the smallest them now.

I have to take all of my course artwork in to the University in a suitcase later today (they’re many hours behind us in Edmonton) My tutor won’t give me a grade if I don’t, but the suitcase with all the paintings in it is so heavy I don’t know how I’m going to manage it on the train. All those steps to drag it up…

Is there a lift – sorry, elevator – at the station?

Well, I haven’t seen one.

Wouldn’t somebody be likely to help you up the steps with the case? I mean, in this country if a woman is struggling up a flight of steps with a child in a pushchair, someone will always grab the bottom of the pushchair and help her with it.

I don’t think they do that sort of thing in Canada. They’re more likely to yell at me for blocking the staircase. It’s quite narrow, you see.

But I thought Canadians were all so courteous. I mean, they’re famous for it! What about that beautiful Mountie chap from Down South? Aren’t all Canadians like him?

Someone did help me with a case once, at the airport, on my way over to England. In fact he grabbed the whole huge travel trunk and ran off with it up the stairs. I thought he had stolen it, like, instead of my handbag or something. I was in a terrible panic, but he was there waiting for me at the top of the stairs.

What about a taxi?

Oh yes, they do have taxis at the station… But what if the taxi-driver should be a rapist?

Poor Rosie

Rosie, I am afraid, is becoming incontinent. Well, she is incontinent. You probably don’t want to know this but – I’ve started so I’ll finish. Every time I sit down I have to check the end of sofa Rosie and I share – luckily a third-hand and leather(ish) sofa – for little puddles and dribbles of poo. Every time she sits on my lap I forget to grab a cushion or put something between me and her. Consequently I am washing a pair of jeans every day, in fact sometimes twice a day. Just can’t bring myself to open the door to the postman adorned in driblets of poo. Mind you, I could be wearing an orange wig and full clown make-up and it wouldn’t register with the postman.

Poor Rosie, she has been my light and salvation for eighteen years and I’m not getting rid of her now she has become a little inconvenient. If only they had the same sort of thing for cats as they have for my Mum and her fellow inmates. Maybe they do, but I wouldn’t have her suffer the indignity.

“Wait a minute, Mr Postman…”

Until sometime around the early ’80s I was very Little Britain, very provincial – I just assumed that everybody had a letterbox in their front door, plus a postman to trudge round every morning pushing letters through it. It wasn’t until my sister emigrated to Canada and started to tell these tales

Well, it seems that even in the middle of winter, when temperatures are 40 degrees below or whatever, if she wants her mail she has to don full arctic gear and big, slip-proof boots and trudge down the newly snow-ploughed driveway in order to spray something on her mailbox to melt the overnight ice that has welded it shut. She also needs a chisel or screwdriver in case the spray doesn’t work, and then a key

And it wasn’t until sometime in the 90s, when I went to work for a university college providing postgraduate distance-learning courses to students all over the globe, that I realised there could be such a thing as a dwelling that does not have a well-defined address. So we could be mailing giant parcels of course materials to “Beyond the village, turn left at the lake, third hut.” I used to wonder how they plugged their computers in, because surely a hut whose location could only be vaguely described would not have electricity. Students also had trouble with beads of sweat dropping onto the page, creeping damp, and ants. Paper-chomping ants.

You would think I would be grateful for my nice, civilised British letter-box and my nice, predictable British postman – or in fact, lady – but I have come to mostly dread what might tumble through it. I cannot properly concentrate until the witching hour – mid-day or thereabouts – has passed and I know I am safe from yet another bill or – OMG, the Bank Statement. That always arrives on the 13th. I spend the whole month dreading the 13th. I count down to the 13th. In various ways I aim to distract myself from the fact that the 13th is drawing ever closer.

Aside from bills there is the monthly Parish Council Newsletter to cast a pall. This is a single sheet of A4 paper folded into three. This month it is yellow. Even the folding-into-three depresses me. It reminds me of when I was a legal secretary and had to fold my boss’s signed post and put it in the envelope, with the address showing exactly in the centre of the glassine window. I was very good at this.

In fact I still am. I only have to look at an A4 sheet of paper and I can fold it exactly into three, with the edges exactly touching. I can even accomplish this feat with my eyes shut. Trouble is, it reminds me that a) I was no good at any other part of that job and b) it was the only thing I ever managed to do that impressed my mother. It seemed to be my life’s work to impress my parents in some way but all I ever manged was the paper-folding thing. And then only my mother.

The Parish Council Newsletter enrages me because it lectures me, in badly-written, ungrammatical prose, on things I have not done wrong:

Dog Fouling: Please be aware it is an instant fine for not picking up after your dogs. It is also unhygienic and nasty!” I don’t have a dog.

Parking: Complaints have been received,  (and why the comma?) that there is an issue with people parking in places that can be considered dangerous. It has also been reported that there has been parking on paths and green areas, you can be fined up to £500 for this offence.” But not me, guv. And where? What green areas? What paths? And complaints by whom? At least make it interesting.

Speeding Cars: Please note that the exit road from the village is a 30mph road, and many concerns have been received especially from parents walking children to and from school.” How is anything managing to drive at over 20mph, say, when the road is beset with giant speed-bumps so large even the bus has to slow right down to negotiate them? Is there a manic 40mph cyclist about?

Or else it tells me things I don’t care about even though I feel I probably ought to:

The Annual Seniors Christmas Lunch in the Village Hall. Forms available from the Post Office.”  Just went gluten-free. And went last year. That was an experience.

Christmas Lights Competition –  6 prizes of £25 each.” Why not use up the earth’s dwindling resources and pollute the starlit night sky with tawdry flashing lights? Why not spend £100 on lights and electricity in order to win £25?

Park Renovations – The Village park is in need of a new paint job, this has been sourced and the work should start shortly.” I’m confused. Are they painting the grass a more acceptable shade of green?

The stupid yellow creature just makes me feel slightly at odds with the rest of the human race – defective, somehow.

Into the Recycling you shall go, ee-aye ee-aye ee-aye oh
And if I catch you bending…

mother brown 2

Knees up, Mother Brown…

But enough of that, now.

For all the tea in China

Two halves of the same cat

Every autumn I start putting out food for the strays again. I always tell myself I won’t, because strays means bonding and bonding means coming indoors and coming indoors means staying for ever and a day. I remind myself that I cannot save every single stray cat in all the world. Nevertheless, that seems to be what I am programmed to do. I have no other purpose.

The first dishes usually go to waste, but on the second day of the putting out of the food, strays appear; sometimes one, occasionally four but most often two of them. And so it is this year. At first I thought there was only one, since all I could see of it was a large, black furry bottom poking out of the dog/cat kennel whilst the head inside busily slurped. But no, it’s two – I heard yowling round the side and caught them nose to nose, whisker to whisker, an all black one and a mostly black one with white bits on her face. A boy and a girl, I think, possibly brother and sister. They will have to organise themselves not to turn up at exactly the same time.

The lawn fails to get the message

The lawn mowing duo turned up on time today, weather-beaten and muscular in their matching green tee-shirts. I haven’t yet decided whether they are married or siblings. Heavy morning rain had ceased only seconds before. They must have a line to whoever or whatever turns the rain on and off. (The cats think this is me.)

The industrial, gas-powered machines were unloaded from the truck, one large green person took the front and one the back and it was done in a tenth of the time it would have taken me. I could just about still do it, but have reached the stage of breathlessness/ agonising boredom where I just don’t want to do it. A monthly visit from The Green People is my only luxury.

They will not be back now till March, when the grass officially starts growing again. The grass has now, since it is November, officially stopped growing. Unfortunately nobody has told the grass. After the Green People left last month it was so made up, so overjoyed to have been mown by professionals, that it put on a spurt of growth. I have a feeling another spurt will follow their November visit. So under a carpet of snow, that bright green grass will be growing and growing…

But then, I’m not the one who will be doing the first cut next spring. Yay!

I have decided I don’t like my lady vet

I used to like the vet, when he was an eastern European chap with an accent you could cut with a knife. I don’t think he was Russian – because would Russian vets be allowed to come over here? – just sounded for all the world like one of those meercats in the TV ads. But he has gone. I went in one day to discover he had gone, for good, to France. He has taken all his cats, and his dogs, so he can’t be coming back. Indeed, why would you come back, here? I wouldn’t come back here if I had a chance to go somewhere else: no, not for all the tea in China.

But the lady we have instead – well, she is a lady, for a start. And she’s not him. She has an accent but not the same accent. She’s large, she has a tattoo and a brusque manner and I can’t bring myself to trust her. She talks to me like some generic, probably senile, Old Person, some tiresome Member of the Public; whereas he – I felt, anyway – actually seemed to be talking to me. I got the feeling he saw me as unpredictable and scarily odd: everybody seems to react to me like that – so be grateful that I am blogging rather than turning up on your street corner or lurking by the swings in the park. But occasionally amusing. And he didn’t make the mistake of thinking I was daft.

Really, it must be genetic. Why is it still easier to trust a man even though, throughout my life at any rate, the men I have known (in any detail) have proven themselves crueller, more devious, more judgmental and less supportive than women? No wonder we remain unemancipated.

But still, I think I’ll bite the bullet and try out (gasp!) another surgery altogether.

I think bread may be causing my IBS

I ate an experimental sandwich at lunch time and yes, the agony has returned. I am writing to distract myself from it. Think I will go and make myself a hot water bottle and distract myself still further by watching a really dreadful Christmas movie and knitting yet another dishcloth.

Slow, Slow (Slow-Slow-Slow)

When I gave up my TV set, angry at the BBC for refusing to fund free licences for the over 75s from next year, I expected to be watching less TV. In fact, no TV. That was before I discovered Amazon Prime.

Now, I have been paying for Amazon Prime for years without understanding exactly what it was. It used to be just getting your parcels the next day, then the price went up – considerably. I was never entirely clear why this should be and several times cancelled my Amazon Prime subscription, only to go slinking back to it as soon as my parcels started taking ages to arrive.

Only recently did I realise that all this time I could have been listening to music and watching movies free, gratis and for nothing. You do have to have the patience hunt for the good free stuff, though. A lot of the free stuff is bad – films so execrably bad you wonder how on earth they got the funding to make them; films with plot holes, logic holes, unsuitable-looking actors and actors who obviously aren’t actors at all but people netted at random from the local pub or garage forecourt.

I watched – forced myself to watch – recently a Christmas Movie so indescribably awful… Well, suffice it to say that the young heroine spent the whole movie strutting about the snow-clad Rocky Mountains (or similar – it’s a bit vague where they are) in a mini-skirt, surrounded by fake snow. The strutting about and the deafening clatter of her monstrous high heels continued throughout the movie. Everyone else was wearing either suits or Christmas jumpers.

At one point there was an inexplicable Soup Kitchen. It just sort of materialised, so that they could cook their Christmas Buns in it when the plumbing failed in their – Christmas Bakery Thingy. And the men in suits – well, the suits were all identical, all a size or two too small – and the men inside them all had lantern jaws and shoulders like Popeye, post spinach. Presumably the local gym had supplied the men, and a cheap-ish men’s outfitters had hired the suits out in bulk.

However, it’s worth the effort of wading through the turkeys to get to the good stuff. Last night I watched a film called He Won’t Get Far On Foot about an alcoholic, wheelchair-bound cartoonist. It was somewhat “gritty” and sad, but also funny. Joachim Phoenix. Heard of him but never seen him before.

And before that a French film: The House By the Sea. There’s something about French films, so very cool and triste and sophisticated. Everybody smoking more than is good for them, and occasionally committing suicide. Plenty of expressive shrugs.

There’s Mr Robot, of course. My absolute favourite and still going on. Every Monday a new episode appears, like magic, on my tablet. The only trouble is it’s so very noir it’s difficult to see what’s going on – I mean, the lighting is clever, and super-creepy, and the hero, Eliot, wears a black hoodie… They do all tend to mumble, which makes them ultra authentic and cool, but mumbling in an urban American accent can be a problem if you’re not American or urban – or cool, or young. Then I discovered subtitles. Yes, you can turn them on and off at will and they stand out so well against the pitch-blackness of all those sinister rooms.

And now, from the same director (Sam Esmail) there is Homecoming with Julia Roberts. Better lit but just as creepy. I don’t normally like Julia Roberts. She strikes me as one of that small bunch of actors who have a personal charisma so great that they will always be watchable, but at the same time are always playing themselves. Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, John Wayne… always themselves. Ultra-strong signal, narrow bandwidth. However, she is good in this. She’s excellent at suffering, I think. Silent suffering.

And I think I have finally discovered a phenomenon known as Slow TV. It’s not exactly a new thing – does anyone remember The Potter’s Wheel intermission? And the (very) lengthy shot of a photograph of a little girl with chalks, at a blackboard? The present-day version is a kind of televised vlog produced by an exhausted, unshaven chap of a certain age who buys a narrow boat and sails it around the waterways of England.

He seems to be on his own and filming everything with a mobile phone, although he is quite good at propping it up and leaving it at an angle so that you can see him tying the boat up prior to stopping for one of his many cups of tea. The first episode takes place almost entirely inside his camper van, where he sits, for days, surrounded by all his worldly goods, waiting for his purchase of his narrow boat to go through. It rains on the windscreen. He wonders if he is doing the right thing. He eats pork pies and pizzas discovered in village petrol stations. He drinks tea. Always that same mug.

And after that it is sailing – up one canal, down another, through a very long tunnel, then through an even longer tunnel. Tunnels are scary. You never know when you are going to meet another narrowboat coming the other way. But the England he passes through, at four miles per hour, is very green, very lush, very damp, very quiet and apparently completely devoid of people. Just – wonderful!

The Bells, the Bells…!

I can’t pretend to have read Victor Hugo’s novel, but I do believe these words were said by Quasimodo, the deaf and deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame. To check this, I googled who said the bells the bells.

Now, this is only the latest of today’s google searches. Before that I googled sonnerie, of which more (probably) in a subsequent post. Briefly, sonnerie is a musical form based on the sound of bells in a bell tower, or similar. And then I thought, who lived in a bell-tower and slobbered The Bells, the Bells…! Was it not Quasimodo?

Before that it was rotoscoping animation. This was because I found a free film to watch on Amazon Prime (no mean feat, since Amazon Prime contains some of the very worst films ever – that’s why they’re free). The all-knowing reviewers of this particular free film were going on about the technicalities of rotoscoping. What on earth is rotoscoping? I wondered. Turns out it’s a kind of tracing technique used in animation. The one example I can remember having seen is that iconic A-ha video:

aha2

Gosh, that Morten Harket was beautiful. Apparently he’s 60 nowadays. This is not good news.

Anyway, back to the googling. Before that I searched battery operated candle. I was thinking of lighting a solitary candle to celebrate Samhain. The trouble is you are supposed to leave it a-flickering in your window all night. I am averse to leaving anything burning overnight, especially with 19 cats restlessly patrolling the windowsills. Terrible fire risk. Also, the neighbours would probably have thought I’d lost the plot and come over to check on me.

Before that it was how to celebrate samhain alone. I mentioned Samhain in my last post and was suddenly inspired to – well, what exactly was I inspired to do? It’s all gone a bit blurry; after all it was several hours ago –

I believe I decided to replace all Christian festivals, in the privacy of my own home, with the marking of the eight sabbats on the Wheel of the Year:

sabbat

I recalled that I was an Old Soul (probably) and therefore (probably) pre-dated Christianity. I needed to return to my roots like the proverbial falling leaf (reading suggestion: Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah).

You see, this is the trouble with being (probably) ADD – on the great, green pond of life you hop from one enticing lily-pad to the next, onward and onward, sideways and back, and then you can’t exactly recall how you got there.

To find the above Wheel of the Year I see I googled pagan festyivals. It found it in spite of the fat-fingered typing.

Before that it was wendy williams meghan markle latest. Now, this really lets me down after all the above semi-intellectual stuff, but Meghan Markle annoys me. She has especially annoyed me recently with all that simpering stuff about being a vulnerable new mom and having been so naïve as to think the British press would be fair to poor little me.

She married a Prince, for Pete’s sake, having previously been an actress in some TV drama that hardly anybody watched. She has him; she’s become a Duchess; she has the super-elegant wardrobe and all that money! She has comfort and security for life. She has that exorbitantly remodelled Frogmore Cottage, vaster and more luxurious than any cottage lived in by any normal British peasant:

cottage 4.jpg

she managed the first of the two requisite babies (the heir and the spare) in spite of being somewhat long-in-the-tooth for such enterprises, and no doubt the second will follow on schedule, and no doubt it will be a girl so that they can designer-dress it.

She and Harry chose to make a spiteful (him) and whingeing (her) documentary about how terribly stressed and put-upon they were during a visit to a continent where many people are suffering unimaginable hardships on a daily basis. Oh, thank you so much for asking how I am. You see (flutter, flutter) people hardly ever ask how I am…. She’s an actress, and she’s acting now, and not even that well.

And before that it was alan rickman death. Sadly, when you get older you tend to be plagued by doubts as to people’s existential status. I had a feeling he was dead, but then I thought, maybe he isn’t – but I’m sure he died – but surely he was too young to have – ? I was wondering whether I could face watching Love, Actually just one more time. Maybe twenty-five was not enough – but then I thought, before I watch it I need to know whether Alan Rickman died or not.

I sometimes wonder how I managed to exist at all, before there was Google. I seem to remember ordering numerous books from the local library. They seemed to have to order them for you, even if there wasn’t a single copy in the entire County system, even if they were terribly expensive and no one else, ever again, would want to take out that book, and you only needed it to check a single fact. You had to fill in an A6 size green card. In triplicate –

Things that go bump in the night

Recently I spent a pleasant hour inserting mildly relevant emoticons into the names of my ‘Contacts’ on my new mobile phone. Well, I lead a very dull life and have to take my fun where I can find it. The friend referred to in this blog as ‘Daisy’ had a daisy and ‘Rose’ had a rose; my friend down the road who in her (misspelt, incomprehensible) texts seem fixated on the ladybird, got a ladybird. My plumber got the umbrella + raindrops, my dentist got the little yellow man in the surgical mask and my doctor got the sickly green face. Ex got the anchor, and I won’t expand on that one.

When it came to the hospital I found myself automatically selecting the skull and crossbones. Half an hour later – superstitious, I suppose – I went back in and changed it to a spider’s web. Once in the hospital, I reminded myself, it is almost impossible to find your way around, and difficult to locate the Exit when you leave.

I suppose we are all a bit anxious about skulls. I remember the point in my childhood, if not the exact age, when I suddenly realised I had a skull inside my head, and that was what was keeping my brains in. It worried me. And then I started looking at Mum and Dad, and Nan and Grandad and everyone. They’ve all got skulls inside their heads! They’ve all got squidgy brains inside them!

It’s just one part of the vertebrate skeleton, but there’s a certain fascination, isn’t there? Why do skulls appear everywhere at Halloween? I guess we like to be frightened, but not too much. Presumably in imagination we superimpose the living face over the dead bone, and we don’t only do this for our contemporaries. Isn’t it fascinating to come face to face with a real Neanderthal, modelled from an ancient skull?

neanderthal

I was writing about paintings of St Jerome yesterday, and how he is surrounded by his own particular ‘iconography’ – red clothing, book, writing materials, and sometimes eyeglasses. This morning it occurred to me that I hadn’t said anything about the skull, which he always has. Was it the same little whisper of anxiety that made me delete the skull emoticon from my Contacts?

Skulls appear all over art, particularly medieval and renaissance art. In those days, life was, from our perspective, unimaginably short. A man from a landowning family in the Middle Ages had an average lifespan of 31.3 years. This is taking into account an infant mortality of 12% or thereabouts. Even in the Renaissance, say late 16th and early 17th century, the average lifespan was 39.7 years. Not long to win your passage into Heaven, and not long to avoid the terrifying actuality of Hell. So paintings of the time showed the skull, to remind people that they must focus on spiritual matters.

aston

Sir Thomas Aston at his Wife’s Deathbed

All this is a bit creepy, Halloween or no. However, in paintings of St Jerome the skull has a more nuanced meaning. The skull is the seat of thought and of spiritual perfection. The death of the physical body, symbolised by the skull, enabled one to be reborn at a higher level, where the spirit could rule. In St Jerome’s case – he was known for his translation of the Bible from Greek into Latin, and for his many Commentaries on the books of the Bible, and he is often depicted as a very old man with an angel, or occasionally a dove, whispering in his ear. The skull in paintings of Jerome, therefore, indicates that he is writing down truths from the spiritual world, even as his physical body fails him.

I don’t know whether you like Halloween? I personally don’t, mainly because, in this country anyway, it has become so tawdry and ridiculous. I live on my own and don’t like the prospect of four large teenage boys wearing masks knocking on my door at eight o’clock at night demanding – anything. Trick or Treat seems to me just a disguised form of blackmail, an implied threat. I also think it’s plain stupid, in this day and age, for smaller children to be sent out after dark to knock on strangers’ doors, with no knowledge of who or what might be waiting to open that door to them.

I prefer the pre-Christian festival of Samhain (sow-rin) or All Hallows. In Celtic times, after Harvest, it was customary to mark the arrival of ‘the dark half of the year’. People lit bonfires and wore costumes to frighten away ghosts, for it was believed that on All Hallows Eve, and at this time of year generally, barriers between Earth and the Other World became thin. The Living and the Dead might interact: there would be ghoulies and ghosties about.

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggety beasties
And thing that go bump in the night
Good Lord, deliver us.