“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?

I wish I could think something useful

I have had a moderately thought-free day today, Praise Be. I have been sat sitting – I was sat sitting there – a colloquial, northern British expression though why I’m suddenly using it I don’t know. I don’t know much today. I probably know even less than Missy (above) who is possibly the world’s least intelligent cat.

So, what have I been doing today? Well, mostly cutting out hexagons for patchwork. This is my kind of work, I have discovered. Stuff that you can do – industriously, obsessively, even – that leaves your brain absolutely free to think of what it wants to think of. Or to listen to the umpteenth repetition of Pink’s Beautiful Trauma on Heart. I’m not averse to a smidgeon of Pink but you can have too much of a good thing. As that male hairdresser said – the one who cut my hair very short and then donked me most painfully on the head four times with his extra-long phallic black hairdryer – Oh, Pink – she’s got a belting voice – and I could tell he actually couldn’t stand her, belting or not.

pink

Or perhaps he was just wishing he could be working on her hair rather than mine. More scope for his creativity.

(Sigh! This is one of those post you just keep writing in the hope it will eventually make sense…)

(So far it hasn’t.)

I was thinking about Stephen Hawking, who died recently. I was thinking several things, the oddest of which was that our one and only Guardian Angel just got up walked out the door – at the very moment when we could do with more than one Guardian Angel. His Guardian Angelness did not occur to me while he was alive. Three cheers for Stephen Hawking, who finally escaped his bone-bound island and is now floating free in the universe he imagined better than anyone else since Einstein.

Beyond this island bound
By a thin sea of flesh
And a bone coast,
The land lies out of sound
And the hills out of mind.
No birds or flying fish
Disturbs this island’s rest.

Dylan Thomas: Ears In The Turrets Hear

The other thing I was thinking about Stephen Hawking is this: that he had the best job in the world. One hour or so a day teaching, and the rest of the day being allowed to Think. In Peace! He had the sort of brain that made Thinking worthwhile, of course. He could concentrate on the nature of the universe for hours – for days, maybe – whereas my concentration span, even when it comes to laboriously cutting out paper hexagons (tongue clamped between teeth) and tacking tiny hexagonal bits of cloth to them, is a microsecond or two.

I was thinking how odd it was that it has taken me all this time to realise that the only sort of work I am capable of engaging in happily is precisely this sort – the sort I once despised. I remember once telling a tutor that I wanted to be a writer, and him kind of snorting (politely) and saying in that case I would be better advised to give up the worthless Sociology ‘A’ Level, the worthless Commercial French ‘A’ Level and his own worthless English Language & Literature ‘A’ Level, and go and get a job in a factory. And he was right. But I was a snob. I was an intellectual, right? It was one of those road-not-taken moments. One of many.

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms…

Stephen Spender: I Think Continually

H Morey: a short story

The policewoman bent down and picked up a single item of mail from the heap on the mat. It was about life insurance. Her hand, even inside its leather glove, felt icy; the coldest winter for fifty years, so they said. She checked the addressee: H Morey. No title, she thought. Not even the full Christian name. Luckily she wasn’t alone. Her two male colleagues had already gone in. They were being chivalrous, not because she was a woman but because this was her first Discovered Alone.

There was no smell. Usually in these cases there was some kind of stench. She had been prepared for it, but there seemed to be none. She had been told it wore off after a while. A longish while. She didn’t want to see what she knew she was about to see, but there you go, that was the job. Best get on with it. Christ, it was cold today.

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H Morey had not started off as a corpse. Long ago H Morey had been a person, of sorts. She had lived in this house alone and had avoided, as far as it was possible to avoid, the neighbours. There was a balance to be struck, however. You had to talk to them once in a while so as they didn’t get worried and start calling in Social Services or Age Concern. The key to being a hermit was to appear to be moderately sociable, be seen sometimes. Exchange the odd word about the weather. Dredge up a smile from somewhere. That necessary shield.

It had been all right when the old people were next door. She didn’t like them, but then nobody did. They had few friends and therefore few visitors. There was the loud daughter once a week, the one you could hear as clear as day through the kitchen wall. The one that parked her car in front of H Morey’s house and took a short cut across the lawn when she went back to it, car keys jangling. Everything she did made a noise. Big woman, she was; top-heavy, like most round here. And very occasionally they had lesbians. These came in pairs, obviously. H Morey assumed the lesbians had also been prison warders, like the neighbours, since on television they always seemed to be. Brutish looking, shaven-headed women. Also top-heavy. She didn’t care about them being lesbians but they did make such a racket. And they brought dogs with them, which also made a racket. Their dogs barked at the neighbours’ dog and the neighbours’ dog barked at them. It was pandemonium, but the next morning they would all go off somewhere, together but in their separate cars. Some sort of holiday that often lasted for months. H Morey savoured their absences.

The old people had been hard-faced. She imagined them beating their prisoners with little vicious truncheons, and giving back as good as they got in verbal abuse. She was frightened of them but grateful that they left her alone. Occasionally one or other of them came out on the decking – usually it would be him. If she happened to be outside she would treat him to a wince of a smile. He would grimace grimly in return, and then either or both of them would go back indoors: a Chinese wall. It worked well enough.

She always felt self-conscious in her garden because it wasn’t private. Their decking was high and raised them up three foot or so, so her six foot fence panel was useless except as a wind-brake. Six foot was the maximum height, though. The grass tended to get long because she put off mowing it for as long as possible. Then of course it was a struggle. To begin with she went out regularly, proud of her new garden and hoping to maintain it despite her lack of gardening skill, but after a while the eyes on her, the possibility of being viewed from a bathroom window, say, worried her too much. She took to going to bed early and getting up early. Sometimes, in the early dawn, she went out to prune the roses or water the poor hydrangeas in their tubs. At this time of the morning the dew still lay and all the spider’s webs were wet, draped across the leaves. Sometimes the hydrangeas went thirsty. It was too much for her, those eyes.

And then the new people came. The old people disappeared abroad, possibly with the daughter, possibly with the lesbians, it didn’t matter – to start a new life in the sun, he said, when they coincided on the decking. He didn’t let on where. She wondered where abroad could be that sunny. Africa, possibly. She couldn’t imagine the prison warders in Africa. She worried about the new people. Perhaps it will just be one person, she thought: one quiet person. Perhaps it won’t be a family; perhaps not dogs or children, just some lone old woman like me, or a lone old man. Old people were easier to talk to, when you had to. Old people liked her.

The new family arrived with many white vans. There were many men, all with their shirts off. They said Fuck a lot. They guffawed. There were many women, also. There was a fat blonde one who smoked cigarettes out on the patio, and cackled. Why must human beings laugh all the time, and why were their laughs so ugly? She could not work out who was going to be living here, there were so many of them. Later the fat blonde one spent a day there ‘doing the garden’. The prison warders’ garden had been perfect as far as H Morey was concerned. Fat Blonde cut down the tree that was dead-looking all year but came out with a mass of orange berries in the autumn. H Morey had looked forward to those. A splash of colour.

H Morey had enjoyed the neighbours’ garden more than her own. From behind the bedroom curtain you could look down into it – the palm tree-thing, the orange berries, the tiny greenhouse at the end with its rows of seedlings and stacks of unused buckets, the bird house nailed to the tree that no birds ever went into, but it had looked right, where they had put it. They had worked on the garden together, the old people. Sometimes the dog would be out there, playing with its squeaky toy. Sometimes you could hear the squeaking late at night and then you knew the dog was out on the decking, getting its late-night airing.

The new family had children who thundered up and down the stairs. They played the music from Disney films, very loud, in their bedrooms. It was confusing, who the children belonged to, how many there were and why they weren’t all there all of the time. Were they his, hers, or a product of them both? To H Morey it seemed important to know but she didn’t know, couldn’t know, never would.

Sometimes there was a little girl, who whined in next door’s kitchen and kicked a ball about and then kicked it over H Morey’s fence and subsequently came round to collect it, looking surly. Sometimes there were teenage boys. These rode mountain bikes about on the decking and the reverberations seemed to permeate H Morey’s house. There were heaps of what looked like washing-machine drums out on the decking. The old ones had kept everything neat, the wooden patio chairs and table varnished every year. The new ones removed the wooden furniture and installed a green sun-lounger, a portable silver barbecue and an outdoor ashtray. Groups of them came and they cooked sausages and the vile meaty smell drifted in through H Morey’s kitchen window.

They played loud music which could go on for hours, but not always. It was worse, in a way, the way it could just start up and you didn’t know when. They played it at top volume, and then they laughed a lot, and then they said Fuck a lot and had arguments that involved running around on the lawn and screeching. H Morey learned to bear it. She fished out her old MP3 player – people used phones for that nowadays, she had heard, but she didn’t know how. She put the little plastic buds in her ears and turned it up as loud as she dared without damaging her hearing. After a while she left the buds in all the time and walked round all day in a sea of long-forgotten folk music and half-remembered pop. She rediscovered Leonard Cohen. She wondered why she had ever downloaded that Madonna one, though it was quite good.

There seemed no point in checking, after a while, whether the noise next door had stopped. When they started one of their parties she took to her bed, at seven, or eight, whenever they started the racket. She fell asleep with the music in her ears and woke at three, four or five in the morning to find the battery flat and next door silent. Blessed darkness outside. There were bats in the dusk but this time of the morning nothing, not even the hedgehog. She wandered around the house in her dressing gown, doing the housework she wouldn’t be able to concentrate on later, when they were awake.

She adapted in all sorts of ways, tried things out – things that would make it tolerable. She realised she could change her hours permanently. She would become nocturnal – no, that wasn’t the word – crepuscular. Creeping crepuscularly through the dawn and the dusk, like a cat. She fed the stray cats, but only in the dawn and the dusk. She peered sideways out of her kitchen window, checking there were no humans out on next door’s decking, and then she would scurry out, with plates on a tray already filled with food, but carefully. How awful if she tripped down the step with a clatter. How unbearable if they knew she was outside.

One day they cut down the tall shrub on their side of the fence panel. Now there was no privacy at all. Washing up at the kitchen sink she would suddenly find herself observed by one or more fat and cigarette-smoking persons; sundress-wearers, laughers-at-nothing; smelly-sausage-gobblers. She hated them now.

Then they parked one of their huge vans across her driveway. She had had to say something about that or he would start doing it all the time, taking it as his right. It wasn’t that she needed that bit of space outside but it hemmed her in, it blocked her exit. Panic rose in her at the thought. She couldn’t bear it.

He had been surly, like the daughter. Then the woman had come round about something or other. She had been surly too, but no ‘words’ were had. H Morey could not remember any of their names, next door, though she had been told them, once. They remembered hers, of course. Pinned down like a butterfly, she thought. Netted, gassed, skewered and pinned in a case; on permanent display. She wondered, sometimes, if she could find a way to die. One that wouldn’t involve any actual suffering or knowledge of what one was doing. But of course, a dead butterfly is dead already. No room for manoeuvre.

butterfly 2

The policewoman was glad to get out. Natural causes, the bloke in the white suit said. Been there for years, probably, on the sofa, quietly falling apart. It hadn’t been so bad; more like dust that still had a bit of a shape to it. She shivered. The frost was beginning to melt, just a little, as the sun rose. There was a flask of hot tea in the van. She was so looking forward to it.

(Apologies: this is at least twice as long as recommended for a blog post, but I wrote it in one three hour session and there seemed no point in splitting it arbitrarily into instalments. Tiny bit gruesome – sorry about that too. And about the rude word, but it did seem necessary, for this story.)

Post McEwan Stress Disorder

This picture is from tiny card my mother once sent me. The message inside is mundane:

Monday, 2pm

I received your letter. Went over to the garage. Explained about little red spanner [Skoda’s irritating ‘service due’ warning light].

They can deal with little red spanner ie: take it off so that it won’t be a nuisance any more.

I left the key with them. It will soon be dealt with.

Love, Mum XXX

It felt a bit creepy reading this so-ordinary and long-forgotten message from Mum’s earlier self, but it was nice to see her handwriting, and to see that all the full stops were once again in the right place, the ‘i’s all meticulously dotted and the ‘t’s all crossed. The style’s clumsy for her, though – ‘it’ must already have begun at that point, and I didn’t realise.

It was a long drawn out and horrible Flowers For Algernon process, for us both, first watching her handwriting decline and then her mind refusing to tell her what to write in letters to friends, and her desperate strategies to keep doing so: the sudden change to writing in pencil – I bought her a whole box of 2Bs and a desktop pencil-sharpener which neither of us could then fasten to the desk; the endless, obsessive process of rubbing out bits of sentences and trying again; the rewriting of entire letters; the asking me to check them before she posted them.

I have a little nightmare of the same thing happening to me one day – and not realising – and gibberish appearing in this blog, and either no one telling me (and who would want to be the one to do that?) or everyone just Unfollowing. Oh, God save us from an unknown future.

I found Mum’s butterfly card in one of my books. Being lazy and using everything from letters to bus tickets to torn-off pieces of cereal packet does have its upside. You never know what little treasure you might to come across when you get round to tidying your books. I also found a lot of bookmarks from a particular second-hand bookseller.

Every time you order a second-hand book from them, no matter if it only cost 99p, they include a nice cardboard bookmark with a design submitted by a reader. And they are excellent bookmarks (they must have many graphic artists among their readers) and also an excellent selling point. It works with me anyway: I always look down the list and see if I can get the book from them rather than any of the alternatives, out of sheer bookmark-greed.

I notice a preponderance of the black-and-white-one-with-the-many-skulls. I remember, in fact, them sending me three black-and-white skull bookmarks inside a single ancient paperback one time, and picturing some poor, bored school-leaver on work-experience in an office on an industrial estate, fishing for the umpteenth time into a plastic bin full of pretty bookmarks and flinging in whatever happened to come out. I wonder if they do swapsies?

And now, by the magic of technology and a lot of messing about with fancy filters I am able to use Mum’s little butterfly card in a post. Mum would have been horrified, not at the idea per se but at the prospect of me attempting to explain it to her. Her eyes would glaze over the minute I started on about my computer: Mum was very good at un-listening, as no doubt most Mums are.

Why am I going on about butterflies? Well, I was going to use this picture as an illustration for the next Books From My Bookcase item. This was going to be a debut collection of short stories called A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray (2004). The book leapt out at me because it is one of two physically beautiful books I possess, the other one being the hardback first edition of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff – the one with the gorgeous red flowers. Hang on, lets try to find it:

how i live cover

The above doesn’t do it justice. Bits of it (the leaves) are all shiny and lit up – sorry, metallicised – can’t find it in the dictionary but sure it’s a real word – metallized just wont do! – and bits of it are left matt. And Tropical Butterflies is yellow and brown and kind of fusty-Victorian-looking, and inside there is a bonus – an extra sheet – what do you call that? – the front paper – with a glossy version of the same yellow cover, a delightful little shock when you open it.

Now, later on in life, I understand why I married an artist. I thought it was only an unhappy childhood and alternative brain-wiring we shared but it was also an eye for beauty. In another life, maybe, I shall be a  collector of objects d’art Maybe I can go back (since I doubt that ‘lives’ are in chronological order) to the 17th Century and be a man (makes life easier, always) and have a cabinet of curiosities full of wonderful and mysterious things that I can show off to callers. Or maybe I’ve already had that life.

Rats.

In any case, having found A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies I realised I had only in fact read a few little bits of it. The short stories look good, if a mite challenging. They certainly got good reviews:

“John Murray’s stories are a genuine cultural breakthrough… adventures of the mind, and rich in human feeling, true departures from any other known fiction.” Muriel Spark

I think I read a little bit of one and had uncomfortable flashbacks to Ian McEwan. I had a really bad experience with his macabre short story collection The Cement Garden (1978). Every one of those tales frightened the living daylights out of me. Never been the same since. Post McEwan Stress Disorder.

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From my bookcase: Flowers For Algernon: Daniel Keyes

I’m experimenting, really. Feel free to skip.

For my artsy-craftsy patchwork-selling project, which seems to be moving at snail’s pace like all of my projects, I need to be able to take still-life-type pictures on that Fire-Thingy and transfer said pictures to this Computer-Thingy. Of patchwork stuff. And sell it. That’s the idea, anyway.

It may surprise you to learn (or not) that my level of expertise is not high. More or less everything I know about computers I have worked out for myself, then usually forgotten or lost my voluminous notes for, then had to teach myself all over again. Sigh! My sole asset is a pig-headed Holmesian determination to work out, by the Application of Logic, the Elimination of the Impossible and so on, how to achieve something horribly complicated once I have set my mind to it.

This doesn’t happen very often. Usually I give up. 

So, I took the above photo. It took quite a few attempts and in the meantime I discovered that a cat had peed in my ‘budget’ tray overnight – or possibly several nights ago –  and soaked my latest budget and related papers. Also remembered that I had four letters to post and had neither washed up nor made the bed.

The photo is not a brilliant but it is, after hours of faffing about, sitting at the top of a WordPress post. Yay! My computer is now demanding a password every time I turn it on. How did that happen? Someone?

The basic idea is that every now and then I will select a book from my book case more or less at random, ‘compose’ an amateur-arty-farty still-life photo to hone my electronic photo-taking/uploading skills and then write a tiny bit about the book to make it worthwhile.

So, Flowers For Algernon was a long short-story, published in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1959, which later metamorphosed into a novel. It is a story about the friendship between a boy and a doomed laboratory mouse called Algernon. It is about the blossoming and fading of intelligence. It is about the joy of understanding everything and the grief when you realise your new understanding is fading.

How – or whether – you read it depends on your life experience, I think. If you have had to deal with disability or seen dementia in real life you may find this book closer to horror than science fiction. It’s very, very sad.

If you can cope with it, though, it’s one of the finest short stories/novels ever written. (Not for nothing does my edition of the book have MASTER WORKS printed down the side.)

Algernon is a laboratory mouse who has undergone surgery to increase his intelligence by artificial means. The story is told by a series of progress reports written by Charlie Gordon, the first human test subject for the surgery, and it touches upon many different ethical and moral themes such as the treatment of the mentally disabled. Wikipedia

It is technically brilliant because the language tracks the mental enhancement and subsequent mental degeneration of Charlie, from an IQ of 68 to an IQ of 185 and back again. To sustain that throughout a very long story – I don’t know how he did it, and mostly I do know how writers did it, even if I couldn’t do it myself.

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Flowers For Algernon

🙂

Just Tell Daisy

I was just emailing Daisy and mentioned in passing I was going to have to resort to another of Mum’s Old Recipe Book recipes as alternative blogging inspiration had failed to strike – when it did. Second time it’s happened. So, that’s the cure for Writer’s Block then – just tell Daisy.

I do despair of myself some days…

most days…

every day, in fact…

because I can’t seem to focus. I have the attention span of a gnat and the persistence of… something that’s not very persistent… can’t actually think of anything (ideas?)

I can’t seem to be able to manage anything sensible and business-like.

I’ve been trying to activate my dormant Crafting gene in order to have stuff to sell at the Artisan Market. Up to now all my ‘creativity’ seems to have gone into writing but now that seems to have worn itself out, or at least the fiction-creating part of it. But surely, I thought, I could make like Canadian Sister and Make Interesting Stuff. Trouble is, though both of us have the gene for inventing, neither of us seem to have the gene for selling or being able to conceive of what might sell. She is always getting into trouble at the Seniors Craft Group in her local community centre for not wanting to knit dishcloths and insisting instead on trying out green and purple crocheted elephants. “Elephants Don’t Sell” the Seniors are always telling her. “Dishcloths Do.”

“But how do you know my Elephants Won’t Sell if you won’t even Put One On Your Stall? How are people to know there is the Possibility of Elephants when all they are ever presented with are Dishcloths?”

I paraphrase and possibly exaggerate here, but you see what I mean.

I have been trying to force myself to make sensible little items – “small objects of desire” as the phrase used to be – but what comes out is weird stuff – eccentric items that surely Won’t Sell – a miniature Dr Who scarf, for example – so many possible uses:

  • Winter wrist-warmer
  • Granny Chic bracelet (I have only just discovered Granny Chic, unfortunately you have to be no older than twenty-two to wear it)
  • Must-have addition to Teddy’s wardrobe?

Or the Dancing Doorknob Cat (don’t ask) or the Two-Tailed Catnip Mice (my cats look askance at them) or the Odd-Eyed Lucky Fish. I can visualise the potential customers at the Artisan Market – that army of muffin-topped, much-tattooed, legging-wearing, toddler-toting females – and somehow I can’t see them going for the Dancing Doorknob Cat even if I label it Shabby Chic. Shabby Chic, like the lurid feature wall, is much in vogue here still. Granny Chic hasn’t got here yet and probably never will.

Canadian Sister once told me she finds it difficult to make more than two iterations of any design – she just wants to move on – and I suspect I’m the same. No wonder she hated doing all those dishcloths. I’m sick of the sight of Two-Tailed Mice already.

And now I’ve discovered Pinterest. For years Pinterest was just a nuisance to me, popping up all over the internet and interrupting my browsing. I didn’t know what it was for, to be honest. And then I saw someone on the business programme explaining it was a search engine, like Google, but for images, and the penny dropped. I registered. Now, far from constantly clicking on that little ‘x’ in the corner to get rid of it because I didn’t want to enter my email address, I’m hooked on Pinterest.

But now I am both fascinated and depressed. Fascinated because there’s an Aladdin’s Cave of beautiful, creative, wonderful stuff being produced all over the globe. But depressed because – too overwhelmingly many un-have-able (by-me) crafting ideas. Too wonderful ever to be emulated by a spare-room Lucky Fish manufacturer like me. I feel like Mrs Macron standing next to Milania Trump – like, why bother being a svelte, elegant, Parisian older woman when there’s that towering above me?

Ah well, on with the motley. Tomorrow, maybe, a patchwork bag with a Two-Tailed Mouse poking out of the pocket…

dr who cat

 

The past: a foreign country

This will almost certainly never happen – so don’t don’t hold your breath whatever you do – but I thought I might pen a fantastically successful ‘cozy’ (or ‘cosy’, if you’re English) detective series. This would solve all my financial worries in one swoop, in perpetuity, and be very good for my ego. However, I’m not much good at getting to the beginning of projects let alone the end, and this would be a very long project indeed.

But I am very good at preparing. I enjoy the preparing so much more than the doing. This is because doing – especially writing-type doing – is very hard work and that fierce concentration, that excitement, that passion – sucks the very life-blood out of you.

So, in ‘preparation’ I am reading a monster of a book by Dominic Sandbrook (in fact there are two books, this is the first) entitled Never Had It So Good: a history of Britain from Suez to the Beatles. My God, it’s a huge thing, I mean Bible-sized. You feel like you need a lectern.  My right thumb all but fell off with cramp after five minutes of reading.

That poster – You Never Had It So Good and the face of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan were part of my early teens. You couldn’t walk up Station Road without those hooded old eyes and those droopy old moustaches following your every move: MacMillan was the Big Brother of the early sixties.

But at that time I was just starting a new school, with all the terrors involved in that. Politics didn’t mean anything to me then and I had no idea that I was living through the seminal decade of the twentieth century. Whilst others were sitting around looking cool in coffee-bars or prancing round campsites in the West Country bedecked with flowers I was going up and down Station Road in my school uniform, burdened – yea, burdened – by hormones and a generalised sense of doom. I had no overview.

I would like to ‘write’ the sixties but the thing that worries me is the non-PC aspect. Can I really manage the awful, repugnant attitudes, the rampant racial prejudice, the ghastly belittling of women? Of course any writer worth their salt ought to be able to but it’s so very close to home. I was alive then. I didn’t know, but I was complicit.

We once had a temporary teacher of English. He was a young man – somewhat under thirty at any rate – and personable. We were a girls school full of frustrated teenage virgins (mostly) and you can imagine the electrical effect he had on us. Hysteria. We followed him everywhere, primping and giggling. But once in his lessons he threw a board-rubber – one of those great chunky wooden things – at a girl. It hit her on the forehead and she started to bleed. He was apologetic of course.

And once a Jehovah’s Witness girl stood up and confronted him. She was a timid girl, gingery, freckled and mostly silent – but he had just read out a couple of lines from T S Eliot’s Morning At The Window and it sparked something in her:

I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids

Sprouting despondently from area gates.

There is no such thing as the soul, sir, she said.

OK Susan, but let’s pretend there is such a thing as the soul, for the sake of the poem.

No sir, there is no such thing as the soul…

She was being courageously, terminally annoying. I’m not sure how I would have handled that situation as a teacher. What I think I would not have done even then was take her by the ear and drag her, tearful but unprotesting, to the headmistress’s office and dump her on the bench outside.

None of us thought a thing of it. He was our beloved, gorgeous English teacher. He was strong-jawed and handsome. His thick blonde hair was combed back in a kind of quiff. She was not popular, and he was a man.

In my new tome of a research book, I read an extract from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a famous novel of the sixties. I remember reading it at the time and thinking nothing of it. Arthur Seaton is sleeping with two married women, but tells himself:

If ever I get married… and have a wife that carries on like Brenda and Winnie carry on, I’ll give her the biggest pasting any woman ever had. I’d kill her. My wife’ll have to look after any kids I fill her with, keep the house spotless. And if she’s good at that I might let her go to the pictures ever now and again and take her for a drink on Saturday. But if I thought she was carrying on behind my back she’d be sent back to her mother with two black eyes before she knew what was happening.

Arthur Seaton is the hero of the novel.

arthur.jpg

Our handsome, bequiffed English teacher left after a term. He had in fact been a good English teacher as far as English was concerned, introducing us to challenging and relatively modern poems like Dylan Thomas’s Poem in October which I would never have come across otherwise. He broadened our minds. He threw board-rubbers at us. He took us by the ear and dragged us.

He left to become a Black And White Minstrel on TV. My parents loved that programme and, forever after, every time it came on our black-and-white TV I would look out for him, although of course you couldn’t tell under the black-face makeup. Apparently he was a resting actor. You didn’t have to be qualified in those days as long as you had a degree. It never occurred to me that it was offensive for white people to black up. It never occurred to me, to be honest, that Minstrels were supposed to be black people. They were just Minstrels to me, as Gollywogs were just a kind of teddy-bear alternative. Not people.

Which is another story, and one that I don’t feel up to telling at the moment.