Synchronicity… and The Knot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

synchro

An Underwater Fairy

Thinking about it, it was not a beep, exactly. It sounded more like Fairy Tinkerbell drowning in Peter Pan’s water glass. Not that she actually drowned. It was poisoned and she drank it to the last drop to save him, but…

The thing was I’d been hearing this noise in my house whenever it fell quiet, and I couldn’t decide where it was coming from. It wasn’t all the time, and it wasn’t at regular intervals, it was… random. I would find myself listening for the next one. And it wouldn’t come. I would go downstairs, open a book, forget about the beep and then – there it was again. I’m slightly deaf in one ear and have tinnitus in both. I can hear many sounds loudly – sometimes jarringly loudly – but I can rarely be sure what direction they are coming from.

I thought maybe it was the smoke alarms. I have – had – two set of smoke alarms. When the second set was fitted, free  – by our Stay At Home However Old You Get local charity – I was assured that this set did not rely on batteries. These alarms were plumbed into the mains and would last ten years or more. And yet, here was the beep. I’m not having this, I thought so I got up on a stepladder and removed anything white, circular and plastic that looked as if it might be a smoke alarm. I consigned them to a Tupperware box in the garage. Every now and then I go in there and… one of them gives a defiant little squeak.

But inside my house the beeps – or rather the despairing two-tone Drowning Tinkerbell – continued. And then I began to get really worried. You see, my Mum had a psychosis. She also had dementia, but that wasn’t diagnosed till later. She was almost completely deaf but she started asking me if I could hear this – or that. Did the telephone just ring? Could I hear people arguing outside in the street? Couldn’t I hear the owners of the café where we were having lunch talking about us? Saying such awful things (and about me, apparently).

For quite a while she seemed to accept that it was just a trick of her hearing. I found a book about the strange things deaf people sometimes ‘hear’ – music, singing, conversations – just a more elaborate form of tinnitus. She seemed so relieved, clutching the book to her chest. Bless you, she said. But despite the book, after a while she tipped over some edge. She informed me the voices were real. She got quite patronising about it. My hearing must be worse than hers if I really couldn’t hear it. Listen, they were out in the garden, they were talking through the walls!

One day her carers came and found her stretched out on the kitchen floor with her head in a cupboard, the better to hear the voices, which were clearer inside the cupboard. ‘They’ were discussing their plans. They were going to dig up her house and move it several feet to one side. And underneath the foundations they said there were giant slugs, eating away at the floorboards… She had to listen, every minute, or she wouldn’t know what was going on.

Of the whole five years or so of Mum’s ‘going away’, mentally, I found this the worst. I had seen someone with clinical depression but I had never seen psychosis. I tried to follow Mum into her imaginary world. I needed her, so wherever she was going, I needed to go there too. It wasn’t so hard to begin with. It was a bit like reading a slightly creepy kind book, entering into the spooky world the writer had created, trying to predict the next horror, trying to reassure her… But eventually, she shut me out. That was it – like a door closing between one room and the next.

So, that was what I was afraid of.

In a moment of late night inspiration I decided to Google intermittent beep. Various chatrooms informed me it was my landline. No, it was my ISP router. No, it was my smoke alarm – I’d already eliminated that one. No, it was my keyboard. The more I read, the more computer-orientated the suggestions became. One site suggested it was an alarm signifying  problems with one of two types of memory inside the computer.

I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sleep anyway, so from midnight till somewhere around two in the morning I engaged in a titanic struggle with my desktop computer – this desktop computer – writing down sheets of totally incomprehensible instructions offered by the chatroom nerds, trying, failing, trying again. All the commands they suggested turned out to be hidden in different places on my version of windows. I came up with forbidding-looking panes, like something out of The Matrix, containing important-looking files that I was supposed to say yes or no to, or possibly delete. With one mistaken keystroke I might cripple/kill my entire computer, but I just had to keep risking it. I had no idea what I was doing.

So, in the small hours of the morning there I still was. Outside the window the streetlight went out. I touched my face and realised it was covered in a sheen of cold sweat from the stress. I did a memory diagnostic test. I did another one. Long, long tests. Waiting, waiting, waiting for some little blue bar to creep along. And at the end of it all, still the beep.

It was then that I had my second inspiration. I went down to that little megaphone thing on the right-hand side and I turned off the sound. I listened. I listened some more. I listened some more… and the beep had gone. I mean, it’s probably still beeping, theoretically, in some alternative universe, but the important thing is:

I can’t hear it.

Writing on a Postage Stamp

Jane Austen pursued her unusual hobby discreetly, so as not to embarrass her family or attract censure but also, I would guess, so that she could observe, unobserved, the social rituals going on all around her and the characters who came to visit. Writing in secret – hiding tiny scribbled slips of paper under her blotter every time she heard the door creak – was her way of being herself. It was her way of being ferociously clever, when women were regarded as more of a – decoration.

So in theory one could write a blog post and make it interesting no matter how dull one’s life had actually become. I have this image of myself sitting in a tiny prison cell, creating the most amazing fantasy kingdom whilst day after day, year after year, nothing ever happened but the cell door opening and a plate of bread and cheese, maybe a mug of beer, being pushed through it by some unseen jailor. That would be the extreme.

My life was never particularly expansive, though I suppose it had its moments. Most of these were too ghastly, shameful or humiliating to want to write about. I have written about a lot of stuff here on this blog, and put out there for public consumption, many tiny episodes, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes raging angry, sometimes frankly pathetic, that I have not told a single friend or relative: never would have, and never will.

Recently, life has narrowed even more for me, though we’ve not quite sunk to the prison cell scenario.  Partly it’s because of getting older and no longer being in the best of health. Partly it’s lack of money, unemployability, far too many cats… and partly it’s my natural inclination. I incline towards the hermit. This necessary stay-at-home, inward-looking-ness has thrown up new challenges, blog-wise. Mainly, the problem is that I am not Jane Austen. Jane Austen was so very gifted, she could have got blood out of a stone.

I think I got on to Jane Austen because I was debating whether or not to tell you the story of the Mystery Beep, and thinking no, that is just too small and uninteresting and generally paltry a sequence of events to write about it, and then thinking But Jane Austen…

I will tell you the story of the Beep, but in a separate post. In the meantime I will disclose that a second-hand Russian textbook has just crashed through my letterbox. The postmen round here are lacking in delicacy. Anything at all, they believe, can be got through a letter box if you shove hard enough.

That’s the thing about being retired and having no money to go out or do anything – you end up having to invent unnecessary but faintly interesting things to do. ‘Projects’. I have three of them on the go at the moment.

One is turning every scrap of yarn, material etc into something just in case I need to swap items for tins of cat food, should cat food be rationed in the case of You Know What. I just have a feeling they aren’t going to ration with nineteen cats in mind. That would constitute a cattery, and I am not one. Officially. So I am making things that could be offered as a swap for either one, two, four or six tins of Whiskas – hippie stuff – knitted dishcloths and pet blankets, knotted hemp bracelets, origami cranes and anything else I can dream up. I will probably end up with a box of items nobody ever wanted, but hey – before that they were boxes of odd balls of wool, balls of string, patchwork scraps. What’s the difference?

Another is re-reading a lifetime’s collection of paperback books. I know I have been determined to do this ever since I began writing this blog, and have never got round to it. I did give quite a few bags away to charity, but now I have sorted what’s left – still a lot – into alphabetical order once more. Since I do not have enough bookshelves (the bottom shelves have to be kept empty so that the boy cats can’t pee at the books when I’m not looking) I have brought in some splintery old apple crates from the garage. Apple crates, when lined with strips cut from plastic cat-litter sacks, make quite good bookshelves. Luckily I’m tall, as they go right up to the ceiling.

The third project is learning languages. I know I will never have occasion to speak another language to another human being, but why should that matter? What I am interested in really is linguistics, and what I really want is to learn as many languages as possible to read and to a certain level, i.e. I do not need to become an expert; I don’t even need to pronounce them correctly, though I’ll try. I’m interested to know how languages work, and how they compare to one another, and to find out whether I can still learn. I imagine myself, during those long, cold winter days – not so far off now – bundled in duvets and shawls to economise on heating, striving to master the intricacies of foreign grammatical systems – and keeping my brain alive.

Today it was Russian – most of these books can be had for less than £1 second-hand on Amazon, plus postage. I sat down with my cup of tea and dipped into it. Some kind soul had annotated many of the pages in tiny, annoying pencil writing, but I suppose for £1 you can’t complain. After a short perusal I decided Russian was going right to the bottom of the languages ‘to do’ heap, even under Welsh. I did learn one word, though – in the Cyrillic alphabet it’s written something like Myxa and pronounced (well of course) moo-ha. It means ‘fly’. So next time one of them is buzzing around my living room I can tell it to Buzz off, you little moo-ha.

Cows and Hens in Jelly – yum!

I have always liked things with foreign writing on. Even when I was a child. It may be something to do with being left-handed. Scientists have recently discovered that left-handed people have better integration between the two halves of the brain, and often superior language skills. Well, finally! As if we didn’t know that! But at least, something positive after centuries of being called sinister, clumsy, weird and (effectively) shit-handed. The left is the hand Arabic-type countries use for bottom-wiping, whilst the right is reserved for eating.

Which reminds me, obliquely, of sugar. Somewhere around the Sixties there was a rash of rumours in the UK – this or that was going to disappear from the shelves. In fact these rumours seem to have been started by cunning suppliers intent on causing panic buying and as a result selling lots more stuff. I am fairly sure we are in for a lot more of that, come Brexit. If Brexit.

Anyway, one of them was for sugar. Sugar was going to be in short supply. In those days Mum was working in an office down at the little local Quay as some kind of shipping clerk. I think the rough, tough dock foreman (or whatever they are called) had taken rather a shine to Mum, happily married though she was, to my Dad. I am not sure whether Mum had taken a shine back, but she did blush and giggle a bit the day she brought home a couple of bags of sugar which had accidentally fallen off a ship. And into her bag.

The paper packets were white, like all sugar bags, but they were in Polish. I suspect Mum must have told us it was Polish, and the fruity old foreman must in turn have told her. Even with my superior cack-handed language skills I doubt if I could have deduced it, then. I perused those sugar bags for hours, trying in vain to decipher the mysterious, wonderful stuff it was written in. Words are like honey to me. Or sugar. I am Pooh Bear when it comes to any kind of print.

Incidentally, and biting one’s tail a bit, the next ‘shortage’ was of toilet paper. Another round of panic buying ensued. My mother even bought Izal. Now, if you’ve ever experienced Izal you will know that it is hard, it is sharp. It is not an item that you would want about your nether regions. Torn up newspaper would have been preferable. Apparently that used to be a children’s task, before commercial loo-paper – tearing old newspapers into squares, making a hole in one corner and stringing it all together. I would have done that willingly. Anything but Izal.

Back to foreign writing. It has now seemingly become impossible to buy Felix in tins over here. I don’t think this is anything to do with – the B word – since it has been going on for ages. You can buy the very expensive, and indeed very convenient sachets, but you can’t get the same stuff in tins. Now, I am a squeamish-ish vegetarian (who occasionally eats fish and chips, sorry) and would love to use sachets but with nineteen cats I just can’t afford to. One answer might be not to buy Felix at all but my cats – perversely – love Felix. Felix is to my cats as words are to me.

So I buy Felix over the internet, and they are German. They arrive in great monster packs of 40 or so, which nearly cripple the poor little delivery lady. (I have offered to help, but she won’t let me.) German Felix makes both me and the cats happy. The cats rush to gobble it down. I read the tins and savour the words. For some reason they will not automatically translate themselves into the obvious English equivalent. Lachs & Forelle turn into Salmon and Trout – fair enough. But Rind & Huhn in Gelee insists on translating as Cows and Hens in Jelly.

Cows and Hens in Jelly, I murmur to myself, as I go about my household tasks. Cows and Hens… I can hardly wait for the next random batch to arrive. What might it be – Goats and Pigeons in Tomato Sauce? Dog Fish and Canary?

Sink Or Swim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily

Death of suffragette Emily Davison in 1913

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

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

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

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

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

butterfly2

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

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

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

We can ask and ask…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A letter from the Land of Cockaigne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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