Objets Perdus

Now, this is a bit of a strange one, and I have been putting off writing about it for days. Something to do with shame, I think – shame and sorrow. But what’s the best way for a writer to call up and exorcise her ghosts?

Write about them.

When I was a child I had a (very) few treasured objects, and one by one I lost them or gave them away. Something seems to compel me to ‘lose’ the things that mean the most to me – and not just objects, people. One by one, I have mislaid them all.

Setting aside the people, because nothing at all can be done about them. Those objects…

I had a copy of Aesop’s Fables. It was a beautiful book – they are ferociously expensive to buy second-hand now. You know, I thought, until this very moment, that I had given it away. I had been wracking my brains to think how I gave it away. Why would I have done that with my beloved Aesop? I read that book over and over. The fables, and the beautiful but slightly creepy illustrations, those glossy, full-page watercolours, seeped into my childhood consciousness.

But I gave it away. Or did I? I just turned sideways and there it was, sitting in the bookcase beside me. It has lost it’s cover, the boards have faded from scarlet to orange, but – still here. Inside I have written my full maiden name, in ink, in weird little-girl writing. Two pages on and an inscription reads With love to Rosie, on her 7th Birthday. From Grandma & Grandpa. Well, Rosie or, you know, whatever.

But other objects I really did lose. I once had a stone, with the impression of a prehistoric sea creature upon it, like a tiny octopus. I found it half-buried in the path between the allotments. It was as if it had been waiting for just me, that magical fossil, for billions and billions of years. If only I had kept it, if only I had not somehow lost it – what luck it might have brought me.

And I gave away my Odhams Encyclopaedia for children. I remember the struggle I had at the time. It was when my niece was born and I foolishly had this idea that the child should “inherit” something of value from her auntie. And I have regretted the loss of that book ever since.

And then there was my teddy bear. I temporarily forgot about him and instead of taking him with me when I got married I foolishly left him with Mum. In fact he was up in the attic, and I didn’t realise. Mum and my sister are alike in “getting rid”. She accidentally informed me one day, several years later, that she had given my bear to Oxfam. After all, she knew I wouldn’t want it.

I never stopped missing my bear. I mourned for him. Even now – especially now, when I am old – I want my teddy bear back. I realised today that that was what my teddy-bear buying jag had been all about. I now have a cupboard full of disreputable 1950s teddy-bears courtesy of E-bay. None of them are my bear, but I have rescued them. I couldn’t save it but I have saved them.

I know, it doesn’t make sense.

And now I have gone and saved “my” Encyclopedia. And in fact I have saved more than one of them because the other day eBay came up with a second, horribly battered copy for only £2 and I bid the £2 and won. To my surprise. The first one, which arrived a week ago, cost a massive £20 but is in excellent condition. Unlike me, its owner must have held it close, kept it. Presumably there will soon be a stack of second-hand Odhams Encyclopaedias on my coffee table, all ridiculously, pathetically rescued by some ancient woman, just in case one of them might turn out to have been her actual one.

When I was a child the page that fascinated me the most was the one with the anaconda. My mother used to take the mickey, saying that the encyclopaedia would fall open at the snakes page of its own accord. I do hope it was nothing sexual. I mean, I was very young and, lacking any kind of brother (though over-supplied with sisters) did not even suspect the existence of that appendage which, according to Dr Freud, snakes represent.

In my memory the anaconda took up the whole of the page and was vividly coloured, green and gold and glittery. Now I see that it is smaller, and in black and white, but I still like the way the artist has coiled and draped the various snakes around the branches, the way the pictures and the text bleed into one another.

How beautiful that anaconda was to me, and how utterly terrifying. In my mind’s eye I stood before him in the South American jungle, tiny-small in my cotton check school dress and pudding-basin haircut. Anaconda was looking at me out of that glittery, sardonic eye. He was weighing up whether to wrap me in his sinuous, gorgeous coils and crush me to smithereens. Because that is what anacondas do, being the largest of the boa constrictor family.

And I wished he would. And I wished he wouldn’t.

And this is him, my beloved, my childhood version of God: the anaconda, unchanged over the decades and decades since I first caught sight of him.

Why do we lose the things we love?


Be careful what you wish for

Your local electronics store has just started selling time machines, anywhere doors, and invisibility helmets. You can only afford one. Which of these do you buy, and why?

Hmm, this is an interesting one. Revealing an imagination shortfall on my part of which I am rather ashamed. I mean, everyone’s heard of Time Machines but I must admit I had never even conceived of an Invisibility Helmet or an Anywhere Door – and I should have done, having read all those Harry Potters.

My granny used to say Be careful what you wish for (because you just might get it). At the time I didn’t understand. Later I thought it might be nice to get what I wished for at least once in my life, just to test the theory out. Still waiting.

It comes from Aesop’s Fables, I believe. The story of the Tortoise and the Eagle:

A TORTOISE, lazily basking in the sun, complained to the sea-birds of her hard fate, that no one would teach her to fly. An Eagle, hovering near, heard her lamentation and demanded what reward she would give him, if he would take her aloft and float her in the air. “I will give you,” she said, “all the riches of the Red Sea.” “I will teach you to fly then,” said the Eagle; and taking her up in his talons he carried her almost to the clouds, – when suddenly letting her go, and she fell on a lofty mountain and dashed her shell to pieces. The Tortoise exclaimed in the moment of death: “I have deserved my present fate; for what had I to do with wings and clouds, who can with difficulty move about on the earth?”

The time has come to pick a gadget, since there isn’t room to ramble on about the relative merits and demerits of all three. Hmm, how to choose. I’d dearly love all three…

I’d be a trifle wary of the Time Machine, I think. I can imagine things going wrong with dials and levers – especially with me at the helm – and ending up in the Stone Age instead of the Seventeenth Century. There is also the matter of culture shock. The past sounds fascinating and romantic to my reasonably healthy, independent, well-nourished self – and from here – my nice warm office. But remember – no doctors – someone with a jar of leaches if you’re lucky – meat and no veg a lot of the time (permanent constipation) – toothache and no dentists, just someone in a fairground or marketplace with a pair of pliers and a jeering audience. Being female I’d be subject to all manner of servitude and discrimination, for most of the past. Then there’s endless pregnancy, and midwives who didn’t know what a germ was, so didn’t wash their hands.

I do quite like the idea of an invisibility helmet. I wonder what it would look like. Probably it’d have little decorative wings, like the one Hermes wore. With that in place I could be a fly on the wall – anywhere. I could slip into number 10 in the wake of the Downing Street cat, and eavesdrop on cabinet meetings. I could be lurking unseen while people were talking about me. Which would inevitably mean finding out a lot of things I never wanted to know. The only trouble is with the Helmet – you’ve still got to get there. I mean, to get any real use from an Invisibility Helmet you’d have to spend a lot of tedious time travelling – catching the bus to your relatives or the train to London. You would be dodging the fare, of course.

Which only leaves the Anywhere Door. If I could only afford one of the three, that’s the one I’d pick. I have this secret fantasy destination – an island with white sand, a stout rope hammock slung between two palm trees (it would have to be stout if I was going to lounge in it – and so would the palm trees). Somewhere below the hammock, but within arm-reaching distance, a pile of paperback books. All the really good paperback books I haven’t had time to read yet. And every now and then some barefoot someone would pad down from a beachside bar to bring me another tall orange juice with a plastic umbrella in it. With an Anywhere Door, that would be achievable. Just one step and – aloha! No airports, no queues at customs, no time – just instant place. With an Anywhere Door I could do all the travelling I meant to do but didn’t. I could travel the world and then – one step and I’m back in the living room watching Star Trek.

Knowing me, though, I’d forget where I left the door and be trapped forever in – wherever – my tropical paradise, sailing a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean or half way along the Great Wall of China.

Ah well, I can think of worse outcomes.


The small raine down can raine

But I believe that lovers should be tied together. Thrown into the ocean in the worst of weather. And left there to drown.

Just in case the whole picture doesn’t come out – this is the whole text of this anonymous piece of graffiti. Is it written on flesh, or just something flesh-coloured? Is that a lopsided heart for a signature, or a wonky B?

It’s poetry, isn’t it? Maybe unintentional. But why full stops where there might be commas? What sort of sad, bitter or reflective frame of mind might someone be in, to even think of writing it?

It reminds me of an Irish song – Constant Lovers. I’ll just give you the two last verses:

Then she flung her arms wide and she took a great leap / From the cliffs that were high to the billows so deep / Saying: “The rocks of the ocean shall be my death bed / And the shrimps of the sea shall swim over my head.”

And now every night at six bells they appear / When the moon it is shining and the stars they are clear / Those two constant lovers with each other’s charms / Rolling over and over in each other’s arms.

I first heard it sung by the Copper Brothers. Once heard, both the tune and the words stay with you – like those doomed and constant lovers of long ago.

What on earth got me started on this tack? Oh yes, marginalia. I was thinking about another famous poem, supposed to have been written in the margins of a medieval religious manuscript and found many centuries later and set to music.

Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow / The small raine down can raine. / Cryst, if my love were in my armes / And I in my bedde again!’

This seems an unlikely thing for a bored young monk to have written on a cold and rainy day, when he should have been concentrating on his illuminating. Although I don’t know…

I was trying to remember which muse-deserted author scribbled an impassioned Come to me again, o mon bon… in a margin, but I can’t. And apparently Google can’t either. I do believe there’s a word for something someone Googles for the first time? A Googly or a Froogly or something? I thought Google knew everything. Perhaps I just misquoted.

I had a quick flick through some of my own books in the hope of retrieving some deathless marginalia – for when I become famous. In Pen to Paper by Pamela Frankau I appear to have pencilled this:

‘The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures; ‘tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil’ Macbeth. I see this is in response to the following Pamela paragraph:

Though a mort of human sins and troubles come solely from a lack of imagination, its possession may likewise engage you in unprofitable exercises:- Lying; slandering; over-anxiety; over-embroidery; painting devils on the walls, other people’s walls as well as your own.

I have a sharp ear for a quote. She’s calling to mind some specific literary devil, I thought, and I was right. Wasn’t I? Nice to have been right about something, in a long lifetime of having been wrong about most things.

In the front of Jung: Selected Writings (my most dog-eared and thumbed-through book) I find a sad little pencilled list – one of my many Plans. I had been going through a bad time, psychologically (hence the desperate thumbing through Jung since I couldn’t afford a psychotherapist). I was trying to make plans for leaving my husband and had scribbled:

? P/T job – move first – when do you have to start paying? ? Career – library – ask after work ? work – help

I’ve always found life-planning difficult. When do you have to start paying what, I wonder? Rent, probably. P/T is my shorthand for Part Time. Was I really going to ask about employment in the library? Perhaps I was just going to the library after work, to ask about something else. Underneath I’ve written:

Anima – Persona + projection 96

God & unconscious same entity? 329

Conscious growing out of unconscious 218

Definition of intuition 219

(The numbers are page references.) But what a mixture a mind is at any given moment. The one mind battling to disentangle anima from persona, God from the unconscious, and wondering if it could find work by going to the library, and when exactly rent might be payable. I can sort of feel the state I was in. I remember driving around for two years, holding imaginary conversations with imaginary Psychotherapists, with Jung, with God – with anyone who might be listening, trying to sort it all out. One day, I thought, everything will suddenly become clear. I will Understand.

Still waiting.

And in Aesop’s Fables (yes, I found my Aesop’s Fables) in really dreadful handwriting, strangely young to have found the words worth defacing Aesop for, I have written

Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight…

And there it stops. Google does know this one: Hebrews 12:1. But why on earth was I reading Hebrews at that age? Or even the Bible? Maybe I just liked the sound of the words.

Maybe I’ll go back to scribbling in my own books again. If only to provide myself with a tiny surprise or two, little mysteries to be solved in my decrepitude when the weather’s too rough to get out with the shopping trolley; when the warm, springtime Westron Wynde has once more failed to blow and the small raine down can raine.

PS: Just found those words. Should have Googled them earlier. They’re part of a song by someone or something called Bright Eyes, called A Perfect Sonnet:

Well, I do like the words. Not too sure about the music.

Do empty vessels make the most noise?

I think this saying comes from Aesop’s Fables. Normally I could check. I’m fairly sure I still have my childhood copy of Aesop, complete with crayon scribbles and my address in wobbly blue-black ink, all the way down to …England, United Kingdom, The World, Universe. Unfortunately all my fiction books are in cardboard boxes at the moment and stacked in the wardrobe. The painter’s coming to paint the top half of the living room on Thursday. Why only the top half? It’s a long story, perhaps for another day.

The picture I had in mind was of two pots floating down a swirling river, one metal pot and one clay pot. However, I did manage to unearth that story on the internet. It’s not the one about empty vessels. It’s the one about the unwisdom of floating down a raging river in the company of a metal pot, if you happen to be a clay pot. The point being, of course, that whether you bump into the metal pot or the metal pot bumps into you – you’re the one that’ll end up fragmented. Something about this reminds me of businessman Alan Sugar and his perpetually televised mission to select Apprentices from a crowd of smarmy, yelping, expensively-suited, shiny-shoed, self-promoting contenders. Now there’s a metal pot if ever there was one.

I’m pretty sure Empty Vessels illustration also involved pots. But never mind. The point is, is it true?

Here I am also diverted, this time by an unpleasant work-related memory. (Most of my work-related memories are unpleasant – some of them mildly unpleasant, a few of them traumatically unpleasant. The traumatic ones I find it difficult to remember at all. I just know they’re there – lurking in that little dog-eared pile next to the disordered file-card cabinet of my subconscious – to be dealt with at some later and possibly more bearable date.) This particular memory concerns a girl I shall call Margot. She was my supervisor in one of the three sections of the Council typing pool – Legal & Administrative.

Margot hated me. She used to adjust the air-conditioning so that it blew on the side of my face every few seconds, until I complained about it. The HR lady took notes but did nothing, so Margot carried on doing it, sneering a little more. She never stopped talking. Ever. And she was getting married. And she talked about this wedding – in between word-processing her wedding invitations and photocopying other bits of wedding-related stationary – all day and every day for months. Her wedding was to be maroon-themed. I remember the cream card samples, the maroon ribbon samples. The maroon bridesmaid dress designs. The maroon wedding cake sketches. All maroon. I think maybe I hated her even more than she hated me. When I finally left – rather to her annoyance (since copy-typists were harmless drudges, never expected to become secretaries – though one step above “bloody old Admin” who filled in dull forms all day and couldn’t even type) to become a secretary at a local college, she informed me I would need all the skills I had learned at the Council, and then some. I couldn’t help but admire this item of arch-bitchery, combining as it did the implication that I could have had no skills before sitting next to her and listening to her blathering on about maroon bridesmaid dresses and fifteen-tier wedding cakes for what felt like several years, and that any skills I might subsequently succeed in getting my head around were likely to be woefully insufficient.

But just because someone makes a big splash in the world, creates a racket, makes themselves the centre of attention – does that always mean they are empty-headed? Maybe they just larger-than-life – entertainers, say or exuberant leaders. Does having the spiel, the self-belief, the showmanship preclude a person from being intelligent? I can think of one particular politician who makes everybody laugh – almost a comedy turn, he seems, at times. But I wouldn’t want to be creeping about the corridors of Westminster on any Night of the Long Knives, having offended him, in case he was lurking in the shadows. And I wouldn’t want to be his opponent in a political debate. The clown has a glint in his eye.

A quiet demeanour may not necessarily indicate high intelligence. I seem to remember reading somewhere a story of a king who decided to visit his blacksmiths in their forge and watch them at their work. All the while he watched them in silence, they greatly respected him. The instant he opened his mouth and started blathering on about blacksmithing – something he knew nothing at all about – their respect was lost. The moral being, if you are in a position of high authority and find yourself among people more knowledgeable than yourself in a certain area – a profound and contemplative silence is the best policy.

I think on the whole I subscribe to Empty Vessels, but always – whether a vessel appear Empty or Full – and to mix metaphors appallingly – look out for a Glint in its Eye.