Keep Calm And Carry On

This phrase – famous from mugs, biscuit tins tea towels and whatever – was invented by the British Government in 1939 just before the start of the Second World War. It was a motivational poster intended to carry the British populace through such horrors as the Blitz, and to remind them that the British were famous for their Stiff Upper Lip. I can’t imagine what a Stiff Upper Lip looks like, in practice, can you? How did they communicate, with all that stiffness going on?

For some reason, in spite of the Blitz actually Happening and turning out to be Even Worse than Anybody Could Have Imagined, the poster was hardly used.

I was thinking it’s a bit like that now. Still no motivational poster, while we wait, with a growing sense of Foreboding, for those superpower idiots to stumble into bombing and nuking – or maybe horribly gassing and poisoning – the hell out of one another, presumably in and around what’s left of Syria. And in the meantime a military grade nerve agent, apparently capable of wiping out the entire population of the UK, is used on a former Russian spy and his daughter on the quiet streets of – of all places – Salisbury. Until now, nothing of note ever happened in Salisbury. People who don’t live there are not even sure where it is. It was just getting on with things, minding its own business.

But we are the British. We possess Stiff Upper Lips. We Keep Calm and Carry On. Apparently. But it seems to me that that is what ordinary people, everywhere, tend to do. Mostly.

My Mum had what they then called a Nervous Breakdown, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time I wasn’t aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and only aware of my Mum’s Nervous Breakdown because it involved what seemed to me like Years of lying on the sofa taking aspirins every four hours, and Nan coming along the road to do Mum’s housework after she had done her own, and me getting ignored and understanding that this was all My Fault. Indeed, my father told me it was My Fault. Mine and my sister’s, for fighting so much.

The thing Mum was most worried about, she told me later, was the Atomic Bomb. The Atomic Bomb was about to fall on all of us, any day now, and we would be just like the people in Hiroshima, reduced to piles of smoking ash, black shadows on walls or irradiated to death. Now we all live with that, don’t we? It’s got old and tired, and we no longer have Nervous Breakdowns over it. Indeed, we no longer have Nervous Breakdowns. We get Tired and Emotional, or we suffer from Exhaustion and have to book ourselves into some Clinic or other, for Cognitive Therapy.

All over the world, we carry on; we wash the dishes and put out the rubbish; we feed our pets and fill in our tax returns; we grumble because the bus hasn’t turned up – again; we wonder whether we should mow the lawn, or is it too wet still? There is nothing whatsoever we can do about the Bigger Picture: having no power to do anything else we focus on our postage-stamp lives and hope that somehow or other Armageddon will give us a miss.

Yesterday – apropos of nothing, or something, not sure – I took Fifi to the vet to get her claws clipped. For months she had been hooking up on one bit of furniture or another. It was time. But Fifi didn’t think so. Fifi is a tiny tabby, old and kind of frizzy looking, but on the nurse’s table she turned into a Wild Beast. It took two nurses to hold her, plus the application of a teensy-tiny muzzle that covered her whole face so she couldn’t see and being wrapped in a thick blanket. The nurses wrestled with poor Fifi, whose snarls and spitting could be clearly heard in the waiting room, and finally the claws were clipped. “If only you could have just Kept Calm, Fifi,” said one of the nurses, “it would all have been over with in a few seconds.”

But cats, unlike humans, are not programmed to Keep Calm And Carry On.

keep calm 2

Flash Fiction: When the alarm sounded…

When the alarm sounded we knew it could only be a minute or two so I took the tea-towels out of the tumble-dryer and folded them neatly (somehow I couldn’t enter Eternity without that being done) and

Pete went down the garden with a bucket to dig up the spuds for Sunday Lunch because that’s what he had been just about to do, and it wouldn’t be Sunday Lunch without new potatoes. Not that we’d get to eat them.

I thought about that Clause I’d put in my Will aimed at Cousin Julia who’d stopped talking to me in 1978 (or was it ’79?) but realised it was too late to have it taken out since all the solicitors would be down the shelters by now and anyway Armageddon was upon us and Julia was about to be toast along with the Will and all the rest of us.

Just time to let the canary out of its cage, poor dear, for one last flap around the living room.

Pete had been a very long time getting those potatoes.

new potatoes

Ah well…

(180 words)

With the voices singing in our ears, saying…this was all folly

So…

(I hate people who indulge in this modern trend of starting off with a ‘So…’, as if you were fully cognisant of all that they had been thinking before, or as if they had just been waiting for you to finish asking so that they could launch forth into whatever they’d already decided to say before you ever asked it.)

So…

We (the bus) had got as far as the prison and a prisoner was waiting to get on. They get day passes because it’s an open prison and in theory they’re not murderers or anything. Mostly they look like you and I and behave in a perfectly civilised fashion, but this one did look a bit unsavoury. Unshaven. Beetling-browed. Grubby. Didn’t much like the look of him.

So…

It was particularly important that the bus not linger longer than scheduled at the prison because I had to catch a connecting bus and the connecting bus was only two minutes behind this one!

The prisoner and the bus driver decided to have a row. The prisoner demanded to know what time the bus driver was ‘due in’. He had been standing there, waiting, for several hours, he said. His social skills were poor. There were other ways of putting it. Better still, the option of not putting it at all.

The bus was on time, or had been before the prisoner and the bus driver decided to unleash their joint supply of testosterone upon the world.

The bus driver said he could (*******) get off the bus and what way was that to talk to anybody?

The prisoner said he wasn’t going to (********) get off the bus and did the bus driver get out of bed the wrong side this morning or summink?

This went on for some time, with the language getting riper and riper. Being British we all stared out of the window pretended not to be aware of any argument at all. Including the wriggly little girl with the dummy and various other infants.

To get to visit Mum for an hour I was going to have to be on buses and trains all day. This was only my first bus. The connecting bus, scheduled for minutes behind this one, would surely be gone by now. Another half hour or forty minutes wasted at a damp and chilly bus stop.

The argument went on and on, but eventually the prisoner stumbled to the back of the bus, still swearing, and the bus driver set off. Heavy on the accelerator. Vicious on the brakes all the way to the next village. It felt like some sort of fairground ride. More than usual like some sort of fairground ride.

Everyone was unhappy.

I couldn’t quite forget about it. How had that argument even happened? And then it occurred to me that the prisoner had not read, or maybe was not able read, the timetable attached to the bus stop. He had not noticed the long gap between the workmen’s bus – somewhere around seven a.m. – and the start of regular buses – somewhere around nine a.m. So he might have been standing there for hours.

‘You’re talking b*******’ shouted the bus driver from the front of the bus.

‘No, you’re talking b*******’ shouted the prisoner from the back of the bus.

Is this perhaps how world wars start? Could Armageddon be loosed upon the world through nothing more than two grumpy men and a simple misunderstanding?

Pass me that tin hat, would you?

The Armageddon Suitcase

In the raspberry wallet file marked Desperate, I found this prompt: What would you pack in your suitcase if you could not go home again?

So what would one pack in one’s Armageddon suitcase? It seemed apposite, when on the News we have been watching Italian villagers, saved from their crushed medieval village after a massive earthquake, but with nothing to call their own. No memories, as they said – also, interestingly, no future. The earthquake, in their perception has stolen their whole lives, past and future.

My first thought was to pack the cats. I would take them in preference to any material possessions, even if they did need a supersize suitcase (with ventilation holes). And people do that, don’t they? You see them on the News shepherding their dogs into the back of the car as the forest fire licks the paint off the veranda; attempting to climb into wobbly boats with their beloved budgies in cages. They save their pets as they would save their children.

But children/pets aside. For material possessions, and if I could never come back…

Part of me thinks it would be as well to leave it all and just grab any cash and cards you happened to have lying about so you could buy new things, if you really needed them. We don’t need most of the objects we surround ourselves with anyway.  No doubt I would miss the 2,000 paperback books since they are, in a way, the story of my life, but rather than choose some I would leave them all and pack the e-reader.

Would I take any clothes? Sometimes I think it would be a relief to start one’s wardrobe again from scratch, to move to a strange town and just wear whatever raggle-taggle collection of garments its charity shops could provide.  I read a local newspaper article once, about an unemployed man who was awarded the princely sum of £20 in Emergency Fund benefit to buy himself new clothes after his only pair of jeans and only tee-shirt were stolen from his washing-line. The paper took up his cause with great enthusiasm and managed to get him a complete outfit from charity shops, including a serviceable pair of leather shoes. This was a long time ago, mind you: might have to settle for broken flip-flops now.

What would I miss the most? Or what would I need the most, in that big blue earthquake tent, crowded sports hall or dismal underground bunker with nuclear war being waged overhead? I think I would end up with a strange and impractical Armageddon suitcase-full:

The e-reader, because I couldn’t bring the books.

Well, maybe two print books – the King James Bible, because it would last forever and there could be no better time to read it (and no more beautiful version of the English language to read it in) – and a book of poems for comfort, and learning by heart. I’d probably go for The Rattle Bag (ed: Heaney & Hughes) or The Faber Book of Modern Verse (ed: Roberts).

I’d have to pack a vast supply of file-paper and pencils (and pencil sharpeners and…) because I’d need to record my adventures in all their horror and interestingness – and there probably won’t be an electricity supply for typing and whatnot. In which case the e-reader would have been a waste of space.

I would pack Nan’s bread-board, because it was Nan’s, and she’s gone now, and Grandad carved it for her. For a thing to have survived that long and then be just – left behind – it doesn’t seem right. And you never know when you might need a bread-board; similarly, her wedding ring. I’d leave my own behind, I think.

I would include the delicate china cup and saucer a friend once gave me. It’s white, red and black and has a design of stylised cats. There is not much use for a china cup and saucer but this one was designed and hand-made by an actual potter. She would have made others of the same general design, but not one exactly like it. Something unique, that much thought has gone into, deserves to go into the Armageddon suitcase.

I think I would bring the green glass cat I found one day at a boot fair, with Ex. At least, Ex was there somewhere – probably rifling through the second-hand railway books or buying battered LPs. It’s a strange, hybrid creature – a cat-that-looks-a-bit-like-a-dog – but the glass is so weighty, so green and so luxurious. It’s an object that’s cold in your hand, yet comforting. It’s just glass-for-glass’-sake and makes me think of Leonard Cohen’s Nancy, who wore green stockings and spent much time alone, gazing at the Late Late Show through a semi-precious stone.

I also recall that My Replacement rather coveted that cat to add to her extensive Green Glass Collection, and hinted as much when she visited my house one day, with Ex.

And didn’t get it!

Ha ha!

Anyway, I shall go on thinking, as I move around the house and examine all the items in it with new eyes. Would you go in the suitcase? Would you?

What would go into your suitcase?

(Photo: Sandra Cunningham)