Wild Witch of the East

This is how I feel today:

fork2

ie: not like writing. However, as novelist Anne Tyler famously said: “If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all”. Writing’s like going for a walk – if you’re basically lazy and apathetic you never want to do it – but you feel a whole lot better when you have.

So, I thought I might explain all these witches. You may have noticed my little icon/gravatar thingy, which is a picture of a blue stuffed witch. I found her on Morguefile, along with the one in the red shawl and the one in the white blouse, on broomsticks. I’m guessing, from the tartan woolly socks a-dangle in the background that they must have been in some Ye Olde Crafty Gifte Shoppe deep in the highlands of Scotland, but who knows.

I felt I needed a disguise, really. I don’t like me in photos, especially now when the Me looking back in the mirror no longer looks anything like the Me looking out through my eyes. And I quite liked the symbolism. I’ve always thought of fiction, poetry especially, as a kind of wizardry – spell-casting.

When I was young I was pretty average to look at – I mean, not Elephant Woman or anything – but I was horribly tall, thanks to my 6’ 4” father, which denied me the invisibility I longed for. “Head in the clouds,” my father used to say, “in more ways than one.” On my first day at infants’ school they put me in a class with seven year-olds. It was only when the teacher asked me to read something off the board and I couldn’t oblige that they realised there had been an administrative error. I was relegated, in disgrace, or so I felt, to the babies’ class. By which time the babies had made instant friends with one another and regarded me as some sort of incoming weirdo-freak.

My immediate ancestors, according to the family tree, were nothing out of the ordinary – no marauding Barons or slyly philandering Dukes, just servant girls, washer-women, carpenters, gardeners and clerks. We were kind of rural, I suppose, and kind of poor, and we didn’t move about much just sort of stayed where we were, or moved a few villages away, to breed even more of us. The Vikings invaded us – well, kept on and on and on invading us – and a lot of us have Viking blood. I always suspected Vikings in my gene-pool, somewhere. I’d have made an excellent Viking.

In Viking times I would probably have been thought of as heroic – in strength and proportion, if not in valour, and might have found myself a good husband. I can’t help remembering a tale of a beauty contest at a ceilidh in the Hebrides, where a woman was considered utterly ravishing – synonymous with excellent breeding stock – if massive enough to run with a heifer under either arm.

I was never attractive to the opposite sex in a general way – never got a Valentine’s card, for instance; never got whistled at by builders; had to chase pretty hard for the few dates I actually got – the first one turned out to have been a dare – and by the time I got them I didn’t really want them. Circular logic, you see – the only man worth pursuing is the one who can never be caught.

But I did seem to be a hit with a few specialist segments of the population – chivalrous, lusty old men; frail, dependent old ladies; children with learning difficulties (I taught a class on teaching practice and was a big hit there, though heckled and pelted with elastic bands and screwed up balls of paper in other classes); terminal bores in pubs; the least popular three girls in any class; people everyone else laughs at behind their backs and strangers with scary psychological disturbances in need of someone to talk to.

I’ve also always seemed to attract what I now understand – didn’t at the time, since they hadn’t been invented – were spectrum or Asperger’s men; and an entire universe of stray and lonely cats, which homed in on me like heat-seeking missiles. So I married one of the former and became a serial adopter of the latter. Sensible, really.

Anyway, these witches. I actually had a story in mind about the two witches – the couple with the broomsticks, not my blue ‘gravatar’ witch, and how they came to be banished to a highland souvenir shop in the first place. But I see I have run out of space as usual, so that will have to wait for another post.

Ah, that feels better. Maybe I’ll go for that walk.

AND WHERE ARE THE CLOWNS? THERE OUGHT TO BE CLOWNS…

There’s this film out at the moment, called The Walk. It’s based on the story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit and his walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in August 1974. I must admit I haven’t seen it, and probably couldn’t bring myself to see it, since heights frighten me. Twice in my life I have dreamed I was perched on the ledge of a building so high you could barely see the ground. I wasn’t dreaming, or so I believed – I was right there, agonising whether to keep still, shut my eyes and hope for rescue, or jump and get it over with. Thanatos, the death impulse, the dark side of the life impulse, Eros – is present within all of us but normally suppressed.

As far as I was concerned that dream contained enough terror for one lifetime. Heights have always ‘done my head in’ as they used to say. (I wonder what they say now?) I even managed to get stuck at the top of the children’s slide on Penenden Heath and had to be rescued by my father. He was not sympathetic but then I suppose if you’ve been through conscription, forced to drive a truck with a red-hot steering wheel back and forth across India, through rivers and swamps and whatnot, having only previously driven once or twice round the works car-park, a gibbering female child at the top of a little low slide would be exasperating.

That’s the thing with sitting on a high ledge, isn’t it? We’re terrified when it’s us – but when somebody else is in that position, there’s a fascination. We are good, kind people and we don’t want them to fall but – what if they did, what if they actually did? Thanatos wants out, and he’s greedy; and when someone may be about to die he attaches himself, leech-like, to that sight. What better and safer way to experience ‘death’ and the fear of death than to watch someone else fall off a high wire? Through them we get to experience that great, final adrenaline rush. Through them we experience the sublime.

The sublime is a difficult thing to define. The Romantic poets thought of the sublime as the heightened feeling you might experience in viewing the majesty of the Alps, or a great waterfall – a fascinating beauty, intermingled with horror.

The development of the concept of the sublime as an aesthetic quality in nature distinct from beauty was first brought into prominence in the 18th century in the writings of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, and John Dennis, in expressing an appreciation of the fearful and irregular forms of external nature, and Joseph Addison’s synthesis of concepts of the sublime in his The Spectator, and later the Pleasures of the Imagination. All three Englishmen had, within the span of several years, made the journey across the Alps and commented in their writings of the horrors and harmony of the experience, expressing a contrast of aesthetic qualities. Wikipedia

This is the attraction of vampire movies, especially for young girls: the pale, exotic, beautiful, tormented hero with the bloodlust and the deadly fangs. What’s not to long for?

But this Thanatos/Eros thing extends, downwards, from the Alps and the high-wire walker to (in my case) playground equipment and (in all our cases) the world of popular entertainment. We watch Amy Winehouse destroying herself with drugs and alcohol – everyone sees the accident waiting to happen, nobody intervenes. We listen to her singing her heart out, like the mythical thorn bird, self-impaled to produce its final, sweetest song. We watch talent show contestants walking on stage, we hear the silence fall, we long for them to be bad. How much more satisfying a conceited, self-deluded, aggressive or foolish contestant than any old sweet boy band, or a nervous nineteen year-old in ripped jeans with a pretty good voice. How much more entertaining.

In Roman times, as we all know, the crowds filled the stone amphitheatres to witness gladiators fight other gladiators or condemned criminals to the death. Animals, even. The Romans staged “hunts” in their auditoria. Thousands of wild animals would be slaughtered in one day.

During the inauguration of the Colosseum over 9,000 animals were killed. Wikipedia

Were the Ancient Romans a different species of human being to ourselves? How could they take such pleasure in the prospect of all that suffering? Or were they maybe more honest about their desires than the audience at The X-Factor, or watchers of Big Brother, waiting for one of the inhabitants of the House to crack under the strain? And how far we will go? Take Jade Goody, who behaved stupidly and unpleasantly towards a fellow housemate, Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, and subsequently, presumably in an attempt to repair her ruined reputation, became a Housemate on the Indian version of Big Brother. I didn’t see the programme here in the UK, but according to the newspaper reports she was called into the Diary Room to speak to her specialist in London over the phone. He then informed her, on live TV, she that she was dying of cervical cancer. Twenty-seven and nowhere to hide.

Mocking the afflicted, as they say. How often are we actually doing this, telling ourselves we’re just having fun? I suppose it depends how you define ‘afflicted’. Is it someone with a physical disability? Is it someone like Jade Goody, poorly-educated, to all appearances not very bright, and unconsciously racist? Is it Amy Winehouse, gifted but desperate and kind of ‘cracked’? Is it a deluded teenage factory worker seizing his one chance, maybe his only chance, of fame on the X-Factor? Or is it the odd, plain, middle-aged woman in the cheap gold dress and the wrong-colour tights?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5D5DgQi2oqA

Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent Audition: April 11, 2009

More questions than answers:

How can you not cringe at this classic television encounter? How can you not get to your feet and cheer for her? How can you not cry? Did they treat her well? If her voice had turned out to be all of a piece with her physical appearance on that day, would she have deserved the reaction she would most certainly have got – the sniggers from the audience, patronising comments from the panel? Would that treatment even have made a dent in her confident self-belief? She knew she had one of the best voices ever, but then all the contestants know they are the best ever, and most turn out to be deluded. Who could have denied her the recognition and the applause? She said she wanted to be as famous as musical star Elaine Paige and they laughed behind their hands. Of course – who wouldn’t? And then she sang, and blew Elaine Paige out of the water.

Given what we later witnessed in the way of erratic, inappropriate and stressed-out behaviour – would rejection have destroyed Susan Boyle? Or, without the careful management she later received, might success have destroyed her? Labelled “brain-damaged” as a child in her Scottish village, she has since been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Just listen to this with your eyes shut. Where is this coming from? How can someone who can barely express herself sensibly in words, nevertheless interpret these words and this music like this?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=GB&hl=en-GB&v=Yb3XAP0c8WU

Susan Boyle: Wild Horses

A personal story to end on. Some Sundays I would go to Open Mic sessions a folk club in Rochester with my ex-husband. He had run a folk club himself, in Northampton, some years before we met. Although used to singing and playing in front of an audience, he never offered to perform on these occasions. We just used to watch. There was this one woman – oldish. She played the accordion dreadfully, missing notes all over the place, and sang even more dreadfully. People used to guffaw at her, literally; groans echoed round the room as she staggered up onto the stage. I asked my husband once, why she kept on doing it, and why the audience were so cruel. He shrugged: If you choose to put yourself up there, you take the consequences. There seemed no arguing with this. He had taken the same risk himself, many times. He had walked the walk. But I wonder now – about the damaged ego of the person who puts herself forward, and the damaged soul of the person who watches, and mocks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8L6KGuTr9TI

Judy Collins: Send In The Clowns

THE FUTURE’S SO BRIGHT (I GOTTA WEAR SHADES)

So, former husband was going round the house chanting to himself Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades, Future’s So Bright… which was at least an improvement on The Don Lindberg Aquatic Show, The Don Lindberg Aquatic Show or Member of Lloyds, Member of Lloyds… He used to get phrases stuck, which was annoying. I think The Future’s So Bright… featured in an Orange mobile phones advert at the time, and that was how it had got to him.

The Don Lindberg Aquatic Show was something we witnessed on The Leas in Folkestone in 1970-something. All I can remember is this man at the top of some sort of cherry-picker or giant crane arrangement, doing a lot of posing before diving with enormous ceremony into a plastic paddling pool, and somehow emerging from it without a broken neck. By the way, if you are the Donald A. B. Lindberg (born 1933), Director of the United States National Library of Medicine from 1984 till your retirement in 2015 and known for your work in medical computing… I know it wasn’t you.

Personally, I found it boring but my husband liked that sort of thing. I did catch a glimpse of the late Alan Freeman in unwise leather trousers. Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman was at that time a famous radio disc-jockey, known for catchphrases such as Greetings, pop pickers, Alright? Stay bright! and Not ‘arf! He had an orange-y face and seemed so very small, out of the radio. He was later to be the inspiration for comedian Harry Enfield’s Dave Nice in the Smashy and Nicey sketches, which I believe he quite enjoyed.

I can’t really criticise ex-husband for his occasional bouts of echolalia since I too get phrases stuck in my head and can’t somehow get them out, the only difference being that I don’t verbalise them all the time. I suppose we were both a bit on the obsessive-compulsive side, not to mention the Asperger’side, the unsociable side, the smart-arse side and the irritating side. There were really quite a lot of things we had in common. We might have noticed this if we’d had any patience with one another. But of course, we didn’t.

Which brings me to what one of my fellow bloggers refers to as a meme… so many new words, so many new words, so many new words… which everyone will no doubt know to be an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture:

A reporter asked the couple, “How did you manage to stay together for 65 years?”  The woman replied, “We were born in a time when if something was broken we would fix it, not throw it away.”

So – this meme thingy. I wonder how many years the old couple would have kept trying to fix the poor, broken old thing? We spent twenty-two years, on and off, trying to fix ours. And then, of course, unless you were rich, before the nineteen-sixties you didn’t really have the option of divorce: you either fixed your mistake or suffered for it – more often a combination of the two. But the sentiment is good, and fixing’s always worth a try.

Going back to The Leas. This is a long, wide strip of grass – lawn – stretching the length of the cliff above Folkestone to Sandgate, providing ‘a cliff top promenade with fine sea views’ according to one old leaflet:

http://www.visitkent.co.uk/discover-folkestone/folkestone-historical-walks—promenading-on-the-leas.pdf

Folkestone is a seaside town in Kent, on the south coast of England. Lots of interesting things have happened on The Leas over the years – air displays and such. It has a slidey lift down to the beach which has been there since 1885 and a Bandstand (1895). It was extremely popular with the Victorians, who came to Folkestone to breathe in the clean sea air. Spacious and Gracious used to be its advertising slogan. In the ’70s when I was there, some arty-farty clever-clogs re-labelled it Specious and Gruesome and everyone thought that was hilarious for a while. But it was OK. By the ’70s it had dimmed into just another British seaside town, sprawling, shabby, a bit rough round the edges, but it had baby seagulls on the rooftops and fairy-lights looping through the trees along Bouverie Road West. It possessed a shabby, nautical, slightly bohemian charm, I always thought.

There’s also a cavernous, in-cliff venue called the Leas Cliff Hall where people can go and see acts like Steelye Span (Yay! Steelye Span!) Psychic Sally and One Night of Elvis featuring Lee ‘Memphis’ King.

I can remember two things about The Leas, apart from Don Lindberg and his blasted aquatic show. One was going for a walk along The Leas with my mother, father, youngest sister and husband not long after we had married and moved to Folkestone. My sister, around fifteen at the time and still going through the ‘Kevin’ phase, was so fed-up with the whole visit and probably with me – even more probably with my new husband – that she collapsed flat on her back on the grass, in her winter coat, gazing up at the grey sky and scudding clouds and refusing to move. Someone took a photograph of her in this position, which is now lost – except to memory.

The second is not so much a memory as a story. I had a friend, once, who had been pursuing a certain gentleman for many years. He lived in her village. He was nice. I met him. They undertook the New Year bell-ringing duty together each year but no canoodling was ever reported to have taken place up in that icy midnight belfry. It was sad, gothic and romantic, but he never proposed.

So we all got older and older. In her forties she became interested in belly-dancing – she was always trying out one thing or another – and she and her belly-dancing group were out performing their routine one Sunday on The Leas when she spotted in the crowd – yes, none other than the object of her longings. I gather he had never seen so much of her on display until now, and of course for belly dancing you have to display so much – all those wobbly-waggly tummy bits one prefers to keep hidden under floppy tops and smock-like dresses. So there she was – wobbling, waggling and gyrating, unable to stop and run away without ruining the group’s routine and making herself even more conspicuous – and there he was – surprised, spectating – and it was embarrassing and mortifying and…

If it had been a Mills & Boon story he would have been smitten, stricken or similar and rushed forth from the crowd to drop on one knee and propose marriage, babies – although it may have been too late for that – a gold ring, a massive reception with Asti Spumante and those little throwaway cameras on the tables for the guests to take pictures, a five-star honeymoon at poolside hotel in Antigua…

But of course, he didn’t.