Bullet Point Blitzing

  • Uptown Top Ranking

The title of this post – which pinged into my reverse-colander of a morning-mind unbidden – reminds me of a vintage pop song called Uptown Top Ranking by the joyous Althea and Donna. I have looked up the words, and here are a few:

See me pon the road I hear you call out to me
True you see mi inna pants and ting
See mi in a ‘alter back
Sey mi gi’ you heart attack
Gimme likkle bass, make me wine up me waist
Uptown Top Ranking

At a guess I would say this is about setting off for town to have a really fun night out, wearing an outfit which includes killer trousers and a black halter top. I envisage drop dead gorgeous and plenty of bling. She calls to the bass player to crank up the bass, to inspire her in her wild and sinuous terpsichory.

I just love it, whatever it means. If you ever feel miserable put on Uptown Top Ranking and dance and sing along. You are unlikely get the words any more wrong than you would have done for a karaoke I Did It My Way or The Wind Beneath My Wings.

  • As Black As Yer ‘At (Over Will’s Mother’s)

Well, it’s as black as yer ‘at outside, despite being nine in the morning. This is because it is raining and when it rains, in this corner of nowhere-in-particular, the universe wants you to both know about it and suffer. When I’ve finished this – and believe me I’m spinning it out as long as possible – I ought to be getting out of my grubby dressing gown and into ancient jeans, jumper and raincoat, to drive fifteen minutes to the Farm Shop for a loaf of bread, plus – other stuff. There is a species of bread closer to hand, at our solitary village shop, but it is that white and doughy caravan people bread. Also, the village idiot tends to lurk either inside the shop or at the – solitary – bus stop outside. He likes me very much – unsettlingly odd people always do – and so I have taken to driving past the village shop/bus stop with head averted.

  • A new word

I have learnt a new word, from a post by Matthew, The Wolf Boy entitled Improve Your Blog While Minimizing Blog Suckage. Suckage…

Suckage… lovely word.

One of Matthew’s examples of Suckiness is this:

The paper is usually on your porch every Tuesday but this Tuesday it wasn’t, and now you have nothing to read with your tea.

I am very much afraid that my blog sometimes falls into the pit of suckiness on this count. I live a very dull life. Sometimes nothing much happens for a whole day apart from, say, Henry being sick along the back of the sofa or – noticing that the shed door is undone.

On that count I recently spent a whole rough windy night in terror, imagining that my house was about to collapse or maybe the water-tank fall through the ceiling into the living room, because of a deafening banging and creaking every few seconds. When I ventured out the following morning I discovered I had left the meter cover unlocked when I read the meter, and the thing had been slamming back and forth all night. The neighbours probably got even less sleep than I did. Oh God, I’m Antisocial.

  • Thinny Cat

Talking of cats, I notice my eighteen year-old Rosie is becoming kind of two-dimensional. She has shared and comforted me through so many horrendous adventures and I don’t want to lose her. Though of course that’s life – ie, death. She desires only to occupy my particular warm corner of the sofa; no other place in the house will do. Every time I get up, she slithers back and curls up.

This morning I realised the cushion felt a bit funny and there was Rosie, lightly sandwiched between it and me, unharmed but more two-dimensional than ever. Stay with me, little Rosie. You gave me my blogging name; now give me just a little more time.

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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.

My Emotional Support Rabbit

I want an Emotional Support Rabbit, I’ve decided. According to the BBC, anyway, such fabulous creatures are allowed to accompany those suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health issues on to American aeroplanes. What a wonderful thing. There have apparently been Emotional Support Kangaroos, Emotional Support Turkeys, Emotional Support Cats and Dogs, even an Emotional Support Miniature Horse. (Presumably the turkeys would be excused flights home for Thanksgiving.) However, a Support Peacock by the name of Dexter was turned away because he was too big and heavy. The Support Miniature Horse was in fact smaller and lighter than the Support Peacock?

After the peacock incident United Airlines decided to ban a range of less usual creatures, including frogs, hedgehogs and goats, and are currently limiting it to cats, dogs, and of course miniature horses.

In Britain, of course, we are far more staid. Just tune in to a session of Parliament and watch the MPs discussing Brexit – bellowing, jeering, catcalling and even, fairly recently, making sheep noises – to be sure of this. (I am not sure if they ever tracked down that sheep-noise maker: they were certainly trying quite hard to.) So, British airlines, being far more staid, do not permit support animals for mental health conditions, though they do permit physical disability/guide dogs, and presumably those might be doubling as emotional support.

This reminds me of a Christmas Dinner I was once forced to attend with my colleagues at Poop, Stagger & Collapse, Solicitors (no, not really). We were sitting around long tables in a restaurant slightly more expensive than most of us would have normally been able to afford – draughty and underheated, with snowy-white tablecloths adding to the general chill. At the end of the food and quite a few bottles of wine, nearly all of the partners (or so it seemed) stood up to give a speech about the progress the firm had made in the past year and it’s plans for the one to come. The final, particularly long and rambling speech was interrupted by mysterious crowings – Cock-a-doodle-doooo, etc – from a novelty alarm clock. Everyone knew who it was, but since he was a Partner himself nothing was done.

Back to Emotional Support Creatures. Given the choice I would go for an Emotional Support Little Rabbit – just big enough to fit in my jacket pocket, with large brown eyes and twitchy little whiskers. Much as I love cats they are absolutely no good at emotional support. A cat will scratch you when you’re down, demand food when you’re stressed. Cats poop, piddle and vomit everywhere. Trying to persuade a cat not to perform three of his five Favourite Natural Functions just because it was on an aeroplane – nah! Taking a cat anywhere, even six miles in a motor car, leaves one a nervous wreck. Or nervous boat as a distance learning student once put it:

My postal course materials am stolen in the prison where I reside. Please, I am become a nervous boat.

It does seem to be a week for animal-themed posts. I follow an excellent WordPress blog called ‘English Language Thoughts’ and the question posed was;

Which would you choose – to be able to speak another language or to speak to the animals?

My Comment was that talking to the animals would be best. At my time of life and in my straitened circumstances I am hardly likely to need to speak to a foreign person in their own language. Unless Britain happens to be invaded by Foreign Persons in which case I shall sincerely wish I had learned that particular language and start scrabbling around for text books and studying by candle-light.

But how useful, to be able to ask your pet how it felt instead of hazarding a guess. Pets are notoriously ‘stoical’, ie they keep a poker face and disguise suffering as a defence against predators. How many trips to the vet could be saved if they could just tell you.

On the other hand – what if our beloved animals, no longer mute, chose to inform us stuff we didn’t want to hear – anything from I abhor this leopard-skin collar to Why exactly did you remove my reproductive organs when I was just a kitten? to What about vivisection!

I have always assumed my own cats to be super intelligent. Inside those furry little noddles they would have been composing Oscar Wilde-type witticisms or ruminating upon the meaning of life from a feline perspective. But it occurs to me that this ain’t necessarily so. Supposing they are really stupid? Supposing all they can chat about is Whiskas versus Felix? Supposing their political opinions can be summarised in one sentence: Well, there’s nothing I can do about anything in any case so I’m not even going to think about it.

Yes, someone actually said that to me. And she wasn’t a cat, either.

There is actually a timetable affixed to this bus stop…

Bertie from the bus stop has asked me my name, eventually.

We are standing outside his house, which is just around the corner from the bus stop, way before my house. I still have a fifteen minute hill to climb and am so tired I am wishing that someone would install one of those ski lifts, so that I could just hop on. Bertie thought this was a good idea last time I mentioned it, and asked me how much it would cost.

He has been telling me about his blackberries. These are a tangle of what I would have called brambles in one corner of his front garden. However, they do actually have blackberries on them, half of them unripe as yet. He is saying something about picking them, or not picking them or other people picking or not picking them. I am past the stage of being able to piece it all together. It has been a whole day on public transport to visit Mum.

I have sat next to Bertie on the bus from town for almost an hour and he has been talking at me all the way: shards of his life: fragments that would probably make sense if only he would give you some sort of context for them. It is like ancient coins under a metal detector – you never get the whole horde, only this battered coin, and that.

He starts in the middle, or he’ll just tell you the edges. He skips from when his Mum was alive, which now seems to have been back in the 70s and in another part of the country; to his health and mobility problems, which he is assuming I know all about; to the problems of a friend who is struggling to help another friend, who lives a long way away. It’s one of those stream-of-consciousness autobiographies – you feel that if only you could put enough energy into your listening you might be able to piece it together.

He is still telling me about the blackberries. My feet are on fire from too much walking about in new walking boots. I am overheated, wilting. The sun has been beating down on me through the bus window and before that there was an hour just waiting at the bus stop in town. Until Bertie came along, that is, and started advising some woman about the times of the buses. Five minutes ago she had asked me the same question and now she was asking him. People just automatically ignore everything I say.

‘There is supposed to be a bus at half past,’ she said. ‘So where is it?’

‘Where exactly are you trying to get to?’ I asked, although I could tell from the look of her where she was going – the holiday camp.

‘To the holiday camp’, she said.

‘Then it’s twelve minutes past’, I say, ‘though it may be up to ten minutes late’.

‘There’s supposed to be one at half past (this hour).’

‘No, there isn’t one till twelve minutes past (next hour).’

So now she turns to Bertie and asks ‘When is the next bus?’

‘Eleven minutes past,’ he says, ‘though it’s usually late’.

She nods, comprehendingly. Oh, eleven minutes past, not twelve minutes like that woman just told me. Eleven minutes past. Bertie, of course, has now got her by the (metaphorical) throat and is regaling her with the intricacies of the local bus timetable; telling her where in the town centre she could obtain a copy of said publication, although of course she will miss the bus if she sets off to obtain one now.

People at bus stops tend to annoy me anyway, especially holidaymakers. They are always cross from the unaccustomed hanging about (apparently buses happen more often than once an hour up in London), they have never read the timetable and every one of them has a different and contradictory certainty as to when the bus ought to have been due. But still they ask you when it is due. And then they don’t believe you when you tell them.

There is actually a timetable affixed to this bus stop, I hear myself pointing out, snarkily. Occasionally, nowadays, I seem to be saying exactly what I mean, having spent a lifetime avoiding this dangerous practice. Pretend Me is always shocked when Real Me decides to pop out of her box and Say Something Snarky. I know it is only because Pretend Me is very, very tired, also hungry and thirsty having just spent lunchtime watching repeats of ‘The Simpsons’ with her mother in a bedroom with a dark blue wallpaper frieze and a view consisting of air-conditioning clutter and a toilet window or two.  All her life Pretend Me has managed to keep Real Me stuffed down under that painted lid, the catch firmly on. Now, at random moments, this strategy fails.

Confused and distracted by Bertie’s monotone mumbled timetable monologue, the woman hasn’t in any case noticed the underlying acidity of Real Me’s remark. She is a faded blonde, this woman; hooped earrings; strappy sundress; glittery cheap flat sandals with bunions poking through the straps, chin beginning to sag into her neck. She’s around about my age, pretending not to be. Pretend Me feel ashamed of Real Me’s intended nastiness, even if she didn’t notice.

But not very.

I sometimes wonder if this blog isn’t the same sort of thing: fragments of a whole life – the double-helix life, perhaps I should say, of Pretend Me and Real Me. And as with Bertie’s autobiography, no one will ever have the time, energy or inclination to piece it all together. Maybe this is an autobiography but with other bits and pieces tossed in for good measure, like the sixpence and the mixed spice in the Christmas pudding.

Maybe one day, so far into the future that nothing remains of this century but internet echoes, some future history student will decide to ‘do’ this blog for their dissertation. And fail, distracted by blackberries, bus stops, observations apropos of nothing, chance acquaintances and recipes for appallingly sugary cakes.

‘I don’t think I caught your name…’ says Bertie, oddly formal and still lurking beside his blackberries.

‘I don’t think I told you,’ I say, and tell him. He repeats it to himself several times.

‘I’ll try to remember that,’ he says, looking anxious.

‘Don’t worry,’ I say, ‘I can always remind you’.

An attempt at reconstitution

A phrase from the ‘Mum’ recipe included in the previous post has stuck in mind:

CARE – if you do the latter, don’t let any water get into it or let it get too hot, else it goes solid and you can’t reconstitute it.

She was talking, of course, about the delicate art of melting chocolate. However, it led me into an area of thought I would rather have avoided – or more likely have been avoiding, all this time. To what extent is the ‘Mum’ who appears in this my blog – the reconstituted Mum, as it were – the real one?

I started writing this blog, as I recall, around the time that Mum’s dementia/ psychosis was getting really bad. Around that time we had several silly arguments during my Sunday visits, about foolish claims she made, completely illogical conclusions she had come to, and her patronising insistence that it was me – the stupid child – who had got things all mixed up. Twice I came home from a visit in tears because of the illogicality of it all.  Dementia is something you are forced to learn about from scratch, and usually doesn’t look like dementia to start with. You make mistakes. You let it get to you because somehow or other you haven’t spotted it – that great black storm cloud on the horizon, barrelling towards you.

As far as I recall, the time I wrote my first post and started rescuing all sorts of ancient, spider-infested writings from cardboard boxes in the garage was about the same time I realised I could no longer talk to Mum on an adult to adult, person to person basis. I could no longer talk to her as a daughter. I could no longer ask her advice or rely on her for anything. On the contrary, she was going to be relying on me. It was then that I started this blog.

And so, I have often thought, the ‘dementia’ part of this blog (a relatively small percentage of it) has been an attempt to put her back together again, to recreate her, to preserve her – whatever. And the same for my father – whom I scarcely mourned when he died and did not begin to miss really badly until my mother began to leave me too. And the same of course for my lost life, my lost past selves. These multiple ‘goodbyes’ must happen to every human being as they age, I think – just maybe not all at once or concentrated into so short a time.

In painting word-pictures of Mum, and Dad, and me, and my sisters, I have tried to be honest. I mean, I find it difficult to restrain myself from writing honestly – that’s how it tends to come out – but I sometimes wonder if any of us – the typed up and published ‘us’ – are real? Or could it be that the typed-up and published ‘us’ is in some ways more real than the flesh and blood sad, distracted old folk we really are? Hyper-real.

Damn, I knew this was going to be difficult one to write. How can you put into words something so… transitory and vague?

I find it increasingly difficult to reconcile the Mum of the recipes, the Mum of the sewing box, the Mum with whom I Listened With Mother, the Mum who enraged me by throwing out my boyfriend’s copy of 1984 because she had happened upon the scene with the rats… with the thin, poor person in the plastic armchair, yesterday. I find it difficult to understand this creature who can no longer be shown how to drink from a spout on a plastic cup with the bright-eyed girl who went to grammar school and passed all her exams (except geography!) with flying colours in spite of the second world war. I find it hard to believe that this is a human being let alone my human being. I can no longer talk to her, nor she to me, and without the salve of words I struggle to feel any connection between us. It is as if we no longer belong to the same species, or that she has become animal… or vegetable.

I once had a lover who was – or claimed to be and I have no reason to disbelieve him – clairsentient. He asked me once about the bond between soon-to-be-Ex and I. Did it still feel, he asked, like an umbilical cord stretching between us? Did it still feel as if we were joined by a strong thread, navel to navel and that any separation would produce a painful tug? At the time I suspect I denied it, but whatever I said he would have ‘felt’ the truth as I was speaking. And he was right.

colored dust

It seems to me now that once you have really loved someone, willingly or not, that cord is formed and can never again be broken. You might say that the cord between Ex and I has worn awfully shabby over time and now more closely resembles a thin and greying old piece of elastic than the magnificently throbbing ‘shared umbilical’ of my lover’s psychic imagery. Still, it stretches through the miles between us.

And I suppose the same cord stretches between my mother and I. We are cut off from one another, adrift on different rafts, but still just about within sight. Maybe that is the final, almost-impossible lesson we are forced to learn – how to just be with someone. But how painful it is just to sit. How raw it feels just to be in a room with someone and not be shielded with words or even understanding. How hard it is, finally, to permit yourself to feel the cord stretching and stretching as the other person pulls away, and to know that you are never going to be able to cut the cord, however much it hurts.

Strangeness

I occasionally attempt to write about subjects randomly generated through a subject generator website. It rarely ends well.

The idea, of course, is that one tends to get bogged down in one’s little domestic world – feeding the birds, tripping over the cats, visiting Mum in the Home, memories of stuff there seems no particular reason to have remembered and even less reason to inflict on anyone else. After a while, you begin to get bored with yourself, or the sound of your own written voice. You start to suffer from bloggers’ angst with angst-ridden questions drifting randomly through your mind, like

Who on earth is going to want to read all this old gubbins anyway?

Should I do everyone a favour and publish something useful, such as ‘Yet more recipes for cleaning stuff with baking powder and lemon juice’ or ‘How to look after your terrapin’?

(Does anybody know what a terrapin is? I have a feeling it’s something that lives in an aquarium.)

Anyway, this afternoon the Random Subject Generator has flung this one back at me:

Strange experiences, that can’t be explained rationally.

Oh dear. The trouble is that although I am very interested in spookiness and strangeness – as a one-time drippy hippie, why wouldn’t I be? – spookiness and strangeness never seem to have happened to me; always to other people.

For example, my younger sister went babysitting over the road, in the company of the (admittedly fairly strange) girl next door. They had not been in the house long when shrieking started and stuff got thrown around. The (admittedly fairly strange) girl insisted that it must have been poltergeists. The owners of the house seemed more inclined to believe that my sister and the (admittedly fairly strange) girl next door had decided to throw a wild teenage party in their absence, and that was why the house was wrecked. However, considering that the girls were twelve or thirteen at the time and knowing my sister’s placid and gentle nature I am more inclined to believe it was poltergeists.

Ex told me a story once, and Ex wasn’t one for fanciful tales, in fact he was compulsively and depressingly honest. No point asking him ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ He would have said ‘Yes, in fact it does’ and wouldn’t have understood why that was the wrong answer.

He told me that he had been visiting a school-friend at a remote farm in the Weald of Kent. Again, they were young teenagers. His friend’s parents were out on the farm somewhere so they stayed indoors, chatting. All at once a cabinet door flew open and shelf upon shelf of glass objects was hurled onto the floor, as if an invisible arm had swept along the shelves. Here’s me with all this imagination, and Ex with his pragmatic, down-to-earth seriousness yet he’s the one who witnesses the smashing glassware.

But why didn’t those poltergeists happen to me? I deserved them, surely, and I’d so have enjoyed them. I spent endless hours babysitting and not once did I encounter a ghost of any sort.

Maybe strangeness has happened to me, but in a different way, expressed through found objects or chance happenings that could easily have be explained logically, but which seemed to have a special significance, for me. In a way, these objects/events have felt like half-memories; clues to something, or perhaps to a whole series of somethings, long since forgotten and maybe irretrievably lost.

When I was a child I picked up a smooth stone in the middle of a piece of waste ground. It was almost buried in the pathway through some brambles so that I had to pry it loose. It contained a perfect fossil of something like a jellyfish, with clearly-defined legs and suckers and such. That stone got lost again. I don’t know what I did with it. I always felt I should have hung onto it, and that things started to go wrong when I let it go.

Many years later, at the end of my marriage, beachcombing mournful and alone (à la Princess Diana) in a little cove in Yorkshire I found amongst the pebbles a piece of white bottle glass worn away into a battered, lopsided heart.

One night, on a train, I found myself alone in the carriage apart from a young soldier. Talk to me, he said, please talk to me. I’m off to Northern Ireland tomorrow. At that time Northern Ireland was a kind of war zone and he might well have been going to his death. I don’t think I did talk to him, much. I think I was too frightened to. He got off the train at the next stop and I never saw him again.

Such stuff as friends are made on

I probably wouldn’t notice – not straight away, anyway – if one of my followers decided to stop following me. This is partly because I find any kind of statistics difficult to pay attention to, but it’s also WordPress’s fault, or at least the fault of some electronic WordPress thingy. My stats today say I have exactly 200 followers but the widgety-thing (bottom right) says no, you have 212 followers. They haven’t agreed for some time. Both seem to fluctuate from day to day so presumably I am being followed and un-followed all the time. Is it the same people going away, changing their minds and coming back? Or are they going away for good but being compensated for by new arrivals?

After a while, of course, it would dawn on me I hadn’t heard from a regular follower a while, and I would miss them. No more feedback, no shared similar experiences, no comments. No little : )s  or ; )s. Even then I doubt that I’d check to see if they’d unfollowed me as opposed to being away on a lengthy, luxury cruise or locked up for some nefarious doing or other. What you don’t know doesn’t hurt you. Better that things stay vague, in a comforting electronic limbo.

Which leads me to my Thought For The Day. What exactly is a real friend? Is a real friend

(1)  a flesh and blood person you can share a pot of tea and a giggle with in Debenhams? Someone who will listen to you without judgment, though they’ve heard you wittering on about whatever it is so many times before? Somebody who mysteriously continues to like you however dislikeable you know yourself to be?

(2) a name-and-selfie you have never heard of, who has clicked some button on Facebook – is that a friend? or

(3) somebody you will never meet (thank goodness! I hear you all sighing), who may live  many thousands of miles away and in a culture so different from your own that you can barely imagine it; somebody whose real name, age, gender or circumstances you may never know, but you have shared at least some of your history with them and at least a few of your innermost thoughts, feelings and ideas. Is that a friend?

In my headI think – well, I would be thinking if I was in my head – a friend is another entity I have shared time and stories with. It doesn’t have to be a whole lot of time – maybe even a chance encounter would count as friendship, a joke about the lateness of the train, an intercepted glance and a half-smile across a crowded street would qualify. Friends, or followers, can be fleeting or longer-lasting.

It doesn’t even need to be human. It might be an animal, or even a book. It could be an encounter/series of encounters with anyone or anything as long as time and stories have been involved. On that basis I think I would go for (1) and (3) but scrub (2).

After all, we have in a sense ‘imagined’ every one and every thing we think we know. Every friend you ‘have’, whether now or then, here or now and whether constituted of flesh or electrons, is stored in your head as a kind of blueprint, a memory-pattern to be reconstituted as required by the firing of electrical pulses between neurons.

We store every thing, every one and every when and every where as electrical patterns. In my head I have at least my version of all the things, people and places I have ever encountered. In my head jumble around together my flesh-and-blood friends, my internet friends, friends long-dead and friends long fallen-out-with. They’re all the same stuff.

I can never visit my grandmother’s garden again but it’s here and, by the firing of neurons in a particular pattern or sequence, I can walk around it. I can see the hollyhocks and the London Pride, the yellow roses, the swing on the apple tree, the bird-bath with the poem all round it. I can recite the poem. I can see it. I can never see my father again, but he’s in here somewhere and if I want to I can hold a conversation with him. I can never meet Jane Eyre – after all she’s not ‘real’, merely a character I constructed with the help of Charlotte Brontë. I can never meet Charlotte Brontë either.

And yet here they both are.

Lounge Socks, Labradoodles and The Lady Vanishes

It’s funny the roundabout way ideas are born.

As you know, I’m a worrier. The prison warders have returned from France, in the dead of night as always, whispering into the parking space next to mine. They are deadly accurate about this, always: the rear bumper of their vehicle exactly lined up with the little brick tower-thingy that separates their rectangle of manicured front lawn from my anthill-y wasteland.

Immediately I started worrying. After six months without neighbours it’s unnerving suddenly to have them again, to hear them clumping up and down the stairs and creaking in and out of their front door, their TV to be heard through the wall, their labradoodle playing with that ridiculous whistling rubber toy out on the decking again. As I lay my head upon the pillow to sleep I hear a toothbrush clinking into a glass in their bathroom – a sound from before.

They were talking of selling up and moving permanently to their newly-built villa in France. They have been moving furniture and belongings down there in instalments, in the whispering vehicle, which is large, and windowless. If it wasn’t so new and shiny I would suspect it of being a repurposed paddy wagon. Ex and My Replacement had something similar when they moved, except theirs was a repurposed Post Office delivery van, and not shiny.

And I was thinking, what if this is it and they have come back to put their house on the market? What if a For Sale sign is just about to go up? And what if it sells to the Nightmare Neighbour From Hell?

And I mean, I’m bound to get him/them, aren’t I? The man using a chainsaw to do DIY at three in the morning, the teenagers playing heavy metal super-loud all day long, the shrieking woman in the garden, the dumpers of garden waste over the fence, the barking Alsatian, maybe a whole puppy farm…

What shall I do, when that happens? (Note the when, not if.)

It occurred to me that I would have to go out – all day and every day, probably. Either that or maybe I could keep a diary of when it was noisiest and just go out then. When I came back, and if the racket was still going on, I could immediately stuff the MP3 thingies in my ears in the hope of drowning them out with Mozart

And then it occurred to me that, whatever the next-door situation was, I ought to Get Out More. I mean, it’s all very well staying indoors all day, wiggling your toes and admiring your new Lounge Socks with the non-slip little globules on the soles, feeding stale bread to the sparrows or doing load after load of tumble-drying – but is that a life?

It also occurred to me that if I didn’t Go To Places now, when was I going to Go to them? How many years of Go-ability had I got left? I remembered my mother, when she was eighty and just before she started to go wafty, staring down at her wrinkled, liver-spotted hands in puzzlement. How did I get to be eighty? She asked me.

I don’t want to be asking How did I get to be eighty? At least, not till I’ve Got Out More.

So I am making a list of places to Get Out to. For financial and multi-cat reasons they would need to be within a day’s travel, even if a long day, and would have to be worth writing/posting about.

And then it occurred to me, why don’t I start another blog and link it to this one, which I think you can do though I can’t remember how? A blog of my travels – as yet at the highly putative pencil scrawl stage.

Now, what shall I call this hypothetical blog of my putative, pencilled travels?

And before long I was making another list:

La Femme Disparue (oh goodness, not more suspect French )… The Invisible Woman (sounds like something in bandages)… The Lady Vanishes… ?

Write what’s on your mind

Even after a year and a bit of blogging (and many more years before that of Writing Stuff) I still haven’t learned to relax and trust the process. There is still the occasional day when I wake up and think Aaargh – nothing to write about!!! This instantly translates itself, via black and white, catastrophic thinking into Aaargh – there will never be anything to write about again!!!

Sometimes it then progresses into Aaargh – there never was anything to write about, I was deluded, I only thought there was, all my life therefore I have been wasting hours and hours in writing stuff that was totally worthless and uninspired!!!

On really bad days this progresses into My life itself is worthless, I am worthless, nobody loves me, nobody ever loved me, what is the point of me? Sorry, sorry sorry…!!!

No doubt I am not alone in this.

Most of the time I can retrieve the situation by reminding myself of something Pamela Frankau, a long-dead and mostly-forgotten novelist, once wrote of inspiration:

The tanks take longer and longer to refill… I cannot believe that I shall write another book. I remind myself that I have written thirty. And although, at fifty-two, I have far more to say than when I was young, I seem to have far less to say it about. At this gloomy stage, I am certain there’s no new subject for a novel and that, even if there was, I wouldn’t find it.

Then, mysteriously, I am past that stage. I am awake and prowling. The tanks have refilled…

And that is how it is. There are gaps, sometimes uncomfortably long gaps. Then, like London buses, three ideas come along at once.

Pamela is also why even now I have to weed out superfluous commas, inevitably missing some. She caught me at an impressionable age and her writing style became mine for a while. I now feel that by and large experienced readers can be trusted to know when to pause, and breathe. Less is more.

Often I convince myself I can’t write because I’m busy worrying about something, ie there is no space left in my head for inspiration. Recently it has dawned on me that what I’m busy worrying about is exactly the thing to write about. You have to catch – even recognise – thoughts while they’re still raw and unprocessed. It’s kind of ring-fenced but you have to unfence it.

So, ever since Saturday morning, like the Bunyip, I have been sitting-on-a-hypothetical-log biting my fingernails over a sum of money accidentally transferred to the wrong people by my solicitors. In truth, there was no urgency. No need to imagine a whole chain-reaction of worst-case scenarios. It’s me. I’m OK at this sort of thing, and can override Panic Mode if only I can act at once to put it right. Unfortunately, offices being closed over the weekend I couldn’t make the necessary telephone call until Monday morning. I just had to wait. Me and waiting (waiting and I?) don’t mix and the result was no fingernails and two sleepless nights in a row.

Nowadays when I find myself awake at 3 in the morning I get up, make a cup of tea and turn on the TV. Distraction is the only thing that helps. Unfortunately I only have to set foot on the top stair and the cats start charging about, assuming they are going to be fed even if it is pitch black outside.

If you’ve never suffered from insomnia you may not know what rubbish there is on television in the middle of the night. I watched the News, but it was the same news it had been several hours before. No unexpected celebrity deaths, no military coups, no presidential debates happening as yet; the elephant, and something that looks like an armadillo only prettier, whose name I have temporarily forgotten, may begin with K – urgh, commas again – are still endangered species.

I watched and I watched and I watched, wondering why it was perfectly easy even for a too-tall lady to fall asleep on a too-small charity shop sofa during the day, yet in the middle of the night the sofa seemed to shrink, and develop very hard arms. I watched Australians being just as pretentious as Brits on their own version of Grand Designs, and then I watched a programme about what could be done surgically/prosthetically for men who had had their prostates removed and were having trouble

The last thing I remember was some horrible thing being inflated

At least I got a little sleep.

They did what?

In my perambulations around the internet I keep a weather eye (what is a weather eye, I wonder?) out for things to write about. These tend to be presented in the form of lists numbered one to one hundred. I usually lose interest after about six. Then I tend to file the list, find it a year later and… into the recycling it goes, along with all those brightly coloured posters from people who want to renew my double-glazing, build me a conservatory, persuade me to buy a take-away curry or two at their Balti Restaurant, have my hypothetical poodle groomed at their grooming studio or my nails sculpted at their nail-bar.

And then I end up writing about some murky bit of my past, some ancient, eccentric auntie, my mother in the old folks home, the state of the nation, scrabble… whatever.

So, on the latest list – 100 NOT-boring Writing Prompts for Middle & High Schoolers – let’s start with number 2:

What things will people in the future say about how we live now? (Examples: They ate that? They believed that?)

As far as eating goes…

They actually cooked inoffensive small slimy sea creatures in their shells and then winkled them out with a special winkle-pin? There was actually a Winkle Club with an ornamental winkle pin for each member’s lapel? More bizarrely yet:

Each Winkle Club Member (or ‘Winkler’) carries a winkle shell which they must produce when challenged to ‘winkle up’.

Wikipedia

Drinking…

You mean they actually knocked this tequila stuff back in one go, having first licked salt off the back of their hands and then sucked on a lime?

Believing…

They actually believed that this misogynist with the wispy yellow comb-over and strange hand-gestures might become President? (And he did?)

Or, to be even-handed:

They actually believed that irritating, bearded, totally charisma-free little man with the bewildered expression might be elected Prime Minister? On what planet?

Fifty percent of UK TV presenters continued to pronounce idyllic eyedillic even when they knew (or jolly well should have known) it was wrong?

All sorts of important people continued to pronounce nuclear noo-cu-lar even when the spelling was right there in front of them on the page?

They read? You mean, like, books? They couldn’t plug themselves in and download?

Well, I could go on, but I won’t, as I’m worn out and a cup of coffee, a roomful of neglected cats and Stargate beckon.

Feel free to append as many of your own futuristic “They did whats?” to the list as you would like.

Apparently it’s my first birthday

WordPress have sent me a little round whatsit since apparently it was exactly a year ago today that I started this blog. It seems like a lifetime. Several lifetimes.

It’s a particularly useful little snippet as I’m too mind-boggled to write anything intelligent tonight, having spent a whole day in an upper room watching one dire training DVD after another.

There were three of us. We tried to stay awake. The other two kept going out for increasingly frequent ciggy-breaks; I stayed behind but paced the shabby royal blue carpet to restore my circulation  (those chairs were so hard) and spy on the High Street shoppers going in and out of Wilco.

Life is strange! You never know where you’re going to end up next.

And fancy being one again!

Soldiering on when you’ve lost the plot

So there I was, having written part one of what I thought was going to be a two-, or at the very most a three-blog-post story. But just like those science fiction double episodes that you don’t immediately realise are going to be double episodes, things didn’t seem to be coming to any sort of conclusion. Rather, the plot seemed to be expanding. Dangerously.

Oh no, I’m thinking, could I have accidentally started writing a novel inside a blog? Could it be that in three years time I’ll still be posting some equivalent of War and Peace in bite-size chunks? People will long since have stopped reading by then. Why didn’t I plot the thing out in detail for heaven’s sake?

This is how I felt:

typing.jpg

I really don’t like the look of the man. Presumably it is a man?

The reason was because I was too lazy and also because I knew if I got bogged down in plotting it I’d never actually get round to writing it. I have boxes of detailed, well-thought-out plots for stories I have never written. Boxes full of files full of other files, full of A4 dividers and paper clips full of forgotten and unwritten plans for things. An aeon, an ocean of boxes.

One thing at a time, I thought. What is today’s problem? Today’s problem, me told myself, is that you/she have/has bravely/foolishly published part one of a short story having no clue as to what happens in part two, let alone the rest.

So what shall I do? me asked me.

Start asking questions, me replied.

So here are the first three of a list of questions I asked myself about The Obedience of Brother Odhran going forward, and the answers that arrived from somewhere or other – out of the ether. I spent an hour or so doing this, by the end of which I had more or less uncovered the whole plot, although the characters will keep butting in at inconvenient moments with refinements and fol-de-rols:

Where did the manuscript come from?

Italy, the Siege of Florence – and thence into the hands of a Roman ancestor of the new Abbot. The book was thrown from the battlements by an unknown hand, and he caught it. It was in some unreadable script. He was taking part in the siege and brought it back to Rome.

Why has the new Abbot been appointed – with what ulterior motive?

By the Pope himself, to root out dissolution weakness in the monastery. He has heard Henry VII means them harm (1536) And may even be thinking of destroying the monasteries. The Pope requires the monasteries to be strong and above reproach, should this happen. The new Abbot is therefore a cross between a spy and a sergeant major.

What happened to the old Abbot?

He was said to have died of a mysterious illness on a visit to a sister monastery, but there is no proof. He was got rid of.

There were many more questions and answers on my list. I’ll keep them to myself for now  so as not to give away the ending of The Obedience of Brother Odhran for anyone currently reading it. You will see, by the way, if you read the story itself, that not all of the answers were slavishly followed. Things change and rearrange themselves as you go along, sometimes quite drastically. That’s all right.

I think the thing is – a kind of practical confidence that comes from years and years of constructing stories of one sort or another. It’s really odd since I have very little confidence about anything else. It’s not conceit: it’s not believing you can write a good story, only that you’re going be able to write some sort of story. You have the bones of  this monster in your head. You will to be able to build the Creature, stitch all those charnel bits and pieces together and breathe life into, even if it’s not exactly pretty. The thing is you can perform as much cosmetic surgery as you like on It/Him/Her later (or not, in my case, since I’m posting as I go along). The only important thing is to finish what you started.

Blogging While Rome Burns

I’m not good at plans. I make any number of them. My computer’s littered with them. Mostly they are called Plan. Sometimes they are called Plan 2 or Plan 3. I found one the other day called Yet Another Plan. But not a single one of these Plans have I ever managed to put into action. Making them used to make me feel like I was doing something. Like I was in control. It doesn’t nowadays but I can’t seem to stop making them.

I don’t know whether my life is currently going to hell in a handcart, and my survival so far has just been a lucky accident. I don’t know the state of my life because another thing I’m not good at is assessing and coming to logical conclusions. I am very logical; drearily, pedantically logical in fact at times. I just can’t apply the dreary logic to my own circumstances. My mind goes off at tangents, and then tangents from the tangents. It slithers away from most things. Slithers back to the single thing it was designed for – scribbling stories; finessing poems few people will ever read – and of course to blogging, this endless tap-tap-tapping away and one damned machine or another. I am all input and no output. Consumed by what I am, and the way my brain is wired, I need another planet to be on.

Sorry, this sounds like some ancient Roman death-rattle and it didn’t start off like that. There’s nothing new in the situation – I’m just noticing it more at the moment, what with the pending house move and all the alien focussing-on-dull-stuff that that process entails. And Mum going into a home.

When Mum was around it was my role to be her child. I knew where I was with that. However old I got, having no children of my own, I remained her child. Now she’s left me, mentally – physically too, since she was carted off in an ambulance with an exhausted lady social worker. I was one of the principals in our family play. I played the eldest daughter, that gifted disappointment, the damp squib. I was the Sunday visitor staring into space; the one who did the tortoise shuffle up to the café with her; who manoeuvred her arms, with all those woolly layers, into the sleeves of her winter coat; who fumbled about for her walking-stick under the table. I was the one with the endless capacity for boredom (which was really a capacity to be thinking of many other things whilst appearing to listen). I was the incompetent, the unlucky one, an endless source of concern for a mother who ran on worry. ‘Oh Linda!’ her constant refrain. That was what I was for.

And suddenly here I am – one of a faceless crowd mumbling rhubarb-rhubarb to sound like I’m really talking; third from the left in the chorus; the soldier who walks on with a spear in the Second Act.

So, at the moment my own particular Rome may be burning. Or I may just be worrying too much. Usually it’s the worrying, but as usual I have no way of telling. But I can tell you this one thing, best beloveds: writing makes the world all right. Writing about disintegration pulls everything back together. Writing about chaos makes some temporary sense of it. Writing is threading a giant bowlful of beads into a necklace. Why or how that should be… I don’t know.

I did some cursory research about the Emperor Nero. He couldn’t actually have fiddled while Rome burned since violins – that whole class of instruments – hadn’t been invented yet. He might have played the cithara, which may or may not be the wooden instrument he is shown with, in the above illustration. Or his fiddle/cithara playing may be purely metaphorical. Sadistic, decadent, unpopular – he wasn’t nice at all, old Nero. He was an ineffectual leader, not bothered about the sufferings of his people, and that’s probably what the legends of his fiddle-playing were all about.

Therefore blog on, best beloveds. Like the orchestra on the Titanic, we shall keep on playing Nearer my God to Thee as sea-water dampens our trouser-bottoms. If Rome is indeed burning, such music shall we have.

To Tweet, but what to Tweet – that is the question

I just opened a Twitter account. It was my intention, in fact, to join all three – Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook – in a single day. Then I could then have written a smug and witty post entitled:

I joined Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook in a single day (and now I need a little lie down)

Unfortunately I’m not going to be able to use that one because it’s taken me most of the morning to join Twitter and my nerves are already shot. I need the little lie down now. What if, in my experimentation, I accidentally tweeted some really foolish thing and everybody in the whole universe was splitting its sides laughing at me?

Pssst: why is the past tense of I text (absolutely counterintuitively) said to be I text rather than I texted, yet the past tense of I tweet remains I tweeted? Or is it in fact I tweet with a silent ‘ed’ and I just don’t know that yet?

And now of course I have no idea what to tweet. I googled What am I supposed to tweet, then? And Mr G replied: Think of it as small talk

I’m pretty bad at small talk. Also, I have no confidence that Kim Kardashian, say, or Olly Murs or The Queen would want to know that I just made myself a cup of coffee, or that the tumble dryer sounds as if it may be about to tell me it’s completed its cycle by piping the musical motif from Close Encounters of the First Kind. You know – the one where the hero builds a huge, fascinating mud-pie spaceship on the kitchen table and then hares off across the USA in search the real thing? Which no doubt is more than 140 characters.

How I hate that tumble-dryer noise, by the way. There must be a way to silence it, in the instruction manual. Which is lost.

There is nothing interesting about my life I realise now, too late.

Nothing at all.

Nothing.

Whereas I can’t seem to stop writing blog posts I can’t seem to think of anything at all to tweet or have tweeted. Or have tweet(ed). And what makes it worse is I have no Twitter followers. Understandable since this is my first day in the Nest, but… I’d be tweeting into thin air. Wouldn’t I?

Why am I putting myself through all this? There was a kind of logic behind it, I think. I had come to the conclusion that I ought to use the only two things I had – a computer and a compulsion to write – to make money. This sort of thinking has never worked in the past but I don’t seem to have access to any other sort.

So I asked Mr G how to make money through writing online and he sent me to one of those Wiki-whatsits with Janet and John-type illustrations. Wiki-whatsit listed a number of ways but warned me in Big Red Letters (no, it didn’t, I made that bit up) to establish a social media presence in advance. It didn’t tell me why, in any great detail, but I think the idea is you’re forming a kind of network – a bit like the network of links constantly forming and reforming inside La Tour Abolie, and between La Tour Abolie and other blogs/websites except that this is… outside my blog – like allying one complexifying

(cut out the red-wigglies, Spellcheck, there is such a word!)

network of links to another? Everything feeds back into, enhances and magnifies everything else? Everything hangs on the instant findability of information? Have I got the idea?

Please not that! I thought. I’ve managed to avoid it for so long.

I shall draw an analogy. Yes, I shall. Or maybe will.

As many of you know, I am a big fan of TV science fiction series but can only watch them in unevenly spaced, non-sequential gobbets on Freeview. At the moment I am watching not one but two ancient seasons of Stargate. One of the characters, Teal’c, has this thing inside his chest, like a worm with feelers, and there’s this big X in his chest where he’s been cut open at some point and, at moments of high drama and stress, he reaches into this X and pulls out the worm thing, which is actually called a symbiont, and he the host.

Well, how I feel about that symbiont is how I have tended to feel about Twitter, and social media generally. Something along the lines of: why would you ever want to?

It’s one of those schizoid things I expect – something to do with transparency and inadequate boundaries – ontological insecurity. It’s that instinct that other people could walk all through you if they wanted to, walk all over you…

On the other hand I sometimes do feel, when watching some TV debate, that I would like to say something pithy and devastating about Donald Trump, say, or… or Donald Trump. I have even sometimes mused If only I was on Twitter…

The other annoying thing is it means plastering my real and deadly dull name around the internet. Some of you already know because you asked, and I confessed, that I am not so much of a Rosie as a Linda. Rosie is the name of my favourite moggy. People came to address me as Rosie because rosiebooks2009 was the username WordPress concocted from an old email address when I joined. I would love to be a Rosie but sadly I’m a Linda. Every woman in the entire world is a Linda; there were at least four in my class at Junior School.

To add insult to injury I am, perforce, a Clark. I married an interesting man with the least interesting surname in the world. After we got divorced I had other things to worry about than fiddle-faddling about reverting to my maiden name. So, call me either. I’m both.

So, my Twitter ‘handle’ (handle?) is @lindaclark944. Quite what good that will be to you at the moment I don’t know.

Perhaps I ought to tweet that I have just posted a post about tweeting?

Yes, that might be a start.

Dead People Who Would Have Been Bloggers

I’m not suggesting that to paint a bison on a wall, or blow coloured powder through your fingers to make your hand-print on a cave wall is the equivalent of blogging – communication, yes; symbolism, yes but for blogging you do need words. However, words have been around for a long time, and as long as they have been around there have been people who wanted to… just update you on their Daily Doings, on their Thoughts, people who just had a weird idea or two and found some sort of pleasure in putting it out there… see if there was any reaction.

These individuals were not necessarily novelists. Writing a novel is a specialised, long-term project and requires a lot of sterling qualities that bloggers may or may not be somewhat deficient in – gritty determination; staying power; that passionate, obsessive attention to detail; that ability to remember who in God’s name Catherine Earnshaw is and why there need to be two Catherine’s in one book; that ability to keep going day after day, pushing that knot towards the invisible end of that invisible piece of string, building that wall whilst standing two inches away from it, telling the joke for which there may well turn out never to have been a punchline; wading on through that dark, dark treacle when one’s novel sinks into its inevitable Soggy Bottom – or rather it’s Soggy Middle.

I’m not like that, fellow bloggers. Maybe you are – in which case why are you wasting your time on this frippery? Wamble off somewhere and pen that novel. Get thee to a nunnery, why woulds’t thou be a breeder of sinners?

All through history there have been people who have something to say – sometimes frivolous but equally often unique, subtle, interesting, humorous; people who wanted to gossip rather than lecture; people who just wanted to say, hey, what do you think about this? In the past those people did blog, they just didn’t call it that, and they used whatever medium came to hand. In Ancient Rome Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, tutor and advisor to the truly horrible Emperor Nero, wrote letters.

seneca.jpg

Except that they weren’t really letters. His one hundred and twenty-four were formally addressed to a friend, a distant student, but whether or not such student actually existed – is unimportant. The Letters were Seneca’s way of talking to the world. Give him a computer, he would have blogged.

Diarist Samuel Pepys would probably have blogged. He eventually had to give up diarising because of his eyesight. He was afraid that having to write, with an inkpot and quill pen, by candlelight, was damaging it further. However, he might well have blogged in his own private code, based on the well-known (in those days) Shelton’s Shorthand, plus Spanish, Italian and French, since the grown-up stuff was interspersed with quite a lot of saucy stuff about maids and mistresses that he that wouldn’t have wanted his wife to read, also a lot of stuff about his wife that she probably wouldn’t have wanted other people to know.

pepys

For example (skip this bit, children):

“… and did tocar mi cosa con su mano [ touch my thing with her hand] through my chemise but yet so as to hazer me hazer la grande cosa ” [make me make the great thing (orgasm)]

Jane Austen would have blogged, you betcha. She would probably have called herself Johan Austen for more gravitas, or Herbert Finke and had one of those little round pictures where you can almost but not quite see someone’s face, and it might not be them anyway (not that I can speak, hiding behind a picture of a stuffed witch puppet). Can you imagine her observations, this quiet, mob-capped auntie in the corner? I think I would almost rather have been able to read Aunt Jane’s blog than Pride and Prejudice. Almost.  Better still, Cassandra might not have been able to get her censoring little hands on it after her sister’s death.

Charles Dickens would have blogged. He published those enormous and rather wonderful novels of his in weekly instalments – respect to him; it’s no easy feat to write a novel on the hoof, no safety net – the possibility of tossing the whole thing in the wastepaper basket half way through or drastically rewriting it. But he was also a businessman and wrote and published several magazines. I can imagine his blog as being more of a zine, but a wonderful zine. A wonderful new(ish) word zine is, too – so useful for Scrabble.

And then there are the women’s magazine journalists, the newspaper columnists, the poets, the publishers of scandalous broadsheets and lofty sermons. Do you think they would have been able to resist the lure of that lit-up screen? Two more, and then I’ll shut up.

Nella Last (or Housewife, 49 so brilliantly played by the so recently late Victoria Wood) who wrote page after unpunctuated page, in pencil on scraps of paper, and submitted them to Mass Observation movement during the Second World War. What she writes about is so dull, so every-day and yet, running beneath it all, the sorrows of a real-life mismatched but stuck-to marriage, the loved but not entirely comprehended son, the struggles, the clever ‘dodges’, the pride in being able to manage, the pleasure in making her ‘dollies’ for the hospital, the achievement of running a wartime charity shop; the emergence of a downtrodden middle-aged woman, partly through her writings and partly through war, into a circumscribed individuality. She’d have blogged – if her husband had allowed her on the computer.

George Mackay Brown, eccentric poet and dramatist from Stromness, Orkney, Scotland, and regular columnist in The Orcadian. He died in 1996. Apart from one or two sorties to university and so forth, he spent his whole life in this one, beloved place and he wrote about the small things, the daily things that were important to his readers. He said he wrote for an imaginary Orcadian, someone exiled to America maybe, or Canada. He wrote to give them a taste of home, to keep them in touch with what was important to all. After breakfast each day he would push aside the marmalade pot and the breadcrumbs and start writing. He often had a bit of a struggle to get his handwritten column to the post-box on time, when it was blowing a gale or the up-hill-and-down-dale streets were a sheet of ice. Often he was cold, in his own little house. Sometimes he was ill, sometimes depressed. Sometimes – pretty often, in fact – he turned to whiskey for solace and when he did he drank too much of it, but always he wrote. He brought Orkney to life. He knew so much about its history and geography, and was constantly referring to his overloaded bookshelves for the meaning of some tantalising word or phrase in the Orkney Norn – the old Norse language.

He was a nerd, before there was such a thing. He would have been a blogger, although he might have had to use the computer in the Public Library, since he had little money and only the most basic possessions. His newspaper columns were eventually collected into two books:  Under Brinkie’s Brae and Letters from Hamnavoe. He wrote about what he ate for his supper, his bachelor experiments with cooking; about the challenging Orcadian weather; about taking friends and visitors round the island and showing them the sights; about long walks and seabirds; about problems with heating, postal strikes; ballpoint pens; a sagging couch a friend had bought on his behalf in a sale; nature, football matches and television programmes… anything.

And that’s the thing about blogging, isn’t it? You don’t have to have a theme, or a purpose, or a noble aim. You don’t have to be coherent, you don’t need to be propagandising or sending some sort of message. You can write about anything. Just because.

Time and Motion

I’ve noticed more and more as time goes by – the past materialising and dematerialising. On every street corner, in shops long unvisited and parks half-forgotten, driving late at night or in the brightest sunlight – ghosts are starting to appear.

It’s a function of growing older. The world – or at least our world – is not that big, and we pass and repass over the same territory. There used to be a time-and-motion study for housewives, I remember. The housewife had some kind of light bulb attached and her movements – from fridge to cooker, from cooker to sink etcetera – were recorded as a trail of light. I believe that’s how cooker-sink-fridge came to be known as the kitchen work triangle. In idle moments wondered what the entire track my life would look like if I had had a lightbulb attached. What a job that would be to untangle!

Today I drove past a street corner in the same town I chugged through very slowly on the train yesterday. It’s a grimy, unremarkable corner opposite a kind of mini traffic island, and looking out onto a sea of moving cars is small, shabby taxi-cab office. It was a small, shabby taxi-cab office in 1971 too, and outside it I suddenly see me and Clive, leaning against the even-then flaking paintwork, kissing. We were at college together and rambled down through the back streets every afternoon , I to wait for a bus (outside the taxi office) and he to catch a train to the seaside. He was the only handsome man I ever went out with – dark, dapper, beautiful – and I knew, of course, that he was not for me. Indeed, he was engaged to a girl called Jean back home at the seaside, but that didn’t seem to bother either of us.

We snogged, desultorily, every evening until my bus arrived. I don’t think he even found me particularly attractive but we were together, temporarily, we were friends and I was willing, so he felt he might as well. Young people did that sort of thing in those days. Probably still do.

But it isn’t just Clive. I walk along the street I grew up on. Now I am looking down at my feet, watching out for the dropped kerbs with which it is now infested, though not quite as careful as my Mum, who was convinced she was going to fall over at any minute. But at the same time the child ‘me’ is running along the street. I pass her sometimes, sat on the edge of the pavement, her feet in the road. It has recently rained (so her dress will be getting wet, but she won’t notice) and she is watching twigs careering down the gutter towards the drain.

In two days time I will drive down the lane we lived in when we were married. I will no doubt be surprised at how much the house has changed since either of us was in it. I will remember the cat buried under the blue hydrangea. Unless they’ve dug them up – the bush, the cat, or both. I will remember how you cried for that little cat – the only time I ever saw you cry about anything. I will remember trying to take your arm, another day, and how you shook me off after a few paces, embarrassed even to be touched. I will remember hurrying down that lane to meet my lover, and how my heart was beating and the blood rushing in my ears.

As I get older I sometimes get inklings of the pattern behind things. That sounds so pretentious – and I really don’t like the word inklings – and it’s only for split seconds; nothing ever sticks. I don’t think any of us are ever allowed to discover the meaning of life – but as we progress we get these little glimpses, so that we know there might be a meaning. Sometimes it has seemed to me like a carpet we are weaving, with a pattern we can’t see because we are too close. But at the end – of each individual life, maybe, we get to see the overall pattern.

But recently – since I have been blogging (in earnest) in fact – I have begun to think that it’s more intricate and complicated even than that. It’s like the past and the present are not separated as we imagine, but linked one to the other at many points – linked and interlinked. And maybe I mean that the past – all the pasts – and the present – all the presents – exist in one plane. It is only made to seem that ‘the past is another country’. So, a life is more like a blog long worked on, and richly, richly supplied with links – links between past and present and here and there, and her and me, but also links with other people’s pasts and presents, their heres and theres.

And then I wonder, if I’m a character in the blog that is my life – who – or what version of me – is doing the blogging? What giant hands are hammering out each fresh instalment of my life at 80 wpm?

The Museum of Procrastination

I’m going through a bad patch at the moment. It’s all the uncertainty about the house. As soon as I find somewhere to buy and get an offer accepted I’ll be OK. However…

…there is plenty I could be getting on with, but which I am not getting on with. The latest story, for example. I know the title, I know the heroine’s name – name and cover-name, in fact; I know precisely which magazine I am aiming the story at and I have typed out a comprehensive outline of the plot. I even know the approximate number of words the story will contain because I have this useful little gift(ette): I am able ‘set’, say, 3,000 words in my head at the outset and the story will turn out 3,000 words long, give or take a hundred. Quite often it’s been 3,000 on the dot. It’s similar to ‘setting’ six o’clock in your head, going to sleep and waking up at six the next morning without troubling the alarm clock.

What I haven’t done is started writing it. This is because it is going to be hard, focussed work and I haven’t got much focus at the moment. This is because I’m lazy and am vaguely hoping some other old dear will write it, or that somehow or other it will turn out to have been written thanks to a crinkle in the fabric of time. All of which reminds me of an ad for a well-known bank in which is featured the Museum of Procrastination. This contains towering stacks of gym memberships that were used once only and spent the rest of their lives in wallets, unfinished novels, musical instruments that only ever played Frère Jacques and a giant green wastepaper basket full of screwed up paper – all the good ideas people have had and done nothing whatsoever about.

Outlines are something I don’t tend to do with blog posts nowadays. I start off with a spark, sit at the computer and meander about on the keys. Better stuff comes out that way – stuff I’d have censored or polished out of existence given half a chance. Better unpolished. Then I hunt around for a picture to match or mirror my thoughts, which often takes as long as, if not longer than, writing the post. But I don’t mind that, because it’s not writing. There’s something about writing… It’s like matter and antimatter. One feels frustratingly prevented from doing it when forced to concern oneself with stuff like washing up, ironing and food shopping, but one feels endlessly reluctant to start doing it as soon as there is time.

I would like to visit the Museum of Procrastination. It sounds a lot more interesting than the sort I got dragged round at intervals as a child, which mostly consisted of clay pipes, axe-heads, dinosaur bones and Roman coins. The problem I always find with museums is that things just sit there, looking dusty, just staring at you. And I always feel sorry for them because they are imprisoned in a future they could never have imagined – if axe-heads, clay pipes and Roman coins can be said to imagine. They should have died when they were supposed to. How weary they must feel, here, unmoving, in cabinets of glass; faded brown labels, curling at the edges, in front of them. What sort of life is it, when you were designed to be sucked by a sailor (no, that doesn’t sound right…) bring a woolly mammoth to its knees or pass from greasy palm to greasy palm in the purchase of silks and spices? That was the life of these objects and this… this is their interment; this is some hideous, static afterlife being visited by schoolchildren and looking at your own mournful reflection in the glass.

 

And weave but nets to catch the wind

Two thoughts occurred to me simultaneously yesterday, about the internet. One thought is to be celebrated, two at the same time is a rare occurrence.

Firstly it occurred to me that this thing that we are feverishly blogging onto; this thing we confidently upload the 9,999th recipe for cheese-and-tomato-quiche onto or inform as to the 999 household uses for lemon juice; this thing we publish our ground-breaking scientific treatises onto; on which we proclaim our political and religious fervour; on which we write our life stories and record the least and most interesting details of daily lives – would be the major, if not the only historical ‘source’ in years to come.

I imagine them, our historians, a thousand years hence – maybe tiptoeing the scorched remains of some nuclear disaster; teeming half-blind in some low-lit underground city or maybe – just maybe – cavorting joyfully in some green paradise containing faithful genetic reproductions/fanciful re-imaginings of all the creatures our own generation is hunting to extinction, polluting or crowding out of existence.  Here a snow leopard. There a unicorn.

But how those future professors and  graduate students will enjoy studying us, and what an unprecedented amount of material they will have to work on! Not for them, fragments of a scroll found in a cave. Not for them the copperplate of workhouse records, faded to brown. Not for them the clue in the place name, crumbled walls beneath the soil, letters complete or redacted. They will have…this.

That is, if this still exists (second thought). Will there still be electricity a thousand years hence? Will people still know how to write code? Will the phrase “Error 502 Bad Gateway” mean any more to them than it does to me? Who knows what technologies we are capable of destroying, in our foolishness.

We have done it so many times before, that’s the trouble. In 48 BCE (troublesome E – what’s that for?) or thereabouts someone, possibly Julius Caesar, set fire to the Library of Alexandria, one of the largest and most wonderful libraries in the ancient world. In those days knowledge was stored on papyrus scrolls. They burn nicely. What arcane material might have been recorded on those scrolls? We will never know.

Books have been burnt for as long as there have been books, and idiots who think that freedom of thought and the paper it is written down on are one and the same thing:

In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.”

And on a smaller scale – Jane Austen’s precious letters, redacted or destroyed by her well-meaning sister Cassandra. Interestingly, Jane herself may have helped Cassandra decide which passages to excise. In an age when letters would have been read aloud to the family, Jane would underline those passages which were for her sister’s eyes only, and Cassandra would skip over these when reading. There is even a mention of this system in Pride and Prejudice. What trust people must have had in one another.

austen

And yet information continues to be passed down, and presumably the way this happens is via human memory. Even if something is later destroyed, some or all of it will be in somebody’s head, and that person will tell others. Ideas, no matter how many times we burn or redact them, will move from person to person. As long as people can whisper to one another in corners an idea, once had, will never be destroyed. Or if it was destroyed someone, somewhere, eventually, would have it all over again. No matter many barrels of dynamite are employed in reducing it to rubble an ancient temple, once built, can never be destroyed. The reverence that built it survives: it has been, therefore it is. A poem, once written, exists, even if nobody ever, anywhere, reads it. It is part of the fabric of the universe.

 

 

 

A penchant for chambermaids

Life without a computer – it sends quite a shiver down my spine, though. In the short while I have been blogging stuff has come together for me – the blog gives me somewhere to put all those random bits of writing I’ve been randomly writing all my life. Better whirling in cyberspace, unpaid and anonymous, than attracting mildew at the back of my garage and read by no one at all. It’s given me an outlet and a focus – something to achieve each day.

I suppose I would adapt and survive if all computers were suddenly beamed up by a silver spaceship, and in some ways it might be easier for me than for a younger person who has never lived without computers, and blogs, their little furry inhabitants. I would keep on writing, but the blog would become a paper object, a combination of diary, “essais” as Montaigne called them, commonplace book, notebook and attempted fiction. I would miss having readers – probably more even than I want to imagine at the moment. One half of writing is expressing oneself, the other half is communicating. Without a reader I would have lost half my reason for writing but probably not all of it. I’d still derive a certain amount of satisfaction from keeping up with my diary/notebook in obscurity. And after all, what else would there be to do?

I do hope that another time around I’d be more organised – work out some sort of format or system and stick to it. No more rusty paperclips, scraps of paper and overflowing cardboard boxes. All in the one place, and indexed. Ideally I’d be a latter-day Pepys, sitting down at my desk to write of an evening, in longhand, in a series of beautiful ledgers. Maybe even by candle-light, though a periwig might be excessive. Maybe I’d even invent a code, as he did. It would be amusing to write ream upon ream of stuff in hieroglyphs that would occupy scholars for centuries to come, trying to translate. Of course I don’t have as much to hide as Pepys, who went about the King’s business and needed to be discreet. He also had a clever and somewhat shrewish French wife and a penchant for chambermaid-fumbling. The bits in plain English are juicy enough.

But as for life without a computer, that would be inconvenient. I live in a remote place and if I had to rely on the village shop – well, I couldn’t. There’s hardly anything in it. Try feeding eighteen cats from a shop that puts out four tins of cat food per day and thinks that party balloons, plastic clothes pegs, can openers and little sewing kits are more important than bread and baked beans. If I didn’t have the computer I would need to be somewhere else post haste, always assuming that I had the choice. If computers suddenly ceased to exist, I’m guessing we would see a mass flight to towns and cities. Baby boomers especially would be on the move, trying to insure themselves against a computerless old age.

Even selling houses. Imagine it, without Zoopla and Rightmove. Virtual window-shopping would be out and endless trailing round estate agents’ offices and leafing through sheaves of property details would be in: no sidestepping the over-attentive oily charm and the hard sell then. Instead of eliminating a lot of unsuitable properties via some practised snooping on Google Maps – doing that dizzy-making thing with the arrows to see how wide the street is, whether there’s parking or a dirty great un-photographed factory opposite – we’d have to actually go there. What a waste of time.

And emails – no more emails. Back to handwritten letters with stamps on. Postcards, even. I wouldn’t mind that: it would be nice to hear that papery rustle on the doormat and not be absolutely certain it was either a bill or a colourful candidate for the recycling box.

OH DEAR, WHAT CAN THE MATTER BE?

My amigo Mr Computer Problems?! is coming to collect the computer tomorrow and it may be on its holidays in his workshop for a couple of days. When it comes back it should have the new Windows 10 thingummyjig safely downloaded (ie not by me) and I will then have to teach myself to use it. Windows 10 in Easy Steps is to hand, saying it is in Plain English, Easy To Follow, Fully Illustrated and In Full Colour. All hopeful and reassuring-sounding. The trouble is I know what I’m like: the minute I get the thing plugged in I’ll start clicking on stuff at random and end up taking three months to stagger through it by trial and error.

I do have a smart phone, in a box. All the stuff I need is in the box, it’s just that I haven’t got round to… From reading the blogs of others I gather it is possible to send a post from a smart phone, but first I would have to master the smart phone, and by that time the computer will probably be back.

So if you spot a gap in the blogging this week – I’m still here – just getting cross and drinking mug after mug of instant coffee in my attempts to get back. And it won’t stop me writing. I’ve laid in a good stock of paper and pencils and I shall scribble. When my computer returns, and assuming I can at least locate the ‘Word’ icon, I shall type. Then, when Windows 10 and I are the best of buddies, more or less, I shall post.

Fingers crossed.

Have also ordered additional cat litter, and an extra Tesco delivery. Otherwise, heaven forefend, I may have to get in the car, drive the twenty miles to civilisation and visit one of those shops.