Who’d a thunk it?

Firstly, I have realised something about my fridge-freezer. It isn’t. I bought it thinking the bottom half was a freezer because, after all, top or bottom, one half of a fridge-freezer is always a freezer, isn’t it?

I suppose I did vaguely wonder, over the eight months or so that this great white monster, larger than any fridge I ever owned before, purchased in a fit of post Brexit/Apocalyptic prepping, was not actually making the many loaves of cheap sliced bread I stored in it rock hard. I had a vague memory of having to defrost frozen bread before eating but this – this was just a bit on the parky side. Half an hour in the fridge proper and Bob’ yer Uncle.

Yesterday, the on which the British Heat Record of 2003 was broken – the hottest day in Britain ever – I staggered out to the garage in search of my acrylic heart-shaped ice-cube moulds. Why they were in the garage is a long story. To do with ill-fated soap-making. I filled all the wobbly moulds with tap water and wobbled them back across the kitchen to the “freezer”, spilling quite a bit. I left them in the “freezer” and forgot about them.

The hottest day has come and gone. Canadian Sis rang up and, after an hour of (once again) advising her how to deal with her intrusive, borderline bullying next-door-neighbour and (once again) explaining that negotiating with, defending against or manoeuvring around Other People is not a generic Man’s/Husband’s Job, but something that, male of female, we all need to set our minds to sooner or later. She is so angry at her deceased husband for leaving her with all these unsuspected complications that she actually berates his Ashes, in their Urn on the mantel piece, in passing. How could you go and get cancer and leave me to deal with all this… stuff? You weren’t supposed to do that! Anyway, after that hour, I peeled the landline phone from my left cheek to find it – the phone, that is – running with sweat. No wonder it crackles.

After an appalling night spread-eagled naked on top of the bed (not as exciting as it sounds) which had somehow been wheeled into some sort of nightmarish oven full of itchy, hot cats, aching heads, lightning flashes and distant thunder, waking at fifteen minute intervals to drink lukewarm water from a row of plastic bottles, and then at thirty minute intervals to totter out to the loo to spend a penny – after which my face still looks like some puffy, puce balloon – I staggered to my “freezer”, remembering my “ice cubes”. Which of course were still unfrozen. A bit colder, perhaps, than they would have been in the fridge but definitely still liquid.

I can’t say I understand, but I think the best and cheapest option is a change of nomenclature: my fridge freezer is, henceforward, the fridge-and-ever-so-slightly-colder.

Secondly, we have a new Prime Minister. I doubt if anybody is very hopeful. Pity us poor Brits, all hope has been leached out of us – leached, I say. How could the Government have stuffed things up so very badly? How can we possibly escape from this dreadful mire? All is lost. We might once have hoped for greatness from Boris, and maybe we still do, secretly, in a dull, dispirited sort of way. However, he is if nothing else telling us to lighten up. He is standing at the Dispatch Box, waving his arms about, laughing, joking, and assuring us that everything is going to be all right. Better than all right, in fact. Fantastic! Somehow. And it’s the greatest relief. Not the extravagant promises, not the fractional likelihood of success, not the grim political odds against him, not the likelihood of this brilliant but careless man making some gaffe or blunder and thereby ruining it for himself, but the humour. Humour is our national medicine, like grass to cats. It’s the way we cope. It’s that Monty Python thing. It’s our weird, homegrown kind of courage and it’s the glue that holds us together. Irreverence, bad jokes, the refusal to take our opponents, however formidable, at all seriously; wild, wonderful laughter – is perhaps, right now, our only faint hope of a cure.

And finally, the Meaning Of Life. Never say I don’t end with a biggie. Many years ago when I was still, if precariously, living with Ex, I was driving home from work one day and fell into a kind of reverie, and out of the blue it came to me: The Meaning Of Life. Which was (wait for it) The Two Worlds Are One. I remember being overjoyed as I drove down this long, twisty country lane across the Marsh, avoiding deep ditches on either side, that The Meaning Of Life had miraculously been vouchsafed to me.

The next day, although I could remember that The Two Worlds Were One, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what that meant – or what I had thought it meant during my Road to Damascus moment. I suspect I am not the only person that has happened to.

Every since, at intervals, I have wondered whether The Two Worlds Are One meant anything at all. I mean, how likely was it that a mediocre legal secretary would intuit something that people like Einstein had been unable to tell us? But finally, cheeringly – today I opened a book called “You Are The Universe” by Deepak Chopra. It had just come through the door. I stripped off the Amazon cardboard, took a sip of coffee and opened it randomly at page 232, and there was this (subtly ungrammatical) paragraph:

“The great pause can be found in the words of a scientist, including Heisenberg and Schrödinger, who suddenly sees, quite clearly, that there is only one reality, not two. There is no inner and outer, no me and you, no mind and matter, each half guarding its own marked off territory. The realisation is like a pause because the mind has stopped conceiving of reality and now starts living it.”

Ta da!

Pas de cherry-peeking, Breets ridicules!

Now that’s set your teeth on edge, hasn’t it, proper French speakers?

I had a very unoriginal thought today.  I googled it and discovered that it was in fact even more unoriginal than I imagined. I was looking at my books, all 2,000 of them piled vertically now (for cat fur/ease of hoovering reasons) into a high stack of de-shelved book cases.  It suddenly struck me, if I had to take the complete works of a very limited number of authors to a desert island with me – say, ten – which authors would I choose?

Now this isn’t as easy as it seems. It would be no good taking to a desert island a book with a thrilling but memorable plot, for example. However good it was, what would be the point of reading it again?

No good taking anything too distinctive, either. Harry Potter, for instance. I loved reading Harry Potter, each new book as eagerly anticipated as if I had been thirteen and three quarters rather than middle-aged. But once you’ve read them the surprise is gone out of them – they were whizz-bangs when they landed on our bookshelves but now… they’ve fizzled.

Not really much point in taking thrillers or detective novels, for the same reason. You might not think you remember whodunit but as soon as you start to read, you will.

And humour probably wouldn’t travel well. Only so many times you can laugh at a conversation between Bertie Wooster and Jeeves whilst fishing in the sea with a piece of string and an improvised hook, or trying to persuade yourself that shredded palm leaves are edible. Jokes are best not repeated – to the same audience – yourself.

No, the books would have to be kind of meaty. The sort that, though they may be a bit of a struggle to get into, pay dividends on later reflection. Also books with plots so labyrinthine that it is impossible to remember them on re-reading.

But you’d also need an element of comfort reading. So some of your books would be there just because they reminded you of home in some way – winter afternoons by the fire and snow falling outside; long walks down country lanes kicking autumn leaves with your wellies – whatever.

I’m thinking that, as with Desert Island Discs, a few ‘master’ works should be taken for granted – found in a deserted cabin, chewed a bit by moths but still perfectly readable, say. I believe Desert Island Discs allows castaways to assume The Complete Works of Shakespeare and a copy of the Bible, and I would add the Complete Works of Dickens. (It’s my island, I can make Dickens be in the deserted cabin if I want to. Maybe I’ll put the skeleton of the previous inhabitant in there too…)

Of course, the books you take may also reflect the age you happen to be when cast away. If you are twenty, say, you will have longer to savour the books of your choice, but also longer to get heartily sick of them. If you are ninety-five you might want to be more rigorously selective still, or take rather more spiritually-inclined reading matter.

So this is my list, in no particular order Still a work in progress. As you will see at the end I still haven’t managed to whittle it down to ten. I did consider simply putting the total up to twenty, but that seemed like cheating.

  1. Isaac Asimov
  2. A S Byatt
  3. Neil Gaiman
  4. Annie Proulx
  5. Charlotte Brontë
  6. Rose Tremain
  7. Alice Munro
  8. George McKay Brown (non-fiction, comfort reading)
  9. Ellis Peters (comfort reading – how could you be on a desert island and not have Cadfael for company?)
  10. ….

And here’s where I’m stuck. I feel I should take at least one author that I always felt I should read but only ever got round to reading around the edges of – so I’m torn at the moment between George Eliot, Anthony Trollope and Aldous Huxley. Maybe Huxley would be a bit dated? Trollope would certainly be meaty but… as well as Dickens? And Eliot – is she perhaps one of those authors you feel you ought to read but Life’s Too Short for – like whoever perpetrated Moby Dick and War and Peace? Not to mention Ulysses. I carted that fat paperback of Ulysses around with me for years when I was a student: never managed to get beyond the first page.

I don’t know… I don’t know… And remember you have got to take all their works – pas de cherry-peeking, Breets ridicules! as I like to imagine they would say in Brussels. So you can’t take Howard’s End and leave the posthumous Maurice behind, or take the whole of Neil Gaiman except American Gods which is just too long.

To digress slightly. Having just discovered (after how many years?) that I can watch more or less unlimited dramas and TV series on my Kindle Fire for absolutely-free merely by tapping on that dull little icon top right – who knew? – I launched into American Gods on video, thinking I might find it more digestible.

They were putting each other’s eyes out! Severed limbs were flying through the air! I don’t remember that, in the twenty percent of the book I did manage to get through. So I plumped for The Night Manager.

To digress again. I read a comment on the internet by a girl who felt it should correctly be deserted, not desert island, since how many islands do you find in the desert? Duh! An island with nothing on it but a lot of desert-type sand and perhaps a wobbly palm tree and a man in faded rags with several weeks-worth of stubble – not an island rising majestically from the sands of the Sahara.

Anyway, enough. What would be your ten desert island authors? Or just the first one on the list…

Who made honey long ago

I tend to wamble around the house these days, opening books at random. In search of what? Entertainment? Inspiration? It may be that, having still not learned that most difficult of all lessons, I am still hoping the Meaning of Life will jump out at me one of these days.

The older I get, the shorter my attention span. I am like Edmund Blunden’s honey bee, buzzing around the sunlit meadow of incipient old age, sipping at nectar here, nectar there…

Like the bee that now is blown

Honey-heavy on my hand,

From his toppling tansy-throne

In the green tempestuous land, –

I’m in clover now, nor know

Who made honey long ago.

That poem, Forefathers, was one of the first I ‘discovered’ having crossed the threshold. I should explain. At some point, whilst still at school, poetry ceased to be one of the dire somethings that teachers tormented me with – not quite as dire as algebra, perhaps, and nowhere near as dire as netball, but dire. Maybe it happened as they were reading me Poem in October or The Wild Swans at Coole – or even during an argument between a Jehovah’s Witness girl and our poetry master, over the lines I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids / Sprouting despondently at area gates…  (there was no such thing as the soul, she maintained, and got dragged off to the headmistress’s office by the left ear for maintaining it). Whenever it happened, at some point poetry morphed into one of the loves of my life.

Forefathers, the Edmund Blunden poem – I discovered it in a little book A New Anthology of Modern Verse 1920 – 1940. And it was modern. That particular edition was published in 1943. Below the junk shop owner’s pencilled 25p someone has written in faded blue-black ink, what looks like Tring (but can’t be) – with love, Xmas 1943. Even handwriting was different in those far off days. The cheap paper is by now the colour of cappuccino, together with sprinkles. Foxing, they call that – the mottled brown spots old books, like old people, develop in extreme old age.

How lovely it is, to have a book you can hold in your hands and turn the time-buckled pages of. Such a book has its texture (cheap cloth over board), its colour (a streaky red, faded almost to pink) and a smell (dust; dried-out and crumbling glue; possibly Players cigarettes, the sort people used to buy in packets of ten, with cards inside depicting famous footballers in strange, long shorts, and well-known Shakespearian characters). A book is a thing in and of itself, not just its contents stripped out and digitally stored.

Forefathers may not even be a good poem. I no longer bother to categorise poems as good or bad: I either like them or I don’t. Maybe it’s a sentimental poem – in fact it probably is. When a country is at war its people cling to that all-important myth of their homeland. Our myth is of Englishness and goes beyond hobbits in hobbit-holes, long-bearded, wand-wielding wizards and forests full of Ents. Probably everyone has their own myth of England.

My England seems to contain larks ascending from sunlit cornfields, cumulus clouds lumbering across endless green hills, little lakes hidden among (relatively) little mountains. I’m not ashamed – too old to be ashamed – maybe it also contains that ploughman, wending his weary way through the churchyard, with its drunken gravestones; a village blacksmith or two; country choirs; A E Coppard’s higgler traipsing round the villages selling ribbons, saucepans and patent medicines for a living; convivial harvest suppers and yes, maybe even a wooing or two, lit by the Huntsman’s Moon.

Men enlisted to defend this poetic vision of an England that never was, which they perfectly understood never actually was – rather the everyday England of corned beef, chilblains, soggy fish-and-chips and queues for almost everything. This vision, I (hesitantly) suggest, is what politicians and city stockbrokers utterly failed to take into account, and are still overlooking whilst wittering endlessly on about how Brexit was Not Supposed to Happen: not a thuggish, Union Jack and knuckle-duster-wearing racism; not plebeian ignorance and the lack of a university education; not a sudden national obsession with border control; nothing at all like Donald Trump and his band of redneck followers; not the arrant selfishness of old folks who ought to just die and let young folks have what they imagine, at the moment, they want; not even the prospect of being able to make our own laws again – who, really, gives a stuff about laws? – but the heartfelt need for England. I saw a bit of film of an old man crying after the vote. I’ve got my country back, he said.

Incidentally, and on a lighter note, I learned quite a lot from that poem – the word ‘thew’ for instance – so useful for Scrabble.

These were men of pith and thew…

Pith and thew, don’t you just love the sound them, whatever they mean?

tansy

And I learned there was such a thing as a tansy-flower. It was to be many years before, thanks to Google Images, I actually saw a picture of a tansy and noted that its petals were of a very distinctive pale gingery yellow – which was exactly the hair-colour of the only lady I ever met by the name of Tansy. I suppose Tansy must have been born with a full head of hair, or at least a reasonable covering. Otherwise how could her parents have known to call her Tansy? I mean, if she’d been born bald, as most babies seem to be, she could have ended up as a Poppy, or a Violet, a Rose or even – perish the thought – a Prune-ella.

In the darkness on the edge of town

Some things you remember are just too dark to write about. But they stick in the back of your brain. Templates are formed from them. And always after that your life is patterned. Your chance of freewheeling gone.

This is the tale of the Brown Books. I first wrote it down for the biography module of a creative writing course at the University of Kent. Sitting there one evening in one of their black-walled basement classrooms (I was told they recycled plans for a prison complex, when designing the University of Kent) amongst a selection of Yummy Mummies with Literary Leanings, I felt ill at ease, common and awkward. I had ventured into the borderlands of the Middle Classes. I wondered how they would react, whether they might feel what I felt when it happened, but didn’t hold out a great deal of hope. The telling required more skill and subtlety than I possessed at that time. Suspect it still does.

There was a whole bookcase full of them – big, thick hardbacks covered in brown paper, the titles written in my mother’s neat hand and underscored with her trademark wavy line. She was a very neat person. She made a lot of lists, and they were neat too. She never read those books but I did. They were my private horde; somewhere for my imagination to go.

I’ve forgotten most of them now. There was one for Housewives. The pictures were poor quality, grainy black and white on shiny paper. It featured ladies with stiff hairdos and white aprons, heads bent over their needlework. It told you things like how to make a petticoat out of parachute silk. There were crochet patterns for baby layettes, with instructions for threading the ribbon through; there were sections on keeping bees, making rose-water and unblocking chickens that were egg-bound.

There was one about Gregg shorthand. I suppose she must have studied it at school, or maybe was teaching herself. I tried it. It was beyond me, but I liked those Egyptian squiggles, the whole idea of there being a language made of shapes – that a language could be made of anything you wanted – maybe sounds, maybe colours, maybe numbers. There was one called The Science of Mind At seven years old I read about the Id and the Ego, picturing the one as a statue or an angel, the other as a black burr-thing, like the ones that got caught in your clothes when you walked across the field. Id and Ego floated just above my head, casting sideways glances at one another. There were photographs in that book too. There was one of a Congenital Idiot. I was glad I hadn’t come to earth as one of those.

There was a book about tropical fish. You could make out the spots and the stripes, the fanciful fins. You had to imagine the colours. I imbibed those fish names, recited them over and over on my way to school, like a charm or amulet, to drown out the bullies in my wake…

… Angelfish, Pufferfish, Guppy, Molly, Piranha…

One afternoon I came home from school and she was kneeling on the floor by the bookcase, her print skirt flounced out around her, pulling the brown books out and packing them into a cardboard box. I remember the flare of distress, the hot flare of rage, the welling-up of tears. ‘What are you doing with them?’ I asked.

‘Jumble Sale,’ she said.

gregg shorthand

‘She’s highly strung, that child,’ a neighbour once said in my hearing, ‘a regular Prima Donna.’ Afterwards I asked my mother what a Prima Donna was. She said an opera singer which made no sense. I couldn’t sing. But rage and sorrow would certainly rise up and overwhelm, like a storm, in seconds. On the outside I was small and dull, and nobody listened. On the inside I was Old, and engaged in listening to the universe. I would hear Her screaming; feel her fists hammering, on carpet, on wood, on people – on one occasion punching through a glass window. The Old One watched the purple blood blossoming out of her wrist like a fin.

And now the Old One observed and waited as she cried, cracked and undignified, her face swelling up. She had one of those faces, the Prima Donna: cry for a minute, red balloon for days. It is for that reason that I rarely allow myself to weep nowadays.

As she bawled and hiccupped and kicked the skirting board with her brown school shoes, the Old One looked on. It won’t work, it was telling her. Be calm. Listen to the universe.

‘Let me look after them in my room,’ she screeched. ‘Let me have them. Please, Mummy, please‘ – knowing all the time they would not fit into her room, which she shared with the airing cupboard, a chest of drawers and the larger of her two sisters.

‘Please, Mummy, please.’

She was very tidy, my Mum, and quite young herself. You tend to forget how young your parents were, when you were young. I doubt if she would remember the death of the Brown Books now; indeed, she has forgotten almost everything about those early years – almost everything about everything. But I find I still can’t manage to forgive her for the Brown Books – the ignoring – the ignorance – of what lay behind the tantrum. I was one of those who came after the War. All those other sons and daughters lost – we were their replacements, saplings planted in the gaps where others had been cut down. We were bred, like piglets, and I think we were not quite real to our parents in the way that children had been real, once upon a time, in the long, sunny days before Hitler.

Sometime after that I turned to stone. My face became a kind of mask, my voice ceased to work in any meaningful way. Behind the silence and the blank expression the Old One continues to observe and proffer advice and, I suppose, to commune with the universe. Although the universe feels further and further away as time goes on, its signals fainter. And with it, behind the mask, lives a seven year old Prima Donna, still spiky and black, still screaming. Still putting her wrist through the glass.

gregg alphabet

Only Connect (1)

I look around my house and have to admit it – books and cats have taken over. ‘Nuff said about the cats: no one approves of them. But every now and then I come across a spare couple of feet – behind the armchair to cover the faded bit – maybe where the cat-dishes are now – maybe in front of that cupboard under the stairs? After all, who needs a cupboard? I’m thinking… bookcases.

There are books on my bed, books beside my bed, books in the bathroom, books attracting mildew and holding up shelves in the garage. When I go out, there are books in my bag – at least two, and big ones in case I get stuck in a motorway tailback for three hours. This has only happened to me on one occasion, and of course when it does you can’t relax to read because you never know when you’re going to have to start inching forwards again…

I wouldn’t dare go on holiday abroad because this would mean an aeroplane, which would mean book limitation; I could never carry enough books to tide me over for two weeks. Yet after a lifetime of reading I can estimate, probably to within the hour, how much ‘reading’ a book contains. I know I’m not going to get through ten books in one week, or even two weeks, but…supposing I don’t like the book I’ve got with me? Supposing I feel the need to read three books in tandem?

Which brings me to my mother again. Last time she visited my house, before the fairies came and stole away her logic, her concentration and her common sense, she looked around and said:

‘At your age, you’ll never have time to read all of these!’

And of course she was right; it just hadn’t occurred to me. And then the familiar rush of Mum-induced panic and depression. But I must. I can’t leave them. I must read them. What can I do to save time? If I give up work? If I give up TV? If I sleep only half the night? How did I get that old?

All mothers must take a fairy-course in Undermining Daughters. Or is it in their DNA? With a single, innocent remark she had convinced me that everything, not just reading but any interest and any project for ever after, was pointless, really, because we are going to die. Why do anything? Just watch TV and gobble Polo-mints, why don’t we? Give all but the basics for survival to the charity shop – it’ll save them time when they come to clear this place out. Find a good home for the cats. Take up smoking. Fill your pockets with stones and go and jump in the sea.

But seriously (that wasn’t serious?) I was thinking the other day about how Mum must see me now: this girl of 17 or thereabouts, mysteriously grown large, lumpy, pale, grey and harassed-looking; this creature who mouths a series of words with unreadable shapes to them; this half-forgotten relative whose careful notes, all in block capitals, refuse to form proper sentences; this Sunday visitor whose name sometimes goes AWOL; so bothersome, so repetitious, and such hard work to be with. And requiring cups of tea when she must know the kettle has disappeared, the fridge has drunk the milk and there are strange little faces in the bottom of the cups.

When was the last day? Before you Marched Out and this sad, bored, distressed little elfling Marched In? They say the fairies do that – substitute one of their Ancients for an earthling child, so that they may die in comfort.* If I’d known you were about to be posted I could have said goodbye, and maybe wished you good luck in your new billet.

Once more I am a child in the High Street in romper suit and blue leather reins, throwing the usual tantrum. Once more you drop the reins and walk away, thinking to scare me silent. And it works. You’re chatting away to Nan, or maybe laughing. You’re muffled. I can’t make out what the pair of you are saying. The sky goes black and comes down on my head. I stand stock still with these clouds and this black air pressing down on me, watching you walk away as a century ticks by. Then I turn and set off in the wrong direction, back the way we came, the blue leather reins trailing the pavement behind me. It doesn’t matter now which way I go. You won’t come back – why would you? Why would you come back for me?

I want to talk to my old Mum about my new Mum. I want to ask her what to do about all of this. All those years of more or less misunderstanding one another yet this is so much worse. Word salad it’s called – vague words, wrong words, words in the wrong order, words based on misapprehensions; the quarter sentences you seem to think you have finished; the stories that seem to go on for ever and you still haven’t got to the point, if there ever was one. Confabulation; tall tales; nonsense, vigorously defended. You know what you mean but I don’t. I know what I mean but you don’t.

Only connect.

* ‘A changeling is a wizened, deformed, insatiable and frequently old fairy that has been exchanged for an often-unbaptised human child.’

The Greenwood Encyclopaedia of Fairy Tales: A-F (Donald Haase)

All the way to eternity

She loves me, she loves me not / Where can a simple island boy begin? / This Highland pride is all I’ve got / But in the darkness it means everything / It makes me one with the tide / It makes me strong when I’m burning inside….

I bought a double CD for that one song and in fact for that one verse. Dougie MacLean performed it at the Perthshire Amber folk festival, which I happened to catch on BBC Alba.

So, I was listening to my Dougie Maclean CD whilst Sorting the Books. This is a task I undertake every couple of years because my books shamelessly rearrange themselves on the shelves as time goes by. They even jump from downstairs to upstairs without my say-so. And Dougie? Well, he just makes everything go that much better.

I always fall for a Scottish accent. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s being a sixteenth Scottish, via my father’s father: a  sort of genetic longing for what feels like my homeland. Maybe it’s simply that Scotland’s at the other end of the country. People do seem to be attracted to extremes – the furthest west, the furthest south or the furthest north – mystical places, escape routes, endings or alternatives. And sometimes I dream about a man I never met, who seems to be Scottish although in the dream he doesn’t say a word. I catch a glimpse of him, know him, and then he’s gone, but in those few precious seconds I feel more home than anywhere I have ever been in real life. And no, he doesn’t happen to look like Dougie Maclean.

Down to earth again with a bump. I was sorting the books…

I was sorting them because I have a project in mind, and for this project the books need to be in order. I wrote yesterday about this blogging project as a way of trying to keep my mind functioning as I get older. Writing is a Cognitively Engaging activity. Now to the other Cognitive Engagement projects I’m plotting.

It all began with something my mother said a few years ago. Coming into my house and seeing bookcases stuffed with paperback books on every wall, she exclaimed:

But you’ll never have time to read all these!

That’s a classic example of a maternal sentence with a silent ending. This one ended in … after all, you’re no spring chicken.

I recently had the idea to set myself three simultaneous challenges.

The first is to write every day – barring accident, earthquake or flood – one thousand words of fiction and one thousand words of non-fiction. Or, if this is too ambitious, fiction and non-fiction on alternate days – I’m not sure yet. There are a few good ‘writing prompts’ sites online – also plenty of bad ones – so I wouldn’t need to waste time racking my brains for daily subject matter. In fact the randomness would add to the challenge, thereby yielding a higher Cognitive Engagement dividend, as it were. I am still considering the possibility that one of these longish blog posts could be counted as my ‘non-fiction’ for the day, since my posts are usually in the region of 700 to 1,200 words.

The second challenge is to read one poem that I like every day, adding notes and a paragraph of biography on the poet, and in this way create my own anthology. No point reading poems I don’t like. And anyway, I’ve got a whole bookcase-full of poetry books to be choosy with.

The third challenge would be to read every single book I have before I die. Now, this is a massive undertaking – impossible, in fact. Sorting the Books took me the entire afternoon and at the end of it I sat down – or rather collapsed longwise onto the sofa with a large glass of cold water and several cats, nursing a pain in my right hip – scanned the walls and did a rough calculation of the number of fiction paperback novels in my possession. I reckon I have around 2,000. Which means that even if I could polish off one novel a week I would be approximately 101 years of age by the time I had finished. Of course that isn’t taking into account all the unpredictable occurrences that stand in the way of reading. And it isn’t taking into account Dickens.

I do have the complete works of Dickens. They take up the whole of one shelf and most of them are very, very long. I have heard of people who challenge themselves to read Dickens in a year – a year. Apparently that is four million words.

102, then.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20663427

The 2,000, by the way, is not counting the bookcase of poetry and another bookcase of non-fiction. It is also not counting the huge box of books I had to throw away yesterday, some of which I no longer needed or wanted but some because my cats had peed at them. Yes, he/they appear to have gone round and systematically peed at every single one of my lower shelves. I did consider keeping the books regardless. After all, what’s a bit of a pong? And what does it matter, that gritty feel, that stickiness… But it does matter, even to me, so I boxed up the rejects ready for the rubbish collection man who, fortuitously, is due on Saturday. When re-shelving I left ‘blank’ every single lower shelf, ie cat’s bottom level. I did consider storing those giant-sized boxes of Felix and Whiskas there as ballast, and on the basis that ‘If you’re going to pee at anything, Pussies, it’s gonna be your own food’. But decided against.

Quite right too!

Arthur (the boys are all named after Kings of England) is helping me with this article.

I had a faint hope that somehow this would not mean buying more bookcases but, proving once again the old adage that you can’t fit a quart into a pint pot, it will. The end of my alphabet is now stacked double, books behind books, and I hate that. I considered a trip to the community store to look for a second hand bookcase but decided in favour of two of those ultra-cheap flat packs instead. The books won’t know they’re in a cheap bookcase, and who is going to look at a bookcase when it’s full of books? Nobody I want to know.

I actually like the community furniture store because, in spite of its acres of saggy sofas, its piled-high bedside cabinets, its forests of outmoded kitchen cupboards with patterned glass windows, its gloomy volunteer helpers lurking in corners and a general air of impoverishment and unvisitedness, it’s got a sort of romance about it. All those old lives. All those untold stories hiding in broken springs, stuffing-escapes and age-spotted mirrors. The only trouble with the community store is the waste of petrol and time. And its strange propensity for disappearing.

It’s a Brigadoon sort of place, if not Brigadoonish to look at, being a shabby unit on a small industrial estate on the outskirts of a nearby town. Originating from elsewhere I don’t know the nearby town that well, to drive in, and the outskirts even less. Well, sometimes when I drive over there the store is in situ. Other times I end up going round and round in circles and it’s just not there. It’s as if the roads are made of some kind of spaghetti-like substance, rearranging themselves the moment you turn your back. Bit like the books.

I own a Satnav but to be honest we don’t get on. Banjaxed every time by the very high-speed, multi-car junction I need to navigate in order to reach the store, she confidently announces that we are heading towards a town in a neighbouring county that we are definitely not heading towards. Wake up, dunderhead! I bellow, but she fails to do so. I think she is probably an out of date model; in fact it may have been because she was out of date that she was so very inexpensive. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to update her, and I’m not sure I could be bothered to if I did. I prefer maps.

On the burning of books

Stories are invisible, portable, private, personal possessions.

Where did that come from? Now I remember – Jeanette Winterson and a story she tells about books in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2012) This is a true story. If you think your parents are dreadful you really need to read Why Be Happy, together with Winterson’s first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985) based on the same set of experiences. It’s the story of a little girl adopted by completely the wrong woman, for Mrs Winterson is truly monstrous. If still in the mood for Monstrous Mummies after that, try Jerusalem The Golden by Margaret Drabble (1967).

Jeanette Winterson’s story is about books. As a girl she loves reading, but there are only six books in our house. Mrs Winterson, a religious fanatic, disapproves of and forbids all books because The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.

Loveless, beaten and hungry, frequently locked out by her adoptive mother and forced to sit on the doorstep, she survives by working her way through every single fiction book in Accrington Public Library, starting at A for Austen. She also begins to buy books and hide them in layers under her mattress. Gradually the mattress grows higher until one day Mrs Winterson catches sight of the edge of D H Lawrence’s Women in Love emerging from under it. In a rage, she throws all the books out of the window into the back yard, douses them in paraffin and sets them alight. But:

“I realised something important: whatever is on the outside can be taken away at any time. Only what is inside you is safe. I began to memorise texts … I had lines inside me – a string of guiding lights. I had language. The books were gone, but … what they held was already inside me, and together we could get away. And standing over the smouldering pile of paper and type, still warm the next cold morning, I understood that there was something else I could do … I can write my own.”

And speaking of memorising and burning of books, if you haven’t already, why not try the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953).