Poor Sad Freda

A long time ago (1959) in the days when it was still permissible to advertise cigarettes on TV, there was a disastrous advertising campaign for Strand cigarettes. I can do no better than quote Wikipedia here:

This television advert depicted a dark, wet, deserted London street scene in which a raincoated character, played by Terence Brook, looking similar to Frank Sinatra, lit a cigarette and puffed reflectively. This was accompanied by an instrumental, “The Lonely Man Theme” by Cliff Adams, playing in the background, and a voice-over declared “You’re never alone with a Strand. The cigarette of the moment.”

The commercial… was popular with the public. However, sales of the brand were poor and it was soon taken off the market. The public associated smoking Strand cigarettes with being lonely and were put off from buying them. It was regarded as one of the most disastrous tobacco advertising campaigns of all time…

I do recall my parents laughing about Strand cigarettes and taking the mickey out of “You’re never alone…” People found it amusing, but they didn’t want to be that poor chap in the raincoat, wandering up and down a dark, wet city street – Billy No-Mates, Poor Sad Fred.

I am trying to resist getting hopping mad, because no one in any case will know that I am hopping mad, in which case what’s the point? That’s the trouble with Being Alone – no audience for one’s hopping madness.

It’s not my local hospitals per se, or any lack of medical expertise therein. It’s not the awful insufficiency of car parking spaces at one of them, meaning that patient-containing cars are queueing out in the street for what seems like hours before even getting past the gates, and then have to queue at the barrier ticket machine waiting for one single space to become vacant, and then having to circle a seemingly full car park, nerves a-jangle, desperately searching for that one space before anyone else leaves and the next car (also searching for that one single space) is allowed in, to beat you to it. No, it’s the insistence of NHS staff in believing that all persons will possess a Relative or a Friend who will be able to bring them in and collect them. These mythical Relatives and/or Friends will also come and Visit them during their stay, and should be instructed to bring in all those items – other than pyjamas and dressing gown – that said person is not permitted to bring in themselves because bedside storage space is strictly limited.

Particularly if you are old(ish), I find. They look at you and imagine you have (carelessly) left at home a host of helpful middle-aged Daughters and giant doting Sons. Any one of them can bring you in, or take you home, surely?

Failing that they see a host of conveniently-not-senile and able-to-drive Friends or their convenient Husbands, any one of which could bring you in, or take you home, surely?

Don’t you know anyone? They ask, humiliatingly. Come on, surely you can think of someone who wouldn’t mind just looking after nineteen cats for a couple of weeks? Any Neighbour would do that!

I am having this problem at the moment. I am having to undergo a Procedure which I am trying not to think about too much, under anaesthetic. A Procedure, not an Operation. No scalpels involved. But because of the anaesthetic, I cannot drive myself in, because I will not be permitted to drive myself home again afterwards. No, I will have to stay in overnight, while the cats remain unattended, fighting, wrecking the furniture and pooing-and-weeing with abandon, all over everything.

And then, in the morning, I still can’t get myself home to the cats because I am not allowed to use public transport for 48 hours, so even the gruelling four hour long downhill walk/train 1/train 2/infrequent bus/ long uphill walk marathon I had envisaged is not an option. And, even if I find some mysterious, car-owning Relative, Friend or Neighbour – that person has got to stay with me and the nineteen stinky cats overnight, when there isn’t actually a spare bed.

But you can get a Family Member, Friend or Neighbour to help you there…

The last time I was forced to ask my sister for help she didn’t answer the phone. I had a hugely-swollen septic hand and was being referred urgently to Accident and Emergency in Hospital 2. Ambulance? No, of course not. You’ll have to drive yourself there. Oh, but that would be a bit difficult, wouldn’t it, because of the septic hand…

You can’t tell me you haven’t you got any Family Member on that phone of yours? Go on, phone your sister now. So there I am, in a medical chair, having my hand bandaged and ringing my sister knowing full well she wouldn’t answer. They made me do it, and made me have to discover for myself, yet again, that I had Ceased to Exist as far as my next-of-kin was concerned. I could be in a road traffic accident. Yea, verily, brethren, I could be locked in a room with a salivating Alien-type monster or trapped in the central reservation of the M20 with giant lorries whooshing past me on either side – ça would ne fait rien as far as my sister was concerned. It was predictable, humiliating and embarrassing, but most of all, it hurt.

And this time, they have postponed the (don’t think about it, don’t think about it…) Procedure to give me more time to Make Arrangements. In other words, I will no doubt soon recall that I do indeed have Second Cousins, a Doting Offspring, or a cheery, helpful Neighbour who would just adore a two hour drive through scary rush-hour traffic in an unfamiliar traffic system, followed by an anguished circling of the car park looking for that single space… And then a three hour wait while the Procedure (don’t think about it, don’t think about it) is done and I wake up from the anaesthetic, and then another long drive back, and then – oh joy – spend the night upright on the sofa, in the house of a miserable, uncomfortable, grumpy old biddy who wants nothing more than to be left alone to recover quietly, in her own way, in the reassuring, comforting company of her nineteen stinky cats.

As it is, I think I have solved the problem by a series of complicated and expensive fudges and transport arrangements which they may or may not accept. It means an expensive taxi ride, followed by the two train journeys and the long walk which may get me there in time. Afterwards, it means an arrangement (not free, either) with a volunteer charity driver, male or female, a total stranger to me – to pick me up at the hospital and drive me home. And it means the lady over the road – with whom I have been forced to share medical details which by now the whole road will know about in glorious detail with a few added flourishes – being at any rate on the other end of the phone overnight if needed, and maybe popping in on her way back from walking the dog in the morning, to make sure I’m not dead. It would be so much easier to be dead.

This has cost me so much time in hospital appointments, so many phone calls, so many plans and revisions of plans, and working-out-of-strategies over pasta bake and chips in the Canteen/Restaurant in the bowels of the hospital, and castings-around-for-inspiration whilst staring at the fake Buddha and fake Chinese Lions in the weedy Zen Garden which – regrettably, as the notice says – is only for looking at through the double glazing and not for patients to actually sit out in – and sheer annoyance at the arrogant assumption that everyone lives no more than a couple of miles of whichever hospital they have been summoned to attend, and possesses a social circle they can call on at the drop of a hat for very large, inconvenient favours, in the middle of a heatwave.

Maybe they should send me out to negotiate Brexit with Brussels. I’ve done enough irritating and pointless negotiating this week to last me a lifetime, and I’m just in a mood for a scrap. Quake in your boots, Monsieur Barnier, I’m about to board the ferry!

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…