Objets Perdus

Now, this is a bit of a strange one, and I have been putting off writing about it for days. Something to do with shame, I think – shame and sorrow. But what’s the best way for a writer to call up and exorcise her ghosts?

Write about them.

When I was a child I had a (very) few treasured objects, and one by one I lost them or gave them away. Something seems to compel me to ‘lose’ the things that mean the most to me – and not just objects, people. One by one, I have mislaid them all.

Setting aside the people, because nothing at all can be done about them. Those objects…

I had a copy of Aesop’s Fables. It was a beautiful book – they are ferociously expensive to buy second-hand now. You know, I thought, until this very moment, that I had given it away. I had been wracking my brains to think how I gave it away. Why would I have done that with my beloved Aesop? I read that book over and over. The fables, and the beautiful but slightly creepy illustrations, those glossy, full-page watercolours, seeped into my childhood consciousness.

But I gave it away. Or did I? I just turned sideways and there it was, sitting in the bookcase beside me. It has lost it’s cover, the boards have faded from scarlet to orange, but – still here. Inside I have written my full maiden name, in ink, in weird little-girl writing. Two pages on and an inscription reads With love to Rosie, on her 7th Birthday. From Grandma & Grandpa. Well, Rosie or, you know, whatever.

But other objects I really did lose. I once had a stone, with the impression of a prehistoric sea creature upon it, like a tiny octopus. I found it half-buried in the path between the allotments. It was as if it had been waiting for just me, that magical fossil, for billions and billions of years. If only I had kept it, if only I had not somehow lost it – what luck it might have brought me.

And I gave away my Odhams Encyclopaedia for children. I remember the struggle I had at the time. It was when my niece was born and I foolishly had this idea that the child should “inherit” something of value from her auntie. And I have regretted the loss of that book ever since.

And then there was my teddy bear. I temporarily forgot about him and instead of taking him with me when I got married I foolishly left him with Mum. In fact he was up in the attic, and I didn’t realise. Mum and my sister are alike in “getting rid”. She accidentally informed me one day, several years later, that she had given my bear to Oxfam. After all, she knew I wouldn’t want it.

I never stopped missing my bear. I mourned for him. Even now – especially now, when I am old – I want my teddy bear back. I realised today that that was what my teddy-bear buying jag had been all about. I now have a cupboard full of disreputable 1950s teddy-bears courtesy of E-bay. None of them are my bear, but I have rescued them. I couldn’t save it but I have saved them.

I know, it doesn’t make sense.

And now I have gone and saved “my” Encyclopedia. And in fact I have saved more than one of them because the other day eBay came up with a second, horribly battered copy for only £2 and I bid the £2 and won. To my surprise. The first one, which arrived a week ago, cost a massive £20 but is in excellent condition. Unlike me, its owner must have held it close, kept it. Presumably there will soon be a stack of second-hand Odhams Encyclopaedias on my coffee table, all ridiculously, pathetically rescued by some ancient woman, just in case one of them might turn out to have been her actual one.

When I was a child the page that fascinated me the most was the one with the anaconda. My mother used to take the mickey, saying that the encyclopaedia would fall open at the snakes page of its own accord. I do hope it was nothing sexual. I mean, I was very young and, lacking any kind of brother (though over-supplied with sisters) did not even suspect the existence of that appendage which, according to Dr Freud, snakes represent.

In my memory the anaconda took up the whole of the page and was vividly coloured, green and gold and glittery. Now I see that it is smaller, and in black and white, but I still like the way the artist has coiled and draped the various snakes around the branches, the way the pictures and the text bleed into one another.

How beautiful that anaconda was to me, and how utterly terrifying. In my mind’s eye I stood before him in the South American jungle, tiny-small in my cotton check school dress and pudding-basin haircut. Anaconda was looking at me out of that glittery, sardonic eye. He was weighing up whether to wrap me in his sinuous, gorgeous coils and crush me to smithereens. Because that is what anacondas do, being the largest of the boa constrictor family.

And I wished he would. And I wished he wouldn’t.

And this is him, my beloved, my childhood version of God: the anaconda, unchanged over the decades and decades since I first caught sight of him.

Why do we lose the things we love?

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‘Went fishing with Sam. Day wasted.’

When I came across this story it was attributed to James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson, purporting to be something the great man himself had confided.

The story goes that Samuel Johnson’s father took him out for a day’s fishing, and this was the first and only time it happened. Samuel was so very happy that day, he wrote in his diary that he had had the Best Day Ever. Many years later he came across his late father’s diary and couldn’t resist looking up the entry for that day. His father had written:

‘Went fishing with Sam. Day wasted.’

This little story had an immediate effect on me. I found myself back there, in that dusty loft or study or whatever, inhabiting the body of the young Samuel Johnson, feeling his sadness.

I suppose you automatically relate these things to your own experiences. I was linking the Samuel Johnson story to a tiny conversation I had with my mother, maybe ten years ago. We didn’t really realise then that she had dementia: one of the first things to go in her case was empathy – oh yes, and tact – but then the two are intertwined. It seemed safe enough, at this great distance in time, to say that I always assumed my youngest sister had been her favourite. I expect I was hoping she would say ‘Oh no, my dear, we loved all three of you the same.’

‘Yes, she was’, she said, ‘and your middle sister was your Dad’s favourite, always’. Why did she have to add that always? Salt in the wound.

This sort of thing is not supposed to matter as you get older, but of course it does. It just seemed to me that the equation didn’t balance, it was one short. There needed to have been three parents – one to favour each of my sisters and one to love only me. It occurs to me now that this could be one of the ground rules for Brave New World – precisely as many parents in a family as there are children.

Fishing around the internet a bit more (oh dear, a pun) I discovered the same fishing story was said to have happened to virtually every father-and-son combination including some 19th Century political chap called Charles Frances Adams and his son Brook Adams. I also found short stories purported to have been entirely imagined by not-very-good amateur writers. I think it may be one of those urban myths that everybody ‘remembers’ or swears to be true, or ‘knows someone who knows someone who knew the person it happened to’.

I was trying to think of some others. There used to be one about a poodle accidentally cooked in a microwave oven, and one about a man with a bloodstained axe lying low in the back of the car whose mad visage suddenly rears up and appears in the rear view mirror. The classic is the one about the hitchhiker, picked up on some dusty highway and then mysteriously vanishing, often while the car is still moving.

I also found some modern day computer-based ones. There are a whole lot of translations computers are supposed to have made of sayings and book titles. For example:

Angry Raisins (Grapes of Wrath)
Blind & Insane (Out of Sight, Out of Mind)
The Vodka was Good, but the Meat was Rotten (The Spirit is Willing, but the Flesh is Weak)

I suppose the thing is a good story is a good story, and why let it go to waste? Embellish it, change the names, pass it on and take the whole credit for it, why not? I expect that’s how the human race has been functioning since ever it first began to talk.

2: Supping with the Devil

Continued from 1: A house divided (technically, published on 29/7. You might need to use the Search box)

It’s a hopeless task, really, trying to explain how an alternative brain-wiring scheme works. I don’t know what it feels like to be inside a different kind of brain. Each of us has either the one experience or the other, so in what terms can I describe my experience?

Dad used to hit me. I think maybe later in life he realised he could be fond of me, but not in those early days. I soon learned not to meet his eye, not to answer back, not to say anything, but he didn’t like that either. He knew I was afraid and he just couldn’t resist the challenge. It would start off in the third person: She’s not saying much – what’s up with her? Then it would go to the first: Cat got your tongue, has it? Hey, you, I’m talking to you. He used to taunt me until I rose to the bait, until I snapped, answered back, pleaded or cried. And then he used to hit me.

I remember crouching once against the front door, with its bobbled glass panels. My head was against the lowest row of glass panels, my left arm covering my head. I remember the fancy sculpted shape of the wooden bits that divided the glass and the rough texture of the cocoanut doormat through the thin cotton of my school dress. I remember waking covered in vomit (the bedroom wall was the background that time) because I had cried myself to sleep. I remember rocking, rocking and howling, and saying over and over to myself for hours, or so it seemed: I will never, never have children. I will never, never do this to them. Sometimes I wonder if that was why. If on that one day, rocking and howling, at the age of eleven I actually killed off all those little eggs.

He used to get off his bike and wheel it round the side and into the garage. I would be listening to his heavy footfall and the sound of his bicycle wheels slowly click-clicking by his side. A monster, a giant was about to burst through the back door. There would be the urgent, whispered conversation between the two of them, before the door was even closed – that was me being reported on. A quick look in my direction, that frown, and then he would hit me. Or maybe he would just send me to my room; or sometimes, for variety, grab me by the collar and drag me to my room. If I resisted he might drag me by the hair along the polished passage floor to my room, blubbering. I would be in there for hours, until I wrote a note apologising in general terms – since in specific terms I didn’t actually know what I had done – crept out and pushed it under the kitchen door.

Whether Dad’s bullying had anything to do with me being odd I will never know. It was beyond my limited understanding. Another thing I didn’t understand at the time was why Mum never stood up for me. Knowing the consequences, why hadn’t she dealt with my crimes herself, before he got home? As it was, the minute he got in from work he was faced with a whispered, unfavourable report. She expected him to ‘do’ something to stop her being upset. And he certainly did.

In retrospect I think Mum was like me, or maybe mildly autistic. Dad was her prop and her shield against the world and she knew she couldn’t – or didn’t want to – cope without him. If he could burn off most of his frustration on me, he would be closer to her. Nothing would be her fault and she would keep him on her side, at her side whatever the cost, no competition. I suppose that’s scapegoating. She fed me to him, that’s what I feel.

Godmother has been around since I was just a bump. She babysat for Mum and Dad in the early days, when they had weekly meetings at the Cycling Club. Recently I asked her about some of this stuff, half expecting that she would say no, it wasn’t like that, you misunderstood – but she had seen it too. She said my father probably shouldn’t have got married and had children. I said maybe he would have been happier staying single, having serial girlfriends, going out on his bike whenever he wanted, not having to work so hard to support all those great lanky girls. He was a handsome enough chap, after all. But she said he probably couldn’t have got away with that. In the 50s marriage and children were the norm.

What that ’50s childhood taught me was that I wasn’t going to win. An unnatural, un-cuddly sort of baby – according to Mum – morphed into a fractious, defensive child, an automatic arguer and questioner of authority; an impulsive blurter-outer; a foolish answerer-back of people much larger and stronger than herself; a raging, hysterical demander of impossible justice. I learned that I was fatally flawed and that my Achilles’ heel was a combination of femaleness and my difference. I realised that I would not be able to get through life without some sort of bodyguard, and bodyguards were usually husbands.

My mother married my father in 1949 or thereabouts. He was six foot four inches tall, athletic and seven years older than her. He could be charming. He had a sense of humour, plenty of funny stories, a few silly songs and poems. He was at ease talking to  strangers when she was definitely not. He could tell her what to think and what to do. She never once voted a different way, she had no friends but their joint friends. At one point they were both agnostics, and then they were both humanists. They’d sent for all the pamphlets and signed all the forms. It was impossible to talk to one of them independently of the other or even catch one in a different room to the other. Especially towards the end they seemed to have merged into a single being. They stayed happily married until his death, after which Mum got increasingly deaf, then distressingly psychotic, finally settling into a less dramatic kind of dementia.

In ’70s I married a man nine years older than me. He looked like Dad and – guess what – was very definite in his opinions and would brook no argument. On one ‘courting’ visit he won an argument with Dad, and it was at that precise moment that I knew I had found the one. Later on I realised that he talked all the time – droned on, in fact – and since he never paused for breath everyone had to listen to him. In any case, since he was very clever and pretty gifted in several different fields, people admired him. It was as if they were in the presence of royalty. In the pub they would gather round in a circle and gawp at him open-mouthed as he held forth on art, music, model engineering or whatever. I used to watch them sometimes; their expressions. They never noticed because their eyes were glued to him. I didn’t need to join in, couldn’t have done if I had wanted to, and nobody expected me to. When we were alone he barely spoke. This suited me well enough for the first fifteen years or so, although I knew within the first week that it wasn’t going to be joyful.

That seems to be the thing with ‘shield’ relationships. The stronger one shields the weaker, but the power they use to shield you they are draining from you. In the presence of Ex, I would not have dared make a joke. I couldn’t have launched into one of my interminable ‘tales’. I couldn’t have showed off or spoken up, contradicted, criticised, interrupted, sung, recited a poem or laughed. An overbearing husband can hide you from the world, but will also hide you from yourself. Gradually, from behind the shield of his loud voice, broad shoulders, manly tweeds (Germaine Greer’s expression) or whatever, you find yourself fading away. You merge into the wallpaper and turn into a living ghost.

It’s a cliché, isn’t it, escaping your father by marrying someone just like him. On one of his alternate weekend ‘courting’ visit to my family (he used to camp in the living room at mine, I was installed in the spare room at his) he won an argument with my father. He didn’t shout – well, neither of them shouted – but there was this tense, gruff, masculine thing going on. They both just continued ‘reasoning’ at one another, going round and round in circles. Mum and I cringed quietly in our armchairs, waiting for all the windows to shatter and bricks and mortar start crumbling around us. No one contradicted Dad. Except, it seemed, Ex.

See 3: Send in the clowns

A plague on all your Houses

Do you ever suddenly realise – now – something that ought to have been perfectly obvious at the time but wasn’t – because you were a child?

The other night I was lying in the bath, re-reading passages from Stephen King’s On Writing and simultaneously trying to fend off the three-legged cat, who was trying to eat the hairband I had scrunched my hair up in, and about to fall into the hot water. He has no sense, which may be why he ended up at the age of 2 or thereabouts with a leg missing…

And as I was lying in the bath etc., etc I suddenly thought:

When I was at Junior School we had things called House Points.

I can remember my father, who thought he was funny but actually tended to – not be, making a huge fuss about House Points. He thought they were hilarious. Take two house points, he used to say, though mostly to my younger sisters. I never seemed to deserve even one house point.

I recalled, suddenly, a big whiteboard thing on the left-hand wall of my classroom, and how it had been divided into colours – red, green, yellow and blue. When you did something clever, like get 10 out of 10 for maths, or were nauseatingly, toady-ingly obedient to the teacher’s demands, you got given a stick-on star, either in ‘your’ colour or in silver or, rarely, in gold. And you marched proudly up to the whiteboard in front of the whole class and stuck your star on.

And when you did sports, you collected a canvas band in ‘your’ colour and were forced to run about and jump over things on behalf of it. Though strappingly built and tall for my age, I had absolutely no stamina and would become crippled with the Stitch after running a couple of yards, but all teachers persisted in the delusion that strapping and tall must equal athletic. So I rarely won stars for my team. And I was really bad at maths, which was the best thing for getting stars in, so I never got any stars for that…

My allotted colour was blue, and blue was Wolf. Yellow was Sydney, Red was Chatham and Green was Darwin, and these were all Famous People, though we were never told why. Later I would discover that Darwin was the chap with the long straggly beard who invented Natural Selection and horrified Victorians by suggesting we had descended gradually from apes rather than being invented all on one day by God. Wolf, I think, may have been some sort of General who did something or other military in Canada. Chatham I suspect may have been a politician or Prime Minister, possibly Pitt the Younger. Sydney – no idea.

And then I thought:

Why were they called House Points?

And then I thought:

Oh, of course, our allotted colours and names (Blue/Wolf) were our houses, so the different coloured stars we got were house points. Duh! So it was a bit like Harry Potter and Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin, except much, much duller.

It’s funny how memory works. From my first day at Infant School to my last day at Junior I knew both the Christian name and Surname of my fellow Infants, or Juniors, by heart. I can hear them now – Peter-Wheeler, Andrew-Begley, Lynda-Smith – and this is because every morning we had the calling of the Register, the names being read out in alphabetical order so that you could shout Present, or Here Miss, or whatever, and Miss could make a tick next to your name, with her fountain pen.

Now, I tend to recall the Christian names of a few close friends most of the time, although even those tend to escape me at odd moments, infuriatingly, usually when tired or distracted. You have this annoying situation where you can see someone’s face, know exactly where you first met them and whether you liked them or not, maybe recall huge swathes of their family history, but their name won’t swim to the surface.

Or you get this weird thing where information crops up, but not the information you want or need. So, I see a woman on the other side of the room, I know I worked with her once and where, I know what I thought of her and exactly what job she did – but not her name. I do, however, know that she had a daughter called Bethany, because she talked about her all the time but would pronounce it Beffany – my Beffany – and that this Beffany was some kind of wondrous prodigy…

The thing is, I don’t need to know this, any more than I needed to know why house points were called house points, or who Chatham was, or Sydney. And as for Beffany, I never met Beffany, thank goodness, and never will. Why does my brain waste so much energy on all this redundant stuff? Why can’t it conserve it’s limited energy and focus on useful stuff?

Memory: that magic lantern show

I went to visit my Old Lady yesterday and she confesses – as she always does confess – that when she sits in her armchair, sometimes, of an evening, unable to see the television clearly, unable to read – her mind drifts off and random memories come back to her. She sees the exotic places she went on holiday, the adventures she had as a little girl and a teenager, her many cousins and their many wives (all dead now), colleagues she worked with, her parents, her grandparents…

Every time she tells me this she sounds anxious. She has lived a brisk and practical life and I suppose she feels guilty now for daydreaming.

And yet it was good life. She was close to her family, when they were alive. Early on she found a job she enjoyed, worked hard, studied in her spare time and made it into a career. She has had the courage – and the means – to travel widely. She has had the gift of making friends, and now she has a store of colourful memories to dip into.

My Old Lady is a bit of a hoarder, always telling me she intends to have a good old clear out. She never actually succeeds in doing this, but in her regular efforts to do so she happens upon air-mail letters from long dead pen-friends, invitations to dances in foreign capital cities, letters from travel agents in faded type, holiday brochures and envelopes full of dog-eared photographs, and these bring everything back.

Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world – and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children! [George Bernard Shaw]

I suppose it is inevitable that this should be so.

It is better that children start life afresh and that adults are not tempted to describe to them the horrors of old age. It is better that they dance through their childhood under the illusion that life is bound to go on in exactly this sunlit way forever. When I see on the news children in awful circumstances, forced to witness or commit atrocities, converted into adults before they have properly been children, this is what saddens me – that in having their childhood and youth cut short they have also been deprived of their capacity to imagine, and of the memories of Better Days which would have sustained them later, in times of trial and in old age.

So, my Old Lady tells me once again about her Magic Lantern Show and I once again, attempting to reassure her, tell her that something very similar happens to me. I tell her that when I am washing up all those cat bowls of a morning, and gazing out at the garden and the too-long grass, and the dew still on all those fallen leaves and faded hydrangeas, images and fragments of memories flash up, unbidden.

I don’t tell her, but mostly they are unhappy fragments, of my current life at any rate: I don’t seem to have her knack for happiness. But occasionally they are strange fragments – flashes of lives I don’t remember having lived, and faces I don’t remember ever having seen before; even, occasionally, visions of flight, swooping down over lakes or battlefields, or strands of music it feels exactly as if I am in the process of composing. All of which are so brief, dissolving instantly, so that all that is left is an impression, a memory of a memory.

I worked in a call centre for five years or so, at the broken-down end of my ‘career’. This involved sitting on a rickety office chair in a kind of plywood rabbit-hutch for seven or eight hours at a time surrounded by rows and rows of other rabbit hutches. We all wore headset and the calls came in to us automatically.

Our sole task was to persuade people to do market research surveys – no selling involved – but of course people never believed that. And so, every so often an irritable person answered the phone and you had to, basically, read a script to them, asking them if they would like to take part and then if they agreed asking them a whole string of questions so nonsensical that you wouldn’t have been able to answer yourself.

On short surveys it would be seven or eight hours’ non-stop repetition of the same five minute survey. On long surveys it would be perhaps one respondent per hour; twenty minutes of script-reading and typing; nothing to do in between. We were not allowed to read, do crosswords or to write down anything apart from survey-related notes, or a tally of the surveys we had done.

Most people did not last five years. Two years was considered by the employers to be a good innings. Memory, and imagination helped me to stick with it. (I needed the money!) During those hours my mind sent me a constant magic lantern show, like the washing-up show only more so. During those hours whole poems got written in my head, whole philosophies of life were considered, rejected, constructed, deconstructed and modified.

So when my Old Lady feels embarrassed about her daydreaming I want to tell her – but don’t know how – that the Magic Lantern Show is a gift, her reward for a life hard-lived. And when young people complain that they are bored I want to tell them to go out there and make memories, learn stuff, think stuff, see stuff, meet people, have adventures, visit places, take photos, save the tickets, save that straw hat, write a diary, record your impressions and store them somewhere. Make a memory box. Start it when you are seventeen.

Love the one you’re with

We recently lost Bruce Forsyth, the all round entertainer and game show host. I must admit he wasn’t one of my favourites but I recognised his abilities, his professionalism, his popularity and his longevity. He had many catchphrases but his most recent and best-remembered is “You’re My Favourite”. Hosting one of the BBC’s most popular shows, Strictly Come Dancing his job, in a way, was to protect the contestants from the judges.

Each couple went on and danced. Some were brilliant, others made a bit of a mess of it, but invariably at the end he would greet the bespangled, lycra-and-satin clad couple as they sashayed towards him trying not to look as if they were gasping for breath, with a huge smile. And before they turned to face the judges he would reassure them in a stage whisper “You’re My Favourite“. Nobody believed him of course, but I bet it mattered to hear it at that point. Sometimes we have to pretend, and pretending can be enough.

Growing up, both Canadian Sister and I understood that English Sister was Mum’s favourite. Her last-born, her surprise baby. This was just a fact of life though we may have grumbled about it between ourselves, every now and again. Anyway, Mum got old and she got galloping dementia and other stuff, at which stage all sorts of things that might best have been kept secret began to be blurted out. During one of my Sunday visits she said “Of course (Canadian Sister) was always your Dad’s favourite”, and that cut like a knife. She had lost the ability to make connections between things by that time – logic was one of the first things to go – and I suppose it didn’t occur to her that that left me as nobody’s favourite. It’s simple when you think about it – two parents, three children – if there must be favourites then one of them has to be out in the cold. Why had it taken me so long to realise?

However, life isn’t fair for anybody, and we survive these things.

I can’t blame my Mum. I have eighteen cats and it’s difficult to share the attention and affection out equally. Often I’m harassed and worn out, wading through this sea of cats, all demanding something. And some cats, lets face it, are especially charming. It’s easy to love short-sighted George, for example, a goofy, clumsy cat who falls off everything and falls over himself in sheer excitement if he gets to sit on your lap. George is beautiful and fluffy, and he needs someone to look out for him.

Not so easy to love Kitten, who is ancient and deaf; who wakes me in the middle of the night bellowing for attention; who hauls pieces of food out of her bowl and distributes them over a wide area for me to clean up; who is voluminously sick on the carpet at least twice a day; who may die at any minute, so every morning when I find her curled up in her favourite cardboard box I have to wonder, is she going to lift her head when I tap on the edge to wake her, or is this going to be The Day?

Not so easy to love Rufus, either – that bony little ginger chap inherited from the disabled woman over the road. Rufus was left mostly to his own devices, I think. He lived a hard, tom-cat sort of life and he hung around outside most of the time. He got fed by anyone who happened to remember. Rufus now has a cauliflower ear and a weepy, half-closed eye that the vet can’t do anything about. He likes to curl up in the bed with me on winter nights, which means I can’t get to sleep in case I squash him, so I lie and wait for him to leave of his own accord. He sometimes bites – luckily he has very few teeth nowadays – and sometimes spits. He has never forgiven me for stealing him away from Old Mummy, not understanding that Old Mummy died.

So I pretend, and I keep reminding myself to do so. I remind myself to talk to them and make a bit of a fuss of them in passing. I remind myself that ultimately we are All One and that Kitten and Rufus have souls no less valuable than mine, and no less beautiful than the souls of the other cats. That’s about all anyone can do, isn’t it?

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My disbelief grows weary of suspending itself…

I’m onto a sticky wicket with suspenders, I know. American suspenders are as illustrated below:

suspenders

British suspenders are things that hold up stockings, supposedly wicked, lacy and black (or red) but as I recall them from my uncomfortable schooldays, more often medical, pinkish and rubbery, and held together with sixpenny pieces when they broke. They always broke. The rubber perished. The little suspend-things cracked and disintegrated…

So what do Americans call suspenders-suspenders if what we call braces are there known as suspenders? But what holds up American stockings? If that’s suspenders too, how do they know what they are holding up? Is it just a matter of deduction from the context?

But this post is not about that.

When I was at school, struggling with the uncomfortable suspenders and the 60-denier sun-mist-stockings-with-seams – surely the ugliest stocking ever invented (not about that, remember!) it was explained to me that when we get completely lost in a book, or a film, or a story told by some grey-haired hippie-type lady whilst sitting cross-legged on a cushion in the library (pre-suspenders) was called ‘suspension of disbelief’.

I did not used to find this difficult, except in the case of plays. Plays have never done it for me. I’ve never been able to get past the reality of a lot of foreshortened real human beings prancing about on a stage and acting at one another. I can tell it’s acting. I can always tell it’s acting, even if it’s good acting, and it annoys me. People are pretending and I can see them doing it.

A posh lady I went to a play with once advised me that this was probably because I hadn’t grown up in a theatre-going household. She didn’t mean to be patronising, and she was right, partially – we didn’t go to plays, or the ballet or opera, come to that.

My parents were working class and, even if they could have afforded to go, would have been terrified to pass through the doors of a theatre. They wouldn’t have known what to wear or how to behave. They would have felt they stuck out like a sore thumb.

An all-encompassing self-consciousness is one of the things which go with being not-posh. Only when you are middle class can you raise your voice above a low murmur, not minding if others hear. Only when you are middle class can you walk about with your shoulders back and your snoot in the air, flinging your purple pashmina dramatically over your right shoulder, and not even know you are doing it. That’s confidence. Read Alan Bennett’s loving tales of his Mum and Dad if you don’t believe me. He knows. Alan Bennett is the greatest.

But I could get lost in a book. So could my mother, but my father appeared not to possess the suspension of disbelief gene. Maybe he lost it, as he lost so much, as a young conscript in the second world war. The war really did for him in a lot of ways, I think. He could never leave me alone when I was reading. He used to wave his hands in front of my face and think it was funny. ‘Look at her – she’s miles away. Away with the fairies.’ He never did understand why this was annoying.

Same with films, although mercifully my father wasn’t usually with me when I went to the pictures: I could be immersed in the story, living inside even the most far-fetched sci-fi blockbuster. I would be one or all of the characters, fleeing in terror from the scary monsters, falling in love, falling off a high building… The film’s ‘afterglow’ would stay with me for days afterwards, the story re-running itself in my head, scenes acting themselves out before my inner eye. And maybe it would still be the same, if I could afford to go.

Instead of fiction-reading, my father used to read out columns from newspapers – anything he found to be of interest. He was interested in politics and the financial markets, the way they worked, even though these things had little effect on his everyday life. We used to sit there bored, and the read-out paragraphs seemed to get longer and longer. When he grew ancient, however, propped up in a chair with a cushion behind his neck and the walker by his side, he lapsed into depression and scarcely spoke.  My mother used to gauge how happy, or not, he was by whether he read out any paragraphs. Eventually, he read out no paragraphs. He read nothing. He told my sister he had forgotten everything he had ever been or ever done. God save us.

As I have grown older I have become more interested in politics and found it more and more difficult – not to read – the words still make perfect sense – but to get lost in reading. My suspension of disbelief seems to have suspended operations. I am turning into my father, and this saddens me. Reading was all I had. I got through a tedious and difficult life mostly by daydreaming. I could lose myself in stories, and in plans I would never carry out, journeys I would never, practically, be able to make. Now, although I am still doing my best to get it back I feel – now here’s a simile for you, or maybe a metaphor – like a hunted rabbit, all exits sealed by the men with the dogs – or is it ferrets? – just an airless darkness and waiting for Whatever-it-is to be sent down after me.