ANTS AND ANACONDAS

IN the early 1950s Gallipoli Street was a dead end. A makeshift metal barrier – ideal for doing head-over-heelses – separated the street from a brief, muddy slope – ideal for sliding) which lead down to an expanse of wasteland. Every morning I would set off for the junior school, just visible on the far side of the wasteland, except in spring, when all vegetation was thriving, and the wasteland turned into a jungle. To a seven year-old it seemed like a very long journey indeed. I had been reading about anacondas in Odhams Encyclopaedia. The stuck-together ae in the middle of Encyclopaedia, which I have since learned is a beastie known as a ‘typographic ligature’) fascinated me almost as much as the anacondas. I was convinced I would come face to face with one – an anaconda not a ligature – but never caught sight of so much as a grass snake. By the time I got to school the hem of my green pleated skirt would be soggy with dew or prickly with burrs. In summer, creamy cabbage white butterflies flew up as I passed through. In winter I would hobble through frosted thistles, chilblains itching and burning in spite of stout lace-up shoes and the grey, knee-length socks which elastic garters failed to sustain. Nan-knitted fair isle mittens dangled from my raincoat sleeves on yet more elastic.

In the 1960s they dug up the wasteland at the end of our street and built a housing estate. It was, and remains, the ugliest collection of houses I have ever seen. The building work unearthed no anacondas but did produce king-size muddy puddles for jumping in. I lost a wellington boot in a particularly deep puddle. Rather than fishing it out, which would have been the sensible thing to do, I left it and lolloped home one-wellied.

We didn’t really appreciate the advantages of living in a dead-end street until the metal barricades were removed, the street having been extended into the new estate. Until that time there had been few cars anyway, and the few that did venture along Gallipoli Street were looked upon as minor interruptions to our roller-skating and tennis. We stood aside and waited for the exotic creatures to pass. All cars were black in those days. Instead of flashing lights they had little orange arms for indicators, which popped out unexpectedly.

Even if there were no other children about one could still amuse oneself. On dry days I used to sit on the hot pavement and watch the ants swarming over a discarded boiled street, trying to guess what they were thinking. On one particularly hot day I overheard a passer-by saying it was hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement. I wanted to try it out, and asked my mother for an egg, but it was not forthcoming. On rainy days I used to stare into the gutter, mesmerised by the twigs and leaves eddying along towards the drain. As a child, I read voluminously and indiscriminately but never happened across Winnie the Pooh, so didn’t realise that what I was playing was called Pooh-Sticks.

There was always something or someone to see, somebody passing through. Often there would be tramps, or men who looked as if they might latterly have been soldiers, trudging along the gutters in grey raincoats collecting cigarette butts. They emptied out all the little odd bits of tobacco into the tobacco tins they carried, and later made roll-ups out of Rizzla papers.

Then there was the knife-grinder, with his bicycle-powered knife-sharpening equipment. As soon as he arrived the housewives would appear from houses up and down the street – some radar alerting them to his presence, for he made no call – brandishing blunt kitchen knives for him to sharpen, which he did by working some kind of leather strop arrangement with his feet. Perhaps it was attached to a pedal!

Most Sundays the rag-and-bone man would come along with his horse and cart shouting something unintelligible which I later realised was ‘Rag’nBone’ distorted through much use. And out would come the housewives again, in their frilly pinnies, this time brandishing buckets and coal-shovels, since the steaming horse-droppings were much prized as rose fertiliser.

Best of all, the shrimp man. Nan would despatch me back down the street with a pint jug and enough money to fill it with shrimps for our Sunday tea. I savoured the fresh, briny smell of the shrimps but for eating purposes they were more trouble than they were worth; so much de-whiskering and de-tailing for so little greyish meat.

Gallipoli Street was best of all when it snowed. We would walk along from our house to Nan and Grandad’s at the other end, for Christmas Dinner. The snow was thick and slippery and the houses had changed from unexceptional suburban semi’s with names like Fernlea and Foxholme to story-book houses with lighted windows with paper-chains, tinsel and Christmas Trees. We would hang on to the low front walls so as not to slip over, anticipating beef and roast potatoes and a long somnolent afternoon in a roaring hot front room, wheezing a little in the thick cloud of second-hand St Bruno Flake from Grandad’s pipe and listening to the snoring of their fat, honey-coloured labrador.

In later years – or maybe it was just our later years – Gallipoli Street seemed to become a different place altogether. Now there were high-heeled, beehived girls clattering along it under the evening streetlights, the streetlights reflected blue in the puddles after rain. It became a place where courting happened, just out of range of parental surveillance. Later still it became a bus route, though there wasn’t really room for the buses, and a place where commuters left their cars all day because they could park for free and leg it the rest of the way to the station. A few extra houses and bungalows got built, plugging the remaining gaps. Strangers came; people with pushchairs, boys on mountain bicycles.

Now when I visit Gallipoli Street I sometimes think I see the ghosts of roller-skating 1950s kids mingling with the bicycling boy-racers. The shrimp man, the knife grinder, the rag-and-bone man and the old soldiers are no longer to be seen and I notice the ‘ae’ has mysteriously disappeared from encyclopaedia, but one thing hasn’t changed: there are still no anacondas in Gallipoli Street. At least, as far as I know.

ON OUTLIVING THE CATS

I don’t find writing difficult nowadays – I just kind of do it. Sometimes I ‘talk’ straight onto the screen. Luckily I can touch type very, very fast; the only advantage of a lifetime’s incarceration in office blocks. Sometimes for preference I write the old-fashioned way, in pencil on yellow paper – the Rough and then the Smooth. Then I type it, which I suppose is Smooth 2, or the Edit. Even editing – it’s as if some machine takes over. Although it’s a complex task I seem to be able to do it the way those giant Italian robots make cars and am often starting to write the next piece in my head while I am doing it.

I’ve been reading a chapter in Living with Mild Cognitive Impairment (Anderson, Murphy, Troyer) – about something they call Cognitive Engagement. Now in spite of being older I’m not, as yet, impaired. If you don’t believe me I suggest you read posts (1), (2) and (3) EL DESDICHADO. Nerdy and boring – hmmm, yes – unless you happen to have a thing about Nerval and El Desdichado. Sorry, I just had to get him/them out of my system. Unfortunately he/they aren’t entirely disparu yet. Post (4) – the last, I promise – exists in rough but has yet to be typed. Impaired, no – but I watched it happening to Mum.

It was when the bookmark stopped moving. She had always liked to read: great seafaring blockbusters by Patrick O’Brian; humungous historicals by Diana Gabaldon and Philippa Gregory. I do enjoy a good historical novel every now and then, and am a sucker for historical movies especially if, as they usually do, they contain Alan Rickman, but on the whole our tastes are not much alike. However, she always read and I always knew what to get her for birthdays and Christmas. Plus, a doddle to wrap because square. Always buy square presents.

But then the bookmark stopped moving. Week after week, each time I visited, it would be stuck in the same position, in the same book, on the same table. There was always a good excuse – tendency to keep nodding off in the evenings, busy in the garden, jigsaws to finish. Except the jigsaws weren’t getting finished either. Of all the problems, present and to come, this should be the one that impacts on me the least. After all, Mum’s not reading doesn’t take up any of my time; it doesn’t stress me out; it doesn’t require patience, phone calls to be made, light bulbs to be changed or official ‘bumf’ to be deciphered. Nothing to be done about it at all, but it was one of the things we shared, and it makes me sad.

This is one reason for writing the Blog. Writing, I think, comes under the heading of Cognitive Engagement – as do reading, playing chess, learning languages and Sudoku. Chess and Sudoku are out, I’m afraid. Wrong sort of brain.

Cognitive Engagement is one of those Very Important Things like eating well, doing lots of healthy exercise, volunteering in charity shops and engaging in relentless social activity (none of which I do) that might delay the onset of the dreaded D-word. Well, I’ve read and written all my life – so maybe I just need to carry on doing that.

Because, you see, I must outlive the cats. Furthermore I must remain compos mentis so that I can remain with the cats and be capable of looking after them. There are so many: who would have them if I were to lose the plot? Most of them nobody wanted in the first place – that’s how they came to me. I’m not too fussed about staying alive. Dying – frightened to death of that, like most people – but hanging about for ever and a day on this forgotten outpost of the Vogon Empire for no particular reason – not bothered.

But I must outlive the cats. To this end I have invented a number of projects, and one of them is this Blog. More of the others in a separate post.

I have given up on the idea of anyone actually buying anything I have written. I did for quite a while have a go at self-publishing e-books under a pseudonym after months teaching myself to ‘build’ them, to master the dreaded Clickable Table of Contents and even design my own covers. All of this was most certainly Cognitively Engaging but the books didn’t, and don’t, sell. Well, maybe one a month, and then I suspect someone’s child has pressed the Buy button by accident. I know the thing is to be out there on Facebook and Twitter and, blagging, bragging, schmoozing, wheedling, networking and whatever, but it’s just not me. So I started this website so as to have somewhere to collect all the old stuff – the Writer’s Group homework, the University writing course assignments, the anguished poetry of my youth, the … and to have Someone to write to.

Now, I know you’re not really Someone, more of an amorphous collection of folks who may or may not be reading my Blog at any one time in this or that part of the world – but the fact that you might be reading – perhaps not today or tomorrow but the day after – is enough to keep me writing. Writing is something absorbing to do with my time. It’s talking to somebody. It is, as Anderson, Murphy & Troyer put it, ‘actively using your thinking skills in a way that requires effort’. The writing may not nowadays cost me a great deal of effort; however the thinking and imagining that leads up to writing does. I think and imagine as I wander around the house, as I wash up, as I feed and muck out the cats, as I drive the car and often as I appear to be listening to other people. Here inside, ‘I’ is in constant communication with ‘Me’, observing, comparing notes, wittering, proposing ideas and rejecting them. ‘I’ and ‘Me’ often converse quite heatedly, even tearfully but, thank the Lord, silently.

I learnt that lesson when I was six.

Well now, Norton Securities has decided my disk requires optimization in order to continue running efficiently…

Que?

Rupert-land

Every Christmas for years and years I was given a Rupert Book, and this was the one present I would look for among all the things I didn’t particularly want – the plastic doll with the pink skin and the wiry orange hair; the tin telephone exchange, the sugar mice with tails of string and the inevitable 5 shilling postal orders from Great Aunts I was never sure I had met.

rupert

I always knew which present the Rupert Book was because it was heavy and flat, and you could feel the ridge of the spine down one edge, the hollowness of the opposing edge, where the pages would open. I always thought I might save it all year just to think about unwrapping it, a preserved pleasure like bottled cherries. But Christmas night, alone in my room, escaping at last from the gross overeating and generalised squabbling of the day, I would always open it. Reading the Rupert Books showed me that there were in fact two worlds, not one.

To start with I would be absorbed into the story, fallen among black-clad, pointy-hatted imps in their subterranean laboratories or being punted along a dark river by a Chinaman in embroidered silk and a pigtail. Those strange barges, clad in hoops and canvas like the wagons in Wild West films. I imagined that when you were tired you would retire to sleep amongst the cargo in the tea- and rope-smelling darkness. In Rupert-land all good things were possible. One minute you would be safe at home with Mummy Bear in her flowery apron, and Daddy Bear with his pipe and slippers; the next minute you’d fallen through a trap-door in a hillside, discovered a secret stairway in the middle of a thicket or been kidnapped by pirates.

Then I would look up. There would be rain on the window, stars in a navy-blue sky and my father coughing after his once-a-year cigar. For a moment, suspended between the two realities, I would know that I could fly. This was how I felt, and still occasionally feel, about the world. Reality is a precarious affair. At any moment things might cease to make sense. I still come home from work sometimes and expect the plants in the front garden to have rearranged themselves, or a brass fox’s-head door-knocker to have materialised on the door, and it is both a relief and a disappointment to discover that everything is exactly as I left it.

ON SHUFFLING ‘ORF AND THE OLD STUFF

At the moment I’m going through the old stuff – bits of writing found in carrier bags in the garage or in the darker recesses of my computer. I’m posting them in Retro, not because I think they are extra-specially good and worthy of posterity or whatever, but because if I don’t put them there where will I put them? Eventually I’ll shuffle ‘orf * as they say, and someone or other – a relative if I have any left, Council or Salvation Army if I haven’t – will find these various damp, spiderous carrier bags in the garage and bin the whole lot.

The only trouble is the time the old stuff takes. I promise myself I’ll just post it, quick, then get back to doing what I should be doing which is writing new stuff. Nobody is likely to read the old stuff. Even if they do, since it’s billed as ‘Retro’ they won’t be expecting an awful lot of it. But I can’t resist the temptation to re-read it, and then I can’t resist the tinkering, the editing…

I’ve hardly got started on my IDEAS file for La Tour Abolie, although I suppose I should be grateful to have an IDEAS file.

It is heartening to note that I’ve improved quite a lot since the 1980’s and 90’s. My ‘tech’ has improved quite a lot too. Some of the old stuff was typed on an Amstrad; you can tell by the dot matrix printing. My first computer…

Quite a lot of it I skim through and – ‘Oh – urgh – no’ – there I am again at Writers Group, a pompous twit(ess) intoning aloud my Amstrad-generated ‘homework’ to my fellow scribblers. We were a small group, meeting every other Thursday night. It was a long drive to get there. It often seemed to be raining and always seemed to be dark when we arrived to hop around shivering on the pavement while we waited for the key-holder.

Happy days, though, in a way. We hired the room over the RSPCA shop. It was cheap, but not comfortable. We often had to remain in our hats and coats because the central heating boiler was temperamental. I remember one Christmas we brought food and wine and crackers, and having pulled the crackers put the paper hats on over our outdoor hats.

There we were, drinking the tinny tea we’d made in the tiny kitchen; sitting on wooden chairs round a trestle table, each waiting impatiently for his or her chance to read; instantly switching to Daydream as soon as we’d read, because of course there was no point listening to anybody else’s. We knew how bad we were: none of us really expected to make it big, and none of us did.

Occasionally a couple of addicts, or possibly street people, trudged up the stairs to sit amongst us; two grubby, foolish-looking young men who drank our tea but never brought any writing, who never spoke, whose names were never asked, who were never asked to read but also never asked to leave. It wasn’t even that warm for them but I suppose it was out of the wind.

For all of us, it was a safe place.

* What dreames may come, When we haue shufflel’d off this mortall coile, Must giue vs pawse. Shakespeare: Hamlet (1602)

In Shakespeare’s time ‘coil’, or coile’, or coyle’, meant ‘fuss’ or ‘bustle’.

But shuffling? Visions of old geezers in dressing-gowns and bedroom slippers, shuffling their way towards the edge of giant cable-drums, whence they tip over the edge and tumble into oblivion.

One possibility is that Shakespeare intended ‘shuttle’ rather than ‘shuffle’ and the printers at some point misread it. A shuttle was a long, thin wooden implement that weavers wound their thread around before weaving. The shuttle was thrown backwards and forwards through the strung threads of the warp to make cloth. This horizontal component, made by the shuttle, was the woof or weft. You can see how woof/weft must be related to weave and woven. As the weaving went on, the thread would be unwound by the shuttle from the spool – a spool being a species of coil. Shakespeare loved multiple associations with words (resonances) and could have been using ‘coil’ to signify both the terrible fuss and bother of life and a coil of thread, which in dying we finally offload and unwind, disentangling ourselves from life.

But, thinking about it, I have another suggestion. I wonder if Shakespeare meant ‘shuffle’ in the sense of ‘shrug’ or ‘slough’? Because the picture I now have is of a man tightly bound with rope who, by shrugging and wriggling gradually manages to loosen his restraints, so that the whole ‘coil’ falls to the ground and he can step out of it. This makes it something like a snake shedding its skin, an expansion, a new beginning.