Memento Mori

My sister sent me an email, advising me that she had moved Mum into her new Home. So far so predictable but at the foot of the email was one of those little grey paperclip things and hidden behind the little grey paperclip thing a disconcerting photo, of my mother peacefully asleep in her new bed, in her new room, and my sister with her hand resting on Mum’s forehead being photographed by – whom? Godmother and I agreed, there was something spooky, even gruesome about it.

It’s not that I do not know what my mother looks like now, in her 87th year and suffering from dementia; how her face has thinned and yellowed and her smile has gone. I saw her only last weekend after all. I fed her a belated Christmas Dinner and wrote a post about it. It’s worse than that. It’s two things:

Firstly (my sister couldn’t have known this, but if she had it wouldn’t have stopped her) it reminded me so much of the painting on the cover of one of my old paperbacks of metaphysical poetry. It’s a mourning painting. Sir Thomas’s fine white hand beneath a frill of stiff white lace, rests on a skull. People are ranged around in their best-black-and-lace, looking mournful but resigned. The deceasing lady is propped up on many pillows, only her head and shoulders visible. And unfortunately, my sister had managed to mirror that exact pose in her smartphone snap.

Secondly, it reminded me of all those wildlife programmes where a vulture inspects the corpse of some recently slaughtered elephant or wildebeest – avidly, thoughtfully – as if debating whether a sprinkling of salt and pepper, or maybe a handful or two of chives might be a good idea.

The fact that associations like this are made my mind is shocking, even to me. Why do I – why even can I think such things? Couldn’t I switch off this poeticising, or in this case anti-poeticising, facility when appropriate? The answer is no. This sort of brain doesn’t switch off; there’s no editing what goes into it, no stopping it from ‘seeing’. And what it has seen can never subsequently be forgotten. It’s what makes people like me able to write. It’s what forces us to write, to exorcise what we cannot but see and know. It’s what makes living difficult.

Whilst on the subject of death (might as well get it all over in one post!) I am reminded of those roadside floral tributes, and my parents’ attitude towards them; also to funerals.

My mother in particular despised those bunches of flowers people nowadays tend to sticky-tape to lamp-posts or thread through the links of chain-link fences at the exact spot where a close relative had died. She hated how the flowers were renewed, month after month, year after year, “littering up the place”. What she really hated, I think, was the naked expression of grief. To my parents a death meant a cremation, as soon as possible. It meant a funeral service in a modern chapel with no embarrassing tears or screams of anguish, as characterless and forgettable as possible. After that, that was that, done with. The person, done with. Rarely mentioned again.

I like the flowers. I sometimes walk along the seafront passing all those memorial benches people have donated, and stop to read how Gerry loved to play the guitar or how Sid the taxi-driver is now driving the angels around in heaven, in a shiny white taxi. I love the bunches of flowers and imagine the relatives coming here, with a fresh bunch and a fresh card, and having a little chat with Gerry or Sid.

I like graveyards; when I worked in an office I used to eat my lunchtime sandwiches in one. On a sunny, summer’s day there is less to be afraid of in a graveyard than in the whole of the rest of the world. The dead enjoy your company. They appreciate a little chat every now and again. And did you know that you can talk to any dead person in any graveyard? They will always make themselves available even if what remains of their bodies is on the other side of the country.

I always found this sanitised modern death difficult. I longed for great black Victorian hearses, pulled by black horses and festooned in black lace. Brought up in the lowest possible church, and that most conformist of social groups the upper working class, my instincts are entirely Catholic and Gothic. I need those swinging censers, the trails of incense, the solemn faces, the cascades of tears, the wailing and the beating of breasts. I need the man with the black hat walking in front of the coffin with his mace and his black-crêpe streamers.

And I need a place to go to be with that person. I do understand the allure of the exact spot where someone died. I know that the lost one may still in a sense be there, exactly there.  Magical thinking, of course, but I know that where they went up they may, in a sense also, if earnestly implored, and if they choose, come down. Their ghost is anchored there. This is their own place, their little ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’ as that poem puts it.

Let us not deprive people of their magic, if magic is what they need to process the horror and the loss. Let’s not sanitise it all and cut out the ritual, if ritual is what people crave. My parents would have said – but the dead person isn’t there any longer – what’s the point of going to all that expense and – more importantly from an upper working class perspective – making all that unnecessary and embarrassing fuss and show – showing off like that?

But rituals are not intended for the dead, they are for the healing of the living.

Featured Image: Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his First Wife: John Slouch

Magpie Mind

I’ve always liked magpies – you know how you sometimes feel a particular colour is your colour; a particular object is your lucky object, a particular animal may be your totem? I’ve always felt magpies were my bird. I don’t mind them in ones, twos or threes, even though the sight of one is supposed to presage Sorrow, two Joy etc. I even named a house Magpie Corner once, because the garden and the trees around it always seemed be full of black and white birds.

However, let’s start off with butterflies and get back to the magpies.

My father was always telling my mother she had a butterfly mind. This was the sort of thing men said to women back in the fifties and sixties, when women were assumed to have butterfly minds – it was more or less a compliment. In those days it was also all right to refer to one’s wife as The Little Woman, and make amused comments about women drivers and the obvious dangers their clumsy handling of any machine bigger than a blender must pose to rightful, masculine, users of the road. Heaven forefend that you should be or even look clever, or be able to concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds. I remember being told, repeatedly, that men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.

Fortunately the need for glasses did not arise until – more by accident than design, on his part or mine – I had bagged myself a husband, although I doubt if this particular husband would have noticed whether I was wearing glasses or not. He didn’t look at people – could paint in oils the perfect steam engine, traction-engine or Spitfire; the perfect landscape of stark winter trees, silent lakes, lowering storm-clouds – and yet could not draw a recognisable charcoal sketch of me or produce anything more than a blurred and distant human figure.

But I digress. In fact I digress (butterflies) then I digress again (sixties sexism) then again (spectacles) then again (ex-husbands). I’m always doing that. My father would say, of course, that I have a butterfly mind, inherited from my mother.

My father did have a point, though he might have resisted making it so frequently. My mother did flit from one ‘hobby’ to the next, from jigsaw puzzles to painting cherries on jam-jars, to weaving wicker baskets to mowing careful patterns in the lawn, to machine-knitting (hell on earth, that was, for all of us) to reading the whole of Dickens. And she didn’t listen much.

In latter years we used to meet in garden centres for lunch. I never managed to get more than half a sentence out without her eyes drifting away and focussing on something just over my shoulder – some cyclists passing by in the road, maybe – or wondering aloud why the service was so slow, or whether the man behind the counter was married to the lady behind the counter or just a distant cousin. In my own conversations I feel compelled to repeat everything, sometimes two or three times over. I can’t believe the other person will have been paying attention beyond the first few words. I can hear myself doing it, I wish I didn’t do it but I can’t seem to stop. It’s engrained.

I can’t really criticise, of course. Even a childhood blighted by a butterfly mind does not prevent you from having to make do with the exact same mind yourself. Nowadays I understand it a little more. I see what she, and I, and Ex all had in common. None of us can be blamed, although we were blamed, not to mention ridiculed. Other people blamed us, we blamed ourselves and we blamed each other.

Nowadays I tend to put a more positive spin on it. I call it Magpie Mind. All three of us were creative. Like magpies we collected bright, shiny impressions, odd bits of information other people missed. I collected words, the assonances and dissonances of words, the vapour trail left by words, their echoes. I collected sudden washes of sadness, subtle changes in the light, the patterns made by everything, the poetry that’s in the pity. What you get is a mind that makes odd connections between things, a mind that can spark at random and in any direction, bringing disparate ideas and pieces of information together and making something unexpected out of them.

Ex took it for granted that everyone ‘saw’ the world as he saw it. He once told me that anyone was capable of painting like he did – they just needed to be taught. He could remember the colour of a piece of fabric throughout a lengthy shopping expedition and then select an exactly matching reel of cotton in the sewing shop. He wasn’t even trying to remember.

He told me once that when I looked in a puddle I should analyse the colours that were actually there, the blues and the greens, the pinks and purples, even. He said people assumed puddles were grey because that was the colour they thought of them as. Most people didn’t bother to look properly. After that I tried to look properly but it didn’t help. Puddles still appeared mostly grey.

Mum collected crafts, and colours, and fleeting, subconscious impressions. She put all her creativity and long days of work into her garden. She told me once not to worry about plants in a border ‘clashing’ because in nature everything was designed to go with everything else. And sometimes, even though she has not been listening to a word I say, she seems to know what I’m feeling. Visiting her at the Home on Sunday, she spoke in gibberish for half an hour or so, fighting with no-words and wrong-words before sinking back and closing her eyes, exhausted. I was realising that we would never, now, have that long-awaited ‘proper conversation’.

And just as I was realising it she reached up and touched my cheek. You girls, she said. You girls.

Walking Ghosts

A strange coincidence – yesterday I wrote about having dreamed of my grandfather on the day he died, and feeling that it was I who had now become the ghost, and then yesterday evening, on the News, video of this unexpected art project taking place in various UK cities as a tribute to the men who died on the Somme. I thought it was amazing, and I’m not often amazed. How better to bring the sadness and the great losses of war home to people.

The whole concept of what is and is not “art” seems to be changing – or at least, it has changed since I was a gel. I grew up in a working-class household and at no time did it occur to any of us that art was for working-class people too. “Art” was something posh people went to galleries to stare at. Art was square pictures in square frames.

Posh art was in ornate, gilded frames and was mostly about pink and cream naked ladies, usually rather large, with a laughable wisps of drapery here and there. Either that or it was statues with no arms, or Romans on plinths with sightless eyes and no bodies. Or it was Picasso, and who could understand him? I mean, people just didn’t have both eyes on the same side of their face, did they? Even posh people.

Amateur art lived in cheaper, less twiddly frames and was mostly really bad. It was the sort of thing you saw strapped to the railings at the seaside – dreadful watercolours of nothing in particular – portraits of women with thighs like sacks of potatoes, that might have been wearing jodhpurs but probably weren’t; odd little oil-paint boats pinned to static oil-paint seas with fluffy little oil-paint clouds creeping over them.

Later I married an artist, but the gradual expansion in my taste for art happened in spite of rather than because of him, since he was only really interested in his own paintings, which were mostly of steam engines and aeroplanes. Everything else came under the heading of Interesting (yawn!). Someone gave me a very expensive book – or maybe I bought it for myself: Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art. Over half of its pages were colour plates, as I remember, and it covered the whole span of art, from cave drawings and native art to the present day, and not just paintings but drawings, architecture and sculptures. I discovered a taste for the medieval – or perhaps a bit later than that – for Dürer and Bosch. I discovered an unfashionable liking for the Pre-Raphaelites and all those elongated women with flowing titian hair. I discovered an even greater liking for drawings than paintings. I met Turner, Van Gough and Vermeer. I stumbled over still lives with skulls, rotting fruit and mysterious symbolism. I found that somebody had painted a shattering Scream on a bridge, and someone else had captured the elegant boredom of a French barmaid.

manet.jpg

A bar at the Folies Bergère: Manet

And now – now it seems that art and all the other arts are coming together. Visiting Leeds Castle I noticed a wickerwork dragon growing out of the ground by a pond, its coils to all appearances buried in mud and daffodils. I spot herds of flat cows on roundabouts; trees wearing knitted mufflers; gardens mysteriously appearing on scraps of waste ground; stencilled cartoons on walls that are instantly so valuable the wall itself gets stolen; ceramic poppies spilling from the Tower of London and First World War soldiers standing in the streets singing We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here. I stumble across poems mixed with music; songs that are really poems in disguise; poems that are partly drawings; cartoons that are really art; flash-crowds of people, summoned by social media, suddenly dancing some cool little dance in the street; staid buildings and monuments transformed by light-shows, or changing colour to mourn the victims of terrorism.

It seems to me art’s now more interesting and more democratic. It occurs to me that one day all the different boxes creativity now squeezes itself into will dissolve. Labels like art, architecture, music, poetry, novelising, dance, lighting, fashion, craft, acting – and who knows what other forms of creativity yet to be invented – might blend into one great synaesthesia of the imagination.

ghosts 2.jpg

Photo credits:

Walking Ghosts at Waterloo: Alastair Steward/ITV News; Soldiers among commuters: PA

Goodbye, Miss Chips

I originally trained to be a teacher. Three entirely wasted years at training college, using up all the grant students were then entitled to claim from their Local Authorities: bridges now were burnt; boats had been sunk; no second chances.  Why did I do that?

At eighteen, going on fourteen, I had based my decision on a range of factors, which were:

Not knowing what else to do, apart from getting a job, which I sensed (accurately) would be a disaster at this stage of my life. All I wanted was to be a poet, but there didn’t seem to be any openings for poets. A tutor suggested working in a factory while I wrote. I had never been in a factory and at that age was still running on the inverse snobbery of my parents, who were upper-working/lower-middle class. Only lower working-class people worked in factories. I had read Altarwise by Owl-Light from beginning to end. I had read The Wife of Bath’s Tale, albeit the bowdlerised schoolbook version. Duh! How could such a prodigy; a future poet almost if not quite as good as Dylan Thomas; such a towering intellectual be expected to work in a factory?

Later, I was to work in not one but several factories – collating greetings cards – week after week of sickeningly scarlet Valentines cards in the middle of July, I remember, glue and glitter that got everywhere – and a bookbinding factory. I would feel more at ease in such anonymous, uncompetitive, unchallenging environments than in any other. But at eighteen, going on fourteen, you know nothing and you think you know everything.

The shorter-than-me, half-Austrian boyfriend had accepted a place at a teacher training college in London. He was a maths genius, or so he’d been telling me for the past year. I had no way of knowing since I had never scored higher than twelve per cent in any maths test. I had spent the larger part of the previous year being dazzled by his talk of infinity and quadratic equations, while doing nothing very much in the way of studying English and French.  As a result I passed my two A Levels, but with grades so very, very low that to all intents and purposes they were fails; and this in spite of having achieved high-grade O levels in the same subjects.

I was supposed to be doing sociology A Level as well. People would joke that certificates in sociology were printed on toilet paper. I must be the only person from that era who hasn’t got one. I can’t remember a thing about sociology except that the textbook was heavy, and by Stephen Something-or-other. I must have stopped going to lectures early on in order to spend more time in the company of my long-haired pocket genius drinking black coffee and cheap cider, sharing plates of chips and learning about infinity and quadratic equations.

I knew I would never see him again but somehow my going to another, similar college maintained the connection to what had been the best year of my life in the sense of being alive. You don’t realise – the exhilaration of being eighteen and in love for the first time – the sense of possibilities – a whole vast planet yours for the taking. How soon that fades, but at the time you don’t realise, which is a mercy.

students

I needed to get away from Dad, but by some strange Freudian miscalculation managed to get myself accepted at a training college a short bus-ride away – so no actual leaving home and another three years of fierce and occasionally violent rows with Dad. I could have got away. And yet I couldn’t. It would take marriage – the classic short hop to another, similar man – to achieve that.

My mother said I was making a mistake – that I wasn’t temperamentally suited to be a teacher. But hey, I’m a trial-and-error kinda gal: I kinda have to do things, mess them up, realise I messed them up, then do the same thing over and over and over again.

So, for whatever reason I ended doing three separate six-week teaching practices in three separate schools and being dreadful on every occasion. I could hardly eat for terror during these six week torments. I hardly slept at night, knowing I would have to get up, get the bus and walk into that room full of evil, antisocial aliens all over again the following day.

Yes, I was the trainee in tears, who had to be rescued by her tutor from a room full of paper-aeroplane throwing, desk-banging, screeching, cheeking, fighting, mocking, singing, rioting teenagers.

I was the cowering, red-faced idiot in the too-short skirt being leered and sniggered at by boys taller, and only two or three years younger than myself, in black blazers. ‘Get yourself some glasses,’ my tutor suggested. ‘They’d make you look older: plain glass, of course.’

I was the one who had to be taught fractions in the staff room by the maths teacher before assembly, then fight my way in to 4B and teach a double lesson of it before it faded from short-term memory, praying the kids didn’t ask any questions because at that point I would be stuffed.

I was the inspiring young pedagogue who set creative writing tasks and got back forty-two almost identical one-line stories about Frankenstein creating a monster, the film having been on telly the night before.

The Certificate in Education, on crisp, cream paper with fancy scrollwork, which I was awarded at the end of the three years in spite of the above catalogue of disasters, apparently on the basis of an ‘outstanding’ in English (my Main Course) would rapidly become the albatross around my neck. Prospective employers would query, naturally, why, having studied for three years to be a teacher I wasn’t actually, now, teaching. And how could I explain without telling them the whole sad story I have just told you? Then they would have thought – what a dork. And why would anyone employ a dork? Nothing – believe me, nothing – fails like failure.

After a while I had a bit of a brainwave: what was to stop me leaving the Certificate in Education off my CV? And so I did that. It created a secondary problem in that with those three years  blank it looked as if you had been locked up in some sort of young offenders’ institution or living rough on the streets, but I found ways round it. I began to apply the only talent I actually possessed, and that in goodly measure – creativity/lateral thinking – the ability to spin an ever more intricate protective web of tales around myself – to my CV and other areas of my life. I became an invented, acceptable, suitable person. In the process, for many decades I lost sight of whoever was underneath.

But I survived.

The Phoenix Fire Mystery

Reincarnation: do you believe in it?

I used to haunt my local library, and I found this enormous hardback book called Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery (Cranston & Head, 1977).  I booked it out so many times in succession that I might as well have kept it. When eventually they decided to “modernise” the library, the book – along with a good third of the books in the library, it seemed – disappeared, during one of the days I had foolishly let it out of my keeping, to be replaced by a whole lot of tacky music cassettes. I was cross about that. All the times I’d thought about stealing ‘my’ beloved old friend Reincarnation, and never did because my conscience wouldn’t let me – and then they throw it out to make room for – not-books, for dross. It was at that point I gave up on public libraries altogether, and thankfully soon after it became possible to order books online.

Which is where I got the equally enormous paperback copy that sits on the desk beside me now.

Sometime after we divorced, my husband told a mutual friend that I had Got Religion around this time – one reason he was glad to see the back of me. There were many reasons he could have cited for being glad to see the back of me – looking back, even I’d even have been glad to see the back of me – but he was wrong about that one. I didn’t Get Religion then, and I still haven’t. I started thinking for myself around then, and searching for answers. The search goes on.

I remember one summer’s afternoon, sitting on the back step of our house. He was down the garden in his workshop constructing something intricate and splendid involving lathes and drills, and I was just… sitting on the step, thinking about reincarnation… and something suddenly clicked. It was… you know like if you mesh your two hands together in front of your face…?  Something fitted together, precisely. Something felt absolutely right, at last. And that was reincarnation. I just knew it was right, not through any intellectual process but as if retrieving an ancient memory. It fitted with that feeling I had since a child, that the past is not something irretrievably gone, but all around us still. I felt my ancestors, and strangers, and scenery long vanished – beside me. I knew time was an illusion, but I didn’t know how.

Over the years I have read more, in different fields – testing it – trying to find something that would be an antidote to that unreasonable, unscientific certainty – but only seem to have stumbled across more and more things that fit with it. It now seems to me that the traditional Eastern idea of reincarnation is a simplified version of an unimaginably complex reality. I think there is more to it than amassing good karma and bad karma, and the possibility of coming back as a worm/slug/dung-beetle if we misbehave, or working one’s way up to some kind of disembodied semi-angelic status if we’re really, really good.

My sense is that when we die, we leave our used-up physical bodies behind, obviously, but then maybe rest between lives. And during that between-lives period we design, assemble or are irresistibly drawn back into, another life, depending on what we next need to learn; the ‘life after life’ pattern being an extended learning or growing process. I think we are ‘sent out’ – or maybe even fling ourselves joyfully out – from our source – like flares from the sun – and we ‘return’ – or maybe sink gratefully back – to our source; and that in returning we bring with us what we have learned – so that the source is enriched and in a small way modified by everything we have seen, experienced and suffered.

I don’t see ‘That’ as anything that can be named; or as in any way static, but rather as  a something continually and violently in motion – boiling, like the sun – always rearranging, realigning and reconfiguring. I see human creativity – that surge of joy that happens when a poem line comes to you, or you when you paint a picture just right, or capture the photo – as a fizzy foretaste, a pale, just-bearable echo of what it is to be That – the violence, the frightening creativity, the rage, the restless urge for change, the passion to bring into existence Something from Nothing.

Getting Religion, I suspect, would have been the easier option!

Though all dies, and even the gods die, yet all death is but a phoenix fire death, and new birth into the Greater and Better.

Thomas Carlyle

Oh, my Grace I got no hidin’ place (1)

When you were a baby, my mother informs me, in front of a living-room full of multi-coloured doctors, nurses and psychiatrists, you’d sit on my lap – just like this – staring at me – and you wouldn’t let me cuddle you. You were a strange baby.

Maybe you were a strange baby too, I mutter. How do you know? I find myself apologising to the social worker. I’m sorry. I don’t remember anything much before I was three. I don’t know what I did.

Don’t worry, it’s the psychosis talking, says the social worker. But it isn’t. Mum’s been telling everybody that same thing for the last four hundred years.

How many years has Mother been deaf? one of them asks me. I have no idea. Approximately, then? He’s getting impatient, I can feel it in his voice. Other clients to see. Running behind schedule. But even approximately, I don’t know. I don’t remember time that way at all – don’t record dates. I know when things were quite recent, quite a long time ago or a very long time ago – mostly. I can sometimes locate events in time by the scenery. Which room of which house was I in? Was anyone else there with me? Was I still married then? Then I attempt to do the math, but that usually founders since I have no parameters, no start and finish dates to subtract from one another.

I remember how I felt on many different occasions. I remember pain, puzzlement or happiness. I see odd, associated items – an orange balloon trapped beneath a ceiling with polystyrene tiles; a stretch of rails going off into the distance on an icy winter’s day, and me thinking If you followed those rails far enough you might get to Canada; I remember bats in the dusk, moving up and down amongst the trees, like puppets on a string. I don’t remember whether something was five years ago, or ten. I don’t know whether something was a week ago or six. I remember, vividly, but I don’t remember like that. If I remembered like a proper person I wouldn’t be able to write a poem. I wouldn’t be able to dance the Argentine tango in my head and feel that sky-blue dress swirling against my long, suntanned legs, know how that man’s arms feel supporting my weight, smell the garlic on him – or know what the rain’s saying, or what it’s like to fly.

Recently I’ve been trying to ring fence my sense of self; trying to protect what’s left of me from the encroaching tide of her – extricate my inner ‘map’ – of a lifetime’s oddity and different brain-wiring which makes sense within itself – from the carnival scene in front of me: an old lady with a grown-out white perm and food stains all over a blue jumper she first donned a month ago (maybe two, maybe five) and refuses to change out of because “they” won’t let her; an old lady who wobbles when she stand ups and doesn’t wash the teacups properly so they’re all stained. A person who tells you her washing machine must be scrapped because she hasn’t switched it over to “drain” and refuses to believe it is fixed even though all the dirty water’s gone, because only one person can fix it, and that person hasn’t been here yet.

Someone who shouts a lot, and isn’t helping.

You’ve got this ear-whistle thing too, she reminds me. I remember. In ten years time they’ll be telling you about the mud on the windows and the slugs under the foundations. Then you’ll know. Then you’ll know what I’m telling you. But I know already, or at least can imagine. If only I didn’t, and couldn’t.

Why do you have to be so relentlessly depressing? I think. Can I ever have loved you? Why are you jabbing your horrible uncut fingernails at me? Why are you so exhausting? And why won’t you change that jumper? The carers are going to have to remove it with kitchen scissors, I think. Like the ambulancemen do with the trousers of people with broken legs. All the while, the multicoloured psychiatrists are talking. All the while Blah, Blah, Blah.

What is he saying? (Why don’t I care?) Why doesn’t he write it down, for God’s sake? Am I supposed to just know what a Respite Placement is? Is that a home? Is it a hospital? Is it, like, a foster family for mad old mummys?

What is wrong with my brain? Why can other people manage stuff like this? What must they be thinking of me? I did an intelligence test once – scored above average, if not exactly MENSA material. Now I can see them all looking me up and down: this whole professional team, expertly, instantly assessing my shabby, distracted old self and thinking to themselves – this is one of the Client’s Primary Carers? Why is it that being patronised instantly transforms you into a patronisable person?

In my head I am executing an Argentine tango between the pillars of some city promenade. I am that woman in the blue linen dress and my toes point and my hips swing, and my partner is a man with a slicked-back ponytail, co-respondent shoes and several days growth of stubble. I can hear that beautiful music. I can’t stop hearing it. I can’t stop dancing in my head. I can choose to wear his body, or hers. I can wear both of them at once and become the whole dance. The more I try to drag myself back to reality the louder the music becomes, the bluer the dress, the warmer the day, the more absorbing the steps. A turn here, an elegant backward dip …

A SUDDEN LUST FOR NEW CLOTHES

Things that stop you writing. Pamela Frankau came up with these lists in the 1960s:

‘the devils outside’

…bright sunshine, cricket, the Times crossword, a luncheon date…

‘the devils inside’

…sheer listless reluctance; pain; worry; the flat morning mood; a sudden lust for new clothes; deep melancholy; wild happiness; bad news; good news…

I remember a sudden lust for new clothes striking a chord with me when I first read her book Pen To Paper, but then I was fifteen and clothes, at fifteen, are everything. That need to shop, right now – is that just a female thing? Something to do with our gleaning and gathering instincts. Lust is the right word for it. Luckily, the lust for new clothes tends to wear off as you get older.

Sheer listless reluctance Yes, that’s the biggie. You simply don’t want to write. You’ve written enough for several lifetimes and what have you got to show for it? A blog. Sheer listless reluctance is really a combination of writers’ block and laziness. They say the only way out of hell is through it: and the only way out of sheer listless reluctance is to write, write, write. It doesn’t matter what you write when you are in this frame of mind as long as you do. Start with a nonsense poem or a shopping list. If that doesn’t work type pangrams over and over again till you get so bored you find yourself writing something else

  • The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over The Lazy Dog
  • Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs
  • We promptly judged antique ivory buckles for the next prize
  • Cozy lummox gives smart squid who asks for job pen

Pangrams are called pangrams because they include every letter of the alphabet. When learning to touch-type that Quick Brown Fox becomes an old friend.

Freewrite. Just write what comes into your head, and don’t stop to think. You are constantly talking to yourself whether you realise it or not, or rather one part of your mind is talking to all the other parts. Just tap in on that and don’t stop till you run out of steam. Usually, by the time you do, you will have come up with several topics for writing, or you will have overcome the listless reluctance thing sufficiently to continue with your epic novel.

Pain It depends what sort of pain. If it’s migraine or raging toothache give up all thought of writing. Lie down in a darkened room or make a dental appointment. If it’s susceptible to painkillers, take painkillers and write till they wear off. You may actually discover that writing is a natural pain-killer.

Worry The best cure for worry is writing, if you’re a writer. It’s not writing per se it’s any creative activity – painting, singing, dancing, basket-weaving – simply because creative activities are absorbing. I remember reading in a book about Zen that to calm the mind, one technique would be to inspect each worry carefully, then imagine oneself placing it gently in a black sack and tying the neck of the sack, then putting the sack to one side. You tell yourself, I can worry about the contents of that sack at any time I choose, but just for now… just for now I will not. And it works, sometimes. Writing works always.

The flat morning mood – depression, really. And the difficulty of actually getting started on something. The thing with mornings is the long list of stuff you feel absolutely obliged to work your way through. Fascinating stuff like washing up, loading the tumble-dryer, making the beds, ironing, filling the bird-feeder up with peanuts, reading all your emails. Evening seems a long way off and it’s so difficult to get down to writing. Writing is hard. It’s wearing. It sucks the energy out of you if you’re doing it right, so you keep putting it off. You really don’t want to have the energy sucked out of you this early in the day. The thing is to get on with the writing – at least make a start – because until you do you’re not going to be happy and you’re not going to be able to relax. You’ll be doing all those other things – ironing, bird-feeder-filling, email-reading with today’s undone writing in the back of your mind. Guilt. Frustration. Not-writing is an unnatural state for writers.

Deep melancholy – I’m not sure I agree with her about this. Sadness is one of the best sources of material. Gobble it up. Use it. However, shocking things like bereavement are best not written about for a while, mostly because what you write is unlikely to be any good. Writing uses two parts of your mind in tandem – the creative, emotional bit and the crafty, editing bit. You can’t write good stuff with the crafty bit turned off. You need them both. You need to digest sad and horrible stuff for a while. Wordsworth described it as emotion recollected in tranquillity.

Wild happinesspossibly worse than deep melancholy for stopping you writing. Almost impossible to write anything decent when first in love. Just enjoy it.

Bad news, good news – we’re back to the black sack thing again. Take a little while to think about whatever the news is. Take a deep breath. Freewrite.

As for the devils outside – the cricket, the bright sunshine, the Times crossword, the dinner date (does anyone have dinner dates anymore?). Make a plan. If you want to go to a cricket match, go, but get up early to write, or stay up late afterwards. If you are a Times crossword fan schedule in an hour in the evening after you have written, or cut out all the Times crosswords and save them in a manila folder for the weekend, or for your holidays. Imagine, lying on a beach in Spain with a manila folder full of aged crosswords and a large, sand-filled dictionary…

Probably the worst thing of all for writing is other people. Other people are a real pain and unless you have a very intimate friendship with them you will not be able to write. Fifty years of marriage would do it. By that time you will scarcely notice each other’s presence in the room and will have chatted about absolutely everything any two human beings could ever need to chat about. Frankau actually lists the sorts of people to avoid when writing a novel. Evasive action should be taken, she says:

The company of the devitaliser. That friend who takes from life rather than enhancing it, the mental blood-sucker, the strong marauding personality. The early-morning chatterer on the telephone. The disorganised chaos-bringer. The one who wants a long, serious talk.

To be avoided also, she says:

…the swaddle of the Sunday newspapers, the opinions of agitated atheists, the gin-and-tonic before lunch, the reading of novels or book reviews. The correct literary diet alternates the Gospels with Whodunits.

And you know, she might be right about that.

I would also add, from my own experience, physical tiredness. You do need to look after yourself, as best you can, and allow enough time for sleep. Dreams, and the thoughts you have in that half-asleep, half-awake state, are the best inspiration of all.

There’s also perfectionism. You can’t be perfect. Even if you are perfect, no one will notice. And if they do notice they’ll hate you for it. The thing with writing is to write gloriously badly in the first place, then look at what you’ve got and make it better. You will always be able to see how to make it better – it will come to you. And after that you will be able to see how to make it better still. It happens in layers, in stages. The thing is, no one is ever going to read the gloriously bad stuff you began with, because all that’s screwed up in little white balls on the study floor, or donated to Mr Dusty Bin on your computer, so you needn’t be inhibited by how bad it is.

Work – I have found throughout my life that paid work stops me writing. Any arrangement that means I have to be somewhere from nine to five and paying attention, and can’t go anywhere else, escape or daydream – and the writing goes out the window. But, money being necessary work too is necessary. And I have never solved this one. Work, the toad work:

  • Why should I let the toad work
  • Squat on my life?
  • Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
  • And drive the brute off?
  • Philip Larkin: Toads