Did History Happen?

My father had this weird idea about history. Every now and then he would repeat it, which would embarrass my mother and bewilder me. My mother told me not to get into arguments with him about it, because Dad was a bit like the Incredible Hulk – you wouldn’t like him when he was angry. However, I did get into arguments with him about it. I was one of those horribly logical children, and if I had to say something I had to say it, even if it earned me a slapping. I couldn’t bear that he would come out with anything so obviously wrong and not at least attempt to explain why he thought it was right.

The only thing he ever said was this: when he was at school, which I suppose must have been in the thirties, he was shown a map of the world and a huge part of it was coloured pink. The pink bit was the British Empire. I can’t remember exactly what his teachers told him about the British Empire, but it was something to do with the British Empire stretching from pole to pole, destined to go on for ever and full of grateful natives who just loved us for bringing the gift of civilisation to them. Hideous claptrap, obviously. So far so good.

Then he got conscripted and shipped off to India, where he discovered that things were not as he had fervently believed as a child. So far so good, again.

But somehow he extrapolated from this that no history had ever actually happened. He seemed to literally believe this. I remember trying all the usual teenage arguments on him. But what about your memory? You can remember the past, at least that bit of it that took place in your lifetime. And what about fossils? And books, written before we were born? What about pieces of music written in the past, and paintings painted? What about the stories my grandmother told me, about her past, her mother, her sisters?

None of this had any effect, apart from calling forth the Incredible Hulk, in his green, shirt-bursting form.

Many years later, my parents and I used to go to Leeds Castle. We all enjoyed Leeds Castle. My mother saw it as a magnificent addition to her small garden at home. I liked the lake and the quiet, being able to see to all the way to the horizon, no houses in between. Mum and I used to repeat the tour of the castle every now and again, to see the Queen’s Bed and Henry VIII’s (amazingly broad and short) suit of armour and a cupboard full of gorgeous, if dusty, 1920s shoes. My father refused to go in. He would sit on the wall and read his newspaper because – yes, the past had never happened. Did he believe that Henry VIII’s armour was a fake? By this time I knew better than to ask. It still annoyed me, though.

Dad is long gone, but that argument with him has gone on in my head. It’s like being haunted, not by him but by this one bizarre conviction, because in all this time I haven’t been able to prove the reverse – that the past does exist. In despair, I googled it.

It is always a relief when you find that other people have googled the same question as you, and even discussed it amongst themselves – seriously, at length.  It seems that philosophers – actual philosophers – have done work on this problem, intermittently, and have come to the conclusion that no proof is to be had. Everything you remember, the whole of history, might just have been implanted in your mind. This is the “dinosaurs were put there by the Devil” argument.

There is also something called “Thursdayism” which holds that all memories of the past were constructed at the creation of the universe – last Thursday. Though this seems unlikely, it cannot actually be disproved.

I was listening to an interesting podcast yesterday, about problems people have with their brains. One of the cases was an American lady who runs, and regularly wins, the most extreme marathons on the planet, ie hundreds of miles over many days, without stopping, hardly sleeping. As a child she suffered a prolonged seizure which, although nobody realised it at the time, damaged a small area of her temporal lobe. As an adult, she began to have seizures again. In the brief warning period she would put on her running shoes and run – at first to the mountains but eventually for hours and hours. Running enabled her to avoid the seizure altogether.

However, eventually the balance tipped in favour of the seizures. She no longer got any warning, so could not run. As she had children, she opted for removal of that part of her brain that was causing the fits. And it worked. She had no fits after the operation, though she now had problems with short-term memory, and time. It was as if she was living in a permanent now. She also lost the ability to read maps, and navigate. However, she continued to enter extreme marathons. She says when she is running she has no idea how many days she has been running for. She runs, alone, dropping pieces of ribbon at forks in the road so that she can find her way back, if lost. She runs until she reaches her destination, being only aware of the rhythm of her feet and of her breathing, and because she does not know how tired she ought to be, she does not feel tired.

If “time” can be cut out of a person’s brain, doesn’t that mean that time is a product of the brain, something imposed on reality? This would make the brain a kind of gatekeeper.

The explanation I find easiest to accept is this – that all time is happening at once. Therefore it is meaningless to talk in terms of a ‘past’ or a ‘future’. Maybe if we substitute ‘awareness’ or ‘knowledge’ for ‘memory’ it might be closer to the truth. From the present moment we have a sense of the ‘past’ (going on now) and of the ‘future’ (also going on now). We only think of them as taking place ‘then’ and ‘now’ because a small part of our brain is designed to limit us to a linear experience of time. Maybe that is all we can cope with, without going mad.

What do you think?

Useless And Unacceptable Gifts

I think today’s probably takes the biscuit – a portable mouth-to-mouth resuscitation kit in a tiny green plastic box, on a wire keyring. At the moment I am still trying to think what the heck to do with it, so it is hanging from the knob of one of my kitchen cupboards. The giver (the Illegal Scotsman from over the road) explained to me that new “innards” can be obtained for the tiny green plastic box free of charge from his firm, once I have resuscitated someone. He also explained that it was so that you did not have to ingest any of a person’s highly infectious spittle whilst attempting to save their life. I turn into the proverbial headless chicken the moment there is any sort of medical emergency…

He was rewarding me for allowing him to park his work van in front of my house for the rest of the day. He didn’t want some people who were coming to visit him to discover what sort of work he actually did.  I thought he sold solar panels to go on south-facing rooftops, but the new van proclaims that he is a plumber. Since when? Is he qualified? All sorts of dodges like that happen round here.

This reminded of the comedienne Joyce Grenfell. If you have access to Spotify you will be able to hear her recorded “talk” to some kind of Institute. It’s worth a listen, though not perhaps quite up to the classic George, Don’t Do That. In it she plays a lady earnestly describing some Useful And Acceptable Gifts for you to make. The first is a (gruesomely mispronounced) boutonnière fashioned from “beech nut husk clusters”, a phrase the lady obviously loves the sound of since she repeats it ad nauseam. I had to look up boutonnière; apparently it’s a little spray of flowers to be worn in a gentleman’s buttonhole at a wedding. I haven’t been to a wedding since 1980 or thereabouts.

The second Useful And Acceptable item was an artistic waste paper basket made out of a biscuit tin. You had to persuade someone to give you the biscuits first, and then remove all trace of advertising matter. The third I was having awful trouble working out – maybe you can. Either my hearing’s even worse than I thought or it is a very crackly recording.

That reminded me of my father, whose greatest pride was that he had danced with Joyce Grenfell when she came out to entertain the troops in India during the War, and that he had been the driver trusted to drive her back to the station in his army truck at the end of the evening. It was his Fifteen Minutes of Fame. Actually, if you look at a picture of Joyce Grenfell you are looking at Devon Aunt, my late father’s older sister. It’s uncanny. Maybe that’s why was so taken with her.

joyce grenfell.jpg

Joyce Grenfell, 1910 – 1979

I was trying to recall other gifts I have received, appalling enough to come under the heading Useless And Unacceptable. I do recall a white plastic soap-dish on a stalk, a present from a Great Aunt soon after I was married. It was like a half a clamshell. Perhaps it was intended as a late wedding present. The minute you put a bar of soap on it, it toppled over.

There were the endless manicure kits. I bit my nails from seven onwards, and in fact have only managed to stop in the last few years by the simple expedient of clipping and filing my nails the minute they reach the ends of my fingers so that there is nothing to bite.

Mum presumably informed every single friend or relative that I bit my nails, which resulted in a fresh manicure set from one ancient aunt or another every Christmas and birthday complete with orange stick – I never worked out what that was for – a coarse, unusable metal file with a little mother-of-pearl handle and another, matching item for pushing back the bit at the top of your nail – the quick, my mother called it. My quicks never seemed to actually need pushing back and I couldn’t understand why other people’s did.

There was also a horse’s head key-rack, from a rather strange schoolfriend. Wooden, shaped like a horse’s head and garishly painted. In those days I did not have a single key to hang up. My parents never did let me have the longed-for ‘key of the door’. When I reached twenty-one I got tired of waiting. I got married, and got one, and unfortunately also a husband.

Chaos At The OK Corral

Chaos, etc

So, it is not the Iceman that Cometh after all, but the B-word. Or maybe not. Who knows? Who cares?

Unfortunately, we all do care, and that’s the problem. Mostly, in this country, we don’t care about very much. Cricket? Football? Taxes? The Cost of Living? Nah! Most of us shuffle about our daily chores in soggy old England, soggy old Wales, even soggier old Ireland and soggy, windy and snowy old Scotland, not really caring about very much. Most of us are more interested in who’s going to be in Strictly this year or what ghastly disaster is currently causing the cast of Coronation Street to bellow and screech at each other in unbearably exaggerated local accents.

Before the B word, most of us were wandering about in supermarkets trying to decide between salted peanuts or salt-and-vinegar crisps or, at the weekend, wandering about in garden centres trying to decide whether to plant tulips or daffs next spring. Unless roused, we are not a passionate race. It takes a lot to get us out on the street, bellowing stupidities through a megaphone for twelve hours a day, or throwing milkshakes at one another. Mostly we just do – in England, anyway, is a bit of vicious mumbling, the odd heavy sigh or – if really furious – a barely-audible click of annoyance.

But now we all do care. They – whoever they are – have actually made us care – and we are simply not equipped for it. We were mostly brought up to be polite, to the point of never actually saying exactly what we mean to anyone. We were mostly brought up to be deferential, retiring, obsequious, oblique – and now – now we are really, really, really angry, all of us, and we don’t know what to do about it. Who or what can we beat up? Should we take to the streets with yellow umbrellas, like in Japan? Who actually possesses a yellow umbrella, in this country? Who do we scream at? Is anyone going to listen if we do?

What can we break? Because sooner or later, something is going to get broken. And once that old Viking berserker has taken possession of us, do we actually have the wherewithal to turn him off?

I have decided, in order to survive the next few weeks and months, my plan is this: I will make myself numerous cups of tea and huddle in the corner of my sofa listening to Country & Western music all day. I will cry with Dolly Parton. Along with all those lonesome cowboys and cowgirls I will pine for parts of America I have never visited or heard of, and have no idea where they are in relation to all the other bits of America.

I will knit endless, pointless dishcloths just because I happen to have a lot of cotton yarn. I will carry on reading my way through a houseful of disintegrating paperbacks. I will feed the cats twice a day. If things get really bad I will turn Dolly Parton up to full volume:

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene… I will trill, off key and out of tune

… Please don’t take him just because you can.

Hindi in Three Months

This book arrived today and I read the introduction whilst munching my cheese and mayo sandwich. Not a good idea, grease-wise, but who cares? The world is about to end anyway. It seems reassuringly laid-back in comparison with the other books in the Three Months series, which strive to impress upon you how hard Language X is going to be, how much work you are letting yourself in for if you are foolish enough to proceed with the course, etc., etc. Hindi in Three Months tells you that it is not expecting you to actually write Hindi, just (with any luck) be able to communicate, in a basic sort of way, should you walk into a village in some remote part, where English is not spoken.  I particularly like this bit:

In Hindi, all nouns are masculine or feminine (with no logic to decide which). They can be singular, plural, honorific or ‘oblique’, and their endings change accordingly. Similar changes apply also to adjectives and verbs. In commonly-spoken Hindi, though, such rules are blatantly disregarded…

Hooray! It’s like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

My father was sent to India during the war. His job was driving trucks around. He had only ever driven his father’s car around a car park in Rochester, but because he admitted that… Never volunteer for anything, he told me. Never admit, for example, that you can play the piano, or they’ll have you moving one.

My father was an electrician. Apprenticed before the war, when they finally allowed him to return (along with the germs for recurrent malaria) he was employed in the same trade. Around that time there was a big wave of immigration, and Chatham, one of his main areas of work, seemed to fill up with people newly-arrived from India, many of whom, especially the ladies, did not speak English and were therefore isolated, in the poorest and most depressing back-streets.

Sent to investigate an electrical problem he would walk in – and I can imagine, all six foot four of him, deep voice, ready smile – and announce – well, it sounded like – Tora Tora Hindi Bolla which, he said, meant I speak a little Hindi. And then, he said, everyone would be delighted and very pleased to see him, and offer him Chai.

I never quite believed this. It used to make me cringe, rather, as one’s parents always do. Surely this mangled phrase fell into the same embarrassing category as Grandad’s Dooz Ooofs ay Pom de Tare Fritz Si Voo Plate! However, I just did some detective work in the mini-dictionary at the back and I can see he was more or less right:

thoRaa – a little

bolnaa – to say, to speak

So – a little, a little – Hindi – I speak. Somehow, this pleases me.

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

Saturday Night Ramble

Mum and Dad used to belong to a Cycling Club, one of whose (which’s?) many sub-activities was know as The Wednesday Wobblers. This was a group of older cyclists who met on a Wednesday and cycled unbelievably long distances in order to eat a pub meal and drink a pint of beer and wobble all the way back home again. My parents disliked the name actually, because they didn’t wobble; they were better cyclists than that. And because it had been invented by their arch enemy, Fat Pat.

And so, being now in a Club of One I thought I would engage in a Saturday Night Ramble, mainly because I haven’t written anything for some time and still can’t come up with anything coherent to say. But that never stopped me in the past. Incoherence is my middle name.

Today it was chilly, and raining on and off, but my friend and I had arranged to go to the next village down for fish and chips and so we went. Actually we almost never manage to get into the fish and chip emporium since it is always stuffed full of seaside-visiting grockles in tracksuits, hooped earrings and tattoos, and today was no exception. We always seem to time it wrong. One moment the place is empty. By the time we have crossed the road – rather slowly since my friend is disabled – the grockles have packed it and are spilling out onto the pavement.

We ended up with egg and chips at another place, almost equally packed, and a three-quarter of an hour wait for that. Then they brought only one plate of egg and chips, though I had clarified (twice, in fact) to the very slow woman at the till that we needed egg and chips twice, there being two of us, as they could clearly see, rather than one of us requiring two eggs with their chips. So I sat and watched my friend eat her chips, and her two eggs, and meanwhile got through six half-slices of bread-and-marge off a hefty white china plate. She had more or less finished by the time my egg and chips arrived. The mug of tea seemed to me to taste strongly of fish, but she said it was probably just that my mind was still in fish and chip mode.

Home again, I turned the central heating on and sat for several hours doing battle with my mobile phone. It is one of those Doro old-people phones with all possibility of doing anything dangerous strictly hidden from view so as to discourage Mother or Father from tampering with the settings and messing things up. Unfortunately I am not quite old enough for a Doro and am finding it increasingly frustrating, and patronising in its attitude. It thwarts me at every turn. It was populated with an awful lot of what I believe is collectively known as Bloatware – lots of Google stuff I had no need for, and obscure features nobody with any sort of life could possibly have need of. Add to that a small memory, an absolute refusal to use the memory card I had purchased and installed, and an insistence that I delete every single app I had ever installed in order to make room for Bloatware updates it didn’t have enough Memory to perform…

I tried swapping the SIM and the memory card to another phone, but this caused all sorts of problems. Google demanded that I sign in and kept presenting me with all those unreadable wiggly things. After an hour it was still refusing to accept that I was me, and I gave up, moved the SIM and the memory card back. Then I installed a file manager and viciously (viciously, I say) disabled or deleted every single Google bloat-thingy, every single Doro feature I had never found a use for and every single app that I couldn’t attribute a function to. That worked! Pah, I hate smartphones.

And now I am listening to music on my MP3 player to drown out the noise of the party next door. The trick is to turn the volume up just loud enough to partially distract from the thumping electronic beat and screeching pre-teens, but not quite loud enough to damage your own hearing.

Catwise, I now have another problem. One of my outdoor strays looks to have a damaged leg, but I can’t get near him. If he had just allowed himself to get tame first, I could have picked him up. All I can do is keep putting food out and hope he can manage to heal himself. Or for the universe to persuade him he really needs to trust the Giantess to take him to the vet and get fixed. So far the food is continuing to disappear, but I can’t be sure it’s him eating it, since there is Mystery Dog, another ginger tom (Sunshine), the ever-present Ratties and now a small brown mouse. The cats are glued to the back door watching the mouse’s insouciant preening of his whiskers inches from their noses, the wrong side of the double glazing.

The Cats Protection lady is still going to come and see me, but her companion is not. We have arranged this between us. He took a fancy to me and mowed my lawn. Then he told me I was Not Very Practical and obviously needed Taking In Hand and a Real Man To Look After Me. Then he grabbed me in the kitchen and started sending unspeakably suggestive texts all evening, every evening. Yuk! I find it amazing that now, when I am old and toothless (well, not completely toothless) – weirdo men seem to be coming out of the woodwork, attired in big boots, khaki shorts and hearing aids, or too tight overcoats that smell strongly of mothballs. Whereas when I was younger and at least willowy and acceptable-looking I couldn’t seem to get a boyfriend for love nor money. And oh, old men are so disgusting. They just never seem to lose the conviction that any single woman must be just gasping – gasping – for their slobbering embraces. He brought me unwanted food, and secreted it in my fridge, in cupboards etc., when I wasn’t looking. I have been throwing it out as I find it. This morning yet another dryish sultana loaf fell out of the cupboard…

Ow, think I’m going to have to turn the MP3 down. Perhaps they’ve stopped, next door…

Yes, a few minutes break before…

Ah, but there they go again. And it’s that idiot with the paint pot singing “I can hear it coming in the wind tonight”. They always get onto that one sooner or later.

And now Ed Sheeran… beautiful and sweet… we were just kids when we fell in love…

A Doze By Any Other Name

My father, in his declining years, had a propensity for dozing off with his mouth wide open in the presence of visitors. He also had a thing about his pyjamas. Around lunchtime he would start to ask my mother: Can I get into my pyjamas yet? Almost as soon as you arrived he would start looking at his watch, covertly – except it wasn’t very covert because he had eye problems and had to peer quite closely and at a certain angle – apparently counting the seconds until you left, so that he could revert to Pyjamas.

At the time I found these features of my father embarrassing and mildly irritating. Now, as I move closer and closer to old age/older age I begin to understand that it had to do with the way time increasingly telescopes, in ageing perception. Hours feel like quarter-hours. Minutes pass like seconds. Presumably, on that final day, one senses that time has halted, that one has entered some perpetual state of Now…

I always promised myself I wouldn’t start dozing off. Particularly I wouldn’t start dozing off and drooling – a disgusting habit. Still vivid in my mind is an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer Simpson, in the mistaken belief that the world is going to end the following morning, decides he has neglected religion and vows to spend his last night on Earth reading The Bible from cover to cover. So he starts, at Genesis, and a few seconds later is fast asleep. Morning finds him in his armchair, Bible still open at page 1 of Genesis, drooling copiously – and the world has for some reason not ended.

I do doze off, only I tend to call it Listening To Music. I think, well, I have been busy for all of an hour now and accomplished quite a lot, for me, so I will just plug in the ear-thingies and listen to Spotify for a while, thus broadening my musical horizons and revisiting old favourites. Several hours later…

This evening when I emerged from my musical not-a-doze I discovered the three-legged cat (the same cat that bit me most viciously before Christmas and caused me to spend the entire festive season driving back and forth to hospital to have antibiotics injected into a cannula in the crook of my arm) cradled in that same crook, gazing up at me adoringly. It occurs to me that cats may be the only animals – aside from human beings – that would waste time and energy in gazing adoringly at that beloved, but totally unconscious, Somebody Special.

This was not particularly unpleasant. What was unpleasant was discovering that my eardrums were now being assaulted by an appalling, appalling cringe-makingly mawkish Irish ballad entitled Scorn Not His Simplicity, performed by someone with a big-ish red beard by the name Luke Kelly. Upon not-falling-asleep I had been listening to Irish ballads – I seem to have quite a Celtic thing going on recently. I had started off with my current favourite Loreena McKennitt and moved on to Bert Jansch singing The Curragh of Kildare

I feel bad that I cannot abide Scorn Not His Simplicity since on googling it I discovered that it was written by songwriter Phil Coulter about his struggle to come to terms with the birth of his Downs Syndrome son. I do feel bad, for him, but it is still a very bad song. And yet Sinead O’Connor also recorded it: the great Sinead O’Connor – so can it really be that bad? Apparently it’s an Irish classic. But it’s still bad.

I think why it’s bad is that 1970s ramming the message home with a sledgehammer thing. There was a phase, in the late 60s, early 70s, when everything had to have a message and the message was so Crucial, Man! that nothing in a song was allowed to take precedence over it, and especially not the music. It was a phase analogous to that Victorian one where people were greatly affected by tales of orphans giving up their porridge to other orphans in work-houses and little match girls freezing to death on street corners with seraphic smiles on their pinched little faces.

Irritating that a Downs Syndrome child – such children now being readily accepted and even cherished – should then have needed to have excuses made for him, a special case in his defence. Irritating the golden hair and the ‘eyes that show the emptiness inside’. (Irritating also that Spotify listed it as Screen Not His Simplicity.)

What does this dreadful song remind me of? I asked myself, levering myself up from the corner of the sofa and dislodging the worshipping three-legged cat. And back came the answer: Camouflage.

Camouflage was actually written by someone called Stan Ridgeway in 1986, but about the Vietnam war. It reached number 4 in the English pop charts, number 2 in the Irish – surprise, surprise. Camouflage tells the story of several young marines caught in a barrage (how I abhor that phrase) who are rescued by a huge marine who suddenly appears in the jungle and performs all sorts of unbelievably heroic feats, thus saving their lives. On returning to camp they learn that the massive marine was in fact known as Camouflage. Whilst lying on his deathbed the noble Camouflage had expressed one final wish – to save some young marines caught in a barrage. At the very moment he expires – pouf! his giant-sized ghost reappears in the jungle and saves the young marines who are indeed caught in a barrage. Oh… eushhh!

I just recalled another one called Working My Way Back To You. In this case it wasn’t so much the song itself that was cringe-worthy as the Top Of The Pops dance routine that went with it. They were dressed in shiny jackets and lined up and miming rhythmical shovelling as if digging a whole row of imaginary graves and throwing the earth over their shoulders…

detroit

The Marmite Child and the Man Without a Candle

I was not entirely ignorant of French before I got to Technical school at the age of eleven, and started being taught it/him. My Grandfather had been in the First World War and came back with some useful phrases – one for “two eggs and chips”, for example. I won’t repeat my previously-blogged attempts to convey the mangling effect of Grandad on the French language. Once is painful enough.

And there was one that sounded distantly like Parlez vous, mademoiselle? a phrase I suspect British soldiers would use to make the acquaintance of kindly French ladies. I’ll call them kindly French ladies since – well, this is my Grandad we’re talking about.

French exerts a kind of magnetic pull on the English. It sounds like magical incantations – meaningless, scary, but interesting – and so we have appropriated bits of it here and there, rolling those strange sounds around on the tongue. There was that cycling club, for instance – the San Fairy Ann.

San Fairy Ann were bitter local rivals of my father’s cycling club, the Medway Wheelers. The Wheelers wore green and orange racing shirts and The Fairies yellow and purple. If a Wheeler happened to pass a Fairy at a race or on the road there would be a kind of grunt of recognition as they whizzed past one another, a gruff acknowledgement only.

And – why was I talking about this? – remind me, someone – oh yes, San Fairy Ann was born of a French phrase – ça ne fait rien – which means something like ‘it doesn’t matter’, ‘it is of no importance’. Another wartime acquisition, though maybe from a later war. Ça ne fait rien – I suppose for the Fairies it contained the essence of that post-war joy: bowling along those damp, green, but most importantly English country lanes on your racing bike, out in the fresh air, alone, after the ghastliness of foreign battlefields. It meant I’m home again and life is good!

My French teacher, Madame Beesden, didn’t much like me. I sensed this and it came as no surprise. I had long understood that I was one of those Marmite Children whom teachers would either loathe or take a kind of bewildered pity on. Oddly enough I greatly admired her, and would have liked her if she’d let me. Children have a nose for an excellent teacher: I sensed that our Madame, unlike many French teachers employed by English schools in those days, was the possessor of a proper French accent, even though – it was rumoured – she was Turkish rather than French. Confusing, the combination of Arab looks – the dark skin, the hooded eyes, the fierce expression – with a French title and what sounded very much like an English surname. She was pretty old then, and must be long dead.

She drummed that troublesome French ‘r’ into us almost straight away, via a little rhyme:

Trois très gros rats / Dans trois très gros trous / Rongeait trois très gros grains d’orge.

Three very fat rats in three very big holes gnawed on three very big grains of barley.

I think. There seem to be more complicated versions on You Tube now, involving croutons rather than grain, and the rats being grey rats rather than just rats, but perhaps La Beesden simplified it for us. I never actually found that ‘r’ difficult once I had worked out that you had to kind of breathe in and breathe out at the same time. I had a good ear for the subtleties of pronunciation, even if I was Marmite.

She started us on the verb être (to be), which banjaxed us at the very outset.  There seemed to be so many versions of ‘be’ – suis, es, est, sommes, êtes. The trouble was – and this was something she never fully appreciated – English was our mother tongue and it had never occurred to us that our own verbs had different ‘people’ too, and that am, are, is etc are also different versions of a single verb. Neither were we willing to entertain such an outlandish idea. To us it was obvious that am, are, is and so forth were just the same. Our language was obvious. It was perfectly simple.

The songs were best. She had a good voice, considering she was old and quavery, and though monumentally dignified was not self-conscious about singing. She taught us Frère Jacques and Au Clair de la Lune:

Ma chandelle est morte. Je n’ai plus de feu…

My candle has died. I have no more fire…

and she taught us the one about the bridge at Avignon:

Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse, on y danse / Sur le pont d’Avignon, on y danse tout en rond

On the bridge of Avignon, people dancing, people dancing, on the bridge of Avignon, people dancing round and round (something like that, anyway).

I carry them around in my mind. Ever since, all down the years, those inexplicable dancers have been dancing around in circles on the bridge and that midnight-writing chap has been fretting away about his candle. Ever since, those smug, fat rats have continued to chomp on those grains of – whatever – down in their dark, mysterious holes.

au clair

Into a ditch with Mozart

When I was younger, so much younger than today…

I was driving my wonky little old car across the Marsh. (One of a series of wonky little old cars.) I think this was the wonky little old red one.

Anyway, I was listening to Mozart, on a tape. Shows you how long ago it was. I was on my way to work.

I was listening to Mozart because he was the only classical composer I could think of the name of. I grew up in an uncultural environment. My mother was a fan of Matt Monro (the singing bus driver) – who died. Also Jim Reeves, who had a very deep voice. And died. My mother cried the day that Jim Reeves died, just as I cried the day John Lennon got shot.

My father liked to sing along to Sing Something Simple, which as far as I remember was Sunday lunchtimes on the radio. Oh, home on the range, he used to croon, melodiously, with the requisite tinge of an American accent, where the deer and the antelope roam… Well, we all used to croon.

My ex-husband was far more educated, musically, than I. He used to play blues guitar, and some classical pieces. I would listen to him in amazement, though it was depressing. I had once wanted to play the guitar and now – how could I?

He was nine years older than me and remembered jazz and folk, obscure (to me) blues singers from the thirties and forties – and all sorts of stuff that I was only able to love and appreciate after I had left him. He even knew about Early Music and the Aeolian mode, and the pentatonic scale, and polyphony. Now I love that stuff (though I still couldn’t explain the Aeolian mode) but I never used to listen to him when he started going on about it. Every time he started to reveal even an edge of his massively greater knowledge of just about everything I would bristle and switch off. Grrr…

But at one point, even while I was married to him, I realised that I did want to learn about Classical Music. I kept secret my experimentation with tapes (borrowed from the public library) because he would no doubt make me feel inadequate yet again if I told him. Telling him anything seemed to result in a helpful, university-type lecture. I accidentally made mention of helicopters once and was treated to a whole lunch hour’s disquisition on torque.

So I was playing Mozart, rather loudly, in the wonky little old car as I drove in to work. It had been raining overnight and the road was muddy, and then this blackbird flew out, really low, and of course I braked

People afterwards kept saying You braked for a BLACKBIRD? You crashed your car into a ditch and nearly killed yourself to save the life of a BIRD? Which only really goes to show that it’s more than skin deep, my belief that all life is sacred and all of absolutely equal value. Not killing birds,  slugs, ants or any living thing – not even carving my name into the bark of a tree or removing a stone from its resting place, is programmed into me. I am those things, and they are me.

Anyway, I was in this ditch for only about ten minutes. I couldn’t find the switch to turn Mozart off, and anyway I do believe I was shaking. So weird, that long, rightwards and downwards Mozartesque slither. So balletic. Then I understood that thing about time slowing down. And all around me were kind of weeds and tiny trees – a tiny tree had impeded my further descent – the Marsh ditches are major drainage channels, and deeper than average – and the road was now… somewhere up there!

I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I grabbed my handbag. Women always grab their handbags, I think. I pushed the car door open as far as it would go, which wasn’t all the way. Brambles. There was a sort of latticework of vegetation but no clear indication of where the actual bank was. I looked at my work shoes. High(ish) heels. I looked at my work tights. The tights were for it.

But shortly two, or maybe three cars stopped and two, or maybe three kind men came running from various directions and pulled me out of the ditch. One of them gave me a lift home. By this time I was shaking like a leaf and couldn’t stop talking. I remember thinking, stop talking, you wally! But I couldn’t.

My car was a write-off. It didn’t look too badly damaged but apparently its engine and all its working parts were kind of jammed up with mud. I never saw it again. Somebody must have dragged it out and disposed of it.

I have since listened with pleasure to a wide range classical composers, and have become a particular fan of Thomas Tallis. But Mozart? Poor Mozart, I can no longer listen to him.

Did I just not-bodge something?

I have lived a long time and in all that time I have been, as far as I could tell, a bit of a bodger.

My father was a bodger too, sadly. I think I inherited the gene. My father mended things with lumps of putty and wadges of duct tape. My father stood in the bath in his boots to descale the boiler. The bath – as my mother had, in hysterical whispers, predicted – filled up with sharp lumps of stuff which the big boots then ground in, ruining the surface of the bath. More hysterical whispers. My parents rowed in whispers, and occasional muffled sobs.

My father brought home some special rubberised white paint and painted the sandpaper surface of our bath. We did not have a shower in those days and so had all had to put up with sandpapered sit-upons for some weeks by then. The special rubberised white paint began to blister and peel the first time it came into contact with hot water. We are a family of tinkerers and destroyers. Powerless to resist we all separately and secretly picked and tinkered at that peeling paint until the bath was a mass of torn white strips. I don’t recall what happened to the bath in the end. Did they ever replace it?

My father cut down my mother’s favourite tree in the front garden, though she had begged him not to. He just couldn’t resist having a go at that tree once the urge to tinker and destroy struck him. I know that feeling. Must…just…ruin something.

Ex was scathing about the practical manly abilities of my father – and indeed of my grandfather, a carpenter with a tendency to produce stools with a slight wobble to them – criticisms which hurt my feelings all the more deeply for being factually correct. Ex was a clever, gifted and gentle man in many ways but there was a Wide Sargasso Sea of human interaction that he never managed to navigate – or even notice. You could summarise it something like this:

  • Occasionally you can avoid stating the obvious.
  • Sometimes, with difficulty, you can bite your tongue and pretend not to know something when in fact you know it very well.
  • Once in a while you can allow people prove you wrong even when, if you really set your incisive, logical mind to it, you could easily prove them wrong.
  • It is not lying to appear to be impressed by something that is neither clever or wonderful, purely for love of the person who just paid you the compliment of sharing it with you.

Where was this leading? Someone remind me…

Oh yes, not-bodging. Today I made my first patchwork quilt block on the sewing machine. I took care over it, mainly because I wanted to, and because am hoping to sell the ‘quilt’, or rather the quilt top as I have recently learned to call it, once completed. I ironed every seam. I unpicked one seam that had failed to come out exactly a quarter of an inch at one end. And do you know, examine it as I might I can’t actually find any evidence of bodging. One down, only seventy-seven more like that to go.

I thought I might enjoy designing my own quilt patterns but am still waiting for  squared paper to arrive. In the meantime, so as to strike while the iron is hot, I have embarked on a Christmas-themed sampler quilt – ie, working my way through all of the traditional American quilt blocks in my book using the three templates conveniently provided in an envelope at the back. They thought of everything!

Did I just mention the ‘C’ word in July? Sorry.

They have lovely names, but some of the block patterns are more compelling than others. I started with Anvil, which does look like an anvil but is pretty ugly. I guess it may look better when repeated over an entire quilt. Good to get that one out of the way first, I thought, so that’s what I did. And not-bodged it! Next block: Barbara Frietchie’s Star. I am wondering who Barbara Frietchie actually was (and what ‘Old Tippercanoe’ might signify). Answers on a postcard, please.

By the way, if you haven’t yet got round to reading Wide Sargasso Sea – a kind of ‘prequel’ to Jane Eyre from the point of view of Mr Rochester’s infamous Madwoman in the Attic – it’s good. Disturbing, but good.

sargasso.jpg

In praise of contraptions

What is the difference between a contraption, a gadget, a device, an apparatus, an invention…?

To me a contraption needs an element of eccentricity, a fair amount of ingenuity and a sprinkling of creative overkill.

This morning on the news there featured a gentleman in Bristol – like Banksy – not Banksy, presumably – disguised in an all-enveloping jacket with the hood up, his voice muffled: the anonymous Grammar Vigilante. He goes around in the dead of night, often in fear and trembling lest he be discovered, inserting apostrophes into words on shop and business signs where apostrophes have been sinfully omitted and removing apostrophes from words into which they have been equally sinfully inserted. But people might say, says the news reporter, that what you are doing is illegal. You don’t have permission to correct stuff.

It’s not right, he says simply. Someone has to put it right. I’m proud that it’s me. And good on him. I’d do the same myself if I had the nerve.

What struck my eye, though, was his special gadget. His contraption. He called it “The Apostrophiser” and it was a wonderful thing – with one end he could apply, at some height above his head, the apostrophe, carefully matched to the original sign for colour and font. The apostrophe started off as a blob and was carefully, expertly, smeared into the proper shape by a small wheel. On the other end was a gadget for blanking out superfluous apostrophes. The Apostrophiser worked a treat but was so big he had to carry it openly about the night-time streets of Bristol. I did wonder as to the necessity of the hoodie etc for a man with a giant wooden Apostrophiser dangling from his right arm, but…

Life is so much more interesting for contraptions, isn’t it? Nan and Grandad didn’t have a fridge, which was a problem on Sundays when they bought a block of Raspberry Ripple ice cream (my favourite) to go with our Sunday Lunch. Grandad dug a deep, square hole under the bathroom washbasin – it must have taken him at least a day – and made a kind of dumb waiter to lower the ice cream into. It seemed to work. It don’t remember it melty. He also made what he referred to as a dibber out of the handle of an old garden fork. Sawed it off and sharpened it. I think the idea of a dibber was to make a nice neat hole to settle seedlings into.

I recently spent ages combing the internet, trying to find a contraption I had imagined, in my head (sorry, it would have been in my head, wouldn’t it?). I could see the thing but nobody seemed to be selling it. Ridiculous. There’s somebody selling everything. It was a thing for squeezing every last drop of meat out of the cats’ Felix sachets. I’m a vegetarian. I hate getting gravy all over my hands and I hate waste. Some poor old horse or chicken or whatever has perished that my moggies might eat and it just feels iniquitous to waste its precious little chunks of flesh.

The thing I had in mind had two prongs, or two somethings – like hair-straighteners? For flattening the pouch. At last I found one, and a very good one. In fact I bought two in case one of the precious items should go missing. Why can’t they call things by sensible names? Like, the sort of description you might type into Amazon when searching?

Dad did try with contraptions, but he didn’t have Grandad’s flair. He once made me a T-shaped thing for reaching down into the hole that the water-meter is in, outside the house, and kind of twisting the handle. Actually, an arm with a hand on the end works rather better, but I keep Dad’s gadget anyway, like the walking stick he bought me and which I am not yet incapacitated enough to use, the rusty screw-driver and the ancient ruler, because he gave them to me.

Even Meaner than the Queen?

Just as I thought (it was safe to come out of the water, no…) I had made every possible economy, it has become necessary to make even more.

Part of me actually loves making economies. That’s the part I inherited from my mother, who had somehow to manage on a post-war electrician’s wages – or such of them as was handed over to her in housekeeping each week – to bring up three big, hungry daughters. They had built their own house. At one point towards the end of construction they had a mere £15 in the bank.

My mother had a number of attributes that served her well. Firstly she was organised and she liked recording things. She had tiny, round, neat handwriting and excelled in keeping records in it. Up to the point when dementia claimed her she had a double-spread home-made book-keeping system that foxed me entirely. When she started to lose her memory she asked me to help her and I couldn’t, at least not using her system. Such a complexity of columns! And items moved backwards and forwards from one column to another, recorded multiple times under this heading and then that heading…

My budget is simpler. I fold a sheet of paper in half and make a list of unavoidable household expenses down the left-hand side and a list of what they cost down the right hand side. I then add them up on the calculator – usually four or five times because the stupid calculator comes up with a different result every single time – and every single time I discover that my outgoings are greater than my income. And that’s without food, or clothes, or petrol, or…

Mum was thorough to screaming-point. She never started to use a new gadget – a blender, say, or a lawn-mower, without sitting down and reading the instructions from cover to cover. Sometimes she read them twice, or three times. I’m sure she also attempted to read the sections in Finnish, Japanese and Serbo-Croat.

My approach is simpler. I unpack the thing, look at it and surmise what all the buttons are for. If I’m not sure what the buttons are I press each of them in turn, keeping the device at arm’s length in case something sharp starts whizzing or rotating unexpectedly. Within five minutes I know how to use it. If I don’t, I lose interest and give up.

Part of me hates making economies. This is the part I inherited from my father. He wasn’t a big spender on the whole but if he wanted something – new tyres for his racing bike; a second-hand van – he just came home with it. He needed it, he bought it. I used to be like that, but unlike him I don’t have a careful wife with a metal cash-box, each household bill carefully saved for in tiny compartments, the contents of each compartment labelled in pencil on a slip of paper. And unlike Mum, I don’t have – and have never had – a husband with a safe and useful job and a modest but predictable wage. I was married to an artist. He might get paid every six months, for a big painting. I was never allowed to know how much money he/we had.

This is the part of me that suddenly finds – or found – everything must be in the past-tense – that she had ordered £30 worth of paperbacks on Amazon. Or a gadget she didn’t really need, or… This was the part of me that couldn’t be bothered to total up how much all those odd little expenses cost. A trip to the cinema. A transatlantic phone call. That little extra box of Gourmet cat-food.

This has all gradually changed. Necessity is indeed the Mother of Invention. Necessity imposes carefulness upon you. It snuffs out your inner Mr Toad and ushers in first Mole, with his endless worrying, and then the competent, organised Ratty. This is not a decision you have to make. This is just how you change.

Anyway, last time I was bleating on about money someone very kindly suggested Ilona Richards’ blog Life After Money. Ilona is 67 now and used to be a lorry-driver. She gave that up at 59 and now claims to live on £2,400 a year and spend £10 a week on food. I am not sure how she does this, even after reading her website. She is obviously very, very sensible; probably sensible enough not to have accumulated twelve rescue cats.

It’s an interesting website and she has some excellent – if extreme – suggestions. Unfortunately most of them I discovered I was already doing. In a way this is good – I can pat myself on the back. In a way it’s bad – because what is the Mean beyond Queen of Mean? It’s the Beyond of Eternity.

On another website I discovered washing in cold water – I tried that out this morning and the clothes don’t look noticeably less clean than they did at 30 degrees. I am following Ilona’s suggestion and replacing expensive tea and coffee with hot-water + splash of fruit juice. Not enjoying, but worth a try. I am doing the ‘grey water’ thing and saving washing-up and cat-bowl water for other purposes. Nearly pulls the arms of out their sockets carrying the bucket upstairs but I’m saving the planet. I am trying the thing about moving around the house with a torch rather than turning the house-lights on, which is rather fun, if surprise-ful with twelve cats underfoot. Cats don’t need torches of course. They have see-in-the-dark eyes.

I draw the line at boys’ underpants, though. Apparently, Ilona buys these and they are cheaper and also last far longer. However, Ilona is thin, as you will see from her photo if you click on the website/Daily Mail article links. I am… well, not as thin as Ilona. Even if I could overcome my instinctive horror of y-fronts and masculine undies generally (shirts, trousers, tee-shirts no problem – underwear no!) I doubt if I could find a Boy to fit me.

Pokémon a-go-go

This morning I spotted my first Pokémon Go players – at least I assume that’s what they were. Nobody comes up this dead end road unless they live here, or are visiting, or lost. What would be the point? Yet outside my house (yes, my house – how come the little Pokémons are outside my house?) were two young persons. How did I know they were playing Pokémon Go? Well, I can’t be sure. But they were under eighty: few people along here are under the Age of Confusion, apart from certain regulars like the Tesco delivery man, the multi-drop delivery drivers and the ambulance crew. And they were standing still. Most people around here, if they are outside at all, and on foot rather than in the old banger/all-terrain vehicle, are off somewhere. Off down the shop for ciggies. Off down the shop for streaky bacon. Off down the shop for stamps. Mostly it involves the shop. Destinations are few hereabouts.

Although of course they could be off round the seafront with dog and walking-stick. Or off round the seafront with the dog and walking-stick again. Or, on rainy days, off round the seafront with dog, walking stick and anorak, the bonnet tied tight around the face, the eyes screwed up against briny spray and gale-force, salt-laden gusts.

But these two were standing still (outside my house) squinting at a smartphone, looking puzzled, poking it with pointy bits of plastic. Very suspicious! And it was what they were wearing. They looked – exactly how I imagine a brace of nerds might look. Both of them head to toe in black, with boots and chains – sub-goth and rather self-conscious, obviously sensed they were being watched. And they were lily white – I mean those two hadn’t seen the morning light in years.

I confess I have never played Pokémon. I have never played a computer game, in fact, unless you count scrabble. I am not averse to computer games – they look like fun, sort of, but also like a colossal waste of time. I suspect they are the equivalent of train-spotting or tending the allotment for the socially challenged, or a maybe what normal family-type people would refer to as a bonding experience. I suppose playing an electronic game with one’s children would be the same as Dad trying to teach us Sevens with a pack of playing cards, or making us racing cotton-reel tanks with candle-wax, spent matches and elastic bands to drive them along. Or like me watching the wrestling with Dad on a Saturday afternoon. Oops, now it’s out – yes, at eleven or twelve I quite liked to watch big men in stripy swimming trunks sweating profusely and throwing each other about. I’m not sure what Dad liked.

What I don’t understand is – and probably someone is going to explain it to me – how can these little Pokémons be simultaneously in someone’s smartphone and in the real world? And if they are in the real world, why couldn’t I see them lurking outside my front gate or hear them squeaking, chattering, chittering or whatever Pokémons do? And if I couldn’t see them, how come teenagers are getting so carried away with Go that they are getting themselves trapped in caves so that they have to be rescued? How come they fall off their skateboards and get themselves lured to remote spots in order to be mugged by evil people?

Apparently one man crashed his car into a tree, and two others fell off a cliff whilst playing. Maybe that’s what it is with lemmings. No one seems to know why lemmings suddenly throw themselves off cliffs en masse. Pursuing Pokémons, perhaps? And what about the Gadarene Swine? Possibly not inhabited by demonic spirits after all, but Pokémons.

We are thirteen

Kitten’s been on ‘permanent loan’ to my mother for the past five years or thereabouts, keeping her company and giving her something to focus on after Dad died. This morning I got a telephone call from my Godmother to say that it was time to collect Kitten, and I drove across to my mother’s early this afternoon. ‘Kitten’ is a huge misnomer since this little cat celebrated (though she’s not a great one for celebrating, I have to say) her twentieth birthday this September.

I found a handy little paragraph online:

To convert cat age to an equivalent human age, an accepted method is to add 15 years for the first year of life. Then add 10 years for the second year of life. After that, add 4 years for every cat year. This means that by year two, a cat has matured to about the same as a 25 year old human.

So she’d be 97.

She is a poor old thing to look at now, thin and wobbly, and as grumpy as ever – but she seems to be settling in. She’s eaten a surprising quantity of Gourmet food and has now relocated herself to the bedroom.  I just found her in the wardrobe, sunk into the spare duvet. She looks cosy enough, if not exactly full of the joys of spring, and after all these years alone with an old lady the other cats don’t seem to be bothering her. I’ve noticed that whilst she was almost completely silent with Mum, who is stone deaf – even ‘miming’ her miaows to save energy – after a few hours here she is using her voice again. She’s got a fearsome growl on her.

I’ve been desperate to retrieve my old moggie for some time. Mum hasn’t really been up to caring for her for the past year and has become increasingly anxious about the responsibility. I was hoping against hope that she would herself come to the decision to give Kitten back, rather than my having to step in and take her furry companion away when things got just too bad. In truth things have been just too bad for many months now; I was delaying out of cowardice, weighing and re-weighing the welfare of the cat against the potential distress to my mother. Overnight, unexpectedly, and thank goodness, Mum did decide. It can’t have been easy for her.

I suppose the thing with cats is that they are the custodians of various chunks of our lives, the keepers of our memories. Which is why it hurts so much when, inevitably, they have to leave us. It’s not just losing the cat it’s losing our route back to all the things that happened over all those years, the houses we shared, the various crises we weathered. The past is another country, as they say, and when a cat dies the last bridge dissolves with it.

I remember the first time I saw her – as one of a whole litter of flying kittens in a supply teacher’s scruffy back garden, in an unfamiliar town a good hour’s drive from where I lived. I was supposed to be on a date with him – I think I found him in the newspaper! I suspect he had only dated me because I’d mentioned liking cats and he saw an opportunity to get rid of one of the litter his own cat had suddenly produced. Kitten’s a tabby and at that time she was called Stripe. In order not to become attached to them he had not named them, merely identified them by appearance – Stripe, Spotty, Dotty or whatever.

It was never going to work between him and me: he was shorter and totally un-fanciable – in fact not even likeable – but I needed to keep seeing him at least until Stripe was ready to leave her mother. Also, of course, he had to keep seeing me if he wanted to home a kitten. I don’t know which of us found that convenient pretence most irritating. The man had ginger hair, I remember; most of it growing out of his nose and ears.

(I don’t suppose he’s reading this.)

How strange to have her back with me again. How strange to be a thirteen-cat household, if only for a short time. I expect one morning I’ll discover Kitten curled up somewhere, apparently asleep but in fact gone to the land of Endless Purrs.

All this reminded me of a Wordsworth poem. It’s quite a long poem; this is just part of it:

  • “How many are you, then,” said I,
  •  “If they two are in heaven?”
  •  Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
  •  “O Master! we are seven.”
  •  
  •  “But they are dead; those two are dead!
  •  Their spirits are in heaven!”
  •  ’Twas throwing words away; for still
  •  The little Maid would have her will,
  •  And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

Secrets and lies

I’ve lived a long time, though not nearly as long as my mother who this afternoon informed me (for the umpteenth time) and her doctor (for the first but probably not the last time) that she was nearly a hundred and had been through four World Wars. Also that her ancient cat had been eating the giant slugs that live and multiply under the house, and the slugs are growing inside her. Also that… oh, I could write several thousand words of Also that’s. None of it is true, of course.

All my life I seem to have attracted secrets and lies of one sort or another. I must be the human equivalent of the pots of marmalade-and-water people used to put out to drown wasps in the summertime – paper over the top held with an elastic band, and holes punched in it. Once in, the wasps swam around desperately for what seemed like hours, slowly, slowly drowning. It was considered a kind of picnic entertainment. I think the War must have coarsened people.

Me, I’m post-War, so I let wasps out. I let everything out – birds, ants, flies, butterflies, spiders; they all get shunted onto slips of paper, caught in wine glasses, cradled in paper tissues or gently encouraged towards the gap at the window’s edge. My mother (when she still remembered things) once reminded me of an incident from my youth. On one of our Sunday drive-abouts in the car, she, Dad and I had stopped at a roadside café, where there were picnic tables. My Dad bought us one of those polystyrene cups of coffee each and we were sitting at the tables with them.

‘A wasp landed in yours,’ she said, ‘and do you know what, you tipped the whole cup of coffee away into the grass just to save the wasp!’ And I’m thinking – you mean, you wouldn’t have? You’d have watched him drown to death in steaming hot liquid?

But where was I? Lost the plot again. Oh yes, secrets and lies. You sometimes end up thinking in a demented kind of way when you’ve spent an afternoon trying to decode the conversation someone who has it – and then it lingers!

Secrets, for example. Shall I tell you the saddest secret anybody ever told me? As a young teenager I would walk up the road every day to catch the train to school with one of my classmates. Another of my classmates came from a different direction and tended to walk up the road on the opposite side, not speaking to us. Both had what sounded to me like German surnames. This didn’t strike me as strange. Our particular small town was full of Polish people – perhaps soldiers who had fought with us then stayed, imported their families or married local girls. So I just assumed there had been a few German people stranded too.

Then one day these two girls had a fight – a verbal fight, but a violent one. They chased each other up the road, screaming abuse from one pavement to the other. I remember their high-pitched voices echoing off the shop windows, off the walls, it seemed.

Afterwards I asked the one I usually walked with, what was that all about? She was obviously shaken, still. She looked around her carefully and, when she could be absolutely sure no one could hear, whispered ‘I’m Jewish.’ I was mystified. It sounded like some sort of disease. When I got home I asked my parents what exactly Jewish was, and why someone should be so ashamed of being it.

Now for a lie.

When I was at infants school the yo-yo was all the rage. I had been given an orange and yellow one for Christmas and was very pleased with it. I liked the colour combination – like sweeties – I liked the magical way you could flick the string and the yo-yo went up and down (easily pleased) and most of all I liked the fact that I could walk around the playground looking pleasantly occupied – having fun in my solitary, weird-kid way – which meant teachers would be less likely to swoop on me and place me in the middle of terrifying rings of children engaged in some game or other. As soon as the teacher’s eye was off them, the rings of children would expel me, or I would wriggle out and run off. Then one lunch hour I got hauled by the collar to see the headmistress, who told me another girl had accused me of stealing her orange and yellow yo-yo. I think I made a big, terrible fuss. She’s not having my yo-yo. My Daddy bought it for me for a present, it’s mine and so ad infinitum. They had probably expected a stuttering, shame-faced admission and what they got was a major hissy fit. They let me go, but traumatised, scarred for life.

Oh yes, credulous teachers. Oh yes, evil-lying-little-girl whose orange and yellow yo-yo my yo-yo was not, I’ve got your numbers. It’s all written down in my little black book.

Nobody loves a fairy when she’s forty

My Dad used to sing this all the time, along with other rude songs or ‘ditties’ as they used to call them in those days. I suspect it’s sexist, and of course ‘fairy’ has since gone through a phase of meaning something else. The song refers to a pantomime fairy – an actress, now beginning to realise she may be getting too old for the part. Dad had other songs as well, and poems. Some of them are so non-PC in a variety of ways that I can’t – and wouldn’t want to – reproduce them here. Others are just silly.

Other favourites were ‘Nellie The Elephant’ (…packed her trunk and said goodbye to the jungle, off she went with a trumpety-trump…) ‘My Aunt’s Name is Ella Wheeler Waterbutt’ (…and she lives down at Burton-on-Trent. When she goes out riding on her bicycle she always gets the handlebars bent…) and ‘Oh, Jemima’ (…look at yer Uncle Jim, he’s in the duckpond learning how to swim. First he does the backstroke, then he does the side, and now he’s under the water swimming against the tide…!).

 Most of the time my father and I didn’t get on. He’d had a bad time in the war, I suspect, though he didn’t talk about it. I was his first child, and the worst possible species of child to have to make all one’s mistakes on. We seemed to spend most of the time firing off verbal missiles and screaming at one other. But one thing we did have in common was these old music-hall songs. He sang them frequently, knowing they would make me giggle, and because he was a show-off, a natural performer and communicator whose performing and communicating instincts had been disabled by my mother. We shared a kind of all-consuming rage, a history of hurt, a spikey, sensitive nature. We also shared an excellent memory and ‘collecting instinct’ for words, a love of the music they made and a keen sense of the ridiculous. A strange, sad, wasted combination. We could have been the double-act of the century.

  • NOBODY LOVES A FAIRY WHEN SHE’S FORTY
  • (written by Arthur Le Clerq – 1934)
  • For years a fairy queen I’ve been
  • For years I foiled the Demon King
  • But alas I’m getting on the years have flown somehow
  • And I feel that Fairy Snowdrop isn’t wanted now
  • Chorus
  • Nobody loves a fairy when she’s forty
  • Nobody loves a fairy when she’s old
  • She may still have a magic power but that is not enough
  • They like their bit of magic from a younger bit of stuff
  • When once your silver star has lost its glitter
  • And your tinsel looks like rust instead of gold
  • Fairy days are ending when your wand has started bending
  • No-one loves a fairy when she’s old
  • For years I reigned in Fairy Dell
  • I waved my wand and waved it well
  • If I can’t do all I did I’m satisfied because
  • I’d sooner be a Has-Been that I would a Never Was
  • Nobody loves….
  • Nobody loves..
  • The face of this Immortal One to many has appealed
  • But gone is the illusion once you’ve had it soled and heeled
  • When you’ve lost your little fairy dimples
  • And the moth holes in your dress let in the cold
  • The Goblins and the Pixies turn their backs and say Hi Nixey
  • No one loves a fairy when she’s old.
  • Nobody loves…..
  • Nobody loves…..
  • As far as I can see they try to push you off the map
  • When once your wand has withered and your wings refuse to flap
  • When you can’t cast a spell without it spilling
  • And a fairy tale for years you haven’t told
  • You stand there shouting What O.. but they all pass by your Grotto
  • Nobody loves a fairy when she’s old.
  • Nobody loves…..
  • Nobody loves…..
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hi4muhme1P4
  • Tessie O’Shea – Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s Forty