Biting the bath plug

Still enjoying the voluminous (luckily, electronic) diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt, alias Maggie Joy Blunt.

One woman shouldn’t be cheered by another’s problems, of course – but since we have quite a lot in common – single-wise, man-wise, too-many-cat-wise and compulsive-record-keeping-wise – discovering that she too has her bad days and disasters is a consolation. Oh, the violence lurking just beneath the surface in a tranquil country cottage!

Here are three entries from 1952:

Wed 16 April

The final straw was to see that my longed-for bath water was disappearing instead of mounting in the bath. The plug for some reason has gone on strike – it doesn’t seem to have perished but simply would not stay in the hole. This brought on such a paroxysm of rage that I bit a piece out of the rubber.

Thursday, May Day

I found the perfect grey cardigan and put my live cigarette end right through the back of it the same night. It has been mended professionally, but the place still shows a little. I could have strangled myself.

housewife 2

Wed 2 July

My story about biting the bath plug has met with huge success. E.D. suggests that I keep the plug hung in a convenient place and bite chunks of it whenever overcome by rage. But I should not let myself be seen doing so, or I should be locked up.



(Rubber-gloved/green gingham lady: Jennifer Lopez in disguise, I do believe.)

Cats and Jean

When I first made her acquaintance she went by the name of Maggie Joy Blunt; she was writing reports of everyday life on the wartime home front and posting them off to the Mass Observation project. She was one of many Mass Observation diarists sampled in a popular series of books by social historian Simon Garfield. The books threw up quite a few eccentric and entertaining characters, but Maggie Joy stood out as a natural writer. Indeed she was constantly trying to get things published – just not very often succeeding – and her diary entries had a cool lucidity; a kind of intelligent overview, that some of the others lacked. I looked forward to reading her entries.

Sometimes I would amuse myself by trying to work out what the real names of these ‘characters’ might have been, before Garfield disguised them. What could ‘Herbert Brush’ have been called, for instance? (Now thought to have been Reginald Charles Harpur, of Sydenham). And Maggie Joy? Now revealed to be Jean Lucey Pratt, who died in 1986. I often wondered what happened in the gaps between her war diary entries. What sort of life did she really live? Well, now we know because Simon Garfield has edited extracts from sixty years of her diary-keeping to bring us A Notable Woman, the romantic journals of Jean Lucey Pratt.

She wrote in fountain pen, usually in Woolworth’s exercise books – about anything, but mostly about men, work and cats. Unlucky in love, with an unfortunate leaning towards married men and charming scoundrels, she was desperate to be a wife and mother. Maybe the desperation was her undoing? She never does find a husband but finally succeeds, well into her thirties, in losing her much-loathed virginity and from then on has a series of lovers, or ‘affaires’ as she liked to call them. She talks rather a lot about sex, and desire – and is frank for a woman writing in the ‘thirties and ‘forties. This element is missing from her wartime reports, which tend to focus on the shortage of fully-fashioned silk stockings and her perpetual search for cigarettes. Sometimes, reading her, you wish you could shout down some kind of time-funnel/megaphone – no, don’t smoke those dreadful things, don’t you know they’ll kill you? or Not another married man, Jean – can’t you see he’s an out-and-out rotter and just using you? But of course, she didn’t know, and she couldn’t see. Like the rest of us, she was staggering along in the dark, doing the best she could.

jean pratt 3.png

She was also a fellow cat-woman. Yes. I know: women who for whatever reason don’t have children are likely to be verging on insanity and surrounded by cats. Jean, after forays into architecture, journalism and biography, spent her later life running a small shop in Farnham Common, Buckinghamshire. It began as a general shop, but later she specialised in book-selling, and cat-book-selling in particular. She did better at this than at any of her other career choices and ended up supplying cat books to devoted customers all over the world. I’m most of the way through her diaries at this point but find myself a bit flummoxed, really, by her attitude – or perhaps I mean the then-prevailing attitude – towards cats.

She is obviously deeply attached to all her pets – it’s obvious both from the frequency with which she writes about them and the affection in her ‘voice’. As Maggie Joy Blunt in one of the previous Simon Garfield books she tells the story of how her favourite little cat is extremely ill, and she has to take it to the vets, on the bus. The cat is in a basket on her knee, and a child happens to be sitting next to her. After a while her cat gives an awful howl and ‘Maggie’ becomes aware that that she has just died. The child asks about the cat and Maggie, knowing she mustn’t upset the child, fights back her grief and says something to the effect that puss is just having a little nap right now. She records it in a very spare, contained sort of way, but it’s the story that everyone remembers reading in floods of tears. I am hoping it doesn’t come up again in A Notable Woman because I don’t think I can bear to read it a second time.

And yet – none of her cats seem to be neutered. Did cats just not get neutered in those wartime and pre-war days? And her female cats are constantly producing kittens. At intervals she records having to take both mother and kittens off to ‘the cats’ home’ in Slough, or finding a new home for this kitten or that kitten. I just don’t think I could have done it – any of it. It seems – well, irresponsible on the one hand and impossibly pragmatic on the other.

She tells of two kittens ‘stoated’ in the woods (her own invented word – I tried it in a game of scrabble recently); one kitten with a hole in its chest which at first she thinks must have been made by a bird, and another kitten that she had to send one of her visiting gentlemen out to despatch – he later mentions not having been able to do this. Why are kittens roaming around outside, in a wood, to be set upon by stoats? Why isn’t an injured kitten taken to the vets to be despatched, if it’s so severely injured? And why is she sending a man to do it, as if it’s one of men’s jobs to kill things?

I’m not blaming Jean – indeed, perhaps it’s just me being over-sensitive. I’ve come up against this same attitude before, in conversations with my mother, who is perhaps a generation younger than JLP, and it was the one subject over which I felt we were seriously at odds. She tried to explain it to me – that cats in her day were regarded as ‘just animals’ (which annoys me, since we are also ‘just animals’ and I don’t believe that stuff about God setting us in authority over them – as far as I’m concerned, if he did that, he wasn’t a God worth his salt). She said dogs and cats would be fed the scrapings from plates, the scraps from the table. I can’t remember whether she said there just wasn’t commercial cat-food in those days.

Jean herself mentions taking one of her cats to the vet to be advised that it isn’t getting enough of the right sort of food, and how she manages to beg a few extra scraps of meat from the butcher on the way home, since rationing was in place. To be fair, Jean herself didn’t seem to be getting the right sort of food at the time and was plagued with chest infections, recurring boils in the ears and so forth.

The thing that really annoys me is when older people refer to animals as ‘it’. We wouldn’t refer to one another as ‘it’. I can tell male from female cats by sight, but even if faced with a dog, say, or a parakeet – I’d make an attempt at its gender. Better to be wrong than insulting. Mum fudged it, really, by making all cats ‘she’ and all dogs ‘he’. I was never sure if this was a devious way of saying ‘it’ – one less likely to infuriate Linda – or whether dementia had genuinely deprived her of the ability to make the leap – if all dogs are ‘he’ how do puppies get made? Dementia did rob her early, and very noticeably, of logic – of the patently obvious, of the ‘if this then – inescapably – that’ process.

I’d be interested to hear what anyone else thinks about attitudes to pets, particularly if they have happened to stumble across A Notable Woman. I’m going to see the book through, in any case. Sixty years of diary-keeping, throwing a clear light on a period of recent British social history fast vanishing from actual memory, deserve to be read to the end.

jean pratt


A Mind of Many Colours

So, Joseph’s father loved him and gave him this coat, right. In a land of yellow dust and burnt sienna sand, it was a wonderful thing – a rainbow woven into a cloak. Not that it did poor Joseph much good. His brothers became jealous and decided to kill him. Then they decided not to kill him but rather throw him into a pit to die. Then they decided not to let him die in the pit but to haul him out and sell him to some slave traders for twenty pieces of silver. Many colours can be a good thing, but it ain’t necessarily so.

I just joined Twitter and Facebook and am finding it hard not to keep tuning in and checking, to make sure my Tweets/Posts are still there; almost as hard as not tuning in to WordPress to find out if anyone’s reading anything… and, more importantly, liking it. I’m already a bit ‘fragmented’ – easily distracted – a bit of a magpie. This can be useful, for blogging, but it can also be a form of torment. It depends how tired you are. And how many things there are to distract you. Now I have two more.

And I’m one of those compulsive readers. I can’t not read things, whether they’re adverts, cereal packets or instructions as to legal tyre-tread depth on the wall at the garage. Brain homes in on letters of the alphabet and nothing much else. It works like this. I wouldn’t know the colour or make of a car, even if I’d just been travelling in it (unless it was my own, of course.) Cars in a car-park are uninteresting as far as I’m concerned: mere rows of shiny objects with wheels. Yet recently I located a friend’s misplaced car in the hospital multi-storey, not by remembering where we parked it but by asking her to say the registration number. I turned, ran my eye along the first row and the number plate jumped out. It will always jump out (if it’s there at all).

It comes in useful, but it also means I find myself random-reading stuff on Twitter, when I haven’t really got time. The other day it happened to be an article from the Guardian by biographer Alexander Masters. And actually I’m glad I read it because it reminded me of something – that I have a long way to go before I can call myself a journalist. This was journalistic writing at its best. He was basically publicising his new, not-quite-published biography, A Life Discarded, and telling the story of how it came about. It was fascinating. Basically two good friends of his discovered 148 handwritten notebooks discarded in a skip, in an old Ribena bottle box and littered about generally. Since he was a biographer, they brought them to him. After many delays, partly caused by a bizarre accident to one friend and the discovery that the other friend was terminally ill, he started to read them.

They were diaries. At first he did not know the person’s name or gender – they were just ‘I’. Eventually he discovered that she was called Laura, but not her second name. He pieced her life together from the notebooks, discovering in the process that these were by no means all of the diaries. The 70s, the second half of the 60s and the 80s and most of the 90s were missing. He assumed that Laura was dead, since her diaries had been dumped in a skip, but as it happened, she wasn’t. And he found her…

I’m afraid I just have to read it, and have pre-ordered it – all because I got distracted. So, was distraction a good thing, because I stumbled across an author and a book-title I had never heard of before? Because it got me reading a Guardian article, which I would never normally have done since I don’t get the papers. Or was it a bad thing, because I ended up spending money on a book I shouldn’t even have known about?

Which reminds me of still other things: of my mother’s love of uniformity and her Alexander McCall Smith collection; of Nicholas Carr’s book suggesting that our brains are being seriously rewired by the internet; of Jane Austen and the Dead Sea Scrolls; of shoes and ships and sealing wax and cabbages and kings. Which may well find their way into another post.

colour coat

(Coat of Many Colors: Shoshannah Brombacher)

Under Black Light

There are downsides to sharing your house with an inordinate number of cats. The first is that while cats give a pretty good impression of thinking like us, that’s all part and parcel of their Domestic Infiltration Strategy. I use a variant on that technique myself – it’s called the Human Race Infiltration Strategy.

The thing that really gets my goat is when they choose to pee on my diary. Yes, choose. This morning one or other of them peed on my fourth 2016 diary, and of course I didn’t spot it straight away. By the time I did spot it my diary, having acted like blotting paper, was soggy with it. Soggy!

I just can’t be bothered with yet again transferring a year’s worth of appointments and birthdays from one to another. Every time I do that somebody gets lost, and it’s awkward to admit to a friend or relative that their birthday isn’t in fact engraved on your memory in giant gothic letters – or maybe it was once but it isn’t now – and please could they remind you?

No doubt it’s grubby and old-ladyish, but today I am just going to dry out my diary in the sunniest place, which happens to be on top of the tumble dryer. Temporarily displacing the tumble-dryer’s cat-bed ‘hat’ shall be my ineffectual revenge. Afterwards I’ll insert the crinkly, dried-out remains of my fourth 2016 diary into a clear plastic sleeve, like they do recipe books.

‘Fluorescent’ seems to be haunting me at the moment. Yesterday I found myself writing about fluorescent sheep, cats and monkeys when I set out to write about my dreams. As it transpired, people seemed less interested in my dreams than in the fluorescent sheep.

Can’t imagine why.

And this morning, in one of my little in medias res compositional dives into the internet, I have discovered that cat pee glows in the dark. Apparently it doesn’t glow enough to be visible to the human eye – though perhaps to the cat eye – but it can be seen under black light. Black light is another name for invisible (ultraviolet/infrared) light – also known as Wood’s Light, after somebody not all that interesting called Wood.

Now I come to think about it, black light is what those super-slim, trouser-suited, wonderfully-coiffured and immaculately lip-glossed forensic ladies must be using in American detective dramas. They go all round the apartment where somebody may have been killed, shining this special light at things. All sorts of things show up: mysterious stains on mattresses; bloodstains on kitchen knives… Probably they’re not looking for cat pee. Not in all that lip-gloss.

Now it makes sense. If I really wanted to get miserable I could buy a Wood’s Light from Amazon and go all round my house looking for five years’ worth of undiscovered cat-whoopsies; except that I can’t justify the expense of a Wood’s Light any more than I can justify the expense of a fifth 2016 diary. Besides, I don’t want one. I really don’t want one. And there’s a certain pleasure in martyrdom.

A second downside of cats – they tend to act out their dreams. We humans can more or less totally disconnect our dreaming minds from our bodies – which is just as well, when you think about it. Cats can’t, or at least not to the same extent. George – poor little George – a disaster even when awake – has just awoken in the middle of a boggart-chasing nightmare of some kind and hurled himself semi-conscious out of his basket, on a teetering pile of boxes next to my computer, narrowly missing my right ear, to land in a confused, head-shaking heap on the floor.

How is a person supposed to compose? I ask myself. Whither goeth the Muse when a black and white cat hurls himself, claws fully extended, past a creative’s right ear in compositional medias res…?



George, himself

On eating cheese and breathing down rat-holes

My third (so far) 2016 diary is proving to be a gold mine for blog ideas. Should the cats decide to pee on this one too, I’m going to save it. Into the airing-cupboard it will go…

e-i-e-i-e-i-o oh, knees up Muvver Brown… sorry

… and although it will come out all yellow-stained, crinkled and fanned, those precious every-other-daily quotes will be preserved; a whole year’s worth of potential blog-post ideas – except not, because inevitably a few of them are duds.

The quote for Monday June 13th 2016 is from American actor W C Fields (1880-1946) – the one who was in that film with Mae West and memorably/cruelly said that he liked a child if ‘properly cooked’, and on another occasion that they were ‘very good with mustard’. But June 13th’s quote is about cats:

The clever cat eats cheese and breathes down rat holes with baited breath.

In real life cats are not that clever and rats are not that stupid, but the principle of eating cheese and breathing down rat-holes can be applied to almost anything in life. For instance:

If you’re desperate for the phone to ring, step into a nice, deep, lavender-scented bath; submerge, and reach for the second-hand paperback you have been looking forward to dipping into since it landed on the doormat this morning. I sometimes wonder if I ever had a phone call when not in the bath. How many times have I heaved myself out, dripping, squelched downstairs in a damp dressing-gown, only for it ring off on the sixth ring? As for answering a mobile phone in the bath – nearly all my mobile phones have died of drowning – in bedside mugs of water, in the washing-machine…

The best way to get a job – attend the interview hoping against hope that you won’t get it. An unemployed former boyfriend (I say boy, he was oldish even then) was once ordered by the Job Centre to attend an interview for work as a printer at a local firm. Up till then he had been a steam-train driver and couldn’t see himself in an office, but you can’t really refuse a job interview when unemployed: they tend to stop your benefits.

He really didn’t want the job, and he was nervous about the interview itself, so he popped in to the pub at lunchtime and rolled up at the interview feeling little pain, in a haze of exhaled beer. They liked him, of course, and he got the job. Twenty-five or so years later he was still there, one of their most senior and trusted employees, sitting it out till retirement and lacking the will to escape.

When I was still married, my husband used to spend nearly all day and most of the evening down the garden in his workshop. This was how we managed to stay married for 22 years, in fact. However, sometimes – if it was lunchtime, say, and he was still out there building clever man-things, I would get cross or lonely. We had a coal fire and I discovered the best way of getting him to come charging indoors was to reach out and put another lump of coal on the fire. He could tell by the colour and quality of the smoke exiting the chimney when I was wasting a lump of coal. Sometimes I only had to visualise that lump of coal and the reaching out, for him to come thundering up the stairs. We were psychically linked, I guess.

Fire-feeding was husband-territory and so was room-temperature; wives were never to touch the coal-scuttle and – having inferior feminine thermostatic arrangements – only ever imagined they were shivering. The lump of coal strategy worked but with a hefty price to pay in lecturing and altercation.

A typically British example of breathing down rat-holes is the gentle art of persuading buses to come along. British buses are hardly ever where or when you want them to be: as the saying goes, you don’t see a bus for an hour, then three come along at once. The art of persuading a bus to come along is to decide to walk home. No sooner do you get beyond running-back distance of the bus-stop you left, or running-to distance of the next bus stop, than the bus will come sailing along – and sail straight past you.

If you find yourself in a long queue in the Post Office, the best way to make it move quickly is to join the adjacent, shorter queue. This will instantly become the slowest because some old lady at the front will drop her purse or someone will decide to argue with the cashier about the price of Air Mail postage to Australia.

Best way to make a cat use the litter tray or throw up a heap of semi-digested cat-biscuits on the carpet right in front of you: fix yourself a cup of coffee and tasty sandwich; settle yourself down to watch Stargate Universe whilst eating it. Eat one mouthful…

An example from just now, even. Best way to make a BT Openreach (telephone network repair) van turn up – scheduled for anytime from 8 to 1. Start writing blog post, just get to the bit where ideas are zooming into your head from all directions but haven’t yet been safely typed… and there it is. However, my landline is fixed.

My landline finally is fixed. Never thought I’d see the day.