Oh, for Pete’s Sake!

I’m not sure who Pete was, originally. I suspect he got slotted into this generalised expression of annoyance merely because he had one syllable and was easy to substitute for the word you really wanted to say. But then, you’d have thought Jack would have been better. Closer to the original, as in Cripes! for Christ, Heck! for Hell or – that old favourite of American scriptwriters attempting to write Cockney – Blimey! which was originally ‘Gor Blimey’ and before that ‘God Blind – or Blame – Me!’

A number of things have prompted me to exclaim Oh, for Pete’s Sake! recently. The Millennial or Snowflake Generation, it is claimed, have grown up over-protected and therefore tending to feel special, unique, entitled, overly emotional and easily offended. I am not actually in a position to discuss this with any genuine Millennials/Snowflakes and I wouldn’t want to tar all with the same brush. But…

Recently the Prime Minister generated a great cloud of apparent shock and horror by using the word ‘Surrender’ in relation to a parliamentary Bill. Apparently, ‘Surrender’ is a militaristic word, and therefore to be classed as inflammatory language. ‘Surrender’, it seems, has never been and cannot ever be used anywhere else than in the field of battle. So if I am driving erratically and a policeman should tap on my car window and say, Excuse me, Madam, I will require you to surrender your driving licence at the nearest Police Station … ??

‘Humbug’ is an ornate, old-fashioned, but no more offensive version of ‘rubbish!’ Dickens was fond of it and had Scrooge exclaim Bah, Humbug! in A Christmas Carol. A humbug is nothing more than a sugary sweet (see above). I don’t like them myself, probably because of their horrid stripes and tooth-cracking hardness, but I would defend anybody’s right to refer to them as humbugs as opposed to laterally-banded confectionary items.

So, in relation to the apparent shocking and terrifying of his fellow MPs by the use of the word ‘Surrender’ in relation to the enactment of a Bill which would in effect bring about political surrender, he replied

“Mr Speaker, I have never heard such humbug in all my life.”

Gasp! Another shocking word.

I suspect this parliamentary outrage is of the deliberately manufactured political kind rather than true Snowflakery, which makes it hypocritical and therefore twice, nay thrice as annoying. English is a vigorous, robust, joyous language; its rich, eccentric vocabulary has been drawn from wave after wave of invaders and conquerors. We had the Saxons, we had the Vikings, we had the Romans, we had William the Conqueror, let’s face it we almost had the Germans as well… And politicians in the past, whether within Parliament or outside of it, have never shied away from using this linguistic resource to its fullest.

A couple of examples:

From Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech. I for one am not afraid to find it on the internet and read it – yea, and carefully, from start to finish – for fear of some mental contamination, an instant attack of rabid racism:

“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’ .”

And then from possibly the most famous Prime Ministerial speech of all time:

‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender…’

‘Humbug’ begins to look a bit tame after that, doesn’t it?

What hope for us if we have even, now, become afraid to express our own thoughts in our own language?

On Brain Art, Brownspeak, the Curate’s Egg and Various Lengthy Conversations with the Fairies

To begin, I will tell you a tiny story. It is probably of no significance but it will keep returning to me.

Many, many years ago, for some reason, I was in a small car being driven along the sea front at Hastings – I’m fairly sure it was Hastings and not Brighton or Bexhill (immaterial, but I seem to have to mention it anyway).

My father was doing the driving. There was someone else sitting in the passenger seat beside him and my mother and I were in the back seat. As we sped along we passed a small blue wrought-iron gate, which seemed to serve no purpose, set into the long, concrete expanse of the sea front. And in those few seconds I recorded that this seemingly useless piece of street furniture was in the shape of a breaking wave, and knew that it was that shape because we were at the seaside. And had moved on, just as the car moved on, to some other reverie.

My mother remarked, ‘That was an odd-shaped gate’.

I said, ‘No – it was a breaking wave.’

My mother said, ‘How on earth did you notice that?’

And I thought, but fortunately did not say, ‘How on earth did you not notice it?’

Because stuff like that zooms in on me all the time. It’s like I have to notice all the irrelevant details of a landscape: Hunter’s Mind, as they sometimes, mercifully, call it. I’ve been researching (intermittently and inefficiently, of course) the ‘inattentive’ variant of ADD and wondering if this is what I’ve got. I’ve sure as hell got something. I don’t suppose I will ever know because who cares if someone my age has ‘got it’? By my age it’s too late. Any life you might have had has been well and truly buried under a heap of distractions, sudden passions, fading interests, forgotten-ness…

Everything, important or unimportant, descends instantly into a kind of memory mulch and – with the occasional exception like the sea-wave gate – cannot be retrieved. But which will retrieve themselves, when and if they see fit. Oh no, they haven’t gone, all those useful facts – how many years ago did I move here? what was my postcode in 1987? did I ever get vaccinated against German Measles? what year was my father born? – all the practical details other people seem to recall without effort – they are just hiding. Determinedly.

I have had so few people in my life – maybe three and a half (the half being Ex, and reliant on alcohol) that I could very occasionally allow myself talk the way my brain works, without the Sensible Filters applied. I learned, somewhere around the age of four, that for all of my life I would need to translate everything I actually thought into what I used to think of as a child as Brownspeak, or people would kind of… snigger.

In this blog it’s a mixture – a Curate’s Egg, as they used to say, somewhere around Dickens’ time or maybe – no – earlier – maybe around Goldsmith’s unreadable The Vicar of Wakefield.

Some posts, when I am arguing a point, I tend to try to ‘craft’ a bit. It’s not that I can’t do that. It’s just that I mostly can’t be arsed to do it, because it’s dull. But if you publish and be damned, leaving holes in your argument, people will inevitably home in on them, because the holes are the bits that interest them. The holes, to me, are the bits I wouldn’t have wasted precious time filling in, if I was just being me.

Other posts, like the rare (as hens’ teeth – I love that phrase) short story I will also polish – but this time, because the editing and the story-writing all form part of one indivisible process. This, I suppose, is the famous hyper-focus phenomenon. Writing is the only thing that that it kicks in for, for me. Cannot leave it alone until both aspects are right. Stuck at the computer, sometimes for day on end (hyperbole) because – not right, not right, not quite right yet…

But in most posts I do this sort of thing. I allow myself to ramble, soar, snooze, wake up, find myself talking to the fairies on some bleak hillside where the sedge is appropriately withering and no birds sing, or materialise back at the computer screen with frozen feet, a longing for caffeine and the thing half written, chuckling or aghast at what – somebody, anyway – seems to have just typed up there.

And now I think, would I have given it up – Brain Art, as one girl in the comments section of an ADD website described it when asked to list any positives of ADD – for the chance to have lived a normal life? That phrase jumped out at me – Brain Art – and I knew exactly what she meant. Although if you type it into Google now she seems to have disappeared, that girl in the comments section. All you get are lurid pictures of actual, physical brains with their branching neuronal systems lit up in various arty, rainbow-coloured ways. Quite jolly, but not something I would want on my living room wall whilst consuming Oeufs en Cocotte, Pigs in Blankets or whatever.

What would it have been like without a lifetime of pencilled and computerised Plans, none of which I could ever find the impetus, or manage to remember for long enough, to put into effect? What would it have been like to be able to make a decent living and not have to be constantly, constantly frightened? What would it have been like, not to have the funny looks, not to be odd – to have been a Brown person and lived in that Brown world where wave-like gates did not leap out at you, where you did not notice the patterns between the branches of trees rather than the branches themselves and realise that stately dance against the sky, for the tree in itself, was Art?

What would it be like not to get bored with and leave, or get fired from (usually both) nearly everywhere I worked? Wouldn’t it have been worth it to be able to store something I wanted to say, or do, or remember, in my head for more than a few seconds before a new thought or seven came rushing in to crowd it out?

What would it have been like not to be permanently Away With The Fairies – or rather never to know at what moment the Fairies would choose to reclaim me, and then release me?

To sacrifice those few seconds of joy, just every now and again; that occasional swooping flight of felicity; that unexpected, almost shocking burst of laughter when an image or series of images I somehow, accidentally managed to articulate hit home with my ‘audience’ – images I had just been somehow given?

To lose that feeling when a post suddenly makes sense, then the beginning suddenly bites the tail of the ending, and then connections branch out in all directions, between this post and other posts, between now and then. To never again discover, as if reading it for the first time, some small thing I must have been thinking all these years?

What would it have been like, to exchange my bewildering, endless, swooping inner landscape for a decent-sized back garden with a crazy-paving path up the middle and a selection of well-tended roses? Would it have been worth it, the chance of life – a proper, real, safe, contented, prosperous, happily married and gainfully employed life – in exchange for handing back my wings?

Pas de cherry-peeking, Breets ridicules!

Now that’s set your teeth on edge, hasn’t it, proper French speakers?

I had a very unoriginal thought today.  I googled it and discovered that it was in fact even more unoriginal than I imagined. I was looking at my books, all 2,000 of them piled vertically now (for cat fur/ease of hoovering reasons) into a high stack of de-shelved book cases.  It suddenly struck me, if I had to take the complete works of a very limited number of authors to a desert island with me – say, ten – which authors would I choose?

Now this isn’t as easy as it seems. It would be no good taking to a desert island a book with a thrilling but memorable plot, for example. However good it was, what would be the point of reading it again?

No good taking anything too distinctive, either. Harry Potter, for instance. I loved reading Harry Potter, each new book as eagerly anticipated as if I had been thirteen and three quarters rather than middle-aged. But once you’ve read them the surprise is gone out of them – they were whizz-bangs when they landed on our bookshelves but now… they’ve fizzled.

Not really much point in taking thrillers or detective novels, for the same reason. You might not think you remember whodunit but as soon as you start to read, you will.

And humour probably wouldn’t travel well. Only so many times you can laugh at a conversation between Bertie Wooster and Jeeves whilst fishing in the sea with a piece of string and an improvised hook, or trying to persuade yourself that shredded palm leaves are edible. Jokes are best not repeated – to the same audience – yourself.

No, the books would have to be kind of meaty. The sort that, though they may be a bit of a struggle to get into, pay dividends on later reflection. Also books with plots so labyrinthine that it is impossible to remember them on re-reading.

But you’d also need an element of comfort reading. So some of your books would be there just because they reminded you of home in some way – winter afternoons by the fire and snow falling outside; long walks down country lanes kicking autumn leaves with your wellies – whatever.

I’m thinking that, as with Desert Island Discs, a few ‘master’ works should be taken for granted – found in a deserted cabin, chewed a bit by moths but still perfectly readable, say. I believe Desert Island Discs allows castaways to assume The Complete Works of Shakespeare and a copy of the Bible, and I would add the Complete Works of Dickens. (It’s my island, I can make Dickens be in the deserted cabin if I want to. Maybe I’ll put the skeleton of the previous inhabitant in there too…)

Of course, the books you take may also reflect the age you happen to be when cast away. If you are twenty, say, you will have longer to savour the books of your choice, but also longer to get heartily sick of them. If you are ninety-five you might want to be more rigorously selective still, or take rather more spiritually-inclined reading matter.

So this is my list, in no particular order Still a work in progress. As you will see at the end I still haven’t managed to whittle it down to ten. I did consider simply putting the total up to twenty, but that seemed like cheating.

  1. Isaac Asimov
  2. A S Byatt
  3. Neil Gaiman
  4. Annie Proulx
  5. Charlotte Brontë
  6. Rose Tremain
  7. Alice Munro
  8. George McKay Brown (non-fiction, comfort reading)
  9. Ellis Peters (comfort reading – how could you be on a desert island and not have Cadfael for company?)
  10. ….

And here’s where I’m stuck. I feel I should take at least one author that I always felt I should read but only ever got round to reading around the edges of – so I’m torn at the moment between George Eliot, Anthony Trollope and Aldous Huxley. Maybe Huxley would be a bit dated? Trollope would certainly be meaty but… as well as Dickens? And Eliot – is she perhaps one of those authors you feel you ought to read but Life’s Too Short for – like whoever perpetrated Moby Dick and War and Peace? Not to mention Ulysses. I carted that fat paperback of Ulysses around with me for years when I was a student: never managed to get beyond the first page.

I don’t know… I don’t know… And remember you have got to take all their works – pas de cherry-peeking, Breets ridicules! as I like to imagine they would say in Brussels. So you can’t take Howard’s End and leave the posthumous Maurice behind, or take the whole of Neil Gaiman except American Gods which is just too long.

To digress slightly. Having just discovered (after how many years?) that I can watch more or less unlimited dramas and TV series on my Kindle Fire for absolutely-free merely by tapping on that dull little icon top right – who knew? – I launched into American Gods on video, thinking I might find it more digestible.

They were putting each other’s eyes out! Severed limbs were flying through the air! I don’t remember that, in the twenty percent of the book I did manage to get through. So I plumped for The Night Manager.

To digress again. I read a comment on the internet by a girl who felt it should correctly be deserted, not desert island, since how many islands do you find in the desert? Duh! An island with nothing on it but a lot of desert-type sand and perhaps a wobbly palm tree and a man in faded rags with several weeks-worth of stubble – not an island rising majestically from the sands of the Sahara.

Anyway, enough. What would be your ten desert island authors? Or just the first one on the list…

By hook or by crook

I never expected Aunt Mildred to get the Plague.

(Ignore that for the time being.)

The hook in the first paragraph of a novel has got to be the hook of all hooks – it’s got to be intriguing; it’s got to hit you there, in the centre of curiosity (somewhere between throat and midriff); it’s got to set a time-bomb fizzing in your head. In short, a Captain Hook-sized hook.

Someone browsing in a bookshop, or doing the “Look Inside” thing on Amazon –  may if you’re lucky peruse your first line, and if you’re very lucky, your first paragraph.

No point in putting wonderful hooks at the end of each chapter, starting each new chapter with a bang and all that stuff they tell you in How to Write and Become Famous and Loved by Everybody treatises if your novel starts with a view Milton Keynes on a Saturday afternoon or features a Victorian kitchen maid (a character of no importance to the plot in any case) rambling on about the best way to peel potatoes, or some lengthy description of the eighteenth century Cornish countryside.

There are many splendid first lines to novels:

I met him in the street called Straight. (Mary Stewart: The Gabriel Hounds – hook, masterful (mistressful?) – book, not so good but worth reading all the same, to pay tribute to the hook.)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (Rebecca: Daphne duMaurier)

Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick: Herman Melville).


If you could have written the opening to any novel, what would it be?  Or to put it another way, what would you die happy, having written?

The opening to Pride and Prejudice?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

1984 by George Orwell?

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

Mine would be the first paragraph of Dickens Bleak House:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

This, plus the famous and labyrinthine ‘fog’ metaphor that follows it. Note, a hook doesn’t have to a one-liner; it can go on for as long as you can sustain it, but bear these two points in mind:

  1. Readers nowadays have less time for reading they did in Victorian times, and a vast choice of reading matter. When Dickens was writing there was no internet, no social media, no television. People were hungry for entertainment and had been brought up to concentrate for long periods of time. Internet use, so the theory goes, is resulting in an ever-shortening attention span.
  2. Dickens was a mighty, a powerful writer – a genius. Until you’re sure that you are in his league best to err on the side of caution and get that massive hook well and truly hooked into ’em, if not in the first line, in the first short paragraph.

The same principle applies to blog posts, although on this micro-scale you can overdo it. You might get away with starting one post ‘Third World War Declared’ or ‘I never expected Aunt Mildred to get the Plague’ but if you keep it up you’ll annoy people. Unless of course your Aunt Mildred really did get the Plague.

The problem is, your post then has to live up to it’s introduction – and nobody’s capable of writing a Third World War or Aunt Mildred post every single time. Most posts are more modest – conversations, really – ideas, points of view, helpful hints, funny stories, sad stories, random thoughts as to the Meaning of Life. You can’t start every one of them with a whizz, bang, wallop.

I’m not too happy with the beginning of this post, for example. I mean the real one, not Auntie Mildred. It has the virtue of being brief, and the Captain Hook image is quite a whizz-bang one – but it could be better. Maybe you can tell me how it could have been better. Noticing and analysing the ‘hooks’ of other bloggers – or their absence – is an excellent way to learn. What was it about those few lines that persuaded you to click and read the rest? What was it that made you gloss over the one before it?

Think of it as a tweet-sized shop window. Or a Tweet Shop Window…


God bless us, every one!

It’s Christmas Eve and I’ve done all the meaningful, useful things I can think of to do – like packing most of my 2,000 books into cardboard boxes ready for the decorator who’s coming to paint the living room next week, and taking delivery of two more sacks of cat litter – What have you got in here, coal? asked the courier.  I’ve watched Ice Road Truckers – one of the old ones I’d missed – plus yet another Extraordinary Weather Events , 2015 programme (foam blowing in from the sea in Devon … a three-day plague of locusts in Mongolia … hailstones the size of frozen turkeys in Texas …) plus yet another montage of People You Had Already Forgotten About Or Never Heard Of In The First Place, Who Died In 2015. I’ve done a little heap of ironing, sighed a bit, moped about a bit and wished I didn’t have to go and see my mother tomorrow a bit. A lot.

I don’t want to be there with her on my own, chilly and subtly unwelcome – no teensy-tiny sherry, no sticky mince-pie, no tree, not a shred of tinsel. I don’t want to be perched on a green metal garden chair, just like on a Sunday – like every Sunday from here to – whatever the backwards of Eternity is – writing capital-letters notes for her to throw straight onto the floor without reading, or read aloud so badly all the sense has gone from the words.

I can’t be doing with yet another incomprehensible tantrum or yet another update on hauntings by gypsies, voices coming through the walls and plots to divert her drains several feet to the left. I don’t honestly feel like racking my brains for something sensible, sociable and different to say to the lunchtime carer when she arrives – when everyone else in the whole of the United Kingdom (apart from me and tomorrow’s unfortunate carer) is at home enjoying a Family Christmas with turkey, sprouts, stuffing and giant tins of lager, sniping at the cousins or the in-laws and playing Scrabble or Donkey Kong, whatever that might be. Or doing carol-karaoke with the TV set.

What an awful thing for a daughter to say. But she won’t remember it’s Christmas.  I’ll have to make us tea in those tea-stained mugs, and microwave us something if the carers haven’t beaten me to it. She’ll be miserable, and by the time I do leave I’ll be miserable too. It makes me sad to be spending Christmas morning examining dead leaves on an overgrown lawn, wondering why it always has to be wet or sunny for Christmas, never snowy. The same dead leaves, brown hydrangea flowers, black skeleton trees. Listening to the kitchen clock ticking louder, louder, louder in the uncommunicative mega-silence deafness and dementia impose.

I want to be on my own. She wants to be on her own. I’m wondering what the cats are wrecking in my absence. She’s plotting to take her shopping trolley for a long, illegal walk. She’s just waiting for me to go. My name has probably escaped her. So why am I there, then? Presumably because everybody else has got an excuse. And after all, it’s Christmas. Ho, ho, ho!

What else have I been up to today? Well, I’ve been surfing the net, as the young folks call it nowadays. I was a bit stuck for an idea for a post. I mean, I know what I planned to do: I was going to finally start work on Midwinter (see Midwinter Unwritten). I even typed up a summary last night.  but did I write it? No I did not. I got an idea for another post – anything to put off Midwinter – and surfed about looking for background information on that.

And then I fed the fourteen cats.

And then it got dark outside and still I hadn’t seen a single neighbour – though one did push a card through my door and make a run for it.

And then I ate a raspberry yoghurt and a bowl of cinnamon breakfast cereal.

And then I realised I’d run out of space yet again, chugging on about other stuff. I will be writing the substitute post. Maybe this evening after the washing up – one plate, one knife, one fork, one mug and fourteen melamine dishes, each with a different Disney character in the base. Or maybe tomorrow,  après Mama, except that going to see her seems to leach all the writing-ness out of me. And Midwinter. Probably.

Merry Christmas Everybody. Or Season’s Greetings or whatever you’re supposed to say to be politically correct nowadays. Or, as Tiny Tim said, waving his crooked little stick in the air:

God bless us, every one!

All the way to eternity

She loves me, she loves me not / Where can a simple island boy begin? / This Highland pride is all I’ve got / But in the darkness it means everything / It makes me one with the tide / It makes me strong when I’m burning inside….

I bought a double CD for that one song and in fact for that one verse. Dougie MacLean performed it at the Perthshire Amber folk festival, which I happened to catch on BBC Alba.

So, I was listening to my Dougie Maclean CD whilst Sorting the Books. This is a task I undertake every couple of years because my books shamelessly rearrange themselves on the shelves as time goes by. They even jump from downstairs to upstairs without my say-so. And Dougie? Well, he just makes everything go that much better.

I always fall for a Scottish accent. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s being a sixteenth Scottish, via my father’s father: a  sort of genetic longing for what feels like my homeland. Maybe it’s simply that Scotland’s at the other end of the country. People do seem to be attracted to extremes – the furthest west, the furthest south or the furthest north – mystical places, escape routes, endings or alternatives. And sometimes I dream about a man I never met, who seems to be Scottish although in the dream he doesn’t say a word. I catch a glimpse of him, know him, and then he’s gone, but in those few precious seconds I feel more home than anywhere I have ever been in real life. And no, he doesn’t happen to look like Dougie Maclean.

Down to earth again with a bump. I was sorting the books…

I was sorting them because I have a project in mind, and for this project the books need to be in order. I wrote yesterday about this blogging project as a way of trying to keep my mind functioning as I get older. Writing is a Cognitively Engaging activity. Now to the other Cognitive Engagement projects I’m plotting.

It all began with something my mother said a few years ago. Coming into my house and seeing bookcases stuffed with paperback books on every wall, she exclaimed:

But you’ll never have time to read all these!

That’s a classic example of a maternal sentence with a silent ending. This one ended in … after all, you’re no spring chicken.

I recently had the idea to set myself three simultaneous challenges.

The first is to write every day – barring accident, earthquake or flood – one thousand words of fiction and one thousand words of non-fiction. Or, if this is too ambitious, fiction and non-fiction on alternate days – I’m not sure yet. There are a few good ‘writing prompts’ sites online – also plenty of bad ones – so I wouldn’t need to waste time racking my brains for daily subject matter. In fact the randomness would add to the challenge, thereby yielding a higher Cognitive Engagement dividend, as it were. I am still considering the possibility that one of these longish blog posts could be counted as my ‘non-fiction’ for the day, since my posts are usually in the region of 700 to 1,200 words.

The second challenge is to read one poem that I like every day, adding notes and a paragraph of biography on the poet, and in this way create my own anthology. No point reading poems I don’t like. And anyway, I’ve got a whole bookcase-full of poetry books to be choosy with.

The third challenge would be to read every single book I have before I die. Now, this is a massive undertaking – impossible, in fact. Sorting the Books took me the entire afternoon and at the end of it I sat down – or rather collapsed longwise onto the sofa with a large glass of cold water and several cats, nursing a pain in my right hip – scanned the walls and did a rough calculation of the number of fiction paperback novels in my possession. I reckon I have around 2,000. Which means that even if I could polish off one novel a week I would be approximately 101 years of age by the time I had finished. Of course that isn’t taking into account all the unpredictable occurrences that stand in the way of reading. And it isn’t taking into account Dickens.

I do have the complete works of Dickens. They take up the whole of one shelf and most of them are very, very long. I have heard of people who challenge themselves to read Dickens in a year – a year. Apparently that is four million words.

102, then.


The 2,000, by the way, is not counting the bookcase of poetry and another bookcase of non-fiction. It is also not counting the huge box of books I had to throw away yesterday, some of which I no longer needed or wanted but some because my cats had peed at them. Yes, he/they appear to have gone round and systematically peed at every single one of my lower shelves. I did consider keeping the books regardless. After all, what’s a bit of a pong? And what does it matter, that gritty feel, that stickiness… But it does matter, even to me, so I boxed up the rejects ready for the rubbish collection man who, fortuitously, is due on Saturday. When re-shelving I left ‘blank’ every single lower shelf, ie cat’s bottom level. I did consider storing those giant-sized boxes of Felix and Whiskas there as ballast, and on the basis that ‘If you’re going to pee at anything, Pussies, it’s gonna be your own food’. But decided against.

Quite right too!

Arthur (the boys are all named after Kings of England) is helping me with this article.

I had a faint hope that somehow this would not mean buying more bookcases but, proving once again the old adage that you can’t fit a quart into a pint pot, it will. The end of my alphabet is now stacked double, books behind books, and I hate that. I considered a trip to the community store to look for a second hand bookcase but decided in favour of two of those ultra-cheap flat packs instead. The books won’t know they’re in a cheap bookcase, and who is going to look at a bookcase when it’s full of books? Nobody I want to know.

I actually like the community furniture store because, in spite of its acres of saggy sofas, its piled-high bedside cabinets, its forests of outmoded kitchen cupboards with patterned glass windows, its gloomy volunteer helpers lurking in corners and a general air of impoverishment and unvisitedness, it’s got a sort of romance about it. All those old lives. All those untold stories hiding in broken springs, stuffing-escapes and age-spotted mirrors. The only trouble with the community store is the waste of petrol and time. And its strange propensity for disappearing.

It’s a Brigadoon sort of place, if not Brigadoonish to look at, being a shabby unit on a small industrial estate on the outskirts of a nearby town. Originating from elsewhere I don’t know the nearby town that well, to drive in, and the outskirts even less. Well, sometimes when I drive over there the store is in situ. Other times I end up going round and round in circles and it’s just not there. It’s as if the roads are made of some kind of spaghetti-like substance, rearranging themselves the moment you turn your back. Bit like the books.

I own a Satnav but to be honest we don’t get on. Banjaxed every time by the very high-speed, multi-car junction I need to navigate in order to reach the store, she confidently announces that we are heading towards a town in a neighbouring county that we are definitely not heading towards. Wake up, dunderhead! I bellow, but she fails to do so. I think she is probably an out of date model; in fact it may have been because she was out of date that she was so very inexpensive. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to update her, and I’m not sure I could be bothered to if I did. I prefer maps.