The Blanket Has Landed

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a bare teddy bear must be in want of a scarf, and so I have begun knitting him one in green speckled Aran. Blanket, that is. Something of a stretch, metaphorically, from Neil Armstrong to Jane Austen.

Blanket landed this afternoon from somewhere mysterious in Scotland, via Ebay and the Royal Mail. He didn’t cost much (I can’t afford bears that cost much) and was described as “All right as long as he is sitting down, like many of us”. I was half afraid to unbox him in case one of his legs should fall off. It didn’t, but his head seems quite likely to unless he is delicately handled, which he will be. If you didn’t know he was a bear you might think he was a lamb because he has very large floppy ears and a kind of sheep-like expression. But making that leap of faith and assuming he is a bear…

Poor Blanket, propped up among cushions in the corner of my sofa, who was in Scotland a day or so ago, then plunged into the suffocating bubble-wrapped darkness and encased in shoe-box cardboard, emerging suddenly at the far end of This Sceptred Isle, amongst a heap of cats. His expression has not changed, of course, but what must he be feeling?

His is described as Probably a wartime blanket bear. Apparently people made teddy bears out of blankets during the last war, due to a shortage of materials. There seems little doubt that he is wartime, but I query whether he is hand-fashioned out of blanket, or was made by some loving wartime Mummy for her little girl (or boy).

He is certainly made out of something vaguely blanket-like, not the usual golden furry stuff, but I wouldn’t say it was blanket. I had a coat made out of blanket, post war, and boy did it itch. I remember being taken for tottering toddler walks wearing this bright brown, be-toggled monstrosity, and being unbearably itchy everywhere the coat touched, which seemed virtually everywhere. And my mother had a dressing gown made out of blanket. A grey blanket with green woollen daisies embroidered, and green blanket stitch all round the edges. Must have taken her, or Nan, ages to make it. It weighed a ton, but was possibly not as itchy as my little coat. Nothing could have been as itchy as that.

And then there are his joints. They seem to be kind of professional, and interior. It is perhaps thanks to these joints, now badly worn, that Blanket is still, if tenuously, attached to his head and his four limbs. They don’t seem the sort of joints a housewife would have used.

So, not a forgery but a mystery, and likely always to remain so.

I seem to have gone a bit overboard on the bears. The original idea was to buy a couple of battered old bears on Ebay to model the bear scarves which I am knitting and which I thought to sell for a teensy-tiny profit. The trouble is, it’s difficult to resist. I seem to have accumulated quite a few 98p etc bears over a short period of time. Once you’ve rescued one you are kind of compelled to rescue them all, every last battered, lost and suffering one in the world. Which is of course why I have nineteen cats.

Not for the first time I wonder about the connection in my head between cats and bears. I first noticed it many years ago, in the first years of my marriage, when I had a whole series of nightmares about suffering cats – cats that I had forgotten about and escaped through the window, cats that lived in the arm of my armchair (don’t ask me – cats inhabit armchairs in my dreams) and got too near the fire and suffocated; cats that I seemed to have poisoned and was now observing as they died; cats that followed me across zebra crossings and through busy cities amongst the rushing traffic and were in imminent danger, and yet I did nothing.

It seemed to me at first that cats were an obvious symbol for babies, and it was probably something to do with thwarted maternal instinct, etc etc. But later I came to think it was sadder and more visceral than that, and that cats were an outlet for physical affection, a lonely child’s something to love. Hence the suffering cats when I married entirely the wrong man in that respect. I decided this after another dream, when kittens falling to earth on parachutes changed mid-dream to teddy bears, and came to rest in a cornfield, between the furrows. Of course there’s something about furrows and fertility…

Ah, as with my poor rickety, sheep-like Blanket, the truth will never be known, and nobody but me cares about either.

My mother gave my teddy to Oxfam and I never forgave her, but that’s another story.

Talking of metaphor, people seem to be unable to detect it nowadays. Either that or it suits them better to take some sort of manufactured umbrage. One Labour politician pleads with the leader of the Labour party to “call off the dogs” when yet another Labour MP is threatened with deselection for not following the party line. His deputy then takes grave offence because his esteemed Comrades have been insultingly referred to as “dogs”. Hunting metaphor, dear boy. Metaphor, not actual dogs.

Anyway, I will not brood on that, it will make my headache worse. This evening I have been forced to lie on the sofa in my darkened living room, playing Dire Straits to myself through an earpiece and something that was once called an MP3 player. I may be the last person in the world still using an MP3 player. This was to drown out the noise of my neighbours once again playing some kind of war game at full volume, for hours. I wonder how I am going to explain the intermittent cacophony to Canadian Sister when she comes to stay with me after Christmas, as hopefully she will. Perhaps she won’t suffer so much from it, knowing she is soon going to be able to fly off and leave it behind.

Update: by popular (well, one) request a portrait of Blanket has been added, getting to know his new little friend Whitstable. More of Whitstable later. Probably. Once coffee consumed and gigantic fish and chips and strawberry ice cream slept off.

One Long Frog

‘First swallow your frog’ used to be one of my favourite mottoes. In other words, at the beginning of each day tackle that one task you want to do about as much as swallowing a live frog. However, it seems to me that the older you get the more frogs seem to string themselves together until some days seem to be One Long Frog.

Take the other day, for instance: mammogram; long wait to see a doctor about a persistent cough; chest x-ray. And I only had tooth x-rays the day before. Won’t I be radioactive? Or are mammograms some other sort of wave and/or particle? Long bus journey there. Long bus journey back.

And tomorrow? One Long Frog. Long bus journey to see my elderly lady. Well, I like seeing my elderly lady and she likes seeing me, but listening-and-prompting for an hour is surprisingly hard work – like job interviews – something I was good at. Good at the interview, rubbish at the job, usually.

After elderly lady? Remove scratchy ‘visitor’ dingly-dangly thing with awful photo from around neck. Speedwalk to bus stop. Catch next bus into town instead of home. No doubt will get the Smelly Person again. I never realised human beings were smelly until I started caching buses. In town, catch next train. Then another train. Then walk to Mum’s bungalow to meet a person called Peter from a removal firm. Person called Peter is going to pack up a whole bunch of Ex’s paintings and prints and drive them and me back home. Thank goodness. At least I haven’t got to brave the school bus, this time.

While he’s making the Works of Art damp- and rodent-proof – for who knows how long they will now be languishing in my garage? – I have to pack up Nan’s blue tea set. That’s the only thing I’m ‘rescuing’ before the house is cleared – by someone called Gavin, or was it Steven? – and Mum’s lifetime possessions, and all my lifetime memories, get driven off and distributed around the local charity shops.

To be honest, I don’t know which is worse – seeing Ex’s painting again and being reminded of Ex – because the paintings are the person – or seeing Mum’s house half empty, and that garden – her life’s passion and obsession – merely mown. Just sort of kept under control until the new owners or, as seems more likely, the bulldozers move in.

I always promised myself I wouldn’t go back, after that last traumatic/humiliating day/night when Mum was marched off to hospital, sandwiched between two burly ambulance-men. ‘Worst part of my job, this is’ one of them told me. But there’s no avoiding it. I’ve had my orders.

However, I remind myself of what happened with Nan and Grandad’s bungalow, in the same street. After they died Mum insisted I went along there with her. I was young(ish) then and had never seen a cleared house before. Nothing of Nan and Grandad remained: empty rooms smelling of linseed oil where someone had been fixing the windows. That house meant so much to me and it had never, ever, occurred to me that one day its whole shabby-familiar insides, together with Nan and Grandad, could just be gone. I hated Mum for taking me along there. I hated her businesslike mood.

‘Don’t you miss Nan?’ I asked her.

‘Oh, I’ve shed a tear or two, when I’ve been on my own.’

Shed a tear or two. Is that what you say about your own mother? But I knew what she was doing: brushing it under the carpet, setting it aside, saving it for later when I wasn’t there. Self defence.

That night I dreamed myself back in that house. I was standing in the empty kitchen and Grandad hurried past. I tried to talk to him but he couldn’t seem to see me. It was as if I was the ghost. And outside a sea of daisies pushed their way up through the lawn in that clever, punning way that subconscious daisies have.

For a long time I couldn’t see anything else but that empty, linseed-smelling house. It overlaid every childhood memory. My past had been removed. But gradually, over the years, the house as I had known it returned. I realised I could revisit it at any stage in its history, and myself in any stage of mine. All its past incarnations were still there, and so were mine.

And so I hope that gradually, after tomorrow’s final visit to Mum’s house, the colours of the past and all those lost versions of me will start to surface again. Finality and emptiness will be just one version.

Are these lemons, and is lemonade what I’m making?

The last time I got my feet seen to, it must have been ten years ago. Maybe. Or eight, or fifteen. I never was good with time. I went to an alternative health centre in my old town – proper carpets, it had, and those leather-look plastic armchairs that make a kind of sighing noise when you sink into them; prints of sailing boats on the wall; a receptionist in a white uniform, with a name badge; tasteful displays of leaflets for soothing-sounding, alternative-type things: acupuncture, counselling, reiki, aromatherapy. It was expensive, but I was working then and I justified the expense by leaving over-long gaps between visits and reminding myself that you should never skimp on your feet, a saying I had adapted from one of my father’s: You should never skimp on brakes or tyres.

My then-chiropodist was a lady. She was nice, but in a loud and terrifying sort of way. As soon as I was safely tethered on her couch she, giant-thighed astride a stool at the foot of it, busy with her mini-pliers, her tiny sanders-and-polishers, her sharp little razors, would start to interrogate me about the most intimate details of my life. Somehow it seemed impossible not to answer her. In full. She didn’t so much speak as boom, and had a way of repeating and amplifying every juicy detail she had just extracted from me. I was always afraid that those in the plush waiting room outside would hear. In fact I knew they would because I myself had been waiting in that plush waiting room and overhearing.

Today I went to another chiropodist at the day-care centre up here. Cut rate because of it being an old people place. Worth being an old person, for cut rate. He met me at the door and signed me in and I followed him into a kind of utility room-cum-workshop. There was a washing-machine going in the corner. It had just reached rinse-and-spin. Part way through my appointment a Chinese gentleman dressed in a donkey jacket with a tabard over the top entered with another pile of washing. He didn’t knock, but then it was only my naked feet he was catching a fleeting glimpse of. Everything appeared to be covered in a fine film of feet-dust, not all of it mine. I was reminded of what they said about crematoria and dead people’s ashes.

However, my feet got done, nicely and professionally, and I fairly skipped back to the car park thinking My toes, my toes, what twinkling toes I do have! I had forgotten, through all the years of skimping and scrimping, what it felt like to look after myself in any physical way. Somewhere along the way I had mislaid that sense of deserving any care. It also occurred to me that that apart from fleeting interactions with the neighbours, the post-lady and the visiting Jehovah’s Witnesses – with whom, unfortunately, I now seem to be on first-name terms – the conversation with the chiropodist was probably only the second real conversation I had had here in the past four years.

And then tonight on TV there was yet another Island programme – in this case Fair Isle, which I gather is half way between Shetland and Orkney. I’m a sucker for programmes about Islands since in my younger days I had a fantasy – one of many fantasies, all totally unrealistic – of going to live on a Scottish island and becoming, somehow – how, given my total inability to join in or mingle? – part of a close-knit community. Yes, I would be knitting lovely jumpers from wool spun from Island sheep, which would be fluffy sheep, not large and greasy and obstreperous as I know real sheep to be.

I would be doubling as the island’s postmistress, pottering around windswept, rain-lashed lanes in my little red van, or possibly red tractor. I might have a workshop and… paint stuff…even though I have no artistic talent. I might help out on a fishing boat in my spare time, even though I’m a vegetarian and couldn’t bear to hurt a fish, or teach in a little school with five charming children. Any more than five, charming or not, as I discovered as a hopeless student teacher would be quite beyond me. I would be weather-beaten, spare and romantically tough. I would twist my hair up into a loose knot, with some sort of tortoiseshell slide and it would stay put, not fall apart immediately. I would wear faded jeans, check shirts, woolly hats and muddy wellingtons and I would be competent and… useful.

Subsequently it occurred to me that dreams can be very dangerous things. This indulgence in fantasies of future lives is one massive great tempting of fate. You are likely find that you have been vouchsafed instead the pale cousin of that life, its echo – its wraith, if you will – and that may be worse, far worse, than having been granted nothing at all. On the other hand, of course, it may be necessary to dream first of nectarines to pave the way for the inevitable lemons and the lemonade, of sorts, that might be made from them.

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What wondrous life is this I lead!

Ripe apples drop upon my head;

The luscious clusters of the vine

Upon my mouth do crush their wine;

The nectarine and curious peach

Into my hands themselves do reach…

From: The Garden, by Andrew Marvell (1621 – 1678)

There’s a long, long worm a-crawling…

You know how you get earworms – bits of songs going round and round in your head that just won’t go away. My latest episode of musical torment is a song called The Boys of Summer by Don Henley of The Eagles (1984). I won’t embed a video in case it attacks you too.

There is usually an underlying reason for a particular song getting stuck in one’s head, at least I believe so. Our conscious minds are very word-orientated; Subconscious doesn’t ‘do’ words – but he does almost everything else. Famously, of course, he does dreams. Freud and co were always banging on about the messages to be found in dreams. For example, a man dreams that a white horse is charging through his house in a panic, wreaking havoc. Not long afterwards he is dead. The house symbolises the body, because your body is the ‘house’ your soul, or what you experience as you, lives in. So, that horse was not good news.

Almost any source of imagery that is not-words can be, and is, used by Subconscious to get his message across. You just have to listen to pictures. Sometimes it can be a piece of music that haunts you. Sometimes it’s flashes of imagery that don’t seem to be apropos of anything in particular. I have, for a few seconds, found myself flying. Not actually flying but seeing the world from a completely different, aerial, perspective, and not from an aeroplane.

He ‘does’ déjà vu, I suspect, and he does coincidences. Whenever you get a sense of the uncanny, a slight chill or blurring of reality, that sense of something else going on – he’s probably lingering about. However… the boys of summer.

So the actual words of Don Henley’s chorus are:

I can see you –

Your brown skin shinin’ in the sun

You got that hair slicked back and your sunglasses on, baby

I can tell you my love for you will still be strong

After the boys of summer have gone…

It’s about lost love, summer love, growing older, not going back – a mixture of all those things, perhaps.

It kept nadging at me, where does that phrase boys of summer come from? It just didn’t sound like something anyone would have made up on the spur of the moment, if you know what I mean – it was too compact. And it was ringing bells; very, very faint and annoying bells.

Weeks went by and I gave up trying not to think about it. I knew it was time to put on my Detective Hat again. I kept thinking – Shakespeare. So many phrases originate either in the Bible or one of Shakespeare’s plays – any mystery quote stands a 50/50 chance of being from either one or the other. In Cymbeline – a play with a plot so complicated that theatre managers were said to offer a reward to anyone who, having seen Cymbeline, could explain what had just happened – there is a beautiful funeral song. In Shakespeare’s time it would have been sung, but the music has been lost:

Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun

Nor the furious winter’s rages;

Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Here are some golden lads who, being gone (dead) need fear no more the heat of the sun. It felt like the beginning of the trail, but not all of it. It wasn’t close enough.

One red herring – somebody on a message board suggesting that Don Henley got the phrase from a book called The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn, which is about the Brooklyn Dodgers – presumably a baseball team. Nope, I thought – red herring. Roger Kahn, whoever he was, got that phrase from somebody else. Like many authors before him, he had used a quote for a title, but it was a quote. It just felt like a quote.

Then somebody else suggested Dylan Thomas, and things finally began to fall into place. I read everything I could find of Dylan Thomas’ in my youth and what had been bothering me was a bat-squeak of memory. Dylan Thomas wrote a poem called I See the Boys of Summer. It’s complicated, scary, beautiful, and too long to include in full, so here’s an extract:

I see the boys of summer in their ruin

Lay the gold tithings barren,

Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils;

There in their heat the winter floods

Of frozen loves they fetch their girls,

And drown the cargoed apples in their tides.

 

These boys of light are curdlers in their folly,

Sour the boiling honey;

The jacks of frost they finger in the hives;

There in the sun the frigid threads

Of doubt and dark they feed their nerves;

The signal moon is zero in their voids.

 

I see the summer children in their mothers

Split up the brawned womb’s weathers,

Divide the night and day with fairy thumbs;

There in the deep with quartered shades

Of sun and moon they paint their dams

As sunlight paints the shelling of their heads.

Dylan Thomas – his poems are like paintings by Hieronymus Bosch or Salvador Dali – or like the intricate covers of fantasy novels. You read them and think – this makes no sense. But yet it does. And that’s what’s so powerful and terrifying, that it does.

Dylan Thomas’ father was a teacher of English Literature at a Grammar School, and taught his own son. Dylan Thomas was brought up on Shakespeare. Dylan Thomas drew on imagery from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline when writing I See the Boys of Summer. Don Henley studied poetry at university in Texas and could easily have read I See the Boys of Summer, then used the image in The Boys of Summer.

Well, thank goodness that’s all sorted out.

And I still can’t get rid of that earworm.

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Bosch: from The Garden of Earthly Delights

At once a charisma and a curse

Do you have a favorite quote that you return to again and again? What is it, and why does it move you?

Oh… no!

Well, you asked for it.

It’s a long quote, translated from German into English. To make it worse it’s Carl Gustav Jung – so nobody’s going to read it. Farewell, Gentle Reader! But since it’s concerning faithfulness to the law of one’s own being, I am forced to admit that this is the quote I return to again and again:

Clearly, no one develops his personality because somebody tells him that it would be useful or advisable to do so. Nature had never yet been taken in by well-meaning advice. The only thing that moves nature is causal necessity, and that goes for human nature too. Without necessity nothing budges, the human personality least of all. It is tremendously conservative, not to say torpid. Only acute necessity is able to rouse it. The developing personality obeys no caprice, no command, no insight, only a brute necessity; it needs the motivating force of inner and outer fatalities. Any other development would be no better than individualism. That is why the cry of “individualism” is a cheap insult when flung at the natural development of personality.

The words “many are called, but few are chosen” are singularly appropriate here, for the development of personality from the germ-state to full consciousness is at once a charisma and a curse, because its first fruit is the conscious and unavoidable segregation of the single individual from the undifferentiated and unconscious herd. This means isolation, and there is no more comforting word for it. Neither family nor society nor position can save him from this fate, not yet the most successful adaptation to his environment, however smoothly he fits in. The development of personality is a favour that must be paid for dearly. But the people who talk most loudly about developing their personalities are the very ones who are least mindful of the results, which are such to frighten away all weaker spirits.

Yet the development of personality means more than just the fear of hatching forth monsters, or of isolation. It also means fidelity to the law of one’s own being.

When I first read this I was going through a really bad time. I was trying to psychoanalyse myself – for two years, whilst driving back and forth to work, in sunshine and in blizzard. I’d drive along talking to Jung, talking to God, grieving for and talking to my lost lover and soul-mate – conversation after one-sided conversation, trying to explain – to me, via the three of them, why I felt like – and often dreamed I was – the driver a bus hanging over the edge of a cliff. Or that outcast chimp – you know, the one the other chimps attack if it gets near the food; the one that’s about to starve – or get eaten by the Lion – or whatever it is that eats chimps.

It was not until I read – and re-read – the above paragraphs from The Development of Personality that the ‘click’ occurred and I began to heal. Maybe it had been necessary – all this. Maybe it was worth it. Maybe I was metamorphosing into something new. Maybe I ought to fight the good fight. And he had been through it before me. I might be alone, but I was not, and never again would be, the only.

 

What’s Going On, Mrs Robinson?

You know that scene in The Graduate where bewildered Ben (Dustin Hoffman) finds himself high up in a chapel behind a glass window, desperately trying to interrupt that dull little Elaine’s wedding before it’s too late? He’s hammering and hammering on the glass but no one seems to hear him. Soon after my own wedding I had a dream similar to that. My window dream was this: I was standing high up in a giant, modernistic airport or railway station, looking down at crowds of people walking fast and mostly, it seemed, in one direction, on the level beneath. Suddenly I saw my husband, walking with them, but I knew he would never be able to hear me through the glass. I watched helplessly as he walked on and disappeared and I was left with a sense of panic and sadness.

So, you are saying – that’s pretty obvious – her Unconscious knew she was making a mistake even as she made it. Unconscious was trying to tell her that she and this man were destined to be isolated from one another, always, walking on two different levels and never able to overcome the communication barrier between them. I refer you to a poem I wrote some years later when Conscious, belatedly, had got the message.

I believe Jung put forward the idea that one’s Unconscious is likely to be oppositely-gendered to one’s conscious self. Certainly, mine is male. Jung’s “Philemon” was enviably classical and elaborate. He seemed as much a psychoanalytical colleague as a Guide to the Underworld and – puzzlingly – was a ‘he’, as was Jung:

Philemon was a pagan and brought with him an Egypto-Hellenic atmosphere with a Gnostic colouration. His figure first occurred to me in the following dream.

There was a blue sky, like the sea, covered not by clouds but by flat brown clods of earth… Suddenly there appeared from the right a winged being sailing across the sky. I saw that it was an old man with the horns of a bull. He held a bunch of four keys, one of which he clutched as if he were about to open a lock. He had the wings of a kingfisher with its characteristic colours…

They held interesting discussions together:

In my fantasies I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. For I observed clearly that it was he who spoke, not I. He said I treated thoughts as if I generated them myself, but in his view thoughts were like animals in the forest, or people in a room, or birds in the air.

Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections: Confrontation with the Unconscious

I can also ‘see’ – or at any rate dream of – my own Unconscious sometimes. He tends to be wearing a long, black coat like Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes we walk together on a beach under a black sky. Somewhere in the distance is a power station (haven’t yet worked out why). A dark sea laps against a pebbly shore and an alternative ‘me’ seems to be rising up out of the water, like Venus on the half-shell (only plainer). Sometimes he is walking up ahead a way. Sometimes he is in a cottage in the middle of a forest. It is night, as usual.  He is putting logs on the fire and peering into the flames. I never see his face. He never looks directly at me and yet I am not afraid of him. I feel I must address him with courtesy and not expect too much; I request, knowing that he may choose not to comply; I question, knowing that there may be only silence. We are like nations, hitherto at war. We need each other, if we are to go forward. At the moment we are engaged in negotiating an exchange of prisoners across a mist-shrouded border.

He uses pictures rather than words, the man in the black overcoat. I struggle – though less so as time goes on – to ‘catch’ his images as they flicker across my consciousness – and to interpret them. For instance – I’d been mulling over that sense of existing ‘on the borders’ between one world and another, as described (with some difficulty) in Strange stars appear in our skies. As I fell asleep I think I had been asking him for help, for more clarity about his side of the border.

I woke up suddenly with an image of stars – weird, huge stars, a bit like stars on top of a Christmas tree. Then it occurred to me that they were the stars from Van Gough’s painting The Starry Night which I had chosen to illustrate Strange stars. It was like he was saying “Beginning…” It was almost like the start of one of the legal dictation tapes I used to have to type up: We’re talking about… As if he was defining the subject. 

I pictured Starry Night once more, with a kind of question mark. Beginning? And with something like impatience the weird, huge stars flashed back twice in quick succession – “Yes, beginning!”

To be clear, I am not describing seeing things or hearing voices. (I hope not, anyway: if you hear no more from me on La Tour Abolie it may be that the Men in White Coats have arrived and carted me off in the van with the barred windows.) At no time did I see anything with my physical eyes or hear anything with my physical ears: rather, an image appeared in my mind and a meaning – after a second or two’s delay – swam up and attached itself to the image. The meaning – you seem to get to it by lateral thinking. You need to let your mind slide sideways or dance around it. It seems to me like an alternative, more sophisticated language: more comprehensive; more economical – and you’re hearing it with something other than your brain.

Sometimes I even get micro-flashes of what feel like past – or otherlives. I say other, because I suspect all lives are simultaneous. It’s almost like freeze frame. I know they’re past lives but I don’t know how I know, except that in at least one of them I have an aerial view – I’ll be swooping down a green valley, for example, and there’s a battle going on. Yet I’ve never seen such a battle, or such a valley, and I’ve never been able to fly. As far as I know….

The other thing about Subconscious is he seems to want to ‘send’ in waves. There may be months… years, sometimes… when I forget all about him and then suddenly it’s like someone battering on your mind’s door as he tries really hard to get through, or possibly reconfigure ‘updates’ silently downloaded in advance, so that they start to make sense. It’s almost like when subconscious ‘data’ arrives it’s randomised, or encoded and has to be incorporated into an overall pattern.

We’re like people from different countries, my Unconscious and I. We’re marooned on a desert island together without a dictionary. Of necessity we’re having to start from scratch by pointing at stuff and repeating – palm tree in your language, palm tree in my language, leaf in my language, leaf in your language. Cocoanut, sand, sea…

I frequently ask myself why I keep on with the writing. None of the earlier motives or explanations seem relevant now. I am never going be loved and appreciated and interviewed on intellectual TV programmes about my latest, wonderful, literary achievement. I am never going to write a best-selling novel, or any novel – and I probably never was going to because (as I now know) I don’t possess the ability to sustain that level of focus on a single project for months or years, especially when there’s no guarantee, or even likelihood, of success. As I’ve grown older I’ve sensed the skill-level increasing even as the ability – or even the desire – to grind nobly on with some literary Lost Cause or Herculean Labour, has been decreasing. I now realise I was always a butterfly, a synthesist – a finder of patterns and joiner-together of seemingly disparate things. Writing has remained the Special Interest but simply refuses to narrow itself down any further. That is the category: everything.

No point at all in continuing to write, and yet I do. And I think I do because of him – the man in the black overcoat – the one by the beach, whose face I never get to see. It’s because writing is, at the moment, still the best way for him to get through. I’m still an infant at the direct, picture-sending method of communication, but indirectly, through the writing, much more gets through, and sticks.

I have often agonised – why ever did I choose – or was I given – this writing obsession? It’s never done me any good – so what was I supposed to use it for? And the answer seems to be – it’s not for you to use it, it’s for it to use you.

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The curious incident of the blancmange at the school gates

The question to be answered is: When were you most frightened? I found it on a children’s writing prompt website. I’ve been worrying this idea back and forth for some time. It shouldn’t be that difficult, if children are supposed to be able to manage it. But what have I been frightened of, and which of these frightening things was the most frightening?

I suppose I was frightened of my father, but that wasn’t one particular incident that was all the time. Fear was the natural consequence of being completely the wrong sort of child, and I spent most of my childhood trying to work out how to be the right sort. But I don’t believe I’ve ever been frightened, with that sharp, dramatic fear in real life. What I do feel is a constant, background fear – it’s like that music in lifts, it’s like the clatter of knives and forks in a restaurant, the scraping of chairs, the muffled conversation. Someone once described anxiety as fear-spread-thin – as good a description as any. It’s never not there, but I’ve never known anything else, it’s just the way everything always is. I think I might be very spooked indeed, maybe even miss it if it was suddenly gone.

In dreams, yes. I once dreamt I was driving a bus slowly towards a bottomless ravine. At some point, predictably, the bus slid over the edge, remaining poised there, slow-see-sawing like those runaway lorries in films. It was pretty clear that the dream was meant as a warning, since I was in a dangling-over-the-edge-of-the-ravine situation in real life at the time. And more than once I have dreamt of myself on a ledge at the top of some skyscraper like the Empire State Building. Now that does feel like terror, within the dream, and it stays with you for a long time when you wake up. It’s the indecision. Shall I just jump now and get it over with? Or shall I stay frozen to this ledge, no hope at all of rescue? It was such a very, very, very long way down. I wonder what people think about, on the way down?

But why no acute fear in real life? I was in a car crash once, but remember nothing at all of the twenty minutes leading up to it. Was I afraid when the other car came careering down the hill towards me on the wrong side of the road, as the police described? Ever since then I have expected The Flashback to happen, perhaps when driving – the one where you relive the whole horrible thing in an instant. But it’s never happened, there’s just a generalised sense of…trust having been lost. I imagined the universe was lolloping along beside me, like a large and friendly-ish dog. Then it turned round and bit me, viciously, and who can say when it will decide to bite again.

So what else? I was charged by a barking Alsatian once (we seem to be on a bit of a dog theme). I stood stock still and stared, transmitting terribly dangerous, woman-bites-dog type vibes at it. I’m not that keen on dogs, but I can communicate with them when necessary. The thing landed against my leg with a bump, and open jaws. I must have anticipated being bitten because I remember screaming – faintly and politely, a ladylike British scream, and then being embarrassed for having screamed at all. I must have been frightened, so why can’t I remember how it felt?

I once found myself alone for several days with an acute gallstone attack. I had never been in that much pain before, or felt that cold, sick and shaky. My head was buzzing with imminent unconsciousness. I knew this might possibly kill me – you know when you’re in real danger – but couldn’t muster the energy to pick up the phone to tell anyone, or even the will to make a decision. I just lay down and waited. And waited. Most of the time I was praying it would kill me – very, very, very soon, in fact this instant. I also remember how focussed you get when really under threat, the strength you have to dredge up from somewhere. It’s as if your primative ancestors take over, something else kicks in. I was certainly distressed during those days alone, but not afraid.

No, I think the nearest I came to experiencing actual, animal fear was one evening in my thirteenth year when I dropped a pink blancmange on the school driveway and stood aside helplessly as teachers, queueing to exit the school gates, were one by one compelled to drive through a sea of pink blancmange and broken pudding-dish shards. It was the evil, exasperated, snarly looks on all their faces. They saw me, hovering and horrified, with my now-empty biscuit tin; they linked me to the products of my cookery lesson. I was going to get into so much trouble. I picked up the biggest pudding-dish pieces, put them in the biscuit tin, jammed on the tin-lid and ran. The train home went at ten past four (which was why I’d been sprinting in charge of a blancmange in the first place) and the station was at the bottom of the hill.

I made my getaway but said nothing to my parents and spent an entirely sleepless night visualising tomorrow’s terminal humiliation. It was the headmistress’s habit to ‘mention’ these things in assembly. The dreadful deed would be described in lingering, sarcastic detail and then the girl responsible would be invited to stand – own up to her sins so that everybody could turn, titter and gloat. The one thing I dreaded above all others was becoming the centre of attention – being pointed at, looked at, seen, even glimpsed. I craved invisibility. I would have cheerfully suffered how ever many lashes a dropped blancmange might attract, in private. I would have been so glad to write on the blackboard, alone in an empty classroom, night after night for the next three years, I must not drop my blancmange, I must not drop my blancmange… What I couldn’t abide was being laughed at.

I do believe I tottered into that assembly hall in genuine fear. I do believe I trembled as I sat cross-legged on the floor with several hundred others teenage girls while the headmistress lectured us on the correct way to make a pot of tea (take the kettle to the pot and not the pot to the kettle – or was it the other way round?) and the necessity of wearing sixty-denier Sun Mist stockings at all times, reserving thirty-denier seamless un-Sun-Mist to wear with our Pretty Party Dresses (she was a trifle out of touch – sorry, accidental pun). And after all that, she didn’t mention It. Nobody mentioned It. And I couldn’t even feel relieved because blancmange-terror was now welded into my psyche. And pink blancmange, my favourite. If only it hadn’t been pink.