I wish I could think something useful

I have had a moderately thought-free day today, Praise Be. I have been sat sitting – I was sat sitting there – a colloquial, northern British expression though why I’m suddenly using it I don’t know. I don’t know much today. I probably know even less than Missy (above) who is possibly the world’s least intelligent cat.

So, what have I been doing today? Well, mostly cutting out hexagons for patchwork. This is my kind of work, I have discovered. Stuff that you can do – industriously, obsessively, even – that leaves your brain absolutely free to think of what it wants to think of. Or to listen to the umpteenth repetition of Pink’s Beautiful Trauma on Heart. I’m not averse to a smidgeon of Pink but you can have too much of a good thing. As that male hairdresser said – the one who cut my hair very short and then donked me most painfully on the head four times with his extra-long phallic black hairdryer – Oh, Pink – she’s got a belting voice – and I could tell he actually couldn’t stand her, belting or not.

pink

Or perhaps he was just wishing he could be working on her hair rather than mine. More scope for his creativity.

(Sigh! This is one of those post you just keep writing in the hope it will eventually make sense…)

(So far it hasn’t.)

I was thinking about Stephen Hawking, who died recently. I was thinking several things, the oddest of which was that our one and only Guardian Angel just got up walked out the door – at the very moment when we could do with more than one Guardian Angel. His Guardian Angelness did not occur to me while he was alive. Three cheers for Stephen Hawking, who finally escaped his bone-bound island and is now floating free in the universe he imagined better than anyone else since Einstein.

Beyond this island bound
By a thin sea of flesh
And a bone coast,
The land lies out of sound
And the hills out of mind.
No birds or flying fish
Disturbs this island’s rest.

Dylan Thomas: Ears In The Turrets Hear

The other thing I was thinking about Stephen Hawking is this: that he had the best job in the world. One hour or so a day teaching, and the rest of the day being allowed to Think. In Peace! He had the sort of brain that made Thinking worthwhile, of course. He could concentrate on the nature of the universe for hours – for days, maybe – whereas my concentration span, even when it comes to laboriously cutting out paper hexagons (tongue clamped between teeth) and tacking tiny hexagonal bits of cloth to them, is a microsecond or two.

I was thinking how odd it was that it has taken me all this time to realise that the only sort of work I am capable of engaging in happily is precisely this sort – the sort I once despised. I remember once telling a tutor that I wanted to be a writer, and him kind of snorting (politely) and saying in that case I would be better advised to give up the worthless Sociology ‘A’ Level, the worthless Commercial French ‘A’ Level and his own worthless English Language & Literature ‘A’ Level, and go and get a job in a factory. And he was right. But I was a snob. I was an intellectual, right? It was one of those road-not-taken moments. One of many.

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms…

Stephen Spender: I Think Continually

The past: a foreign country

This will almost certainly never happen – so don’t don’t hold your breath whatever you do – but I thought I might pen a fantastically successful ‘cozy’ (or ‘cosy’, if you’re English) detective series. This would solve all my financial worries in one swoop, in perpetuity, and be very good for my ego. However, I’m not much good at getting to the beginning of projects let alone the end, and this would be a very long project indeed.

But I am very good at preparing. I enjoy the preparing so much more than the doing. This is because doing – especially writing-type doing – is very hard work and that fierce concentration, that excitement, that passion – sucks the very life-blood out of you.

So, in ‘preparation’ I am reading a monster of a book by Dominic Sandbrook (in fact there are two books, this is the first) entitled Never Had It So Good: a history of Britain from Suez to the Beatles. My God, it’s a huge thing, I mean Bible-sized. You feel like you need a lectern.  My right thumb all but fell off with cramp after five minutes of reading.

That poster – You Never Had It So Good and the face of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan were part of my early teens. You couldn’t walk up Station Road without those hooded old eyes and those droopy old moustaches following your every move: MacMillan was the Big Brother of the early sixties.

But at that time I was just starting a new school, with all the terrors involved in that. Politics didn’t mean anything to me then and I had no idea that I was living through the seminal decade of the twentieth century. Whilst others were sitting around looking cool in coffee-bars or prancing round campsites in the West Country bedecked with flowers I was going up and down Station Road in my school uniform, burdened – yea, burdened – by hormones and a generalised sense of doom. I had no overview.

I would like to ‘write’ the sixties but the thing that worries me is the non-PC aspect. Can I really manage the awful, repugnant attitudes, the rampant racial prejudice, the ghastly belittling of women? Of course any writer worth their salt ought to be able to but it’s so very close to home. I was alive then. I didn’t know, but I was complicit.

We once had a temporary teacher of English. He was a young man – somewhat under thirty at any rate – and personable. We were a girls school full of frustrated teenage virgins (mostly) and you can imagine the electrical effect he had on us. Hysteria. We followed him everywhere, primping and giggling. But once in his lessons he threw a board-rubber – one of those great chunky wooden things – at a girl. It hit her on the forehead and she started to bleed. He was apologetic of course.

And once a Jehovah’s Witness girl stood up and confronted him. She was a timid girl, gingery, freckled and mostly silent – but he had just read out a couple of lines from T S Eliot’s Morning At The Window and it sparked something in her:

I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids

Sprouting despondently from area gates.

There is no such thing as the soul, sir, she said.

OK Susan, but let’s pretend there is such a thing as the soul, for the sake of the poem.

No sir, there is no such thing as the soul…

She was being courageously, terminally annoying. I’m not sure how I would have handled that situation as a teacher. What I think I would not have done even then was take her by the ear and drag her, tearful but unprotesting, to the headmistress’s office and dump her on the bench outside.

None of us thought a thing of it. He was our beloved, gorgeous English teacher. He was strong-jawed and handsome. His thick blonde hair was combed back in a kind of quiff. She was not popular, and he was a man.

In my new tome of a research book, I read an extract from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a famous novel of the sixties. I remember reading it at the time and thinking nothing of it. Arthur Seaton is sleeping with two married women, but tells himself:

If ever I get married… and have a wife that carries on like Brenda and Winnie carry on, I’ll give her the biggest pasting any woman ever had. I’d kill her. My wife’ll have to look after any kids I fill her with, keep the house spotless. And if she’s good at that I might let her go to the pictures ever now and again and take her for a drink on Saturday. But if I thought she was carrying on behind my back she’d be sent back to her mother with two black eyes before she knew what was happening.

Arthur Seaton is the hero of the novel.

arthur.jpg

Our handsome, bequiffed English teacher left after a term. He had in fact been a good English teacher as far as English was concerned, introducing us to challenging and relatively modern poems like Dylan Thomas’s Poem in October which I would never have come across otherwise. He broadened our minds. He threw board-rubbers at us. He took us by the ear and dragged us.

He left to become a Black And White Minstrel on TV. My parents loved that programme and, forever after, every time it came on our black-and-white TV I would look out for him, although of course you couldn’t tell under the black-face makeup. Apparently he was a resting actor. You didn’t have to be qualified in those days as long as you had a degree. It never occurred to me that it was offensive for white people to black up. It never occurred to me, to be honest, that Minstrels were supposed to be black people. They were just Minstrels to me, as Gollywogs were just a kind of teddy-bear alternative. Not people.

Which is another story, and one that I don’t feel up to telling at the moment.

Mrs Prothero and the firemen

One of the downsides of living a largely interior life is that others find you dull – so very dull, in fact, that they cannot think of anything to ask you when they meet you. I have noticed, you see, that when ‘exterior’ people bump into each other in the street they tend to enquire about a whole range of things –

How are the kids?

How’s the revising going for that big exam?

Did your Aunt Mabel ever make that attempt on Everest?

And so forth.

It’s like they have a mental filing cabinet. They see you walking towards them in the street. Quickly they open a drawer in the filing cabinet and out pop the kids, that big exam, Aunt Mabel, Mount Everest and a whole lot of other potentially conversational stuff. Memory – it’s a rag bag. Dylan Thomas put it much better than me, a very long time ago:

I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs Prothero and the firemen.

But when people meet me – or rather realise they are not going to be able to avoid me – on the street, they have no Mrs Prothero, no convenient firemen. When the silence becomes too awkward most of them ask one of two things:

Do you still have all those cats?

How’s your mother?

And what can you say?

Yes.

Still quite old.

It was not always so. During my married years Ex’s friends would often come to the house to visit him – never us.  Often it was to discuss model engineering at great length whilst staring into the middle distance; very occasionally it was to buy a painting; once in a while it was to persuade him to fix their lawnmower. (It’s one of the things with being self-employed and working from home – people don’t regard it as proper work, so you’re bound to have time to fix their lawnmower or get their grandfather’s pocket-watch ticking again.)

During my married years all these middle-aged ‘men’s men’, for whom I was an embarrassing and inconvenient appendage to the Real Person of the house, if absolutely forced to address me would enquire either –

Ironing? or

Knitting?

And what can you say to that?

Yes.

No.ironing

But worse, spend too much time alone and you become as uninteresting as other people think you are. I went to visit my friends the other day, and we had coffee. You know how, after a conversation you tend to go back over it, try and remember what you said? As I clambered into the car and headed for Tesco’s all I could remember was that I had talked nearly all of the time about dustbins and those little orange caddies they provide you with to recycle your food waste. Oh yes, and maggots. Those little orange caddie things are prone to maggots, which is why hardly anyone uses them. And there’s nothing worse than maggots…

And so I think, should I try to do a number of Interesting Things, to help out casual acquaintances? Should I maybe volunteer to feed the homeless, then people could ask:

Have you fed any more of those homeless people recently? And I could say, Well, yes, actually I fed one only yesterday. Soup, it was. And sandwiches.

Maybe I should attempt to become good at Sudoku. Instead of staring at my Chinese Sudoku board (“Number Is Alone”) for three hours, then giving up because the numbers just won’t go in the right places, maybe I should get good at it and go in for competitions.

Maybe I should join a fitness group and become taut and toned like those people in the post-Christmas home fitness ads. Then acquaintances who inconveniently bumped into me in supermarkets could gush:

Is that really you? I hardly recognise you, you’ve got so slim! And  just look at those abs!

Or maybe I should try and knock up a cynically quick novel – a thing about rampant vampire lust, perhaps, or some sort of murder mystery involving a locked gymnasium and a vaulting horse, or a body buried under a vegetable patch resulting in a suspiciously wonderful crop of onions. And then people could ask:

Did you ever get that vampire novel published?

And I could say.

Well, no.

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.

earthly delights

Bosch: from The Garden of Earthly Delights

And watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

Stroke of Midnight

My problem here is how to make New Year’s Eve in this windswept little clutch of bungalows, amid puddles, weeds and unmade roads, sound quaintly worth reading about.

For some reason I think of the sea at the bottom of the road, licking the partially-concreted shore with an oil-coated tongue. I think of the mud-tumbled cliffs stretching up and then round, that may at any moment – tonight, perhaps – continue their slow-motion fall into the North Sea taking with them such bargain basement park homes, decrepit caravans and bits of deserted cottage as are left behind, awaiting the inevitable descent into pebble-and-salt oblivion. Palaeontologists say there were dinosaurs here once, on these very cliffs, and I choose to believe that imprinted in the mud beneath my house remains one giant footprint.

Dylan Thomas called his own, Welsh sea the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. He was more of a poet than me, his cosy little Welsh sea more poetic than mine. Mine is a grubby, industrial, estuary-into-sea type sea. I consider that great expanse of grey-black water with its crop of wind-turbines, its silent steel-barges, and the docks with their Meccano cranes and car-transporters.

On the beach in summer, when they Londoners are here, the camps full to bursting, people tend to get stabbed – teenagers and local nuisances mainly. Girls tend to get what the boys will claim they were asking for. Sometimes you hear a girl’s thin scream in the night. In the morning police cars come sweeping in, in twos and threes, down the only road out. Whatever happens out there in the dark will be drowned by the rattle of shingle. We close our curtains and turn up our TVs.

Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.

My curtains happen to be away at the dry-cleaners so I’m making do with nets, lots of nets which, if folded thickly, give an illusion of privacy. The street lamp shines through them, though. Ghostly cobwebs of light on the ceiling.

My friends email, then my sister from Canada. Happy New Year we tell each other, separated by roads and houses, land and ocean, fireworks, streetlamps, police cars, traffic signs, dark villages, dark towns. Lets hope for a better year this year, my friends have written. Lets hope at least for some good – a mixture, maybe. Ten Minutes To Go.

And so I turn off the computer and go downstairs. Somehow it seems important to finish drying the dishes and putting them away, though the countdown’s about to begin. Cats sleep along the tops of chairs and on every available cushion. London lights up blue and pink on my TV screen and the firework displays begin. The London Eye is transformed into a giant Catherine Wheel. We can be proud of our fireworks, I think, taking my first 2016 sip of microwaved milk. We’re good at this sort of thing, we British. Pageantry and whatnot. Good at this sort of thing. Why is that no longer comforting?

And outside someone sets off a firework or two, but there’s no cheering. Where are the snows of yesteryear? I wonder, and then wonder where that came from. With any luck I’ll have forgotten by tomorrow – save looking it up. Where are the remnants of parties and the people banging saucepans to scare away the devils of the old year? Where is the dark first-footer, bringing in coal, salt, bread and a silver coin? Where are the whisky-fuelled celebrations, the loud goodbyes, the raucous singing in the street? And why, in Dubai, that burning building? It seems like an omen.

Where is what we had, before it all started to change?

Crawling up the hill behind Hughie

(The Boat House, Laugharne)

I thought to explain how, at the age of twenty, I found myself in a small village in South Wales with the man who was not yet my husband, and how we came to be driving – or attempting to drive – up a 1 in 4 hill, clearly marked as Unsuitable For Motor Vehicles, in a black Ford Popular at three in the morning or thereabouts, with a an elderly drunken Welshman crawling ahead of us. I’m not sure I’m equal to the challenge.

It all began in the school library, some years before when I finally unearthed the full text of the poem I had been searching for for months, having heard a small part of it read. It was Poem In October by Dylan Thomas and hearing it marked my ‘road to Damascus moment’ as a poet. It began:

  • It was my thirtieth year to heaven
  • Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
  • And the mussel pooled and the heron
  • Priested shore
  • The morning beckon
  • With water praying and call of seagull and rook
  • And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
  • Myself to set foot
  • That second
  • In the still sleeping town and set forth….

This matched my inner music. This was, if you like, a prayer in itself.

I had heard and read poems before, of course. Indeed, we had poems rammed down our throats at school, mostly of the tum-te-tum-te-tum I wandered lonely as a cloud and Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk variety. But this was different. It made me shiver. This was what I’d been needing, and I knew it.

Fast forward a few years and I am engaged (sans engagement ring, but that’s another story) to an artist, and he is proposing to drive me to Wales in his car, to Laugharne where the famous Boat House still is, where Dylan Thomas wrote his poems. We were going to camp, it seemed, in an old green Army tent of his father’s. I had never been camping before and didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. How did we do that, I wonder now. How were we brave enough to throw stuff into a temperamental Ford Popular, a combination and rebuilding of two separate scrap Ford Populars, and set off for Wales where neither of us had ever been before? How did he even know the way to Wales? I didn’t. I just knew it was turn left and then a very long way. I never once saw him looking at a map. He must have done it in secret – to preserve the masculine mystique.

I remember he set up the tent on my parents’ lawn, and me thinking, um, won’t a tent on the lawn bring it home to my parents (who were watching from behind the conservatory window) that we will, perforce, be sleeping together in this teensy-tiny tent when we are not, um, actually, um, married? But by then the tent was up and with it, presumably, the game.

We and the Ford Popular spent the first night just across the Severn Bridge, in a big, bumpy field with some cows. It was dark before we stopped so my fiancé (that ring never was forthcoming) had to erect the little green tent with the aid of a torch. We couldn’t see if there were cowpats, but by that time we were too tired and cross to care. It rained. The Army tent was waterproof only so long as you didn’t touch any part of it, whereupon water started pouring in from the touched bit. Water also seeped in underneath the tent, possibly cowpat-polluted, because we didn’t have a proper groundsheet just some bit of tarpaulin his Dad had found in one or other of his seven garden sheds.

The next day we went on to Laugharne and fiancé (though ringless) found a place for us to stay. It had a wonderful name: The Ant Hill Camp And Caravan Site. Wouldn’t you think, if you were opening a caravan site in a big field at the top of a hill that happened to be called Ant Hill, you’d apply a little poetic licence? Call it Hilltop Cara-Haven or The Bella Vista Camping Experience? Especially in the spiritual home of Dylan Thomas. I should stress that I haven’t been back to Laugharne, or Wales, for decades and if The Ant Hill Camp And Caravan Site does still exist and has not long since been obliterated by social housing or turned into a supermarket, I am sure it has greatly improved and is a lovely place to stay.

So, we stayed at this campsite. We stumbled across to the opposite side of the site for the loos and some cold showers. I had lived in a suburban bungalow all my life and weaving between dark tents, in the dark, in a potholey field with a torch, in the middle of some sort of countryside, was worrying. In the evenings we went to the Clubhouse, where few other people went. We sat around and drank Welsh beer in a large, underheated room with a bar at one end and a bored, disconsolate barman. I seem to remember acres of cocoanut matting, but perhaps that was just the colour of the carpet. Oh yes, and plastic palm trees. Could there have been plastic palm trees? In the day we went down to the village and bought Welsh steak and kidney pies (I have since become a vegetarian ) called Goblin. We found they boiled up nicely over a primus stove although the primus stove filled the tent with condensation. As we went into the shop, housewives stopped talking in English and switched to Welsh. We visited the Boat House and looked out over the estuary. It was rather a wonderful view but I couldn’t quite imagine Dylan Thomas – my Dylan Thomas – writing his poems in there. It had a faint smell of fish and chips.

In the local pub we made friends with a group of hippies, who had come from the South of England, near where we had come from. I think they offered us pot, which we didn’t smoke. We also got talking with Edgar and Rhiannon (names of course changed) a young married couple who lived in a council house at the very top of the village. They told us how you got a council house: you persuaded your mother to throw you out. They told us that villagers kept a stock of old dartboards, each of which they would sell to gullible tourists as ‘the very same dartboard Dylan Thomas played on’. Everybody had a useful Dylan Thomas anecdote to share. Either they had known the poet, or their granny’s uncle had known him, or their sister’s teacher’s dog had known him, and this was what had happened… What happened, usually, was that people bought them beers.

There were complicated arrangements around closing time. In the pub, on a weekday, closing time was strictly enforced. When the village policeman was due to walk past they turned off all the lights and stood still and silent. As soon as he had gone they turned on the lights again and resumed drinking, possibly as ‘private guests’. That didn’t work at the weekend, for some reason. At the weekend you left the pub and went up the road to the rugby club. There you could drink, legally, for longer.

To cut a long story short, Edgar and Rhiannon offered to put us up in their council house that night, but we would go to the rugby club first. There we met Hughie, the old gentleman I mentioned at the start. Much beer and whiskey was consumed by everyone apart from me: I was then in my teetotal, orange juice phase. Afterwards we had to get to Edgar and Rhiannon’s, and that was where the 1 in 4 hill came in. My (non-ring-giving) fiancé followed Edgar and Rhiannon, who had walked to the pub and were therefore on foot, and poor, crawling old Hughie, grotesquely hump-backed in the headlights, up the Unsuitable Hill. I remember clutching first the leather upholstery and then the big silver door handle, in apprehension as the little car groaned and staggered upwards and round sharp twists and turns for what seemed like miles. It occurred to me that if she stopped we would start rolling back. I was planning to wrench the door open and throw myself out, if it came to it. Fiancé didn’t seem at all anxious, but then he was full of beer and Welsh whiskey. It is at such times that you really need to be drunk.

Next morning Edgar and Rhiannon were going to a funeral. I remember Rhiannon frying us sausages for breakfast, which were more or less raw. Off they went in their funeral best, trusting us to let ourselves out and shut the door behind us. We were never to see them again.

I have dwelt at some length on the worship of trees…

And dwell at some length he does, throughout the whole of Chapter IX (The Worship of Trees) and Chapter X (Relics of Tree-Worship in Modern Europe).

In England the best-known example of these leaf-clad mummers is the Jack-in-the-Green, a chimney-sweeper who walks encased in a pyramidal framework of wickerwork, which is covered with holly and ivy, and surmounted by a crown of flowers and ribbons. Thus arrayed he dances on May Day at the head of a troop of chimney-sweeps, who collect pence. In Fricktal a similar frame of basketwork is called the Whitsuntide Basket. As soon as the trees begin to bud, a spot is chosen in the wood, and here the village lads make the frame with all secrecy, lest others should forestall them.

This is the unmistakeable voice of Sir James George Frazer (1854 – 1941), regarded as one of the forefathers of modern anthropology and the author of The Golden Bough, a twelve-volume monster Study of Magic and Religion. Having, between the years 1890 and 1915, published his twelve huge volumes Sir George set about abridging them, to make his work available to a wider audience. The copy I have is a second-hand £1.99 Wordsworth Classic abridgement, but it still runs to 756 pages of teensy-tiny print. Love it! The paper is cheap and thin, and gloriously toasted at the edges. It smells like dust and vanilla. Love vanilla!

Some of his stories of mankind’s superstitious doings are almost too painful to read nowadays, let alone quote – like the burning of cats in bonfires on the first Sunday in Lent, in some cases hanging them over the fire from the end of a pole and roasting them alive. Without a qualm, I would have roasted the roasters alive. Others are more lyrical:

Halloween, the night which marks the transition from autumn to winter, seems to have been of old a time of year when the souls of the departed were supposed to revisit their old homes in order to warm themselves by the fire and to comfort themselves with the good cheer provided for them in the kitchen or the parlour by their affectionate kinsfolk. It was, perhaps, a natural thought that the approach of winter should drive the poor shivering hungry ghosts from the bare fields and the leafless woodlands to the shelter of the cottage with its familiar fireside. Did not the lowing kine then troop back from the summer pastures in the forests and on the hills to be fed and cared for in the stalls, while the bleak winds whistled among the swaying boughs and the snow-drifts deepened in the hollows? And could the good-man and the good-wife deny to the spirits of their dead the welcome which they gave to the cows?

It’s… it’s Biblical. Bleak winds whistling among swaying boughs and snow-drifts deepening in the hollows – the very essence of winter.

The Golden Bough is one of those books that, for the omnivorous reader, have a tendency to keep cropping up, along with Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (don’t have) and Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism (have). I was always meaning to get hold of it and see what it was all about, but somehow I never did. Then quite recently I was seized by the idea of writing fantasy in earnest, rather than just dabbling. Fantasy, I suspect, is my mind’s default setting. The Partners of the law firm for which I used to work classified me as Not really with-it, but unique, according to a female colleague. For an instant I was flattered, and then I hated her. (Always the reaction to being bitten by an arch-bitch.) But what to write fantasy about? I was not inclined to be inspired by elves, since it was they who had been stealing my mother away in instalments, and had latterly substituted one of their own, a grouchy elder elfling far past its prime. So I decided to do some ‘reading around’, and The Golden Bough is part of that.

One of the great merits of homeopathic magic is that it enables the cure to be performed on the person of the doctor instead of on that of the victim, who is thus relieved of all trouble and inconvenience, while he sees his medical man writhe in anguish before him. For example, the peasants of Perche, in France, labour under the impression that a prolonged fit of vomiting is brought about by the patient’s stomach becoming unhooked, as they call it, and so falling down. Accordingly, a practitioner is called in to restore the organ to its proper place. After hearing the symptoms he at once throws himself into the most horrible contortions, for the purpose of unhooking his own stomach…

I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of a book of British Myths and Legends, which I think may be the one that inspired Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) to write his 1977 album Songs from the Wood. Tiresomely, the spindly prog-rocker failed to quote the exact title of the book in his CD booklet, only saying that was given to him as a present one Christmas in East Anglia, Buckinghamshire or somewhere else rural and folksy, by Joe Lustig, his American ‘press and promo guy’. I wanted that same book – felt I just had to have it – and spent a long time on Amazon scrolling down lists of folklore and legend books, eliminating those published post 1977. Not that I’m a nerd…

I am hoping that these two books, together, will inspire me to write the best-selling fourteen-novel fantasy saga which will save my bacon, financially. You can never have too much inspiration when there is bacon to be saved.

…Hence, from the primitive point of view, it is perfectly possible that a savage should have one soul in his sex totem and another in his clan totem. However, as I have observed, sex totems have been found nowhere but in Australia; so that as a rule the savage who practises totemism need not have more than one soul out of his body at a time.

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Frazer was a social anthropologist, and his genius was to do two things – to collect, obsessively, more or less everything ever written in the way of superstitions, rituals and legends, and then to notice and explain, lucidly, the connections between them. He also possesses a dry sense of humour. He actually got into trouble for placing the story of Jesus and the Resurrection on an equal footing with ‘legends and superstitions’ rather than making a special case for Christianity. He implied, for example that the idea of the Lamb of God might be a relic of a pagan tradition and pointed out that the dates of many Christian festivals coincided with those of prehistoric pagan rituals. This doesn’t seem particularly outlandish now but it shocked many of his readers to the core. As a result, in subsequent editions his work was watered down and censored.

Whenever Marseilles, one of the busiest and most brilliant of Greek colonies, was ravaged by a plague, a man of the poorer classes used to offer himself as a scapegoat. For a whole year he was maintained at the public expense, being fed on choice and pure food. At the expiry of the year he was dressed in sacred garments, decked with holy branches, and led through the whole city, while prayers were uttered that all the evils of the people might fall on his head. He was then cast out of the city and stoned to death by the people outside of the walls. The Athenians regularly maintained a number of degraded and useless beings at the public expense; and when any calamity, such as plague, drought or famine, befell the city, they sacrificed two of these outcasts as scapegoats. One of the victims was sacrificed for the men and the other for the women. The former wore round his neck a string of black, the latter a string of white figs.

The Golden Bough was to influence subsequent generations of writers, poets and thinkers including T S Eliot (The Waste Land), W B Yeats (Sailing to Byzantium), H P Lovecraft, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, D H Lawrence, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Sigmund Freud.