Stranger In A Strange Land

It takes me by surprise, every time. I can be driving up the hill towards my house – the house – or staring out of my back window. I can be crossing the unmade, pot-holey road between my neighbour’s house and my own, invited – as I was yesterday – for a coffee. Even after seven – nearly eight – years in this village-at-the-end-of-the-world, I can get this feeling of unfamiliarity. I am not really here, something inside my head is saying. Any moment now I will find myself, as if by magic, in the place I actually inhabit, living the life I am actually living.

I am not here, the voice says. I am actually somewhere else, living a completely different life. I do not look like this. My name is familiar – and yet different – I am well, I am happy, I am where I should have been for the last seven – nearly eight – years and

I have never been here.

This, here, is an illusion.

What’s that called, psychologically-speaking. Alienation? Anomie? Ontological Insecurity? And what might be its cause. Something dire, I’ll be bound.

I typed it into Google and got Mumsnet, and Mumsnet, predictably, completely misunderstood the nature of my query. Back and forth these Mumsies kept assuming I meant “not being satisfied with what I’ve got” and quoting endlessly at one another some old body by the name of Joseph Campbell:

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to live the life we have waiting for us.”

But that wasn’t what I meant, smug Mumsies! It’s some sort of existential angst, not a vague conviction that I landed on earth with the intention of being a millionaire/ess. I mean, I know all about lemons and lemonade. I have made so much lemonade out of my manky old lemons, honestly.

It’s more a feeling that any minute now I am going to wake up. Except I don’t. I am a stranger in a strange land.

Which got me wondering where I heard that phrase, and I remembered reading a very good sci-fi novel with that title, by Robert A Heinlen. 1961, he wrote it. And having remembered it, I’ll have to read it again, forthwith. Or rather she will – the version of me that’s inexplicably here, as well as being wherever else she is.

Now I discover that Robert A Heinlen was quoting someone else – The Bible. It’s in Exodus 2:22 and it’s about Moses and his wife Zipporah – or Tziporah – which means “bird”.

And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for, he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.

And then, of course, I had to look up Gershom, for why should being called Gershom have anything to do with the case? And I find that in Biblical Hebrew, Gershom means Stranger There or Stranger Is His Name or Exile, Expelled.

So now you know.

And I know.

But who, exactly – am I?

It’s raining…rubies?

There is always something new to learn. Life seems to be a kind of curve. Humans start off knowing they know nothing (but not caring as long as the milk keeps flowing and the nappies get changed). They progress through a period of being convinced they know everything to a much longer period of thinking they know quite a lot, but maybe not everything. Finally comes the bittersweet realisation – I know very little, and there is not enough time left for learning. But we can keep an open mind, can’t we? We can stoop to gather such tiny gems of information as may fall onto the pavement as we shuffle along.

A while back I watched a Horizon programme about weather on other planets. Until then I had thought of weather as something that happened all the time in Britain, on rare occasions elsewhere, but certainly not out in space.

But yes. For instance on Saturn the temperatures are so high and the pressure so great that it rains diamonds! On other planets it is thought to rain rubies – and sapphires. Apparently a green crystal rain falls on a star called HOPS-68. There is even a newly-discovered planet called 55 Cancri e which is twice the size of earth and made of diamond.

You’d need a pretty big finger to wear that baby.

Why don’t they call stars romantic names anymore – Sirius, Vega, Arcturus, Betelgeuse, Rigel, Bellatrix, Altair or Achermar? Can you imagine Captain Kirk: Beam me down, Scottie – I shall pay a visit the HOPS-68ians or Spock reminding everyone that the 55 Cancri e-ites were a matriarchal society known for their extreme ferocity?

Well, pretty dull here on Earth then. All it rains here is water. And animals. In Singapore in 1861, it rained fish that had probably been caught up in a waterspout at sea and then dropped over land. Here is an illustration of that event:


Toads and frogs are rumoured to tumble down during tornadoes. Sometimes they are reported to be “startled, but healthy” on landing. Other times the poor things arrive shredded, frozen to death or encased in ice. Flocks of migrating birds can be killed in flight if caught up in a tornado, or may fall to the ground stunned.

Then there are all the imaginary or metaphorical things it could be raining. According to The Weather Girls, of course, It’s Raining Men. René Magritte agreed although his men were less interesting:


The phrase it’s raining cats and dogs (archaic version: it’s raining cats, dogs and pitchforks) is apparently taught to all foreign students of English.


English people rarely say it nowadays: as The Independent points out they are more likely to remark that it’s bucketing down or – less politely – pissing down.

I thought I might leave you with a few translations of the textbook British expression to savour:

It’s raining old women with knobkerries (clubs) – Afrikaans

It’s raining barrels and casks – Catalan

Basin-bending rain is falling – Mandarin

Dog poo is falling – Cantonese

It’s raining wheelbarrows – Czech

It’s raining shoemakers’ apprentices – Danish

It’s a frog-strangling gully washer – Australian

It’s raining frogs/ropes/halberds/nails/buckets/like a pissing cow – French

It’s raining eyes and ears shut – Thai

It’s raining female trolls – Norwegian

It’s throwing cobblers knives – Irish

Tractors are falling – Slovak

It’s even raining husbands – Spanish

Earth and sand are falling – Japanese

Dogs are drinking in their noses (Haitian Creole)

Dogs are…?

Apparently, yes.

The young wife and mediocre dancer

Epitome… aww, can’t I have apotheosis instead?

Epitome calls to mind the legal office I used to work in, and spending afternoon after afternoon attempting to gather big bundles of dusty deeds and documents into something called an Epitome of Title.

Epitome, which most people think of as being the perfect example of a person, quality or whatever, also actually means:

summary, abstract, synopsis, précis, résumé, outline, digest, recapitulation, summation, compendium…

An Epitome of Title, that big bundle of sepia documents of various ages, some typed, many hand-written in some cramped legal hand is an abstract of all the documents there are, or can be found, on a particular subject – a careful selection, in other words, proving somebody’s right or title to something.

I have to admit, I found the process tedious and stressful. My chief memory is of dusty sunlight streaming in through street-level windows in my boss’s office, and the shadowy backs of loiterers in the street who had chosen to perch their bottoms on the wide window-ledge and watch the world go by for a few minutes, unaware that they could be seen from within. I did like the handwriting though. And I liked the smell and feel of that old, expensive paper, the waxiness, the sepia-ness, the undisturbed-ness. The past rose from it in motes of dust and fell from it in centuries old spider-corpses.

But apotheosis, now there’s a word. It tends to get used as a synonym for epitome, but it isn’t, not really. In its everyday, non-legal sense the Epitome is the perfect example of something, but the Apotheosis of something is more rarefied, more wonderful still. Technically apotheosis means:

the elevation or exaltation of a person to the rank of a god

whereas, epitome means:

a person or thing that is typical of or possesses to a high degree the features of a whole class.

Epitome is one of something, apotheosis is the absolute something.

And the reason I have apotheosis stuck in my head is the last line of a poem by Peter Porter. [Sorry, Daisy… my friend Daisy groans whenever I start banging on about poems – she prefers my childhood memories. Sorry, Daisy – but you might like the legal stuff since we worked together for many in that anonymous,  building – the one with the spiders and the shadows of shoppers perched on the windowsills behind thick, frosted glass.]

It is a poem called Made In Heaven, and is about a young woman who marries for money and then realises she has the rest of her life to regret it:

The apotheosis of the young wife and mediocre dancer.

It obviously meant something to me, that line – a message that year after year I was failing to heed!

bank street

(Daisy and I sometimes feel very, very old – but not, as you might be tempted to assume from the knickerbockers, starched collars, caps and horse-drawn carts, quite that old.)

Did you just call me fustylugs?

Words are a life form and, just like flesh-and-blood life forms, they change over time. They spring into life; their meanings undergo a long, subtle process of mutation and usually, eventually, they either go extinct or exist only in fusty, dust-gathering dictionaries on library shelves; in fusty, dust-gathering corners of the internet and in the little grey cells of a few fusty, dust-gathering academics.

I was thinking about ‘flaky’ recently. This is not a word I grew up with, but one that seems to have blossomed in the last five to ten years. I got a general sense of what flaky (or flakey) meant from the context of the various TV programmes and websites it cropped up in, but also spotted a contradiction. To some people it seemed to mean bizarre, outlandish, freakish, eccentric or off-the-wall in one’s behaviour. To others it meant unreliable, careless, lazy, dishonest – somebody who was all things to all people, liable to ditch their friends or not turn up to appointments. There obviously is a link here – if you are eccentric you may also be – thought not necessarily – unpredictable, and from unpredictable it’s a short(ish) hop to unreliable – but nonetheless these are two different meanings. This is the process of mutation.

Looking even further back to the origin of the ‘flaky’ you get something different again. Somewhere around the 1050s, apparently, the drug coke was referred to as flake. Flakey became baseball slang for the bizarre or unpredictable way in which a coke addict might act. Every word has its day. Some – like flaky – will have their fifteen minutes/days/years of fame and sink into obscurity, but others will be here for ever, or almost.

‘Forever’ words tend to be words for the most basic things that have relevance to human beings – love, hate, food, sex, hope, fear. In English we would refer to these as Anglo-Saxon words. Even in a language polluted – or enriched, depending on how you look at it – by Latin and Norman French – the old words remain, in parallel use with their Latin or French equivalents, but with ultra-subtle differences of meaning. It is this richness, these subtleties, that makes English a difficult language to master (even for the English) but a great one for writing poetry.

But, insults are fun; they are wild and colourful in a way that other words are not and this more than makes up for their ephemerality. So let us celebrate the insult:


Oinker – a fat person.

Stumblebum – blundering and inept.

Dweeb – a person regarded as socially inept or foolish, often on account of being overly studious.

Still in use, to a greater or lesser degree

Snake in the grass – a treacherous or deceitful person.

Machiavellian – a scheming, devious, political-type person.

Vulgar – conspicuously and tastelessly indecent; also the sort of thing someone of a lower social class than yourself might be expected to say, do or be.

Shiftless – vintage version of (some aspects of) flaky.


Bespawler – someone who spits and slobbers when he talks.

Dew-Beater – a clumsy person (someone with particularly large shoes)

Fustylugs – a gross, corpulent woman (fusty = something that’s gone off or gone stale).

Gnashgab – someone who only ever seems to complain.

Klazomaniac – someone who only seems to be able to speak by shouting.

Quisby – a shirker, someone who just lazes around.

Saddle-Goose – to saddle a goose is pointless, so a Saddle-Goose is someone who wastes their time doing something pointless. A bit like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

Smell-Feast – someone who gatecrashes a meal or a party in the hope of being fed.

Whiffle-Whaffle – similar to Shilly-Shallyer – someone who can’t make up their mind and dithers about.

Microphallus – self-explanatory if you think about it.

Ninnyhammer – a stupid person. Similar to Dummkopf in Geman.

Cacafuego (“shit fire” in Spanish) – a braggart and a boaster.


IN the Methodist Chapel, once, there was a bird amongst the organ pipes.

All sorts of things got in – birds, mice, dust, rain. The place was full of holes. Some of the stained-glass windows had little panes missing and these little panes had been blocked with folded-up brown envelopes. In winter when the ceiling heaters were on occasional drops of hot brown liquid fell on the necks of the congregation, and brown worms trickled down the yellow walls. On summer Sunday mornings shafts of sunlight came through the various cracks and I would be fascinated to watch specks of dust dancing in it. When they told us the Biblical story of the mote and the beam I knew exactly what they meant. I was swimming in motes.

Anyway, a bird got in, and it was flying round and round, in and out of the organ pipes. The organ pipes were behind the organ and formed a kind of pipe mountain between the chapel and the vestry next door. The vestry was where Pastor Hall put on his robes and counted the collection. The pipes were of various heights and didn’t go all the way up so there was plenty of room for a bird to thread around them.

And this was the strange thing. Everybody just carried on singing. The bird was making a terrible racket, wanting to get out, but the hymns were more important; to them, but not to me. I was tuned in to the bird’s distress. I couldn’t tune out. I wanted to cry. The bird was crying. Weren’t they listening?

I think it was at that point that my view of God began to diverge from that of the congregation. To them he was a kindly father perched upon the clouds. He was going to reward them for their patience in plodding through life, toiling in their dull professions, bearing and raising their children. Yes, and on the last day, when the trumpet sounded and black horses came a-clattering from the four corners of the globe they would rise from their graves, brush the earth off their Sunday best, and there He would be, beaming a giant-size welcome. From then on it would be one big Sunday School party, all jelly and blancmange, spin-the-collection-plate, piano thumping and let’s all have a jolly good sing-song, for ever and ever, amen.

But to me God was the bird in the organ pipes, the dancing of dust in the sunlight, the fine veins in the leaves outside the porch. He was rain falling and grass growing. Couldn’t they feel him?

However, I still attended. I even got prizes for attendance – a Bible, a hymn book; lots of brightly coloured tracts, like giant postage stamps; bookmarks in the shape of crosses with Jesus on them. I got gold stars in my little blue book. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I had a choice about going, and in fact I probably didn’t. One day, when I was quite small, my hand had been grabbed and I found myself being taken to Chapel by an older girl, the daughter of a lady my mother used to chat to in the street sometimes. We started off in the infants’ class, sitting among the empty pews before the main congregation came in, singing little songs with the help of flip charts, the teacher pointing at the words:

I’m HAPPY / I’m HAPPY / I know I am / I’m sure I am / I’m HAPPY

I used to find this annoying as I wasn’t HAPPY, really, and the song made no attempt to explain why I should be. I liked Jesus Bids Us Shine better. It had a good tune and made more sense:

Jesus bids us shine / With a pure, clear light, / Like a little candle / Shining in the night. / In this world of darkness / So let us shine, / You in your small corner / And I in mine.

I loved singing in those days, before I realised there was such a thing as good singing and bad singing, and mine was the bad sort. The Methodist was a splendid opportunity for loud singing. The congregation was so small and the Wesleyan hymns so militarily enthusiastic that loud singing was the order of the day. The organ would launch into a thunderous introduction – missing the odd note – the organist playing, his assistant pumping a kind of bellows arrangement behind a curtain of dusty and, as I later discovered, rotten purple silk. And in would leap the congregation. Methodist hymns often began on an off-beat: musically very satisfying, but you had to be ready or you’d miss it:

 Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom (deep breath!)

GOD is love, His the CARE / Tending EACH, everywhere, / God is love – all is there! / Jesus came to SHOW him, / That mankind might KNOW him. / Sing a-LOUD, LOUD, LOUD / Sing a-LOUD, LOUD, LOUD…

And we did. And it did us all a power of good.

Hymns were my first taste of what was to become the greatest pleasure of my life – poetry. I wasn’t bothered about the message so much as the words – the sound of them, the way they could be arranged in patterns, the imagery they could conjure up. I used to like There is a green hill far away (‘without’ a city wall) which taught me that words have a historical ‘trail’, and their old meanings often coexist with the new.

My grandmother had told me that this was called etymology. She actually possessed an Etymological Dictionary and I looked up every new word, finding out whether it had Latin or Greek roots, or was a corruption of an older English word, or once meant something similar but not quite the same. This is something I still do. Thanks to my grandmother, I can hear a word for the first time, spell it and quite often define it, because I am splitting it into its component parts, running it past the Etymological Dictionary in my head, and reassembling it. This happens so fast I do not even have to think about it. It annoys people. I once worked in a big typing pool. My team supervisor, many years younger, detested me because the other typists soon realised they could ask me how to spell things  and I would always know. After a while I used to pretend not to know, or insert a long delay while I appeared to be attempting to recall… She still detested me. She knew I knew.

I also liked In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti. In those days I assumed that hymn-writers and poets were two different creatures, and it was not until much later that I came across Goblin Market and other poems by the same lady.

 In the bleak midwinter, / Frosty wind made moan, / Earth stood hard as iron, / Water like a stone, / Snow had fallen, snow on snow, / Snow on snow, / In the bleak midwinter / Long ago.

It was simple, but it was real; something she had seen out of her own window, maybe; and now I could see it. It was as if we were looking at the same scene, a new world. This is what good poetry and writing does. You look through a window, you walk through a door into another world, and suddenly there are two pairs of eyes, the reader’s and the writer’s, seeing the same thing, two imaginations in harness, and behind them, stretching back into history, all the other imaginations and influences that fed those two.

This is magic, in a world where there isn’t much of any other kind of magic.

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves, / Missing so much and so much? /  O fat white woman whom nobody loves.

Frances Cornford: To A Fat Lady Seen From A Train (1910)

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted; / And beauty came like the setting sun: / My heart was shaken with tears; and horror/ Drifted away… O, but Everyone / Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Everyone Sang: Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1897)