The Life of Laura

I’ve been reading A Life Discarded – a biography by Alexander Masters. I haven’t finished it yet: 84% through, according to the Kindle.

I think I’ve mentioned this before. Masters’ friends, Dido and Richard, happen to be passing a skip in Cambridge one day and discover 148 discarded diaries, some randomly scattered, many packed into an old Ribena bottle box. He delays and delays; Dido gets very, very sick; Richard has a terrible accident and is paralysed, and because our biographer is superstitious and feels there may be some message, some code to be discovered in the order in which they were found, it takes him years even to put the books into chronological order. Over the years he has discovered the writer is female, and that her name is Laura. With the diaries in order he discovers several more things:

that the sequence, although stretching from 1952 to the day on which Dido and Richard made their discovery, is not complete. He has in his possession thousands and thousands of words of an obsessive, voluminous diary-writer’s diary, but only a fraction of the whole;

that the diaries had been tossed into the skip by builders the day Laura was evicted from a house where she had been ‘imprisoned’ as a housekeeper for much of her middle and older age, on the death of her employer – maybe only hours before Dido and Richard had found them;

that Laura, though now an old lady, is still alive.

That’s the bones of it – the mystery/adventure story behind Laura’s own story; poor, valiant Laura of the squandered life and the lost ambitions, recording a whole lifetime of neurotic fears, artistic ambitions, failure on almost every front; poverty, boredom, loneliness and television watching.

She doesn’t read back what she has written – all those hours and hours a day of obsessive scribbling – which is how, when he finds her, she is surprised that the diaries were even missing. She does not read back at all; she writes and writes ‘to protect her brain’ as her biographer puts it – to knock the words out of it, to eliminate wretched thoughts. Diary-keeping means she fails to practice the piano, her drawing, or to write anything else. It ‘gobbles up’ her talent. She briefly goes to Art School. She works in a library and gets sacked. Then she gets sacked from a string of other, mostly housekeeping jobs. Because she does not read the diaries back she never does come to understand why. Decade after weary decade she does this one, ritual activity, but can study/focus on nothing else.

I must say although it’s an intriguing story I did often wish that Alexander Masters would but out and just let me read the diaries. I got a bit fed up with him and his clever-clever detective work (like working out her height from the slant of her letters, and calling in psychics and detectives to read the vibes) although of course we must be grateful to him for seeing the potential in Laura’s diaries at all, and saving her ‘life’ for posterity. He’s a skilled and entertaining writer – if he wasn’t, he and Laura would have been consigned to the Cloud well before now – it’s just – he isn’t a woman, he isn’t a failure and he isn’t of that generation. I found myself wishing to read the diaries themselves rather than all those teensy-weensy, out of sequence extracts.

I suppose what I’m trying to get around to, and avoiding getting round to, is why I felt I had to read this particular book, out of so many, and what I have learned from it – which is unpleasant, though not unexpected. Unlike Laura, I do read back what I write. I do analyse. And I don’t just write to bang the words out of my head, although that’s part of it. It is medicine, writing. Not therapy – there we are straying into Self-Obsessed, Dire and Totally Unreadable territory.

So, I could see the parallels – the lack of focus, the constant distraction; the woolly-minded, unemployable dreaminess… a thread of it does rather seem to run in my family. One of my sisters is like it, like me – the other not at all. My mother was an odd mixture of both – steely, unimaginative practicality but cursed with what my father used to call her Butterfly Mind.

Butterfly Minds can be useful, however. Not for life – oh no, not for life – but for writing, journalism, some kinds of inventing. It’s like being a magpie in a world full of shiny, interesting things – a magpie in an infinite junkshop, maybe. Everything is equally fascinating, infinitely strange. Nothing can be ignored or left to rot, quietly. And so we hop (or flutter, if you’re still stuck on the butterfly imagery) from one heap of junk to another – examining; pulling out a thread of tinsel here; picking up broken pottery; finding lost earrings. What’s this? How does it work? Oooh, this would look nice in my nest…

With that kind of mind you need a hefty dose of guidance (‘support’ as they call it nowadays) and she didn’t get it. I didn’t, either. You can almost hear her un-supported-ness, as she tells you about boiling up the stalks of sprouts, which she got cheap at the supermarket; fretting about Michael Barrymore and his troubles or fantasising about being a concert pianist when she’s too old, nowhere near good enough and doesn’t practice. She needs looking after. No one looks after her.

diary of discoveries

Diary of Discoveries by Vladimir Kush – (banana painting also by Kush)

But it did make me think about such fruitless, frustrating lives. Are they really wasted? Sometimes we spend our lives trying to create one thing but actually, unwittingly, creating something else. People are often remembered, not for what they thought was important, but for something else entirely, a thing they didn’t value.

It did remind me about the returning and recycling of souls, and how they are said to plan, before entering into a new existence, the life they need to lead, in order to learn what they need to learn. When they return to the ‘centre’ they take with them what they have learned, the ways that they have grown, and they leave behind traces in other human lives, unpredictable consequences. So, it’s nothing as crude as saying – though of course, it might be – this must be my lifetime for being a quadriplegic, or spending twenty-five years in an iron lung; this is the lifetime for falling off a cliff and discovering what it feels like to fly through salt-laden air and land in a mangled heap on the rocks below; this is my lifetime for barefoot scavenging on slum waste-heaps and hoping not to get stuck by discarded needles.

But it might well be – this is my life for failure and tedium; for unrealised dreams; for feeling fat, boiling up cauliflower stalks and failing to clean out the fridge; for physically loathing my employer yet staying with him till he dies and I am summarily thrown onto the streets; for actually caring about Jeux Sans Frontières or Michael Barrymore. This is how I progress. This is what I learn. This is the path less travelled; a day’s excursion; a small detour in a far, far longer journey. This is what I leave behind, and may other people see what I did not.

This is part of where I’m going.

Goodbye, Miss Chips

I originally trained to be a teacher. Three entirely wasted years at training college, using up all the grant students were then entitled to claim from their Local Authorities: bridges now were burnt; boats had been sunk; no second chances.  Why did I do that?

At eighteen, going on fourteen, I had based my decision on a range of factors, which were:

Not knowing what else to do, apart from getting a job, which I sensed (accurately) would be a disaster at this stage of my life. All I wanted was to be a poet, but there didn’t seem to be any openings for poets. A tutor suggested working in a factory while I wrote. I had never been in a factory and at that age was still running on the inverse snobbery of my parents, who were upper-working/lower-middle class. Only lower working-class people worked in factories. I had read Altarwise by Owl-Light from beginning to end. I had read The Wife of Bath’s Tale, albeit the bowdlerised schoolbook version. Duh! How could such a prodigy; a future poet almost if not quite as good as Dylan Thomas; such a towering intellectual be expected to work in a factory?

Later, I was to work in not one but several factories – collating greetings cards – week after week of sickeningly scarlet Valentines cards in the middle of July, I remember, glue and glitter that got everywhere – and a bookbinding factory. I would feel more at ease in such anonymous, uncompetitive, unchallenging environments than in any other. But at eighteen, going on fourteen, you know nothing and you think you know everything.

The shorter-than-me, half-Austrian boyfriend had accepted a place at a teacher training college in London. He was a maths genius, or so he’d been telling me for the past year. I had no way of knowing since I had never scored higher than twelve per cent in any maths test. I had spent the larger part of the previous year being dazzled by his talk of infinity and quadratic equations, while doing nothing very much in the way of studying English and French.  As a result I passed my two A Levels, but with grades so very, very low that to all intents and purposes they were fails; and this in spite of having achieved high-grade O levels in the same subjects.

I was supposed to be doing sociology A Level as well. People would joke that certificates in sociology were printed on toilet paper. I must be the only person from that era who hasn’t got one. I can’t remember a thing about sociology except that the textbook was heavy, and by Stephen Something-or-other. I must have stopped going to lectures early on in order to spend more time in the company of my long-haired pocket genius drinking black coffee and cheap cider, sharing plates of chips and learning about infinity and quadratic equations.

I knew I would never see him again but somehow my going to another, similar college maintained the connection to what had been the best year of my life in the sense of being alive. You don’t realise – the exhilaration of being eighteen and in love for the first time – the sense of possibilities – a whole vast planet yours for the taking. How soon that fades, but at the time you don’t realise, which is a mercy.


I needed to get away from Dad, but by some strange Freudian miscalculation managed to get myself accepted at a training college a short bus-ride away – so no actual leaving home and another three years of fierce and occasionally violent rows with Dad. I could have got away. And yet I couldn’t. It would take marriage – the classic short hop to another, similar man – to achieve that.

My mother said I was making a mistake – that I wasn’t temperamentally suited to be a teacher. But hey, I’m a trial-and-error kinda gal: I kinda have to do things, mess them up, realise I messed them up, then do the same thing over and over and over again.

So, for whatever reason I ended doing three separate six-week teaching practices in three separate schools and being dreadful on every occasion. I could hardly eat for terror during these six week torments. I hardly slept at night, knowing I would have to get up, get the bus and walk into that room full of evil, antisocial aliens all over again the following day.

Yes, I was the trainee in tears, who had to be rescued by her tutor from a room full of paper-aeroplane throwing, desk-banging, screeching, cheeking, fighting, mocking, singing, rioting teenagers.

I was the cowering, red-faced idiot in the too-short skirt being leered and sniggered at by boys taller, and only two or three years younger than myself, in black blazers. ‘Get yourself some glasses,’ my tutor suggested. ‘They’d make you look older: plain glass, of course.’

I was the one who had to be taught fractions in the staff room by the maths teacher before assembly, then fight my way in to 4B and teach a double lesson of it before it faded from short-term memory, praying the kids didn’t ask any questions because at that point I would be stuffed.

I was the inspiring young pedagogue who set creative writing tasks and got back forty-two almost identical one-line stories about Frankenstein creating a monster, the film having been on telly the night before.

The Certificate in Education, on crisp, cream paper with fancy scrollwork, which I was awarded at the end of the three years in spite of the above catalogue of disasters, apparently on the basis of an ‘outstanding’ in English (my Main Course) would rapidly become the albatross around my neck. Prospective employers would query, naturally, why, having studied for three years to be a teacher I wasn’t actually, now, teaching. And how could I explain without telling them the whole sad story I have just told you? Then they would have thought – what a dork. And why would anyone employ a dork? Nothing – believe me, nothing – fails like failure.

After a while I had a bit of a brainwave: what was to stop me leaving the Certificate in Education off my CV? And so I did that. It created a secondary problem in that with those three years  blank it looked as if you had been locked up in some sort of young offenders’ institution or living rough on the streets, but I found ways round it. I began to apply the only talent I actually possessed, and that in goodly measure – creativity/lateral thinking – the ability to spin an ever more intricate protective web of tales around myself – to my CV and other areas of my life. I became an invented, acceptable, suitable person. In the process, for many decades I lost sight of whoever was underneath.

But I survived.