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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some fairly substantial fairies

I was once forced to go see an Alan Bennett play entitled Kafka’s Dick. It was with my writers’ group. Why on earth had this group of fusty, elderly people – most of them, I have to say, considerably older and fustier than I – chosen for their annual outing a play about a literary gentleman’s body-part? They may of course have assumed Dick was a close friend of Kafka, that strange novelist, more famous for accidentally becoming a beetle overnight.

It was just dire – and I do appreciate Alan Bennett’s gifts. I particularly enjoyed his Talking Heads sequence on TV. There was a lot of giant scenery that didn’t seem to represent anything but kept being twizzled round; I couldn’t follow at all what was going on, and to cap it all there was this tortoise – a mechanical tortoise that seemed to be under the actors’ feet all the time. I have no idea what the significance of the tortoise might have been vis-a-vis the plot, which I also had no idea about, but I spent the whole play in a fret in case one of the actors might accidentally take a step backwards and tread on it. Metal shards and clockwork everywhere. Because if that happened I might laugh; and might not be able to stop laughing.

I was sat next to Dora, who was faded gentry. In the interval I confided in her my difficulty with plays – live plays, that is. I can read a book and be totally involved. People have to wave their hands in front of my face to bring me back – from Hogwarts, or wherever. I can watch a play on television – that’s fine too. But I fail completely when it comes to either radio plays or live performances.

Radio plays – I can just always imagine the man with the cocoanuts pretending to be the horses’ hooves; the man with the tiny door that creaks, pretending to be the full-size door of some haunted castle, and the man shuffling around in a litter tray pretending to be footsteps on a gravelled drive.

Live plays – it’s the fact that the actors are real. They look as if they’re on television, way down in the distance (we always seem to get the cheap seats right up in the rafters – and that’s another thing – vertigo) but they’re alive – I know they’re alive – and I can ‘hear’ them pretending. The acting just doesn’t work, when they’re really there. And I’m terrified someone will forget their lines and there’ll be an awkward silence, and then a little voice from somewhere below their feet, stage-whispering the words. I can’t bear it.

“It’s because you didn’t grow up going to the theatre,” Dora said, kindly. She means I’m working class, I thought. She can tell.

Unfortunately, it’s not just plays: it’s anything on a stage. Ballet – I mean, it’s beautiful, magnificent and wonderful, but it’s people in tights and tutus prancing about and… And yet on telly, I can watch a ballet till the cows come home.

As for opera. Well to be honest I can’t abide opera whichever medium it happens to be infesting. It has the same effect on me as football; an instant grab at the remote control. It’s something about the voices, all that trilling and bellowing, just can’t get into it. And yet I love classical music.


However, what I do enjoy about going to plays, is the company of my friend, N. I used to work for N but now I mostly see her once a year. Since neither of us is a natural conversationalist we tend to go to a play, which gives us something to talk about over coffee afterwards. The enjoyment is not so much in the play as in the silent, shared amusement a really badly-acted play can generate.

We tend to go to the University theatre, where the plays are performed by drama students. The one before last was a Greek Comedy, the Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes. N muttered something about having received a telephone message from the theatre the previous day, warning her the performance might not be suitable for children. Obviously not everyone had thought to check their answerphones, because there were quite a few of the little dears in the audience, some as young as eight or ten. As to the play – my entire memory is of the enormous stuffed pink phalluses that popped up from under every short, frilly Ancient Greek male skirt at intervals. And the student-actors kept falling over – hay-bales, their own feet – any excuse to perpetrate even more comic stuffed-phallus-popping-outing.

We didn’t look at one another, but at coffee afterwards there was quite a bit of spluttering.

The one before that was the same student faculty attempting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Behind a wobbly cardboard tree, centre stage, we could see part of a largish, green-tighted thigh and a wisp or two of purple net. After a while we realised that other fairies were concealed behind other woodland furniture, pretending not to be there. As these large young ladies emerged from their leafy concealment and began to flutter about, N leant sideways in her seat and murmured –

“Some fairly substantial fairies.”


Nobody loves a fairy when she’s forty

My Dad used to sing this all the time, along with other rude songs or ‘ditties’ as they used to call them in those days. I suspect it’s sexist, and of course ‘fairy’ has since gone through a phase of meaning something else. The song refers to a pantomime fairy – an actress, now beginning to realise she may be getting too old for the part. Dad had other songs as well, and poems. Some of them are so non-PC in a variety of ways that I can’t – and wouldn’t want to – reproduce them here. Others are just silly.

Other favourites were ‘Nellie The Elephant’ (…packed her trunk and said goodbye to the jungle, off she went with a trumpety-trump…) ‘My Aunt’s Name is Ella Wheeler Waterbutt’ (…and she lives down at Burton-on-Trent. When she goes out riding on her bicycle she always gets the handlebars bent…) and ‘Oh, Jemima’ (…look at yer Uncle Jim, he’s in the duckpond learning how to swim. First he does the backstroke, then he does the side, and now he’s under the water swimming against the tide…!).

 Most of the time my father and I didn’t get on. He’d had a bad time in the war, I suspect, though he didn’t talk about it. I was his first child, and the worst possible species of child to have to make all one’s mistakes on. We seemed to spend most of the time firing off verbal missiles and screaming at one other. But one thing we did have in common was these old music-hall songs. He sang them frequently, knowing they would make me giggle, and because he was a show-off, a natural performer and communicator whose performing and communicating instincts had been disabled by my mother. We shared a kind of all-consuming rage, a history of hurt, a spikey, sensitive nature. We also shared an excellent memory and ‘collecting instinct’ for words, a love of the music they made and a keen sense of the ridiculous. A strange, sad, wasted combination. We could have been the double-act of the century.

  • (written by Arthur Le Clerq – 1934)
  • For years a fairy queen I’ve been
  • For years I foiled the Demon King
  • But alas I’m getting on the years have flown somehow
  • And I feel that Fairy Snowdrop isn’t wanted now
  • Chorus
  • Nobody loves a fairy when she’s forty
  • Nobody loves a fairy when she’s old
  • She may still have a magic power but that is not enough
  • They like their bit of magic from a younger bit of stuff
  • When once your silver star has lost its glitter
  • And your tinsel looks like rust instead of gold
  • Fairy days are ending when your wand has started bending
  • No-one loves a fairy when she’s old
  • For years I reigned in Fairy Dell
  • I waved my wand and waved it well
  • If I can’t do all I did I’m satisfied because
  • I’d sooner be a Has-Been that I would a Never Was
  • Nobody loves….
  • Nobody loves..
  • The face of this Immortal One to many has appealed
  • But gone is the illusion once you’ve had it soled and heeled
  • When you’ve lost your little fairy dimples
  • And the moth holes in your dress let in the cold
  • The Goblins and the Pixies turn their backs and say Hi Nixey
  • No one loves a fairy when she’s old.
  • Nobody loves…..
  • Nobody loves…..
  • As far as I can see they try to push you off the map
  • When once your wand has withered and your wings refuse to flap
  • When you can’t cast a spell without it spilling
  • And a fairy tale for years you haven’t told
  • You stand there shouting What O.. but they all pass by your Grotto
  • Nobody loves a fairy when she’s old.
  • Nobody loves…..
  • Nobody loves…..
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hi4muhme1P4
  • Tessie O’Shea – Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s Forty

I ain’t afraid of no ghosts

There are almost as many ‘explanations’ of ghosts as there are ghosts themselves. One day, all ghostly phenomena may be explicable in scientific terms or, one day, we may become aware of a parallel or interfused reality in which they, and other such inexplicable things, have their existence. Here are just some of the possible explanations:

  • A ghost could be a folk memory of an ancient tragedy. For example the crying child ghost heard at the Roman fortress of Reculver, in Kent. In 1966 the skeletons of several babies were discovered beneath the foundations. Could the crying ghosts be ‘memories’ of a ritual child sacrifice some 2000 years ago? At Richborough, sixteen or seventeen miles from Reculver, a ghostly Roman cohort is sometimes seen, its phantom soldiers marching into the sea.
  • Ghosts are not even always human beings. Phantom ships have been seen sailing towards shore, leaving the water and continuing to ‘sail’ for a considerable distance overland. In Cornwall ‘corpse candles’ were said to foretell a death. These small blobs of yellow light would process along the street and stop over the house where a death was imminent. This is a strange, parallel – Cornish lights hovering over a house of death; the Star of Bethlehem hovering over a house of birth.
  • In some parts of Britain there have been reports of spectral coaches drawn by headless horses. This could be a ‘memory’ of the Norse invaders and their god Odin/Woden – whose Wild Hunt was said to cross the night sky in Winter followed by baying hounds. To witness the Wild Hunt was to be carried off to a distant land. To speak with the Huntsman meant certain death. Spectral dogs could be a folk-memory of Odin’s fearsome hounds.
  • Many ghosts are said to be those of famous or royal personages. It may be that we just cannot let go of the idea of these individuals – that they are so vividly alive in our imaginations that we cannot accept the mundane fact of their deaths. Think of Elvis Presley and all the rumours that he did not die, that he has been sighted walking past a window at Gracelands and so forth.
  • And then there is the legion of Grey Ladies, Brown Ladies and other nameless ghosts, whose original purpose for remaining has faded with time, but who still walk the corridors of country houses, or haunt the cellars of castles, apparently manifesting some long-ago instense emotion – love, hate, fear, the need for revenge or a final farewell – leaving some kind of pattern in the fabric of time for sensitives to pick up on.
  • Animals react to ghosts in different ways. Horses sweat and shy, and dogs bark in the presence of a ghost, but cats enjoy the company of ghosts and are said to purr when they are around. The farmyard cockerel could banish ghosts and avert the evil eye, at least in the Hebrides. A cock crowing at dawn told the farmer it was safe to rise and begin his day’s work, for the spirits of darkness had all been banished. It was said that a cockerel could frighten away the Devil himself – one reason cockerels appear so often in church weathervanes.
  • Many of the old customs around the time of death and in connection with funerals, were not so much to honour the dead as to make sure they could not come back and haunt their fearful relatives. Touching the dead person, gently and respectfully, prevented the toucher from being haunted by the ghost of the corpse. It was also a way of proving that goodwill existed between toucher and corpse. A murdered man’s body was said to bleed if touched by his murderer.
  • Fairies were once believed to be the ghosts of those that had died before Christianity came to Britian, and of the stillborn and the unbaptised.
  • The festival of Samain or Samhain (pronounced sahwin or sowin), the Gaelic festival marking the end of harvest and the beginning of winter (31 October/1 November – the origin of our Halloween) was a time when natural laws were suspended and ghosts and demons were free to roam. Samain was the beginning of the celtic calendar and signified both death and new life. This was the time for animals to be slaughtered to provide food for winter, and for sheep to be mated for next year’s flock.

Only Connect (1)

I look around my house and have to admit it – books and cats have taken over. ‘Nuff said about the cats: no one approves of them. But every now and then I come across a spare couple of feet – behind the armchair to cover the faded bit – maybe where the cat-dishes are now – maybe in front of that cupboard under the stairs? After all, who needs a cupboard? I’m thinking… bookcases.

There are books on my bed, books beside my bed, books in the bathroom, books attracting mildew and holding up shelves in the garage. When I go out, there are books in my bag – at least two, and big ones in case I get stuck in a motorway tailback for three hours. This has only happened to me on one occasion, and of course when it does you can’t relax to read because you never know when you’re going to have to start inching forwards again…

I wouldn’t dare go on holiday abroad because this would mean an aeroplane, which would mean book limitation; I could never carry enough books to tide me over for two weeks. Yet after a lifetime of reading I can estimate, probably to within the hour, how much ‘reading’ a book contains. I know I’m not going to get through ten books in one week, or even two weeks, but…supposing I don’t like the book I’ve got with me? Supposing I feel the need to read three books in tandem?

Which brings me to my mother again. Last time she visited my house, before the fairies came and stole away her logic, her concentration and her common sense, she looked around and said:

‘At your age, you’ll never have time to read all of these!’

And of course she was right; it just hadn’t occurred to me. And then the familiar rush of Mum-induced panic and depression. But I must. I can’t leave them. I must read them. What can I do to save time? If I give up work? If I give up TV? If I sleep only half the night? How did I get that old?

All mothers must take a fairy-course in Undermining Daughters. Or is it in their DNA? With a single, innocent remark she had convinced me that everything, not just reading but any interest and any project for ever after, was pointless, really, because we are going to die. Why do anything? Just watch TV and gobble Polo-mints, why don’t we? Give all but the basics for survival to the charity shop – it’ll save them time when they come to clear this place out. Find a good home for the cats. Take up smoking. Fill your pockets with stones and go and jump in the sea.

But seriously (that wasn’t serious?) I was thinking the other day about how Mum must see me now: this girl of 17 or thereabouts, mysteriously grown large, lumpy, pale, grey and harassed-looking; this creature who mouths a series of words with unreadable shapes to them; this half-forgotten relative whose careful notes, all in block capitals, refuse to form proper sentences; this Sunday visitor whose name sometimes goes AWOL; so bothersome, so repetitious, and such hard work to be with. And requiring cups of tea when she must know the kettle has disappeared, the fridge has drunk the milk and there are strange little faces in the bottom of the cups.

When was the last day? Before you Marched Out and this sad, bored, distressed little elfling Marched In? They say the fairies do that – substitute one of their Ancients for an earthling child, so that they may die in comfort.* If I’d known you were about to be posted I could have said goodbye, and maybe wished you good luck in your new billet.

Once more I am a child in the High Street in romper suit and blue leather reins, throwing the usual tantrum. Once more you drop the reins and walk away, thinking to scare me silent. And it works. You’re chatting away to Nan, or maybe laughing. You’re muffled. I can’t make out what the pair of you are saying. The sky goes black and comes down on my head. I stand stock still with these clouds and this black air pressing down on me, watching you walk away as a century ticks by. Then I turn and set off in the wrong direction, back the way we came, the blue leather reins trailing the pavement behind me. It doesn’t matter now which way I go. You won’t come back – why would you? Why would you come back for me?

I want to talk to my old Mum about my new Mum. I want to ask her what to do about all of this. All those years of more or less misunderstanding one another yet this is so much worse. Word salad it’s called – vague words, wrong words, words in the wrong order, words based on misapprehensions; the quarter sentences you seem to think you have finished; the stories that seem to go on for ever and you still haven’t got to the point, if there ever was one. Confabulation; tall tales; nonsense, vigorously defended. You know what you mean but I don’t. I know what I mean but you don’t.

Only connect.

* ‘A changeling is a wizened, deformed, insatiable and frequently old fairy that has been exchanged for an often-unbaptised human child.’

The Greenwood Encyclopaedia of Fairy Tales: A-F (Donald Haase)