Like a bird on a wire

When the song first came out I wept, picturing the bird (aka Leonard Cohen) trapped in a snare, a loop of wire pulled tight around its leg. In those days we didn’t know so much American. I learned later that what we would call a telegraph line Americans would call a wire, and so the bird was probably just perched on it, ready to fly away.

The lineman in Wichita Lineman, then, should have been obvious to a Brit but he wasn’t. He was something ultra-romantic, science fictional almost, a wandering, lonely creature performing some unimaginable task for The County (what was The County?) – not one of those blokes that climbs up poles to fix the electrics.

Of course, I wept at the bird in its imaginary snare, flapping and flapping its tiny wings in a desperate, futile to escape because the bird, aka Leonard Cohen, was also aka me.

I was always two people. One of me was lonely, wild and free. One of me had known even as a child making messy daisy-and-buttercup chains on her grandmother’s lawn, that one day she would take off. As time went on I read the colour supplements my father discarded from the weekend papers. I pored over the photos of remote temples and marketplaces and traveller accounts of exotic destinations.  I was that traveller. One day very, very soon that would be me on the road to Marrakech in my long hippie skirt and my cheesecloth blouse, a fraying backpack containing all that I had in the world; feet blistered, sandals dusty and worn.

The other me knew it couldn’t go, knew even as a child that it was tethered to a family in which it had no place, engaged in a lifelong struggle of trying but failing to earn that place. The other me knew it needed the mirror they formed, because without that mirror it would vanish. I was only what they showed me; away from them I had no substance: I was a ghost.

And so I enrolled in a teacher training college only a short ride away from home. I took my Mum to a film show there once; she wasn’t impressed. I plodded away at that course for three years, trying to be interested in tessellations, Cuisenaire rods and lesson-planning whilst my friend Anji – she of the wispy, piled up hairdo and the Indian father; she of the many-page letters in green ink and that great circular artistic script; she of the long white raincoat and cool sunglasses; she of the unmistakeably gay boyfriend she was always hoping wasn’t entirely absolutely gay and one day might be startled into kissing her  – Anji went to France with a girlfriend. They worked as waitresses for a while until her friend stole a tablecloth and they were dismissed. She slept under lorries with lorry drivers. It was all in the letters, until they stopped.

But I have found that at least some of those fantasy Me’s do appear, eventually. But it’s like they get watered down and de-romanticised. So, at one point I imagined myself a mysterious Englishwoman living out her final days in a cliff-top village in Brittany or Normandy or somewhere. And here I am, not exactly in France and not exactly mysterious but certainly alone and in a village with a cliff-top.

I imagined myself a hippie traveller, someone who never put down roots, someone who passed through places and had brief conversation with exotic, world-weary strangers. And there I was yesterday, catching buses after years of car-driving, alighting from one train, searching for the next and being talked to (or mostly at) by a series of eccentrics of my own and other generations.

At a bus stop a group of us tried to understand the murder of so many children by a terrorist scarcely older than they were.

On the bus I learned about sunflower seeds.

In a train a young man with learning difficulties spent a long time explaining to me that the train I was on was indeed the right train, and how to tell, in future, if it wasn’t (‘It won’t be at this platform’).

At a station I discovered the Station Master’s name was Estelle and she was the sole member of staff so she had to sweep the platform in the intervals between trains. Also that the station had no loo and the nearest one was Burger King over the road.

In another train I watched a sober old man trying to calm and distract a very drunk young man so that he wouldn’t bellow the F-word aloud in a railway carriage.

I sipped on warm bottled water and ate granola bars in instalments.

I sat behind a boy with a brutally shaven neck and the top of his head crisply waved and dyed bright orange.

I saw many exotic tattoos exposed in hot sunlight and realised how difficult it was to get twins in a buggy off a bus (you have to climb down backwards).

I sat on what might have been an artwork or merely a dysfunctional bench to wait for my friends outside Marks and Spencer.

Hejira, finally.

To bare or not to bare

For some reason I can’t get those news pictures out of my head – a woman surrounded by armed police being forced to strip on a French beach because she is wearing an a type of beachwear I had never heard of until recently – the burkini. Moslem women, who wish to dress modestly, wear this so as to be able to enjoy the seaside but not expose too much of themselves to public view.

There was a lot of hoo-ha at the time about freedom of religious expression and France, since the Revolution, being a proudly secular society. The burkini seems to be seen there as an aggressive religious symbol, a challenge to state authority rather than a practical solution to a feminine problem – how to be able to sit on the beach and take a dip in the sea when your upbringing requires and predisposes you to dress modestly.

It seems to me that Moslem women in France are trying to integrate into French society, by going to the beach at all. In their countries of origin they would probably not be allowed to sit on a beach with nearly naked men and women of another faith, or no faith, no matter how covered they themselves were. One thing we are seeing in those shocking photos is actually two cultures in the process of integrating – naturally, gradually.

I look at those stills, and think back to the news coverage, and I see several things.

I see that the woman is doing as she is told by the policemen, although what they are asking her to do is the equivalent of an Englishwoman being ordered to take all her clothes off in public – the equivalent in shame and humiliation.

I see a lot of native French women lying around in conventional swimwear exposing far more puckered, tobacco-leaf flesh than anyone could possibly be interested in seeing, and they are looking on as all this is taking place. Not one of them, let alone two or three, stands up, places themselves between that woman and the police, protests at the way she is being treated. And who reported it in the first place? Was it one of them, perhaps, calling from a mobile phone? Was it one of those who are looking down their noses and doing nothing? Whatever happened to sisterhood?

At what point did wearing too much become a crime? I think back to my childhood, and to my parents’ and grandparents’ times. When I was young the children usually had bathing costumes (not bikinis) but the parents often did not. Beach dress for women in England often meant removing your cardigan and stockings, maybe lifting the hem of your dress a bit when you went paddling, so it didn’t get soggy. Maybe you bought yourself a cheap straw hat to keep off the sun. Beach dress for men was often rolling up your trouser-bottoms, taking off your shoes and socks, rolling your sleeves to the elbow and knotting a handkerchief to put on your head and protect the bald spot. If a woman had walked along the beach in a bikini, people would have stared. They would have pointed and  laughed.


Margate beach, 1950s

Earlier than that, and not only in England, bathers would have worn long costumes to protect their modesty. They still had fun. Queen Victoria bathed from a mobile hut drawn into the sea by horses, and descended the steps clothed in at least as many modesty-protecting garments as the ‘burkini’ ladies.


I don’t suppose I’m any more hideous unclothed than anyone else my age, but I wouldn’t now feel comfortable to sit on a beach wearing a bathing costume. How much easier life would be for all women and girls whatever their religion, whether slim and beautiful but shy, pregnant, middle aged and overweight or ancient and wrinkly, if they had at least the option of the burkini or some burkini-equivalent at different times in their lives?

Being a child of the feminist movement I considered the whole first in feminist terms – is this the old Male Chauvinist Pig rearing his pink snout again – it is our right, as men, to objectify you, to scrutinise every inch of your flesh? But actually, I don’t think it is that. At least one of the policemen looks quite uncomfortable in this situation. He looks away as she takes her ‘top’ off, wanting not to see, not to be seen watching or maybe even not to be there.

Is it revenge, then? Is this really the way to get back at the violent extremists who have been attacking your country, to be seen standing over a few ladies of the same religion on beaches, making them disrobe? Why, if their jobs required them to enforce this newly-enacted rule, couldn’t they simply have asked the lady to leave the beach or issued her with a fine? The rule would still have been idiotic but at least the poor woman could have kept her dignity.

When did modesty in women become a bad thing? And why is it still OK for French nuns to go around fully clad in costumes which symbolise that they are Christians? Nobody knocks them off their bicycles or insists that they disrobe in the street. Why is it all right for long-standing religious communities such as the Amish, Mennonites and Quakers to wear the beautiful ‘plain dress’ and nobody takes it as a threat, just an expression of their faith? It’s just them, choosing not to draw attention to their bodies, choosing to be quiet.

amish women on the beach.jpg

Amish women on the beach, Chincoteague, Virginia.

Why is it only Moslem women who are commanded at gunpoint to be bare?

Dooz Oofs Ay Poms De Tare Fritz

There’s pampering, of course. I’ve never quite known what this entails but it sounds terrifying. Something to do with buying – or trying – a lot of pampering products and sitting around in some girl’s bedroom, hundreds of you, all in towelling dressing-gowns, giggling and offering to paint one another’s toenails. Oh no!

Or I suppose you can go to a spa. Can you go to a spa, for pampering? For a treat? What does that involve? More towelling dressing-gowns. Those disposable slippers they give you in posh hotels, sitting about on loungers waiting for your turn to have heavy stones laid along your naked spine or for someone to cover you in mud and cucumber slices. Oh no no no!

What would your idea of a treat be?

My treats have tended to get smaller and more innocent as I’ve got poorer and older, but nonetheless treats for all that.

Sometimes I drive to that distant town and I treat myself to egg and chips and a pot of tea in the café opposite the Post Office. The egg is underdone; the chips are those long thin ones that are probably made of reconstituted potato dust rather than sliced potato. I don’t care: it’s hot food and somebody else has cooked it.

I am reminded of Grandad, who was in the first world war. He was over in France and the only bit of ‘French’ he had – or at least would admit to in front of his grandchildren – was ‘dooz oofs ay poms de tare Fritz sil voo plate’. Maybe it’s genetic, then – a racial or familial memory.

I sit facing the window. I watch people coming out of the Post Office and going in. I pour my tea, lovingly, from a cheap white china pot. I savour the fact that there are two cups of tea in this one teapot. I examine the strange tube of sugar they provide before shuffling it into my handbag (it’ll do for visitors). I read the little poem they print on the paper serviette. What a good idea, to have poems on serviettes. Sometimes it rains and the window steams up from all those damp coats coming in. Sometimes it doesn’t. The ladies behind the counter are friendly. You pay on your way out, not on your way in. Civilised, like.

Chocolates. Mum used to allow Dad one chocolate a day because she was watching their weight. Poor Dad. He was eighty-seven and could hardly move from his armchair. A trip to the loo was a major expedition involving the zimmer frame and a lot of shuffling. Surely he could have had three chocolates? At eighty-seven-and-losing-your-mind does it really matter if you put on a few pounds? For myself, I avoid chocolates, simply because I couldn’t eat just one. A whole box would be gone just like that.

There seems to be a theme to my treats. Could it be food?

Do you allow yourself any special treats?

Pamela Frankau: imaginary friend (3)

There were a couple more shocks in store, aside from Pamela’s being un-alive. As a post-script to her death, or rather my belated discovery of it, I decided to read one of her actual novels for the first time. It was easier to get hold of a copy at that time than it would have been in my youth, thanks to Amazon. I cannot now remember which novel it was. Suffice it to say that I gave up trying to read it about a third of the way through. It wasn’t badly written, not at all. A best-seller in her day, and from a very young age, she had dated badly. What must have sounded darkly sophisticated a couple of years before I was born now came across as stiff and mannered and oh, there was so much of it. It reminded me of matinée films of that period: the feeling that the action was taking place in a tiny black-and-white bubble far, far away from the real world; the excruciating accents; the overwrought moral havering over stuff that wasn’t important any more. I kept wanting to smack her characters, the women for their brittle wit and the men for their sexist smuggery. And yet it was well-written – a polished, professional performance. And how could it have been otherwise from the author of Pen to Paper?

One thing that had made a big impression on me in Pen to Paper was its black and white photo-illustrations. There was her father, the playwright Gilbert Frankau, with whom she seems to have had a difficult but instructive relationship. Since at the time I was having a difficult relationship with my own father, this was another bond between us. The two central pages fascinated me. The left-hand side showed an actual page from the Rough of Road Through The Woods and the right-hand side showed the corresponding page from the Smooth. I had seen, of course, the various versions of my own school essays. I had not shown them to anyone else as none of my friends seemed to go in for ‘drafts’ at all – they just sort of filled the fountain pen and went for it. If you made a mistake you just ignored it and kept on going, the general idea being to waste as little time on schoolwork as possible. (A couple of years later, I am almost certain I was the only pupil to suffer essay-writing withdrawal symptoms after leaving to start work.) This was the first time I had seen somebody else’s manuscript and I was so pleased – it looked like mine, or mine looked like it – in fact it looked worse than mine! Such a splattering of exclamation marks and X’s and wiggly ballons with arrows.

Until that moment I thought I had invented my own method – writing on the right hand side only, insertions and afterthoughts on the left, stars, dots, squares and arrows to differentiate between one insertion and another, corresponding symbol in the text, ‘ins’ in the margin – and here was someone else doing more or less the same thing. Maybe what I did was actually how writers wrote. I loved her handwriting, too: those tiny, sloping words, the giant gaps in between. One’s writing tends to get smaller and smaller the closer you get to creative ‘critical mass’ and I guessed she must have been totally absorbed and writing really fast at the time. By showing both versions, she was letting me see her thought-processes. It sounds foolish now, but I felt privileged.

The photo that drew me most of all, of course, was the one of Pamela. So that was what an actual writer looked like. There she was, in her tortoiseshell glasses (I was always trying and failing to find a pair like that), her hair cut short and brushed back from her face in a series of unlikely quiffs and waves. She was lighting a cigarette with a lighter, frowning slightly, her mouth twisted sideways a bit to bring the tip in contact with the flame. She looked kind of nautical, vaguely mannish and yet glamorous. You could see she would not be a sufferer of fools. She looked brisk, competent, exotic. I noted that she was right-handed – a disappointment since I was left-handed and was hoping this might be a signifier of artistic talent. The photo was sub-titled One cigarette, or two cigarettes, first. I spent a while brooding over the placement of those commas, and whether there should have been a question mark. But this was a direct quote from Pamela (page 96) so it had to be right. She was very particular about punctuation.

Pamela called it Protecting the Rough – and I knew what she meant. Whilst writing the first draft, in particular, you have to keep yourself in a certain state of mind – tuned in, as it were. If you tune out for too long, if you un-obsess yourself, the whole thing just sort of fizzles and dies on you. The Smooth doesn’t need protecting in the same way – it’s merely hard, painstaking work. In one classic passage (I came to know many of her phrases and anecdotes by heart after a while) Pamela claims to have successfully accomplished this ‘while flying the Atlantic, while driving across France and meeting may beautiful interruptions on the way’. What beautiful interruptions? She doesn’t say. I had never travelled further than Westgate-on-Sea for the day – in a hired car, with my friend, her mother, her aunt, various other young people and the friend’s demented granny in the back asking what time it was every five minutes, and in between times informing me that one of her toes had fallen off. I was entranced. I pictured Pamela/myself in a red sports car, driving round twisty mountain roads, as in the movies, stopping at some rustic café for a glass of vin on the terrace, overlooking a vineyardy French valley, or being steamily courted by some Sacha Distel-looking lothario but never for a second failing to Protect the Rough.