What happens in Imagination, stays in Imagination

There is a kind of logic behind obsessive worrying, which would be instantly understood by the citizens of the alternative universe from which I was, at some point, expelled in error.

The idea is that if you lie awake night after night, and every spare moment, rehearsing some terrible future scenario in the minutest of detail, that scenario will not actually happen. This is the deal the worrier strikes – with God, the Universe, the White Mice or whoever:

Dear God/Universe/White Mice

I will put all my spare energy into imagining infinite variations on post-apocalyptic Britain. I will decide, in grim detail, exactly what I will do. I will foresee everything, I will act it all out and I will also prepare for it in real life, laying in stocks, building that nuclear bunker at the bottom of the garden, so that if it should accidentally come to pass I will be ready for it.

As recompense for all that effort-expended and anguish-experienced, You will not allow said scenario to happen. I am using my imagination inventing this nightmare future-scape, but the very fact that I am imagining it means it cannot then take place in real life. My inner world is one place, my outer world is another, and the equivalent of the Red Sea stands between them. What happens in Imagination stays in Imagination.

So what has gone wrong? I spent all those years imagining exactly this – plague, panic, confined to the house for months with an army of cats, ever-decreasing supplies of Felix and Whiskas in the supermarkets or online – and now this actually seems to be taking place. I spent years devouring all those Mass Observation books about the Bulldog Spirit – How We Coped In The War – How We Nearly Didn’t Cope In The War – How Mrs Nella Last Coped In The War – never thinking it would be me needing to Cope. What sort of glitch in your vast, mathematical computer model is this?

Or perhaps it’s not a glitch. Maybe you just got bored – hmm, Conservative Party conference – hmm, discussion of strawberry propagation on Gardeners’ Question Time – 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire – meh! Bored! Let’s run a proper plague. Let’s get some lager in, and a couple of bags of crisps. We’ll veg out on our celestial sofa with the entire box set.

I’m doing my best to be entertaining. I’ve knitted half a string bag and unravelled it. I’ve watched the first four episodes of This Country and discussed them with my sister by email. I’ve been washing up, and washing clothes, and doing more washing up, and then washing more clothes. I’m planning a patchwork quilt. Are you really going to be be entertained, up there on your giant sofa, as I count my tins of cat-food and hand-sew endless tiny squares onto endless tiny other squares?

Hello?

Anybody there?

4: Imagine

Continued from 3: Send in the clowns

I was also saved by my imagination and, if you like, the weird alternative-brain thing itself. That was – and is – by far the strongest form of defence, less costly than human relationships, far more flexible/portable than a husband. I always had the ability to tune right out, and this happened automatically whenever I began to get bored or things got rough. When things got very rough indeed I used to practice Silent Singing, most often The Sun Has Got His Hat On. I had my own way of distributing my consciousness between several places at once. I disappeared into books and stories, daydreams and plans. Inside my head was something like the Holodeck on the Spaceship Enterprise – the entire range of alternate universes on demand – and I spent many aeons away on my holidays on distant planets.

Later I started writing poems and stories. I found out how I felt through the poems and learned how I worked and what I thought through the stories. Together they became my Voice. I didn’t fret greatly that little I wrote was ever likely to get published – that wasn’t why I wrote. Much later I came to understand that a poem written (or a song sung, a painting painted, a love loved, an experience experienced) is engraved on the fabric of the universe, and will never be lost. You may have forgotten all the words or lost the old envelope it was scribbled on, but the poem is still there: all is taken in by the All That Is, which is constantly Becoming, in us and through us.

My parents were pretty bad until I left home. Almost as soon as I did they became pretty good. They did what they could to support me through the trials of what passed for my ‘adult’ life, though I never ceased to bewilder and exasperate them. I relied heavily on them for company as Ex seemed to be drifting further and further away, and when I found myself divorced, as a middle-aged ‘teenager’, basically – I had to learn how to change a light bulb and get petrol – I was glad of their support. I think they loved me. If only they could have told me so when I was young enough for it to have made a difference.

I would say to parents: even if you don’t understand what’s ‘wrong’ with your child – even if there is no medical word for it yet – even if (he or) she seems uncomfortably different to you or anybody else you have ever met – even if she is neither what you wanted nor what you anticipated – try to accept and love – or at least appear to love – what you did get. It works both ways. Your child has absolutely no choice but accept and love you, even as you shout abuse and raise your hand to strike.

When you are many years dead, do you really want your now elderly child to remember in technicolour what it felt like when you slammed her head into a door, trumping any good memories – like the day you taught her to swim; those Stanley Holloway monologues that made her laugh; the communal singing in the car?

If one approach fails, try and think of another. Watch and listen to your new child, as you would a new and exotic pet: work out what she needs. If you can’t work that out, talk to other people and be willing to ask for help. Be kind. Be gentle. Be creative. Think about what you are doing.

Memory: that magic lantern show

I went to visit my Old Lady yesterday and she confesses – as she always does confess – that when she sits in her armchair, sometimes, of an evening, unable to see the television clearly, unable to read – her mind drifts off and random memories come back to her. She sees the exotic places she went on holiday, the adventures she had as a little girl and a teenager, her many cousins and their many wives (all dead now), colleagues she worked with, her parents, her grandparents…

Every time she tells me this she sounds anxious. She has lived a brisk and practical life and I suppose she feels guilty now for daydreaming.

And yet it was good life. She was close to her family, when they were alive. Early on she found a job she enjoyed, worked hard, studied in her spare time and made it into a career. She has had the courage – and the means – to travel widely. She has had the gift of making friends, and now she has a store of colourful memories to dip into.

My Old Lady is a bit of a hoarder, always telling me she intends to have a good old clear out. She never actually succeeds in doing this, but in her regular efforts to do so she happens upon air-mail letters from long dead pen-friends, invitations to dances in foreign capital cities, letters from travel agents in faded type, holiday brochures and envelopes full of dog-eared photographs, and these bring everything back.

Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world – and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children! [George Bernard Shaw]

I suppose it is inevitable that this should be so.

It is better that children start life afresh and that adults are not tempted to describe to them the horrors of old age. It is better that they dance through their childhood under the illusion that life is bound to go on in exactly this sunlit way forever. When I see on the news children in awful circumstances, forced to witness or commit atrocities, converted into adults before they have properly been children, this is what saddens me – that in having their childhood and youth cut short they have also been deprived of their capacity to imagine, and of the memories of Better Days which would have sustained them later, in times of trial and in old age.

So, my Old Lady tells me once again about her Magic Lantern Show and I once again, attempting to reassure her, tell her that something very similar happens to me. I tell her that when I am washing up all those cat bowls of a morning, and gazing out at the garden and the too-long grass, and the dew still on all those fallen leaves and faded hydrangeas, images and fragments of memories flash up, unbidden.

I don’t tell her, but mostly they are unhappy fragments, of my current life at any rate: I don’t seem to have her knack for happiness. But occasionally they are strange fragments – flashes of lives I don’t remember having lived, and faces I don’t remember ever having seen before; even, occasionally, visions of flight, swooping down over lakes or battlefields, or strands of music it feels exactly as if I am in the process of composing. All of which are so brief, dissolving instantly, so that all that is left is an impression, a memory of a memory.

I worked in a call centre for five years or so, at the broken-down end of my ‘career’. This involved sitting on a rickety office chair in a kind of plywood rabbit-hutch for seven or eight hours at a time surrounded by rows and rows of other rabbit hutches. We all wore headset and the calls came in to us automatically.

Our sole task was to persuade people to do market research surveys – no selling involved – but of course people never believed that. And so, every so often an irritable person answered the phone and you had to, basically, read a script to them, asking them if they would like to take part and then if they agreed asking them a whole string of questions so nonsensical that you wouldn’t have been able to answer yourself.

On short surveys it would be seven or eight hours’ non-stop repetition of the same five minute survey. On long surveys it would be perhaps one respondent per hour; twenty minutes of script-reading and typing; nothing to do in between. We were not allowed to read, do crosswords or to write down anything apart from survey-related notes, or a tally of the surveys we had done.

Most people did not last five years. Two years was considered by the employers to be a good innings. Memory, and imagination helped me to stick with it. (I needed the money!) During those hours my mind sent me a constant magic lantern show, like the washing-up show only more so. During those hours whole poems got written in my head, whole philosophies of life were considered, rejected, constructed, deconstructed and modified.

So when my Old Lady feels embarrassed about her daydreaming I want to tell her – but don’t know how – that the Magic Lantern Show is a gift, her reward for a life hard-lived. And when young people complain that they are bored I want to tell them to go out there and make memories, learn stuff, think stuff, see stuff, meet people, have adventures, visit places, take photos, save the tickets, save that straw hat, write a diary, record your impressions and store them somewhere. Make a memory box. Start it when you are seventeen.

To be a fly on the wall

I love visual puns, and I particularly enjoy the pugs below, for their endless visual circularity: flies on the wall/up the wall, pugs might fly, pigs might fly…

pugs

There seem to be no end of things you can have flying up your wallpaper nowadays, aside from the traditional three ducks of my youth. You can have actual pigs or even toucans bearing pints of Guinness, and why not?

Of course, up till fairly recently flying anything up the wall was the Worst Possible Taste but these are Post Modern or possibly even Ironic Flying Objects. So that’s OK. The only wall decoration worse than those flying ducks was The Green Lady, versions of which (or should it be whom?) appeared on living room walls in the ’60s or thereabouts. I have a horrible suspicion, now, that my parents might have had one. If so I’ve been buying a shameful memory all this time.

green-lady

Would you like to be a fly on the wall? If so, where and when?

As a child I would hear my parents arguing about me in the bedroom. I was always convinced it was about me, at any rate. It was a small bungalow and the walls were thin. Not thin enough, unfortunately. I could hear them arguing, the rise and fall of their voices, his low and angry, hers high and tearful, but never the actual words. As a child I longed to have some sort of listening device (I hadn’t heard of the wine-glass-against-the-wall trick then, and anyway my parents didn’t have wine-glasses) so that I could hear all the nasty things they were saying about me and be enraged, which would have been more comfortable than just upset. On the other hand…

…they say people who eavesdrop never hear anything good of themselves. But it’s such fun. I eavesdrop on conversations whenever and wherever I can, partly because you never know when something’s going to be the start of a short story, but also to find out what ‘normal’ people are talking about when they engage all that endless, exhausting-looking yattering.

I’ve picked up some lovely snippets. My favourite, whilst a menial sort of secretary at an agricultural college, was an arch observation between two environmental scientists: He thinks he’s an ecologist because he can do hanging baskets.  I once went to the doctors in my local village. I hadn’t been there before. It was a ‘compact and bijou’ waiting room so it wasn’t at all difficult to listen in.

He’s a very good doctor, Doctor W…

Is he?

Yes, he looked after my cousin Mildred.

Did he?

Yes (long pause) – she died, of course.

And then it was my turn to go in.

I have heard – and indeed read about on other people’s blogs, of something called remote viewing, where it is possible to ‘see’ a place or object that is actually, physically being seen by a different person, perhaps hundreds of miles away. I have never experienced this myself, though I did engage in a kind of thought experiment with Ex, many years ago. It was around the time of Uri Geller and his spoon-bending. (Spoons always fascinated Ex, who was even less normal than me. He used to play the spoons – really, really well but so loudly and embarrassingly – when drunk on the table-cloths of Indian restaurants whilst waiting for his dinner.)

We decided to do that thing where one of you concentrates on a shape or a simple object in their mind’s eye, and the other one has to concentrate and draw it. The first person then draws what they were imagining, and you compare the pictures. We were moderately good at it – we could manage numbers, and pictures of doors, cats and so forth.  We lost interest after a while. There’s only so much door-drawing you can do.

I even read somewhere of psychics being able to travel, themselves, in an out-of-body sort of way and see what friends or contacts many hundreds of miles away were up to. I remember one lady was infuriated because she had been in a state of dishevelment or undress when she became aware of a psychic ‘visitor’ lurking in her room one night. There really ought to be some sort of Code of Conduct for Psychic Lurkers.

What I can do – possibly everyone can – is visit places in my imagination. I can visualise houses, and rooms – layouts, stairs, furnishings – from far away and long ago. I can, if bored, go on a guided tour of a house that no longer exists. I can ascend the steep stairs of my old schoolfriend’s house, a two-up-two-down terrace on a mean little street – the same stairs that I fell down once, landing on my old schoolfriend, who was mercifully quite plump. I can look out of the bedroom window (behind me a shiny turquoise quilt and an undersized dressing-table, its veneer chipped and peeling) and see her father’s black bicycle propped up against the drainpipe. They had a black cat, and the black cat used to jump out of that same bedroom window and land on the narrow saddle of that same black bike.

I can walk round Nan and Grandad’s house, and down to the bottom of the garden where the Anderson shelter had become a garden shed full of spiders, and dusty blue damsons hung heavy in the hedgerow. I can see where all the flower beds were, and the great sea of mint around the apple tree, and the bisque doll’s head my uncle (now 90) had jammed onto a twig, which grew into it. I have sometimes thought I would manage quite well in prison as long as I was allowed to be in solitary confinement. Communing with other prisoners would be hell (I would be the one who was beaten to a pulp in the shower and had most of her food pinched) but solitary confinement would be OK. I could go on my travels. I could follow favourite countryside walks I haven’t seen for years. I could have a little chat with Nan on the back step, whilst shelling peas and listening to the bees humming. I could be out in the Lodge with Grandad, watching him doing his carpentry and breathing in sawdust and glue.

And then of course there are the entirely imaginary journeys. Attending some meditation classes a while back I discovered visualisation – you know, when you picture yourself walking out over a rainbow, or in a rocking chair in a room with a quietly ticking clock or walking alongside a river, through meadows, brushing the grass as you pass…? I can do one of those any time. You just decide where you want to be to start with and your mind somehow does the rest – it even supplies the journey for you, you don’t have to make it up. Every now and then a rabbit might appear on the path, or a frog on a lilypad, or maybe, surprisingly, the sun will choose to set…

By George!

Have you ever discovered an injury and not known how you got it? All sorts of lurid explanations flash through your mind:

I must have started sleep-walking and walked into a cupboard, then walked back to bed and fallen asleep again. That’s why I have this purple bump on my forehead…

I was abducted by aliens, who did experiments on me. That’s why there’s this inexplicable star-like scratch on my knee – it’s a kind of marker so they know not to abduct me twice. And then of course they would have had to erase my memory…

I was just shuffling about in my bedroom slippers, as you do, when suddenly…

Ow! Why are my big toe and second toe suddenly so painful?

Incidentally – and I know you didn’t want to know this – my big toe and second toe happen to be the same length, in fact I believe the second toe may be a micro-millimetre the longer of the two. This indicates that my genome contains Neanderthal genes. Maybe. But I digress.

I inspected the toes in question with care. They looked a trifle puffy, a trifle bruised perhaps but had retained their waggleability so were probably not broken.

My imagination went into overdrive. It must have happened when I was out in the garden yesterday. Some awful jungle critter had burrowed its way into my foot and only now was I noticing the first symptoms as it chomped and chomped, consuming my flesh from the inside, and from the big-and-next toes up.

There had been a lot on TV about the prevalence of ticks and their dreaded consequence, Lyme’s Disease. OMG, I thought, it’s only a matter of time before that distinctive target-like rash appears on my foot, and then I’m a gonner. Maybe I should start finding foster homes for the cats now, before the pain gets too bad? Is my Will up to date?

And then it dawned on me – George, the clumsiest cat on the planet. It was George who did my toes in. He was pottering past Kitten’s Room yesterday morning and was involved in yet another of the Incidents that George always seems to be getting involved in.

I should explain that Kitten is well over a hundred in human-equivalent years. I had to rescue her from Mum a while back and she immediately ring-fenced the spare bedroom for herself, sleeping in a cardboard box underneath what was once my writing desk, waking up at widely-spaced intervals to totter across to her feeding station and sample a few gumsful of special old-lady catfood, or to bellow in deafening, hideous senile fashion for… something. I still haven’t discovered what. Maybe she just forgets where, what or why she is.

So just as George pottered past, splendid black tail aloft, Kitten did her party-trick – the high-speed, sideways, fully fluffed-up totter out of the spare room. In terror, George tried to bolt but instead encountered my slippered right foot and rammed most of his black and white furry self between big-toe-and-next. Both of us screeched. He ran off. I somehow forgot about it. Kitten retreated to her cardboard palace.

Mystery solved.

ME AND MY SHADOW

The first time I met the dreaded doppelganger in literature, as opposed to life, was in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Now, I can usually tell if a book is not going to be worth persisting with before the end of Chapter One. I just get bored and give up. Sometimes I will keep going into the next chapter, or skip to the end and various random ‘middles’ hoping to come across some dramatic twist or intriguing development worth struggling on for. If the end and the middles are as bad as the beginning I put the book down and rarely pick it up again. Life is too short to be noble and conscientious.

Occasionally I will come across a book so unutterably wrong in some way that it really annoys me, and I am afraid Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of those. Inevitably these annoying novels will also be ones that the literati think highly of; almost certainly they will have hitched a lift on the English Literature exam syllabus. I was force to read Frankenstein and work up intelligent-sounding essays about it, not once but twice. The first time was for a resit of A Level English Language & Literature (passed Grade A – yay!) and the second for an Open University Literature course. I was hoping against hope the dratted thing would be more digestible the second time around. It wasn’t. Wuthering Heights is another example.

Before I go on, let’s be sure what a doppelganger is or could be.

A doppelganger can be an exact double – an identical copy of the original – or it can be a complement. A complement would have different or opposing characteristics to the original, but would in some way complete it – yin and yang, two halves of one whole like Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray and his Picture. The ‘scary’ version could be thought of as Jung’s Shadow archetype – an entity which encompasses all the qualities one lacks in conscious life or cannot bear to confront. The monster in Frankenstein is a species of Shadow being the alter ego of his creator, the scientist Victor Frankenstein.

It seems to me that in the end there is a very little difference between the frighteningly familiar and the frightfully foreign.  Whether a doppelganger appears to be your mirror-image or a Creature from your worst nightmares, coming face to face with it is a dreadful experience.

Since yesterday’s personal-experience post on doppelgangers I have been trying to decide

a) what exactly the trouble is with Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, and

b) why these two novels are nevertheless still read today, and continually cited as examples of great literature.

Most of my ‘thoughts’ were scribbled down with the dawn chorus this morning, when still half asleep. This is the untangled version.

I think it is to do with editing.

Oh, hang on, there’s more…

Taking (b) first.

I think some novels succeed initially and go on to achieve permanence in the literary canon solely because they arise from a first-rate idea. A single stroke of imaginative genius is the glue that holds the whole shambling creation together. The novel grips readers by means of that one core idea or image alone. The core image is usually embodied in one central character, more often than not male. In Frankenstein, of course, it is the Creature, a hideous, unlovable mishmash of a being who craves the love and attention of his ‘father’. In Wuthering Heights it is the violent, obsessive and tormented Heathcliff.

It is like one imagination gripping another – like the Vulcan mind-meld – I was going to say frogs mating but thought better of it! – once melded, the two minds are never entirely separated. When you think of all the novels that persist, that will never be cast upon that great slush-pile in the sky regardless of their overall quality and effectiveness, they have a unique central character. Think of the impossible but wonderful Mr Darcy; ‘poor, obscure, plain and little’ Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe. They are all unique, contradictory, many-dimensional characters. They have their faults, they have their shining virtues and because of this we believe in them. But this is only one element in the construction of a novel.

Now back to (a):

To me there are three main elements.

The first is imagination – the great idea, the inspiration. This element is pure ‘art’. You can learn to write good prose, or if you are lucky you will have been born with a facility and an ‘ear’ for words, just as artists have an eye for colour and form, and musicians have an ear for music. Nobody can give you imagination. You are either born with it or you are not. The eternal problem is that, as with intelligence and sense of humour, those with the least are convinced they have the most.

The second is the acquired skill or innate gift of the writer, which allows him or her to transform a brilliant idea into a great book. This element is part art and part craft. It is the skill you use to avoid pulling your reader up short – rudely catapulting him out of his suspended disbelief, as it were. You will use this part of your skill to avoid anachronisms, infelicities of style, contradictions and repetitions – anything that reminds the reader that he is reading a book, and that the book has a writer. He needs to remain immersed in the world you are conjuring up for him. He doesn’t need to overhear you prattling away in the background, providing a running commentary. Neither Mary Shelley nor Emily Bronte could be criticised for their ability to use the English language or produce a well-turned paragraph.

The third, and in some ways the most challenging, element is the ability to edit. Editing is also part art and part craft and a good writer will be editing himself as he goes along, but it’s difficult. A writer can gain a great deal from a professional editor; someone who can view his work with a calm and dispassionate eye. For me it is in this element that Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights both fall short. For me: maybe not for you.

When you start to write, one of the first things you realise – and a fascinating realisation it is – is that a story can go on and on for ever if you let it. Novels are expanding universes of words. For every twist your plot takes there is an infinite number of alternative twists. For every new character there is an infinite amount of back-story. You can never start a story at the beginning. There is no beginning, only the point at which you have chosen to jump in. You can never end a story. There is no end, only the point at which you decide to abandon your characters. There is no limit on the number of characters involved in your plot. They are infinite in number. You have chosen to ignore the many and focus on the few. There is no single, fixed plot to your story. It could go any which way. In writing you choose either this road or the road less travelled by. You have to make these decisions throughout the process – what to keep and what to kill.

Sometimes an author fails to notice that he/she is writing not one novel, but several, and that an interference pattern has been set up. Try to combine three potential – and temptingly related – novels into one actual novel is asking for trouble. Like cats in a bag, they will fight, and at the end you will be left with clouds of multi-coloured fur, a little heap of broken claws and a ragged ear or two. Part of the art is to recognise and extract the right story strand from a great imaginative tangle.

I also feel that a novel, article, poem, short story – whatever – has its own innate geometry, and that a good writer (or a good editor) will be able to sense, feel or see that geometry – or will at least be able to sense, feel or see when it is being distorted. It’s like the statue being present inside the block of stone. It’s like skiing downhill in the mist – you sense a tree or something ahead, and swerve. Or like when you take a wrong turn and drive off in the wrong direction. Suddenly the sun’s in the wrong place and the light is all wrong. It’s that playing piano in the dark thing – you need to believe in it and trust it.

The other thing is that the fact that you have written a passage, even if it is the best passage you (or anyone) ever wrote in your (or their) entire life is not enough to justify it remaining in your story. It either fits or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it goes. Kill Your Darlings. Seize that red pen and strike them through. For me, both Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights are rambling and out of shape. They don’t make sense – or at least, the effort required of the reader to try to make them make sense is too great. The cost-benefit ratio is too high.