Writing on a Postage Stamp

Jane Austen pursued her unusual hobby discreetly, so as not to embarrass her family or attract censure but also, I would guess, so that she could observe, unobserved, the social rituals going on all around her and the characters who came to visit. Writing in secret – hiding tiny scribbled slips of paper under her blotter every time she heard the door creak – was her way of being herself. It was her way of being ferociously clever, when women were regarded as more of a – decoration.

So in theory one could write a blog post and make it interesting no matter how dull one’s life had actually become. I have this image of myself sitting in a tiny prison cell, creating the most amazing fantasy kingdom whilst day after day, year after year, nothing ever happened but the cell door opening and a plate of bread and cheese, maybe a mug of beer, being pushed through it by some unseen jailor. That would be the extreme.

My life was never particularly expansive, though I suppose it had its moments. Most of these were too ghastly, shameful or humiliating to want to write about. I have written about a lot of stuff here on this blog, and put out there for public consumption, many tiny episodes, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes raging angry, sometimes frankly pathetic, that I have not told a single friend or relative: never would have, and never will.

Recently, life has narrowed even more for me, though we’ve not quite sunk to the prison cell scenario.  Partly it’s because of getting older and no longer being in the best of health. Partly it’s lack of money, unemployability, far too many cats… and partly it’s my natural inclination. I incline towards the hermit. This necessary stay-at-home, inward-looking-ness has thrown up new challenges, blog-wise. Mainly, the problem is that I am not Jane Austen. Jane Austen was so very gifted, she could have got blood out of a stone.

I think I got on to Jane Austen because I was debating whether or not to tell you the story of the Mystery Beep, and thinking no, that is just too small and uninteresting and generally paltry a sequence of events to write about it, and then thinking But Jane Austen…

I will tell you the story of the Beep, but in a separate post. In the meantime I will disclose that a second-hand Russian textbook has just crashed through my letterbox. The postmen round here are lacking in delicacy. Anything at all, they believe, can be got through a letter box if you shove hard enough.

That’s the thing about being retired and having no money to go out or do anything – you end up having to invent unnecessary but faintly interesting things to do. ‘Projects’. I have three of them on the go at the moment.

One is turning every scrap of yarn, material etc into something just in case I need to swap items for tins of cat food, should cat food be rationed in the case of You Know What. I just have a feeling they aren’t going to ration with nineteen cats in mind. That would constitute a cattery, and I am not one. Officially. So I am making things that could be offered as a swap for either one, two, four or six tins of Whiskas – hippie stuff – knitted dishcloths and pet blankets, knotted hemp bracelets, origami cranes and anything else I can dream up. I will probably end up with a box of items nobody ever wanted, but hey – before that they were boxes of odd balls of wool, balls of string, patchwork scraps. What’s the difference?

Another is re-reading a lifetime’s collection of paperback books. I know I have been determined to do this ever since I began writing this blog, and have never got round to it. I did give quite a few bags away to charity, but now I have sorted what’s left – still a lot – into alphabetical order once more. Since I do not have enough bookshelves (the bottom shelves have to be kept empty so that the boy cats can’t pee at the books when I’m not looking) I have brought in some splintery old apple crates from the garage. Apple crates, when lined with strips cut from plastic cat-litter sacks, make quite good bookshelves. Luckily I’m tall, as they go right up to the ceiling.

The third project is learning languages. I know I will never have occasion to speak another language to another human being, but why should that matter? What I am interested in really is linguistics, and what I really want is to learn as many languages as possible to read and to a certain level, i.e. I do not need to become an expert; I don’t even need to pronounce them correctly, though I’ll try. I’m interested to know how languages work, and how they compare to one another, and to find out whether I can still learn. I imagine myself, during those long, cold winter days – not so far off now – bundled in duvets and shawls to economise on heating, striving to master the intricacies of foreign grammatical systems – and keeping my brain alive.

Today it was Russian – most of these books can be had for less than £1 second-hand on Amazon, plus postage. I sat down with my cup of tea and dipped into it. Some kind soul had annotated many of the pages in tiny, annoying pencil writing, but I suppose for £1 you can’t complain. After a short perusal I decided Russian was going right to the bottom of the languages ‘to do’ heap, even under Welsh. I did learn one word, though – in the Cyrillic alphabet it’s written something like Myxa and pronounced (well of course) moo-ha. It means ‘fly’. So next time one of them is buzzing around my living room I can tell it to Buzz off, you little moo-ha.

Dead People Who Would Have Been Bloggers

I’m not suggesting that to paint a bison on a wall, or blow coloured powder through your fingers to make your hand-print on a cave wall is the equivalent of blogging – communication, yes; symbolism, yes but for blogging you do need words. However, words have been around for a long time, and as long as they have been around there have been people who wanted to… just update you on their Daily Doings, on their Thoughts, people who just had a weird idea or two and found some sort of pleasure in putting it out there… see if there was any reaction.

These individuals were not necessarily novelists. Writing a novel is a specialised, long-term project and requires a lot of sterling qualities that bloggers may or may not be somewhat deficient in – gritty determination; staying power; that passionate, obsessive attention to detail; that ability to remember who in God’s name Catherine Earnshaw is and why there need to be two Catherine’s in one book; that ability to keep going day after day, pushing that knot towards the invisible end of that invisible piece of string, building that wall whilst standing two inches away from it, telling the joke for which there may well turn out never to have been a punchline; wading on through that dark, dark treacle when one’s novel sinks into its inevitable Soggy Bottom – or rather it’s Soggy Middle.

I’m not like that, fellow bloggers. Maybe you are – in which case why are you wasting your time on this frippery? Wamble off somewhere and pen that novel. Get thee to a nunnery, why woulds’t thou be a breeder of sinners?

All through history there have been people who have something to say – sometimes frivolous but equally often unique, subtle, interesting, humorous; people who wanted to gossip rather than lecture; people who just wanted to say, hey, what do you think about this? In the past those people did blog, they just didn’t call it that, and they used whatever medium came to hand. In Ancient Rome Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, tutor and advisor to the truly horrible Emperor Nero, wrote letters.

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Except that they weren’t really letters. His one hundred and twenty-four were formally addressed to a friend, a distant student, but whether or not such student actually existed – is unimportant. The Letters were Seneca’s way of talking to the world. Give him a computer, he would have blogged.

Diarist Samuel Pepys would probably have blogged. He eventually had to give up diarising because of his eyesight. He was afraid that having to write, with an inkpot and quill pen, by candlelight, was damaging it further. However, he might well have blogged in his own private code, based on the well-known (in those days) Shelton’s Shorthand, plus Spanish, Italian and French, since the grown-up stuff was interspersed with quite a lot of saucy stuff about maids and mistresses that he that wouldn’t have wanted his wife to read, also a lot of stuff about his wife that she probably wouldn’t have wanted other people to know.

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For example (skip this bit, children):

“… and did tocar mi cosa con su mano [ touch my thing with her hand] through my chemise but yet so as to hazer me hazer la grande cosa ” [make me make the great thing (orgasm)]

Jane Austen would have blogged, you betcha. She would probably have called herself Johan Austen for more gravitas, or Herbert Finke and had one of those little round pictures where you can almost but not quite see someone’s face, and it might not be them anyway (not that I can speak, hiding behind a picture of a stuffed witch puppet). Can you imagine her observations, this quiet, mob-capped auntie in the corner? I think I would almost rather have been able to read Aunt Jane’s blog than Pride and Prejudice. Almost.  Better still, Cassandra might not have been able to get her censoring little hands on it after her sister’s death.

Charles Dickens would have blogged. He published those enormous and rather wonderful novels of his in weekly instalments – respect to him; it’s no easy feat to write a novel on the hoof, no safety net – the possibility of tossing the whole thing in the wastepaper basket half way through or drastically rewriting it. But he was also a businessman and wrote and published several magazines. I can imagine his blog as being more of a zine, but a wonderful zine. A wonderful new(ish) word zine is, too – so useful for Scrabble.

And then there are the women’s magazine journalists, the newspaper columnists, the poets, the publishers of scandalous broadsheets and lofty sermons. Do you think they would have been able to resist the lure of that lit-up screen? Two more, and then I’ll shut up.

Nella Last (or Housewife, 49 so brilliantly played by the so recently late Victoria Wood) who wrote page after unpunctuated page, in pencil on scraps of paper, and submitted them to Mass Observation movement during the Second World War. What she writes about is so dull, so every-day and yet, running beneath it all, the sorrows of a real-life mismatched but stuck-to marriage, the loved but not entirely comprehended son, the struggles, the clever ‘dodges’, the pride in being able to manage, the pleasure in making her ‘dollies’ for the hospital, the achievement of running a wartime charity shop; the emergence of a downtrodden middle-aged woman, partly through her writings and partly through war, into a circumscribed individuality. She’d have blogged – if her husband had allowed her on the computer.

George Mackay Brown, eccentric poet and dramatist from Stromness, Orkney, Scotland, and regular columnist in The Orcadian. He died in 1996. Apart from one or two sorties to university and so forth, he spent his whole life in this one, beloved place and he wrote about the small things, the daily things that were important to his readers. He said he wrote for an imaginary Orcadian, someone exiled to America maybe, or Canada. He wrote to give them a taste of home, to keep them in touch with what was important to all. After breakfast each day he would push aside the marmalade pot and the breadcrumbs and start writing. He often had a bit of a struggle to get his handwritten column to the post-box on time, when it was blowing a gale or the up-hill-and-down-dale streets were a sheet of ice. Often he was cold, in his own little house. Sometimes he was ill, sometimes depressed. Sometimes – pretty often, in fact – he turned to whiskey for solace and when he did he drank too much of it, but always he wrote. He brought Orkney to life. He knew so much about its history and geography, and was constantly referring to his overloaded bookshelves for the meaning of some tantalising word or phrase in the Orkney Norn – the old Norse language.

He was a nerd, before there was such a thing. He would have been a blogger, although he might have had to use the computer in the Public Library, since he had little money and only the most basic possessions. His newspaper columns were eventually collected into two books:  Under Brinkie’s Brae and Letters from Hamnavoe. He wrote about what he ate for his supper, his bachelor experiments with cooking; about the challenging Orcadian weather; about taking friends and visitors round the island and showing them the sights; about long walks and seabirds; about problems with heating, postal strikes; ballpoint pens; a sagging couch a friend had bought on his behalf in a sale; nature, football matches and television programmes… anything.

And that’s the thing about blogging, isn’t it? You don’t have to have a theme, or a purpose, or a noble aim. You don’t have to be coherent, you don’t need to be propagandising or sending some sort of message. You can write about anything. Just because.

I miss her phantom voices

So I’m at this meeting, with my sister, in the mental ward. It’s a small room, down the far end by the door we can never get out of afterwards (or fast enough) and which someone always has to come along with a plastic key on a chain to overrule. The room is obviously used for some other purpose some of the time. In one corner, on a surgical bed, sits a young woman who never does introduce herself: maybe a student; maybe even a patient. Then there is a Very Large Nurse (male), a Social Worker with a kindly expression and a forgettable name, wearing wrinkled leggings and an unfortunate dress, plus Mum’s Psychiatrist, tapping at her computer, trying to find her case notes.

Mum doesn’t know we’re here. We spot her in the day room when we are signing in, eating a yoghurt. She is very focussed on the yoghurt. After a while she gets up and hobbles across in front of the giant TV (most of the audience is asleep in any case) to bin the empty pot. How bent-over she is, now. She was always so fit, so upright. She still doesn’t see us, and by unspoken agreement we hide. Easier if she doesn’t attend this meeting, in particular – and afterwards there will be no time for the usual silent hour in the activities room, writing notes for her, which she looks at, frowns and pushes back, not meeting our eyes.

So they start talking about her behaviour prior to admission. ‘The carers mentioned her lying on the kitchen floor with her head in a cupboard? Saying she might as well be dead?’

‘She often says that,’ I say. ‘She’s unhappy.’

‘But lying on the floor, with her head…?’

‘Oh, that’ll be the Voices. They talk to her through the cupboards, you see. And the lying on the floor, that’s because they’re much easier to hear from lower down…’

In all these years I have never learned to keep my mouth shut. Now the whole room – including my younger sister – swivels in my direction and treats me to that ‘Obviously runs in the family’ look.

The problem is twofold. Partly it’s this – when someone believes in their delusions there is no point whatsoever in saying to them, look here, you old Daftie, this just isn’t logical. If my mother had access to logic she wouldn’t be believing – as she did before admission – that Gypsies had taken up residence in the house to the left of her and Gangsters in the house to the right, and that these two groups conducted conversations with her, and between themselves, out in the blackness of the garden, behind drawn curtains, in the middle of the night. Pointless to laugh and tell her that They couldn’t possibly be forbidding her to enter her bathroom and her bedroom. It was a fact: They had taken over that part of the house, and now these rooms no longer existed.

For years Mum has been updating me on the increasingly menacing activities of her Voices. They were digging under the foundations of the house at one point. They were going to make a film. They planned to move the house several feet from its current foundations. They had taken over all the houses round here. They had big plans. To begin with they sang, or talked amongst themselves. What they said didn’t make much sense and Mum and I could agree that they weren’t real, just a bit of a nuisance, some sort of interference. But as her dementia deepened something seemed to tip inside her head. The voices were real, she could hear them quite clearly even at a distance, in spite of having almost no natural hearing, and now they were talking about her. They were discussing their plans for what they now firmly regarded as their property. They were telling her she was no longer permitted…

But you just get used to it. As I drove over to visit her of a Sunday I would be trying to anticipate the latest instalment – it got to be a bit like following The Archers – but They often managed to surprise me all the same. I began to wonder what They looked like, my fellow-visitors, imagine what They sounded like. How many of them were there, exactly? Did They also watch me, I wondered.

They certainly discussed me. We were forced to leave our favourite café rather sharpish one Sunday, because They were saying she shouldn’t have taken me there. My presence was not required. ‘Don’t bring her in here again,’ They instructed.

‘It’s all right,’ Mum assured the uncomprehending woman behind the till (rather sniffily) ‘This is the last time we will be Darkening your Doormat.’ And she was right. Far too embarrassing ever to go back. I quite liked that café, too. The scrambled egg was nasty, mind you: rubbery; straight out of some industrial-sized can of powdered egg.

After a while – it’s not that you believe in these ghostly presences, but they become almost as much of a fact to you as they are to the other person. It’s like with children – accept their invisible friends and you can go on communicating. You thin the already thin veil that separates  sane from mad.  It’s surprisingly easy; in fact for a writer it’s frighteningly easy. We spend so much of our time in imaginary worlds in any case. I could write – did write, once – a longish short story entitled Just Dust, now lost. It was about a community or family living on a distant planet. The atmosphere was poisonous and they lived under a vast plastic dome. But in at the seams, along the edges, into the cracks and interstices of their safe little world, was blowing… red dust. At first they hardly noticed it accumulating in little, and then bigger, heaps. Then they told themselves it was nothing. Nothing at all, really.

At no time, whilst writing that story, did my conscious knock upon the door of my subconscious and inform it that this planet with its sinister red dust wasn’t real or that these people didn’t exist, or that I was making it up. I suspended disbelief. To write the story I had to do that, just as a reader has to do that when they read. How many women, when they/Elizabeth Bennet first catch sight of the devastating Mr Darcy on the far side of the ballroom, immediately remind themselves – he isn’t real – he’s no more than words on paper – he’s just some frustrated eighteenth century spinster’s fantasy.

I ‘believed’ in that cast of many floating around my mother’s head. We all floated around together, for a while. That was the way I stayed in touch with her. She left my world so I followed across into hers. It was all I could do. And now, foolishly, insanely, I miss Them. She’s been put on some antipsychotic drug. She’s still got dementia, of course, but no longer mentions the Voices. She’s calmer now; the paranoia’s subsided and it’s better for her. But now there’s nothing left to talk about, no scrap of common ground remaining.

And sometimes I find myself wondering what they’re up to nowadays, those Gypsies, those next-door Rascals. Have They finished digging up the foundations, or did They hit some sort of snag? Maybe They stumbled upon dinosaur bones or Roman coins. Did They succeed in relocating the house several feet to the left? What about that film They were planning to make? Might They be wandering round her house even now, in that unheated, undusted, unoccupied emptiness, cameras whirring, discussing filmic technicalities – panning and scanning, fading to black?

And weave but nets to catch the wind

Two thoughts occurred to me simultaneously yesterday, about the internet. One thought is to be celebrated, two at the same time is a rare occurrence.

Firstly it occurred to me that this thing that we are feverishly blogging onto; this thing we confidently upload the 9,999th recipe for cheese-and-tomato-quiche onto or inform as to the 999 household uses for lemon juice; this thing we publish our ground-breaking scientific treatises onto; on which we proclaim our political and religious fervour; on which we write our life stories and record the least and most interesting details of daily lives – would be the major, if not the only historical ‘source’ in years to come.

I imagine them, our historians, a thousand years hence – maybe tiptoeing the scorched remains of some nuclear disaster; teeming half-blind in some low-lit underground city or maybe – just maybe – cavorting joyfully in some green paradise containing faithful genetic reproductions/fanciful re-imaginings of all the creatures our own generation is hunting to extinction, polluting or crowding out of existence.  Here a snow leopard. There a unicorn.

But how those future professors and  graduate students will enjoy studying us, and what an unprecedented amount of material they will have to work on! Not for them, fragments of a scroll found in a cave. Not for them the copperplate of workhouse records, faded to brown. Not for them the clue in the place name, crumbled walls beneath the soil, letters complete or redacted. They will have…this.

That is, if this still exists (second thought). Will there still be electricity a thousand years hence? Will people still know how to write code? Will the phrase “Error 502 Bad Gateway” mean any more to them than it does to me? Who knows what technologies we are capable of destroying, in our foolishness.

We have done it so many times before, that’s the trouble. In 48 BCE (troublesome E – what’s that for?) or thereabouts someone, possibly Julius Caesar, set fire to the Library of Alexandria, one of the largest and most wonderful libraries in the ancient world. In those days knowledge was stored on papyrus scrolls. They burn nicely. What arcane material might have been recorded on those scrolls? We will never know.

Books have been burnt for as long as there have been books, and idiots who think that freedom of thought and the paper it is written down on are one and the same thing:

In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.”

And on a smaller scale – Jane Austen’s precious letters, redacted or destroyed by her well-meaning sister Cassandra. Interestingly, Jane herself may have helped Cassandra decide which passages to excise. In an age when letters would have been read aloud to the family, Jane would underline those passages which were for her sister’s eyes only, and Cassandra would skip over these when reading. There is even a mention of this system in Pride and Prejudice. What trust people must have had in one another.

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And yet information continues to be passed down, and presumably the way this happens is via human memory. Even if something is later destroyed, some or all of it will be in somebody’s head, and that person will tell others. Ideas, no matter how many times we burn or redact them, will move from person to person. As long as people can whisper to one another in corners an idea, once had, will never be destroyed. Or if it was destroyed someone, somewhere, eventually, would have it all over again. No matter many barrels of dynamite are employed in reducing it to rubble an ancient temple, once built, can never be destroyed. The reverence that built it survives: it has been, therefore it is. A poem, once written, exists, even if nobody ever, anywhere, reads it. It is part of the fabric of the universe.