Cows and Hens in Jelly – yum!

I have always liked things with foreign writing on. Even when I was a child. It may be something to do with being left-handed. Scientists have recently discovered that left-handed people have better integration between the two halves of the brain, and often superior language skills. Well, finally! As if we didn’t know that! But at least, something positive after centuries of being called sinister, clumsy, weird and (effectively) shit-handed. The left is the hand Arabic-type countries use for bottom-wiping, whilst the right is reserved for eating.

Which reminds me, obliquely, of sugar. Somewhere around the Sixties there was a rash of rumours in the UK – this or that was going to disappear from the shelves. In fact these rumours seem to have been started by cunning suppliers intent on causing panic buying and as a result selling lots more stuff. I am fairly sure we are in for a lot more of that, come Brexit. If Brexit.

Anyway, one of them was for sugar. Sugar was going to be in short supply. In those days Mum was working in an office down at the little local Quay as some kind of shipping clerk. I think the rough, tough dock foreman (or whatever they are called) had taken rather a shine to Mum, happily married though she was, to my Dad. I am not sure whether Mum had taken a shine back, but she did blush and giggle a bit the day she brought home a couple of bags of sugar which had accidentally fallen off a ship. And into her bag.

The paper packets were white, like all sugar bags, but they were in Polish. I suspect Mum must have told us it was Polish, and the fruity old foreman must in turn have told her. Even with my superior cack-handed language skills I doubt if I could have deduced it, then. I perused those sugar bags for hours, trying in vain to decipher the mysterious, wonderful stuff it was written in. Words are like honey to me. Or sugar. I am Pooh Bear when it comes to any kind of print.

Incidentally, and biting one’s tail a bit, the next ‘shortage’ was of toilet paper. Another round of panic buying ensued. My mother even bought Izal. Now, if you’ve ever experienced Izal you will know that it is hard, it is sharp. It is not an item that you would want about your nether regions. Torn up newspaper would have been preferable. Apparently that used to be a children’s task, before commercial loo-paper – tearing old newspapers into squares, making a hole in one corner and stringing it all together. I would have done that willingly. Anything but Izal.

Back to foreign writing. It has now seemingly become impossible to buy Felix in tins over here. I don’t think this is anything to do with – the B word – since it has been going on for ages. You can buy the very expensive, and indeed very convenient sachets, but you can’t get the same stuff in tins. Now, I am a squeamish-ish vegetarian (who occasionally eats fish and chips, sorry) and would love to use sachets but with nineteen cats I just can’t afford to. One answer might be not to buy Felix at all but my cats – perversely – love Felix. Felix is to my cats as words are to me.

So I buy Felix over the internet, and they are German. They arrive in great monster packs of 40 or so, which nearly cripple the poor little delivery lady. (I have offered to help, but she won’t let me.) German Felix makes both me and the cats happy. The cats rush to gobble it down. I read the tins and savour the words. For some reason they will not automatically translate themselves into the obvious English equivalent. Lachs & Forelle turn into Salmon and Trout – fair enough. But Rind & Huhn in Gelee insists on translating as Cows and Hens in Jelly.

Cows and Hens in Jelly, I murmur to myself, as I go about my household tasks. Cows and Hens… I can hardly wait for the next random batch to arrive. What might it be – Goats and Pigeons in Tomato Sauce? Dog Fish and Canary?

Sprightly!

There are some words you somehow never expect to hear said about yourself and “sprightly” is one of them. It’s one of those Catch 22 words. On the one hand it’s a compliment, because who would want to be the opposite of sprightly, whatever that might be. Sluggish? Creaky? On the other hand, whoever called a young person sprightly? Nimble, perhaps. Quick? A live wire? A bundle of fun? But sprightly seems to imply that you have reached, or are about to reach, the age and stage of not being sprightly. Sprightly implies a certain surprise as to your physical condition.

There are words and phrase that only old people seem to merit. There’s Dear. And then there’s good for your age or some variation thereupon. My dentist recently remarked that my teeth were in about as good condition as could be expected for my age. You’ve still got your own, she said. You can eat with them and they’re firmly attached. I mean, they’re not going anywhere…

Now, where would my teeth go? Would I wake up one morning to discover that all my precious gnashers had leapt out of my mouth overnight and were lined up on the duvet swinging their tiny suitcases. Well, they would chorus, toothsomely – we’ll be off. Sayonara!

And today, not one hundred yards from that dentist’s surgery, a lady in a blue carer’s uniform described me, to me, as seeming to be quite sprightly still. Not even sprightly, but a qualified sprightly.

I had gone, in desperation really, to my local charity for the aged. I knew I needed people to talk to – social interaction as they now call it. I knew I had been sitting indoors on my own for at least two years talking to the cats, talking to the TV, talking to this blog… and basically it wasn’t doing me any good. Furthermore I had endured four years, five maybe, of first creeping, then galloping, then all-consuming dementia with my mother and I didn’t want it! How hard could it be to be taken in a coach to the beach for ice creams, to decorate a wooden spoon, to make a paper hat, to sing along to crooners from twenty years before my time? Surely I could throw a bouncy plastic ball about or reminisce, when required?

Social interaction is one of the things they say you should do to avoid the dreaded D-thing – along with exercise, not smoking, not being overweight and intellectual challenges. I thought back over my mother’s long life and she seemed to have done almost everything right – she never smoked, never drank, was never more than an ounce overweight; was always determined to offer you a saucer of orange segments rather than something nicer, like biscuits.

Until earlier this year, battiness notwithstanding, she could walk for an hour and a half, out into the traffic and over busy main roads with never a glance to left or right, at a pace that left daughters and pursuing social workers puffing to keep up. All her life she had walked, she had cycled, she had spent long days in the garden, out in the mid-day sun like mad dogs and Englishmen, heaving up tree roots or whatever. She was just one huge accusation to her weary and slothful progeny. And still she got dementia.

The only thing she did fall down on was the social interaction. Increasingly deaf (though there is a question now as to how much was deafness and how much a cover up for a growing inability to process language) and profoundly shy, she had avoided other people all her life. Dad did the talking, always. After Dad died I printed out lists for her and marked things with pencil X’s – things she might like to join – deaf groups, knitting groups, chatting groups, book groups – all which she filed, neatly, without even reading.

And now here I was, going the same way if I wasn’t careful. And there I stood, in the middle of the day care centre, surrounded by very, very old people at circular tables, drinking breakfast tea and eating, by the smell of it and from the pale blue haze that hung in the room illuminated by shafts of winter sunlight, very burnt toast. Burnt toast makes me cough.

It was no good. Try as I might I was going to stick out like a sore thumb here. It said Over 50s on the website, but no one here was that young. Or sprightly. I could have been any one of their daughters. I started to back towards the door, politely, and that was when she performed a lightning change of tack, that cheery lady in the blue uniform.

You still appear to be quite sprightly, and you can drive. We’re desperate for volunteers…

And away I went, with a sheaf of forms to fill in and return at my earliest convenience.

Featured Image: Ronald Searle “Gay and Sprightly” 1994

I eat my peas with honey…

Buddy – I’d find it really difficult to refer anyone or anything as my buddy, since it’s an American-English word and would kind of stick in the back of my throat. I know what it means, of course, and I know it probably came from British-English in the first place. I believe coalminers in Wales, Oop North and so forth used once to refer to their working partners as ‘butty’ since underground they would be working, literally, butt to butt.

Unfortunately,

a) there aren’t many miners or mines left, since Mrs Thatcher disposed of them;

b) ‘butty’ now means, in British-English, a kind of sandwich – because of the butter. One favourite Oop North, at least in the time of the Beatles, used to be the chip butty, which was a sandwich made with butter (of course) and chips. Except I think chips are called French fries in America – as well as over here, when the eating establishment is trying to make chips sound slightly more upper class, or – as they used to say in the fifties, when Nancy Mitford ruled the social scene – ‘U’. One was either ‘U’ (upper class) or ‘non-U’ (non-upper class) you see. Technically ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ usage is one of Britain’s many, many, many subtle sociolects, or social dialects.

Language is a minefield.

If you were middle class around the same time – and by way of kicking the metaphorical cat, as it were – you might have described a working-class person as ‘milk first’. This was social shorthand: a milk-first person was so very common that she knew no better than to put milk in her teacup and then pour tea on top of it, when it manifestly ought to be the other way round.

A middle-class person would take it for granted that a working-class person would shovel up his peas on the inside of the fork and gobble them down; instead of squashing two or three of them at a time on the back of a fork, anchored there by whatever suitably squashy substance happened to be on his plate.

With so many rules to adhere to mealtimes must have lasted forever. However, that was the point. If you were wealthy you had forever, since time and money are rough equivalents. If you were wealthy you weren’t going to be ravenous by the time the next meal came round: money also equals food as and when required, always, and no hard physical work to burn it off. It’s an attitude that lingers today in cordon bleu restaurants, where a couple of artfully-arranged rocket leaves and a teaspoonful of ‘jus’ are considered exquisitely filling and well worth the huge bill that will land on your table once you have consumed them.

You might think ‘fifties ‘U’/non ‘U’snobbery was aimed at the working classes, but you would be wrong. It was aimed by the upper classes squarely at the middle classes – those who aspired to become, or be accepted as, upper class. And who stood no chance whatsoever.

The upper classes have nothing much to fear from the working classes. These two groups will often use the same word for things – simple, plain, traditional words. The upper class have no anxiety as to their status. The accent says all that needs to be said, so one can call a spade a spade. No need to simper about a relative having passed on or passed over or even (does anyone say this nowadays?) gone beyond the veil – when in fact they have died.

Here, for your delectation and delight, is a list of what you were and were not supposed to say in the 1950s. Faint echoes of ‘common’ or ‘posh’ do still attach to some of the terms. I put them in bold, but they’re personal choices and I may, by now, be wrong. Most of them have simply become antiquated and died the death: anybody referring to radio as a ‘the wireless’ nowadays would either be very old or cultivating some sort of ironic literary fogeyish-ness. I know of no one nowadays who would refer to jam as ‘preserve’ or vegetables as ‘greens’ – but who knows.

I’ll put the ‘U’ word in ordinary type and the ‘non-U’ in italics next to it:

Bike or bicycle – Cycle

Dinner Jacket – Dress suit

Knave – Jack

Vegetables – Greens

Ice – Ice Cream

Scent – Perfume

They’ve got a very nice house – They have got a lovely home

Ill (in bed) – Sick (in bed)

Looking glass – Mirror

Chimneypiece – Mantelpiece

Graveyard – Cemetery

Spectacles – Glasses

False teeth – Dentures

Die – Pass on

Mad – Mental

Jam – Preserve

Napkin – Serviette

Sofa – Settee or Couch

Lavatory or loo – Toilet

Rich (Wealthy)

What? (Pardon?)

Good Health (Cheers)

Lunch – Dinner (for midday meal)

Pudding – Sweet

Drawing-room – Lounge

Writing-paper – Note-paper

How d’you do? – Pleased to meet you

Wireless – Radio

School(master), mistress – Teacher

Nowadays no one’s much bothered, but in the ‘fifties people took it very seriously. Even in the sixties. As an awkward, anxious teenager I once borrowed a book from my local library – Etiquette for Young Ladies. I remember the peas-to-be-squashed-on-the-back-of-the-fork thing, and practicing it at the kitchen table with mashed potato. Not that I ever went anywhere to be observed eating peas.

peas honey 3

There was something about the length of white gloves, I recall – short, elbow-length or really long white gloves being wearable with different kinds of ‘gown’. I never had a gown, but if I had had one I would have known which species of white glove to wear – if I’d had any white gloves.

There was stuff about getting out of a low-slung sports car like a model, so that one’s underwear didn’t show. That’s all gone out of the window now, to judge by all those paparazzi snaps of drunken starlets coming out of or going into nightclubs. Underwear of any kind would be nice. There was stuff about deportment. I remember walking round the kitchen with a short-lived stack of books on my head.

But if you are American, Australian or any other kind of non-Brit – no worries, sport – the unwritten rules, even what remains of them, do not apply to you and never have. Nobody will expect you to use one word in preference to another as long as your meaning is clear. In my experience Brits – perhaps having been an island race for so long – are intrigued and delighted by other accents and other people’s languages and eccentric turns-of-phrase and will go out of their way to communicate with a struggling visitor, just as long as he/she doesn’t appear to be potentially embarrassing, attention-attracting, knife-wielding or outright mad/mental.

If you do appear to be… any of the above… you may find yourself suddenly invisible having unwittingly strayed into Nutter on the Bus territory. But Nutters on Buses – they deserve a post of their own.

peas honey 2

The Wild Swans at Coole

I sometimes think schools should be banned from teaching poetry, since there is nothing like being forced to ‘do’ a poem in class to put you off not only the poem but the poet, for life. On the whole, it is not a good idea to analyse a poem at all, à la English Lit.: that’s because you will never want to read that poem again. You’ll have killed it. A poem hits home, in part, because of resonances – that unexamined, unconscious chain of associations we – as the human race and as a particular social group, and you – as an individual – have with a particular word or phrase. Resonances tap into your past, into your emotions, into your childhood, into the deepest parts of your subconscious, but they only work in the dark. Hunt them down and… dead unicorns litter the path through the woods. Haul them up into the harsh, noisy daylight of a school classroom: all you have is a line of words and another twenty minutes before the bell goes for history.

 

My year were forced to ‘do’ Yeats’ Collected Works at school, and it’s taken me all this time to rediscover him, properly.

Looking back, I was lucky that the first Yeats poem I ever heard was not Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, which is a lovely poem but tends to appeal to the indiscriminate sentimentality of lovelorn teenage girls. I had a bit of a crush on it myself, at fourteen:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Aedh, by the way, is the Gaelic name of several Irish saints. It is probably pronounced ‘Ede’, although some say ‘Ed’ and in some versions of the poem changed to ‘He’ to avoid banjaxing English readers.

I was lucky in that my English teacher, who was young and actually loved her subject, chose instead The Wild Swans at Coole and somehow or other managed not to ruin it for me. I think it was the first uncompromisingly ‘grown up’ poem I had ever come across. I recognised something in its spare-ness; that cool sorrow:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

 

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

 

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

 

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

 

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?

Those lines where ‘unwearied still, lover by lover’ they paddle the cold companionable streams or climb the air – set bells ringing in my mind. I remember her reminding us, in that loud classroom with chalk-dust dancing in the sunlight, that swans are thought to mate for life. As she read it aloud to us I remember momentarily being in the body of a swan, as Yeats himself must have been, momentarily, when he wrote the poem – knowing what it was like to be in another element, a heavy body but winged, and how to rise in the air must require all one’s strength, the air feeling hard, a force to be overcome, a stairway to be climbed.

I remember a few others that I liked – the one about the yellow hair, for instance:

Never shall a young man,

Thrown into despair

By those great honey-coloured

Ramparts at your ear,

Love you for yourself alone

And not your yellow hair.’

But on the whole I wasn’t ready for Yeats and his Irish-ness. I lived in a small corner of the south-east of England – not even the more cosmopolitan London. I had never heard real Irish or Welsh people speak or come across that musicality, that naturally effortless, fluid, creative use of words. It sounded – he sounded – weird. Over the top. Silly. Normal [English] people just didn’t talk like that.

Rhythm and rhyme are easy to understand, which is why junior schools tend to go for stuff like:

Five and twenty ponies,

Trotting through the dark –

Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.

This clever, jiggly versifying is hugely entertaining for children. It’s a big step up, skill-wise, from the execrable verses bereaved relatives select from albums to go in the In Memoriam column; the harmless sugary nastiness of birthday-card rhymes or the drivel people use to sell anything from yoghurt to double-glazing.

But Yeats, and all real, grown-up poets go far beyond that. They push language to an edge, almost doing violence to it – and rely on those elusive unicorns in the wood, resonances, to make it work. What they are trying to get to is the sublime – which is beyond me – possibly beyond anyone, to explain. It’s a point where pain and pleasure mix, where awe seesaws on the edge of wonder; nothing to do with Fifty Shades of Grey, which I still haven’t got round to reading – but maybe there’s a spiritual parallel. They push words and risk all, trusting their readers. They approach what is beyond words, knowing they will fail to reach it; and sometimes a spark leaps across the gap where words are not designed to go; Strange Meeting happens again in no-man’s land.

And that’s what it’s about.