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?

A Plague By Any Other Name

William or Leetle Weely as the vet calls him has a disgusting-looking ailment of the paws. The vet speaks very good English, but it is not his first language and I believe has not quite got the hang of seaside postcard humour and double entendres. It may be that double entendres are the last linguistic hurdle a foreigner has to cross.

Speaking of double-entendres, even I missed one the other night. I was in a long conversation with my sister in Canada, complaining bitterly about an overbearing male who entered my kitchen and even, irritatingly, sniggered at the way I cut the cheese, saying it was probably because I was left handed etc., etc. Said man has now been disposed of (fingers crossed) but not before he nearly electrocuted himself by poking a kitchen knife into my toaster, whilst said toaster was plugged into the electric socket and red hot, because he had managed to get a crumpet stuck in it. He then asked me why I had turned the toaster off and I mentioned saving him from electrocution. Probably I should just have left him to it – would have been easier than trying to convince him to kindly leave me alone – but, as one of my neighbours said to me when I went out to mow the lawn this afternoon, you wouldn’t want the corpse of a fat, condescending old baggage cluttering up your vinyl floor covering.

Anyway – rambling again – I kept referring to cutting the cheese as part of this sisterly transatlantic rant, and it wasn’t until the end of the conversation that my sister told me that cutting the cheese in Canadian was actually a euphemism for breaking wind.

Anyway, William has a paw complaint, which hopefully will be improved by antibiotics and steroids. Its scientific name is Plasma Cell Pododermatitis but it’s also known as Pillow Foot or, the vet tells me, Bumble Foot. Really, if you hadn’t seen Leetle Weely hobbling about on the sore, scabby and peeling paws in question you might imagine him joyously floating about with a tiny white pillow strapped to each foot, or maybe being transported by a quartet of little fluffy bees…

It made me think about the names we choose for diseases, and why they are so often really attractive names when the ailment they represent is so unattractive. When I was a child I had Scarlatina (why Scarlatina and not Scarletina?). I don’t remember much about it except that I had a sore throat and my mother hung white sheets at my bedroom window. They had to be soaked in something-or-other (disinfectant, probably). I believe  Scarlatina was quite serious – children often died – and yet what a lovely name someone chose for it! Can’t you just imagine it – a flamenco dancer in a red silk dress, clacking black cube heels on a polished floor.

And then there was Impetigo. Just down the road from me lived the butcher’s twin girls (well, one of them was a girl, the other nobody was ever quite sure). They were not identical, obviously, but what they did have was permanent identical Impetigo – like crusty stuff around their mouths. In those days the treatment for Impetigo was Gentian Violet (another lovely name) and so the poor non-identical twins were permanently daubed in purple. But Impetigo – can’t you just imagine it stalking silently through a green and gold jungle, the ghost of twinkle in its eye?

We were once asked in an English lesson what our favourite-sounding word of all time was, and whether we loved it for its sound alone, or for the meaning of the word. One girl said she just loved the sound of Diahorrea (the spellcheck obviously doesn’t – I could never decide how to spell it) which caused much laughter but showed that, as Shakespeare put it, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

And what about Schizophrenia, Chlamydia, Fasciitis, Eczema. If you didn’t know what these words meant, wouldn’t you think they were rather lovely?

When is a drill not a drill?

My sister up in Stockport has a drill! Canadian brother-in-law informs me reprovingly. She put up all the new shelves in the garage.

Some of us don’t have several garages full of Northern clutter that we need to put up new shelves for. Some of us ladies have an instinctive aversion to drills, chainsaws, Stanley knives – in fact anything that makes a noise and goes round and round or that might accidentally kill, spear or amputate us. I have never met this competent Oop North sister-in-law once removed but have taken an instant dislike to her. I imagine her stiffly permed, sensible-shoed, twin-setted, impressively-bosomed and sounding a little like Les Dawson.

However, now I must buy a drill. The plastic planters I ordered for the garden have turned up not only twice the size they appeared on Amazon but with no drainage holes. Why have they no drainage holes? How many people are there who buy a plastic planter for anything other than planting plants in?

I look at drills on Amazon. What exactly is a hammer drill? Why would a drill need to hammer? Don’t you use a hammer to hammer? What is a drill bit? What is a chuck? What is a chuck key? And what is a torque setting? With a shudder I recall Ex’s longest ever Aspie-type monologue during which, for over an hour, he explained torque to me in minute detail with particular reference to helicopter blades. I thought torque – that dreaded substance – was safely confined to helicopter blades but no – apparently drills have it too.

I don’t want a drill, but I do want holes in my plastic planters. I decide to swallow my pride and phone Ex. Occasionally he will speak to me. I telephone and get My Replacement instead. Instantly flummoxed, my mind still running on DIY equipment, I make a mess of that too. Er, how are you? I ask, remembering that there’s an order of precedence and normal people enquire about one another before demanding advice about drill bits.

But that was wrong. She’s had cancer. It sounds like I’m eager to  hear the worst, though in fact we’ve known each other for a long time and I feel somewhat less animosity towards her than towards that paragon of a Northern sister-in-law. But it sounds wrong. Oh, you know, she says, sounding weak and croaky, So-so. Yes, that was wrong. Why did I phone without working out the conversation first? I can’t do spontaneous.

He’s not available just at the moment, she says. (I can almost hear her thinking, ‘Oh God, it’s another one, as if he wasn’t bad enough’.) He’s sharpening the chain-saw and if he stops…

Oh no, I say, please don’t interrupt him in the middle of his sharpening…

It’s just that if he stops in the middle he’ll have to start again from the beginning and then he’ll be…

Angry, I say.

Yes, she says. Someone has given him an apple orchard and he’s cutting it down.

Turns out the orchard is many acres of apple trees. The farmer is getting out of the apple business and has donated the many acres of apple trees, though not the many acres, to Ex provided he will cut them down. The work will apparently take five weeks and I can imagine Ex, well into his seventies now, out in the midday sun madly cutting down apple trees with the vim and vigour of a twenty year old. Do be careful, I say, when I finally get to speak to him. Is that fatal heart attack worth it for a lifetime of free firewood, I wonder. But Ex has a logic of his own, absolute and unfathomable.

I need a drill for drilling holes in plastic planters, I say. Can you tell me what sort to get?

He starts off then and half an hour later he’s still going, about the price of drills in Aldi  – Aldi? I thought they were a supermarket – as opposed to the price of drills in Tool Station or Screwfix. I need a step drill, apparently, which adjusts from 4mm up to 20mm. Will I need to make holes bigger than 20mm?

I have no idea what 20mm looks like? Frantically I reach for the tape measure. It’s in inches.

So a step drill – what is that exactly?

It’s a step drill, of course. It drills in steps.

So a step drill is an actual drill?

No, a step drill is a bit you put in a drill.

So why is a step drill called a drill and a drill called a drill too? (Now I can hear myself annoying him, just like I always did.)

And you need to set the torque to a low setting…

Torque! He’s lost me. Nothing more goes in.

Next day, in a DIY store that neither Screwfix nor Tool Station (which I have been unable to find on the industrial estate despite Ex and My Replacement’s detailed instructions) I am listening to a young man with a strange black earring in his ear, in the centre of which a hole so big you could thread a rope through it and lead him around. He is a strapping young man but I am careful not to appear to have noticed that. It wouldn’t be appropriate. I also try to avoid looking at his poor maimed ear, which is making me feel quite queasy.

He is disarmingly honest, this young man, if not a good salesman. Don’t buy one here, he says. The branded ones here are good, but expensive. You don’t want to be wasting your pension on a drill you’re only going to use once a year to drill holes in plastic pots.

(Pension? Rats!)

We do sell cheap ones, he says, but they’re rubbish. Never known anyone to keep one more than a few weeks before bringing them back and complaining. What you need is the lower range of one of the main brands like Silverline, Bosch or (something else) which you can get on Amazon or second-hand on Ebay. You don’t need a hammer drill just a battery-operated standard drill – starter DIY level. And you don’t need to worry about voltage or amps, whatever it say on the box.

It’s a miracle. I am understanding him!

A step drill is a bit, he says. Forget the drill word, it’s confusing. Think of it as just another bit.

Do I need more than one bit? Will I need to get one of those plastic kits full of bits?

No, he says. You just need the step bit and one smaller bit, to get the hole started. The step bit isn’t meant for starting holes, it’s for making them bigger, and we don’t sell those here in any case. Get one off Amazon.

So there it is. I’m not entirely stupid after all. It depends who’s doing the explaining.

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

If only there was a recipe

My sister did the last trip to Accident & Emergency, and that was only three days ago. Mum had fallen, again. She spent three hours there until Mum had been tested, found to be mostly undamaged, and was about to be returned to the home. She duly reported to the rest of the family by email and, as always after one of these excursions, spent the next day in bed with a migraine. Yesterday it was my turn to spend the day with Mum, in a different Accident & Emergency some hour and a half’s drive away.

The home had left us a cryptic message. The ambulance was at the door and Mum was just off to Accident & Emergency and given what we think it is she was being taken to a different hospital. No hint as to what ‘what we think it is’ actually was. For about an hour we both, separately, attempted to call the home back. The phone rang and rang (and rang and rang) and eventually, every time, cut off.

In between abortive telephone calls I was trying to simultaneously get dressed, wash my hair, finish feeding the cats, do something about a fortnight’s laundry I had been in the process of sorting and washing by instalments, dry up the washing up I had washed earlier but not dried and pack a bag with things I might need on a hospital visit of unknown length, just in case. Did I need my mobile phone charger? Should I take spare underwear in case this was time would turn out to be the dreaded “it” that the daughters of a frail 87 year old cannot help but anticipate? Would I be required to sit at a hospital bedside all night? What was it, this what we think it is?

Finally it was decided that I would drive to the hospital, and so I set off, leaving the tumble-drier un-emptied, the bed stripped but not re-made, the cats fed once but not left food for later, my hair still damp, cups and plates drying smearily on the drainer, three loads of washing still to do, a mountain of ironing…

I stress about stuff, particularly when my routine is interrupted. Normally I would have been obsessing all the way down about whether I had enough coins of the right denominations for the exorbitant hospital parking machines. Should I assume I would be there all night, empty my purse into the fiendish thing and hope that was enough? But by now I had reached anxiety-overload status, and parking machine charges had paled into insignificance. If this was really my mother’s last day on earth, what would a parking ticket matter? What would it matter if they decided to clamp the car, come to that? I could sit in the car park and cry hysterically later. Eventually someone would come along and help me – or not.

I found her in a corner cubicle attached to all sorts of machines. They had given her painkillers she barely registered my presence. At one point she opened her eyes. “Hello?” I said, experimentally. She looked at me as if I might be a human being or possibly a kangaroo of some sort, but either way she didn’t care, and closed her eyes again. I learned for the first time that she had broken her hip in a fall.

After some hours of me just sitting there, being too hot and developing a headache, a man from Orthopaedics came along and enquired how the fall had happened. I said I didn’t know. Well, he said impatiently, what did you observe when it happened? He was not English but obviously felt he was being called upon to explain my own language to me because I was very stupid. I said I wasn’t there when it happened. I had just driven for an hour and a half to find out what had happened, because my sister and I had been trying to phone the home back who had left a message to say that something had happened, but were getting no reply from the home…

Just answer questions in the order I ask them to you, he snapped. I hate that. Being snapped at just confuses me and makes me even more circuitous.  I don’t know what happened, I repeated. My sister got an answerphone message that my mother had been brought to this hospital and I have driven down here to find out what happened.

But you’re the daughter.

But my mother lives in a residential home.

But how am I to decide on treatment if you won’t tell me what happened?

But I don’t know what happened. Look, can I give you the telephone number of the home? Maybe they would pick up the phone to you, since you’re a hospital. Maybe it’s only relatives they’re not picking up the phone to.

I am aware that at this point a normal person would be acting differently. My sister, if (only) she were here, would be coolly, even humorously, in charge of the whole situation. My sister doesn’t merely cope she manages people. I am coping, I suppose, but with difficulty. Why can I never cope elegantly? Accident & Emergency is tropical; even the nurses are sweating and fanning themselves with handfuls of brightly-coloured information leaflets grabbed from the wall displays. It is very, very noisy. Every single piece of monitoring equipment in every cubicle, including Mum’s, is either beeping, whining or whistling and nobody seems to be making any move to silence them. The place seethes with staff in blue scrubs, green scrubs, maroon scrubs, office-wear or ambulance-drivers’ uniforms.

I have been here for ever.

In the next-door cubicle is an old man with a ruptured hernia. He is alternately moaning in dreadful pain and then apologising for being forced to moan. I learn all about his hernia and its side effects. I learn about the TIA he had, only a minor one, back in the eighties. I learn that he had a Zantac injection yesterday and maybe it was that that caused this. I learn that he is on blood-thinners. I learn his army pay number, which he keeps reciting, saying that’s the one number you never ever forget. (Don’t count on it, buster, I think. You can and quite probably will forget everything, not just who you were but what you are, and why you are.)

His whole family seem to be present in that next-door cubicle. Two invisible oldish children, the female of which used to be a nurse, and an invisible, senile Mother who is continually trying to feed Father biscuits and having to be prevented in case he needs surgery. As he will, to judge the moaning.

Invisible, senile Mother has parked herself on the other side of the blue curtain to me and keeps pushing her chair back into my space, crushing me against my mother’s hospital bed. At one point I hear myself quavering Oi, look out!  It does no good so I resort to kicking the intruding chair back again every time she sounds as if she may be shifting her considerable weight off it. But she keeps re-encroaching. Soon I will be actually, physically trapped in a corner and will be forced to contravene all the unwritten laws of British politeness, whip back the curtain and confront her. But how can I, when who knows what state of horrid undress the poor old chap may be in? A moment ago he said I bet you never saw your Dad like this before, son!

Once again I pull the thin hospital blanket back over Mum so that the whole of Accident & Emergency cannot see her like this. I want to be somewhere else. Could I just make a run for it?  But which way is out? I can see no Exit signs.

What medicines is she on? Asks the foreign interpreter of my own language, who does not seem to have gone away, whilst I was wool-gathering.

I don’t know, I say. There were at least four, but I don’t know what the home gives her now.

You must know. It just says Paracetamol here, is that correct?

It doesn’t sound correct. Unless they have stopped all the others without telling us.

But what are the others?

I don’t know what they are. Once again, if you were able to get through to the home, they could tell you what medicines she’s on.

I am aware that a normal person wouldn’t talk like this to an orthopaedi… atrist… atrician.  I refer to my comprehensive set of Mental Notes. Remember the status factor in this situation. The proper thing might be to attempt the submissive female simper or even the more drastic status-poor old female simper. And he’s a man, and foreign. He’ll expect enhanced simpering on account of that.

But how much simpering? What degree of feigned respect might be appropriate in such a case? How to respond to a series of stupid, unanswerable questions when your elderly parent’s treatment, maybe even her life, might depend on what you say now? How do you make someone actually listen, when they are determined not to?

Maybe try and channel my younger sister – attempt “brisk and businesslike”?

If only there was a recipe.

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.