Post McEwan Stress Disorder

This picture is from tiny card my mother once sent me. The message inside is mundane:

Monday, 2pm

I received your letter. Went over to the garage. Explained about little red spanner [Skoda’s irritating ‘service due’ warning light].

They can deal with little red spanner ie: take it off so that it won’t be a nuisance any more.

I left the key with them. It will soon be dealt with.

Love, Mum XXX

It felt a bit creepy reading this so-ordinary and long-forgotten message from Mum’s earlier self, but it was nice to see her handwriting, and to see that all the full stops were once again in the right place, the ‘i’s all meticulously dotted and the ‘t’s all crossed. The style’s clumsy for her, though – ‘it’ must already have begun at that point, and I didn’t realise.

It was a long drawn out and horrible Flowers For Algernon process, for us both, first watching her handwriting decline and then her mind refusing to tell her what to write in letters to friends, and her desperate strategies to keep doing so: the sudden change to writing in pencil – I bought her a whole box of 2Bs and a desktop pencil-sharpener which neither of us could then fasten to the desk; the endless, obsessive process of rubbing out bits of sentences and trying again; the rewriting of entire letters; the asking me to check them before she posted them.

I have a little nightmare of the same thing happening to me one day – and not realising – and gibberish appearing in this blog, and either no one telling me (and who would want to be the one to do that?) or everyone just Unfollowing. Oh, God save us from an unknown future.

I found Mum’s butterfly card in one of my books. Being lazy and using everything from letters to bus tickets to torn-off pieces of cereal packet does have its upside. You never know what little treasure you might to come across when you get round to tidying your books. I also found a lot of bookmarks from a particular second-hand bookseller.

Every time you order a second-hand book from them, no matter if it only cost 99p, they include a nice cardboard bookmark with a design submitted by a reader. And they are excellent bookmarks (they must have many graphic artists among their readers) and also an excellent selling point. It works with me anyway: I always look down the list and see if I can get the book from them rather than any of the alternatives, out of sheer bookmark-greed.

I notice a preponderance of the black-and-white-one-with-the-many-skulls. I remember, in fact, them sending me three black-and-white skull bookmarks inside a single ancient paperback one time, and picturing some poor, bored school-leaver on work-experience in an office on an industrial estate, fishing for the umpteenth time into a plastic bin full of pretty bookmarks and flinging in whatever happened to come out. I wonder if they do swapsies?

And now, by the magic of technology and a lot of messing about with fancy filters I am able to use Mum’s little butterfly card in a post. Mum would have been horrified, not at the idea per se but at the prospect of me attempting to explain it to her. Her eyes would glaze over the minute I started on about my computer: Mum was very good at un-listening, as no doubt most Mums are.

Why am I going on about butterflies? Well, I was going to use this picture as an illustration for the next Books From My Bookcase item. This was going to be a debut collection of short stories called A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray (2004). The book leapt out at me because it is one of two physically beautiful books I possess, the other one being the hardback first edition of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff – the one with the gorgeous red flowers. Hang on, lets try to find it:

how i live cover

The above doesn’t do it justice. Bits of it (the leaves) are all shiny and lit up – sorry, metallicised – can’t find it in the dictionary but sure it’s a real word – metallized just wont do! – and bits of it are left matt. And Tropical Butterflies is yellow and brown and kind of fusty-Victorian-looking, and inside there is a bonus – an extra sheet – what do you call that? – the front paper – with a glossy version of the same yellow cover, a delightful little shock when you open it.

Now, later on in life, I understand why I married an artist. I thought it was only an unhappy childhood and alternative brain-wiring we shared but it was also an eye for beauty. In another life, maybe, I shall be a  collector of objects d’art Maybe I can go back (since I doubt that ‘lives’ are in chronological order) to the 17th Century and be a man (makes life easier, always) and have a cabinet of curiosities full of wonderful and mysterious things that I can show off to callers. Or maybe I’ve already had that life.

Rats.

In any case, having found A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies I realised I had only in fact read a few little bits of it. The short stories look good, if a mite challenging. They certainly got good reviews:

“John Murray’s stories are a genuine cultural breakthrough… adventures of the mind, and rich in human feeling, true departures from any other known fiction.” Muriel Spark

I think I read a little bit of one and had uncomfortable flashbacks to Ian McEwan. I had a really bad experience with his macabre short story collection The Cement Garden (1978). Every one of those tales frightened the living daylights out of me. Never been the same since. Post McEwan Stress Disorder.

IMG_20170818_153722_kindlephoto-22387772.jpg

A penchant for chambermaids

Life without a computer – it sends quite a shiver down my spine, though. In the short while I have been blogging stuff has come together for me – the blog gives me somewhere to put all those random bits of writing I’ve been randomly writing all my life. Better whirling in cyberspace, unpaid and anonymous, than attracting mildew at the back of my garage and read by no one at all. It’s given me an outlet and a focus – something to achieve each day.

I suppose I would adapt and survive if all computers were suddenly beamed up by a silver spaceship, and in some ways it might be easier for me than for a younger person who has never lived without computers, and blogs, their little furry inhabitants. I would keep on writing, but the blog would become a paper object, a combination of diary, “essais” as Montaigne called them, commonplace book, notebook and attempted fiction. I would miss having readers – probably more even than I want to imagine at the moment. One half of writing is expressing oneself, the other half is communicating. Without a reader I would have lost half my reason for writing but probably not all of it. I’d still derive a certain amount of satisfaction from keeping up with my diary/notebook in obscurity. And after all, what else would there be to do?

I do hope that another time around I’d be more organised – work out some sort of format or system and stick to it. No more rusty paperclips, scraps of paper and overflowing cardboard boxes. All in the one place, and indexed. Ideally I’d be a latter-day Pepys, sitting down at my desk to write of an evening, in longhand, in a series of beautiful ledgers. Maybe even by candle-light, though a periwig might be excessive. Maybe I’d even invent a code, as he did. It would be amusing to write ream upon ream of stuff in hieroglyphs that would occupy scholars for centuries to come, trying to translate. Of course I don’t have as much to hide as Pepys, who went about the King’s business and needed to be discreet. He also had a clever and somewhat shrewish French wife and a penchant for chambermaid-fumbling. The bits in plain English are juicy enough.

But as for life without a computer, that would be inconvenient. I live in a remote place and if I had to rely on the village shop – well, I couldn’t. There’s hardly anything in it. Try feeding eighteen cats from a shop that puts out four tins of cat food per day and thinks that party balloons, plastic clothes pegs, can openers and little sewing kits are more important than bread and baked beans. If I didn’t have the computer I would need to be somewhere else post haste, always assuming that I had the choice. If computers suddenly ceased to exist, I’m guessing we would see a mass flight to towns and cities. Baby boomers especially would be on the move, trying to insure themselves against a computerless old age.

Even selling houses. Imagine it, without Zoopla and Rightmove. Virtual window-shopping would be out and endless trailing round estate agents’ offices and leafing through sheaves of property details would be in: no sidestepping the over-attentive oily charm and the hard sell then. Instead of eliminating a lot of unsuitable properties via some practised snooping on Google Maps – doing that dizzy-making thing with the arrows to see how wide the street is, whether there’s parking or a dirty great un-photographed factory opposite – we’d have to actually go there. What a waste of time.

And emails – no more emails. Back to handwritten letters with stamps on. Postcards, even. I wouldn’t mind that: it would be nice to hear that papery rustle on the doormat and not be absolutely certain it was either a bill or a colourful candidate for the recycling box.