Breathing Spaces

Apropos of nothing, the one-armed cat is gaining speed with every day that passes. He has now re-learned how to gallop, and therefore how to scare the bejasus out of selected other cats. This morning I spotted George clinging hot-foot to a central-heating radiator, trying and failing to haul himself up, having been chased up there by some sort of furry Grendel, now nipping joyfully at his ankles. Cats cope with adversity so much better than us. If you had lost an arm, would you be galloping?

I was thinking the other day about the spaces I have found, when I felt like the wounded Grendel. Grendel, if I remember aright, slunk off to the swamp, or maybe some sort of big pond, and drowned there. Poor Grendel! Why do I feel sorrier for him than that granite-jawed hero Beowulf, who also died – in the end?

So, when feeling like a wounded Grendel (on average once a day, when imprisoned in the world of work), I would have to get away. If I couldn’t get away – meltdown. If you’ve never seen a meltdown…

The thing is with meltdowns, you can see them happening from inside. You can witness yourself behaving like some kind of lunatic and yet you can’t stop. Not for hours, sometimes not for days can you stop. And then you have to get yourself home, still sobbing and attracting horrified glances from passers-by. I had to walk four miles in that condition, once. And then you have to recover. And then, somehow, you have to go back, hoping you haven’t been fired in your absence. Pretending it never happened.

Breathing spaces are essential, and the trick is to get to them early, to forestall… it.

When I worked at the Power Station, it was difficult. We were virtually imprisoned many windswept miles from anywhere at all, behind a revolving-gate and plastic-pass security system that sometimes would and sometimes wouldn’t let you out. Mostly I hid in the loos, but there’s only so long you can do that, and toilets are not the most pleasant of places when you’re trying to regain your sang froid. I remember once, a blowsy blonde fellow-employee (I recognised her voice and that inane laugh) entered the cubicle next to me. I took a deep breath. She let off a huge – what’s a polite word for it – oh, bother it – Fart.

Oops! she screeched – that laugh again – But better out than in!

Oh go away, I thought. But people never go away.

In later jobs it got easier, though there was always at least one meltdown per job, just as there was always one bull-necked female supervisor or superior who took a raging dislike to me. Where did I go in those latter days, to breathe?

There was the library, in winter. I would find an empty table in the reference section and prop some weighty tome in front of me. I wasn’t actually using the tome, of course, I was writing, reading or daydreaming behind it.

And there was the church. That was usually empty at lunchtimes. I’ve always liked churches, when empty. I like places with really high ceilings. I think that’s what it is, the ceilings. Which I suppose is why churches and cathedrals were designed that way – as a kind of foretaste of heaven. Occasionally though they would have art exhibitions of fairly bad paintings, or concerts, or flower-arranging competitions.  Not so good.

In summer there was the Memorial Gardens – why do I find death so restful? – where the dead of World War One were cast in greenish bronze on all four sides of a stone memorial. What I liked was the space, and the green of the grass, and the rows of trees, and the unimaginative flower bed with their soldierly ranks of pansies and marigolds. I liked the wasps, and the students mucking about in their lunch-hours, and the drunks in the far bushes with their bottles of stuff in paper bags, or surrounded by a clutter of empty tins. I liked the prim professional people with their sandwiches. I liked the blue sky and the sunshine and the distance. Distance. I have to have space. That was my best place. Most of my best poems were written there.

And at other times I have found sanctuary in cafés, sitting in a parked car in a huge, anonymous supermarket carpark, and on railway stations where I could hang around pretending to wait for trains. Distance again – those rails which might be going – anywhere. I didn’t need to go. It was enough to know that I could go. Sometimes I found a kind of harbour at harbours, or anywhere, really, by the sea. Sea is distance. It is on the edge, it is – where you could, if necessary, walk into the water and swim, or jump onto a ship and sail away, never to be seen or heard of again. Distant parts. Freedom.

Where are your breathing spaces? Or don’t you need them?


An emu in a tutu

I was never designed for work in the sense of having to go somewhere in the morning, having to be somewhere all day, having to be the someone everyone else was, having to do something I didn’t in the least want to be doing for hours. And hours. And hours. Then slouching home too tired to do anything else. I did it, of course. I had to. Not even the break most women take for child-rearing.

I don’t think I’m lazy. I don’t sit in front of the TV all day, watching one lot of drivel after another and pigging curly crisps from a cardboard tube. Actually, I got a couple of those tubes for my sister and brother-in-law when they came over from Canada. They’re so salty. How does anyone manage more than three of them without downing a glass of water? I don’t play Bingo on a phone app and I wouldn’t know where to start in one of those high-octane war-games. Most of the time when at home I am working, but after my own peculiar fashion; a little bit of this and a little bit of that. A bit of writing, a bit of feeding the cats, a bit more writing, a cup of coffee, a bit of tumble-drying, a bit of ironing, a bit more writing, a walk to the post box, a bit of reading, a sandwich and a yoghurt, a bit more writing, yanking a year’s worth of grass, mud and wiggly-woos out of the storm drain (this morning, yuk!) more writing, collecting ideas for writing, planning longer bits of writing; something-out-of-a-tin on toast and half a tin of stewed apple with a yoghurt on the top; feed the cats again, watch The News, more writing, more reading…

I work more effectively left to my own eccentric devices than I ever managed  whilst  corralled into an office with a massive stack of torn cardboard files full of legal stuff behind me, a word-processor and an ever-ringing phone in front. I run on inspiration rather than application. I can concentrate, ferociously and for long periods of time, but only on what interests me. Nothing else sticks.

So, when I was younger… well, ‘cool’ wasn’t a word then, except in connection with summer drinks and cotton blouses, but I did want to be a ballet dancer. This was after I felt I needed a horse in the back garden, where it would be quite happy. Also after my tentative and unsuccessful request for an acoustic guitar, to be paid for at 1/- a week from my pocket money.  The ballet-dancing ambition was down to Lorna Hill. Lorna Hill was an author of children’s books, mostly about ballet. I have since learned that she started writing the ballet books when her daughter Vicki (Shirley Victorine) left home to be a ballet student at Sadler’s Wells. Lorna missed her, and started writing stories about young ballerinas at Sadler’s Wells. She started with A Dream of Sadler’s Wells (1950) and just carried on at the rate of one a year: Veronica at the Wells (1951), Masquerade at the Wells (1952), No Castanets at the Wells (1953), Ella at the Wells (1954), Return to the Wells (1955), Rosanna Joins the Wells (1956) and so on. She carried on writing until ill-health forced her to give it up, dying in 1991.

I just hoovered these books up as a child. My parents and grandparents, seeing there was nothing much else that interested me, apart from books, all joined at once and handed their tickets to me wholesale. I think at the time you were allowed five tickets per person so I had in my sticky little seven-year-old hands … four times five… twenty tickets, plus my own. I’m not sure whether the grown-ups had fully thought this through since it gave me instant, unrestrained and unmonitored access to the adult side of the library. Once a week I would stagger the mile and a half to the library (mostly uphill) with my old library books, having read all day, sometimes, and part of the night, with the traditional torch under the covers. I remember I had a torch which could be adjusted to shine red, green or white, which added a certain something. A while later I would stagger home with more books, some of which were children’s, others distinctly not. I remember trying to puzzle out a book called The Venial Sin which had pictures of men and ladies doing funny things on or under silken sheets. I never did puzzle it out. The librarian gave me a dark look when I returned it.

In the children’s section, I simply headed for ‘H’. Even now, I can picture where ‘H’ shelving was, and even where the Lorna Hills were within that shelving. That also happens when I’m hunting for quotes inside books.  I can remember whether the bit I am searching for was on the left or the right-hand page, at the top or the bottom, whether there was white-space on the page, indicating the end of a paragraph. Recalling the page number would be more useful, but I have no memory for numbers.

So, I lived every moment of these little ballet books, and the triumphs and anguishes of their heroines. I pictured myself in a netty pink tutu doing arabesques and twirly-things all over the place; sitting on the studio floor darning the toes of my pink silk shoes the way ballet dancers must, winding those long pink ribbons around my long, pink legs and scraping my wild, pre-Raphaelite locks into an elegant chignon (whatever one of those was, it was always elegant), doggedly practising at the barre till my muscles cried out and my poor little ballerina toes were sore and bleeding…

The only problem was… well, there were a lot of problems but the most glaring was that I was tall, horribly tall, even as a child. With a six foot four father and a five foot seven mother, there is no escape from tallness. I was also somewhat… large boned. Not fat, you know, more Statuesque, more Junoesque. I was the sort of child that came in useful for fetching things down off the tops of high cupboards. I still come in useful for that. My mother was having problems with the changing of the clocks the other day. She remembered it was the day to do it but not how to do it, so of course I ended up doing it. She told me not to even bother with the kitchen clock as nobody could reach it. I reached up and hooked it off, without even stretching. This seemed to astonish, almost offend her. Yet how many years has she been looking at me? Dementia logic. I’ve shrunk so you’ve shrunk, at the same rate and to the same size. We have become one interconnected being.

At some point I discovered – allowed myself to discover – that a ballerina had to be under five foot seven, have a tiny smidgen of a waist and a tiny thigh measurement. Realistically, how was a male ballet dancer ever going to lift a great Emu like me? Tiny thighs have never been within my grasp. An elderly doctor once reassured me, when babies were failing to come along, that I would surely prove fertile because I possessed those Great Child-Bearing Thighs. Pervy, unnecessarily personal and, as it transpired, medically incorrect. Do thighs have any relevance to success in child-bearing anyway? Mostly, it would seem to involve lying down and screaming.

I asked for ballet lessons but, as in the case of the back-garden horse my request was declined. Piano lessons would have been a better choice, for a child like me, but we didn’t have a piano and my parents didn’t think I would stick at it, and they were probably right.  Someone later told me I had piano-player’s hands. Probably all those years of typing had given me those since, unlike the rest of me, my hands are flexible, steely and honed. That Vulcan Live Long And Prosper thingy? Not a problem. Not much of a problem. But all I could ever play on the piano was Chopsticks. No doubt I’ve even forgotten that now.


So wild beasts in captivity may forget their forests, grow tame, lose their fierce habits, and learn to endure the control of man. But if a little blood touches their hot lips, their rage and ferocity return. Roused by the taste of blood, their jaws distend, and they hardly refrain from springing on their frightened master. Lucan, IV, 237

The only thing that worries me about this blogging lark is whether I will be able to stop, or even take adequate rest, once having started. For instance, I’ve got a heap of ironing to do today and I need to complete that form from the Council asking me whether I’m still the person I purported to be last August, for voting purposes; and it’s time for Mum’s weekly letter…

And then there are all those books – a lifetime supply of books to worm my way through which, as Mum once pointed out, I’m unlikely to be able to do since I’m running low on – actual – life. Picture me in six months’ time, red-eyed, round-shouldered, with hair like Struwwelpeter, hunched over my word-processor or scrunched up in a heap on the bed, clipboard in hand, scribbling, scribbling, scribbling… Wasn’t it Gollum who was got to by the Ring? Writing has ring-like aspects, for me. Thinking back over my life only shows me what a sad, possessed, bedevilled little creature I have always been. Trying not to write. Trying, trying, trying not to write, trying to hold it together so as to hold down a job; so as to pay the bills and feed the cats; so as to seem something akin to a proper person …

My Precious, My Precious…

I love the way Gollum speaks: Thief, Thief, Thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever! Language is like mercury – it’s hard and yet it’s soft; there are strict rights and wrongs to it and yet – it flows into all the corners, our personalities shape it, our minds mould it. Hearing strange speech is a kind of flight – it’s like prison walls melting.

What am I talking about?

This was supposed to be a simple update to my earlier four-post sequence PEN TO PAPER re my ‘imaginary writing friend’ Pamela Frankau. I just got the post: a second-hand book has arrived via Thrift Shops, America: Margaret Webster: A Life in the Theater by Milly S Barranger. Margaret Webster and Pamela Frankau were partners in later life. An ex-library copy, the book is still wearing its plastic jacket and inside is a Chapel Hill Public Library bookplate. I’ve just looked up Chapel Hill. It’s a town in North Carolina and is in some way connected with the University. I need to know stuff like that. I don’t know why. It’s a curse.

Writing is the enemy of forgetfulness, or thoughtlessness. For the writer there is no oblivion. Only endless memory. Anita Brookner: Look at Me (1983)

Well, obviously, I haven’t read the book yet – it only arrived an hour ago – but I did look at the pictures. Treasure trove! A picture of that house on Martha’s Vineyard, which doesn’t look too different from the way I envisaged it all those thousands of years ago when reading Pen to Paper. The photo was taken ca. 1940 and the caption says it overlooks Menemsha Harbor which, according to Google, is the highest point on the island. It also has a picture of PF taken ca. 1940. I have never seen one of her this young. The tortoiseshell specs are missing but you can just about recognise the nautical lady (ca 1950) pictured in Pen to Paper. She reminds me of Mum as a young woman, although she would have been born earlier.

The book seems to be part of a series, and there it is on the inside cover: Triangulations: Lesbian/Gay/Queer Theatre/Drama/Performance. Why does this make me uncomfortable? It’s not like you can catch lesbianism from a book, and it’s not as if it was something I didn’t already know about her. Am I actually afraid the local postman might have somehow, possibly employing his postman’s x-ray vision, been able decipher those words through the yellow plastic postal envelope, the book’s hefty cover and two thick A4 pages? Would I have been at all embarrassed if the book had been about a gay male actor? No, I guess probably not. How strange we all are, inside our ‘bone-bound islands’.

Through my small, bone-bound island I have learnt all I know, experienced all and sensed all. As much as possible, therefore, I employ the scenery of the island to describe the scenery of my thoughts, the earthquake of the body to describe the earthquakes of the heart.

Dylan Thomas: Letter to Pamela Hansford Johnson (November 1933)

Anyway, when I have got round to reading it, or at least used the index to extract the bits about PF – to be honest the rest of it looks like major heavy going – I will no doubt be able to add another post to my IMAGINARY FRIENDS sequence.


This is a famous poem by Gérard de Nerval (1808 – 1855)

El Desdichado

 Je suis le Ténébreux, – le Veuf, – l’Inconsolé, / Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la Tour abolie : / Ma seule Etoile est morte, – et mon luth constellé / Porte le Soleil noir de la Mélancolie.

 Dans la nuit du Tombeau, Toi qui m’as consolé, / Rends-moi le Pausilippe et la mer d’Italie, / La fleur qui plaisait tant à mon coeur désolé, / Et la treille où le Pampre à la Rose s’allie.

Suis-je Amour ou Phébus ?… Lusignan ou Biron ? / Mon front est rouge encor du baiser de la Reine ; / J’ai rêvé dans la Grotte où nage la sirène…

 Et j’ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l’Achéron : / Modulant tour à tour sur la lyre d’Orphée / Les soupirs de la Sainte et les cris de la Fée.

It’s difficult to describe the effect this poem had on me when I first found it, via T S Eliot’s The Waste Land I suspect. I was a bit of a poetry nerd and did tend to follow up obsessively anything I didn’t understand, whatever the language. I only had A Level French, but I had a feel for languages. If you asked me now to hold a simple conversation with a real French person – order a cup of coffee, say, or remark on the weather – I would be struck dumb, and yet even after all these years I can get the sense of a page of French without a dictionary, and can translate it pretty accurately with one. (Mind you, I can do that with languages I have never learned. I once translated a page of the German version of Harry Potter – though it did take me hours and I couldn’t have done it without a dictionary.)

With El Desdichado – I didn’t understand many of the words, or any of the references to classical myth and French fairy-tales, but I did sense that here was something magical, very strange, and somehow relevant to me. I have written before, I think, about the tower motif.

At the time – long before there was an internet – before I possessed a computer – studying a poem in depth was a laborious process. It was a matter of books. You actually had to get on the bus, clutching your notebook and pencil, go to the library and look for them. I remember for this particular ‘project’ getting the train in to Ashford library because I was stuck on le Pausilippe, among other things. I asked the advice of the Head Librarian and he was so helpful, came to the shelves with me and spent ages trying to find a book or dictionary that might refer to it. He seemed genuinely interested in the madwoman’s quest.

If you were unable find the right book there and then you had to order one, which meant filling out a Green Card and paying a £3 fee. Sometimes I would order four books at a time. I was always ordering library books, many of which I had forgotten about by the time the expensively-ordered item arrived weeks later. They would even go to the length of purchasing a book if the library system as a whole did not have a copy. For all I know, Kentish libraries are even now clogged up with obscure volumes that nobody has ever heard of or is ever likely to request.

Nowadays, of course, you go online. As I write what I am very much afraid will become a series of posts on Gérard de Nerval and his poem, I am nipping backwards and forwards, from Word to Google, Google to Word, checking troublesome details, following up on trains of thought, researching and, better still, finding interesting stuff by accident. The internet has made things easier for writers – but I do rather miss the library, and my kind librarian. Poor old soul, he’s probably dead by now.

The thing with translation is, it’s best not to do it. The best, most respectful and most poetic response to a great poem – and I mean this – is to learn the language the poem happens to be in, even if it takes you years. A poem is only a poem in its own language. As soon as you translate it – it’s a cliché, but it’s true – you lose it. You may have a general idea of the meaning but the poetry’s evaporated.

The only way you could do it would be to try to create an equivalent poem in your own language – and do it brilliantly. The trouble with this is, to create an equivalent poem in your own language you have to ditch accuracy and translate very loosely indeed, and then – well, what have you got? If you can bear an example of what you get if you overdose on ‘loose’, take a look at this:

I’m not claiming that my translation is any good either. Like the lady above

[who managed to include in her hyper-loose translation of what is after all a Victorian poem the lines On my face is the hickey where Her Majesty kissed me and mimicking a ravished pixie’s raw, climactic cries without seeing or hearing anything ghastly in them – sensual yes, highly-charged yes, deeply erotic yes – teenage gross nooooo!]

I just had to try, thought it was a doomed enterprise and it would undoubtedly have been better if I hadn’t.

The Disinherited

I am the shadow-man, the widower, unconsoled / the Prince of Aquitaine with the ruined tower / My sole star is dead, and my star-strewn lute / bears the black sun of Melancholy.

In the night of the tomb, you were my consolation / returning to me Posilipo and the Italian sea / the flower which so delighted my desolate heart / and the arbour where the vine and the rose become one.

Am I Love or Phoebus, Lusignan or Biron? / My brow still burns with the kiss of the Queen / I have dreamed in the grotto where the Siren swims…

And twice, victorious, crossed the Acheron / coaxing in turn from the lyre of Orpheus / the sighs of the saint and the fairy creature’s cries.