Like a bird on a wire

When the song first came out I wept, picturing the bird (aka Leonard Cohen) trapped in a snare, a loop of wire pulled tight around its leg. In those days we didn’t know so much American. I learned later that what we would call a telegraph line Americans would call a wire, and so the bird was probably just perched on it, ready to fly away.

The lineman in Wichita Lineman, then, should have been obvious to a Brit but he wasn’t. He was something ultra-romantic, science fictional almost, a wandering, lonely creature performing some unimaginable task for The County (what was The County?) – not one of those blokes that climbs up poles to fix the electrics.

Of course, I wept at the bird in its imaginary snare, flapping and flapping its tiny wings in a desperate, futile to escape because the bird, aka Leonard Cohen, was also aka me.

I was always two people. One of me was lonely, wild and free. One of me had known even as a child making messy daisy-and-buttercup chains on her grandmother’s lawn, that one day she would take off. As time went on I read the colour supplements my father discarded from the weekend papers. I pored over the photos of remote temples and marketplaces and traveller accounts of exotic destinations.  I was that traveller. One day very, very soon that would be me on the road to Marrakech in my long hippie skirt and my cheesecloth blouse, a fraying backpack containing all that I had in the world; feet blistered, sandals dusty and worn.

The other me knew it couldn’t go, knew even as a child that it was tethered to a family in which it had no place, engaged in a lifelong struggle of trying but failing to earn that place. The other me knew it needed the mirror they formed, because without that mirror it would vanish. I was only what they showed me; away from them I had no substance: I was a ghost.

And so I enrolled in a teacher training college only a short ride away from home. I took my Mum to a film show there once; she wasn’t impressed. I plodded away at that course for three years, trying to be interested in tessellations, Cuisenaire rods and lesson-planning whilst my friend Anji – she of the wispy, piled up hairdo and the Indian father; she of the many-page letters in green ink and that great circular artistic script; she of the long white raincoat and cool sunglasses; she of the unmistakeably gay boyfriend she was always hoping wasn’t entirely absolutely gay and one day might be startled into kissing her  – Anji went to France with a girlfriend. They worked as waitresses for a while until her friend stole a tablecloth and they were dismissed. She slept under lorries with lorry drivers. It was all in the letters, until they stopped.

But I have found that at least some of those fantasy Me’s do appear, eventually. But it’s like they get watered down and de-romanticised. So, at one point I imagined myself a mysterious Englishwoman living out her final days in a cliff-top village in Brittany or Normandy or somewhere. And here I am, not exactly in France and not exactly mysterious but certainly alone and in a village with a cliff-top.

I imagined myself a hippie traveller, someone who never put down roots, someone who passed through places and had brief conversation with exotic, world-weary strangers. And there I was yesterday, catching buses after years of car-driving, alighting from one train, searching for the next and being talked to (or mostly at) by a series of eccentrics of my own and other generations.

At a bus stop a group of us tried to understand the murder of so many children by a terrorist scarcely older than they were.

On the bus I learned about sunflower seeds.

In a train a young man with learning difficulties spent a long time explaining to me that the train I was on was indeed the right train, and how to tell, in future, if it wasn’t (‘It won’t be at this platform’).

At a station I discovered the Station Master’s name was Estelle and she was the sole member of staff so she had to sweep the platform in the intervals between trains. Also that the station had no loo and the nearest one was Burger King over the road.

In another train I watched a sober old man trying to calm and distract a very drunk young man so that he wouldn’t bellow the F-word aloud in a railway carriage.

I sipped on warm bottled water and ate granola bars in instalments.

I sat behind a boy with a brutally shaven neck and the top of his head crisply waved and dyed bright orange.

I saw many exotic tattoos exposed in hot sunlight and realised how difficult it was to get twins in a buggy off a bus (you have to climb down backwards).

I sat on what might have been an artwork or merely a dysfunctional bench to wait for my friends outside Marks and Spencer.

Hejira, finally.

Larks and Sparks

Yesterday afternoon, just when I thought it was safe to assume that any future electrical emergencies would be happening to my successor, the power went off yet again. Snugly nestled in my handbag, my credit card was already beginning to emit quiet little bleats of distress. No, Mummy, Mummy, not more!  You haven’t even paid for the removers yet…

I ignored it, because I had to.  Can’t manage without electricity for weeks, maybe months. Somewhere around £130 per half an hour, weekend rates. Maybe it will only turn out to be one half an hour…

Two hours later the electrician arrived. From his accent I guessed he was Polish, or maybe Latvian. I didn’t really feel I could ask, in the current climate.

Sorry, he said. Satnav sent me down big holey road, great bumps…

Oh my God, I said, knowing which one he meant (Satnav always sends people down big holey road, which is certain death to any vehicle smaller than a tank) – you didn’t go down it?

No. Only little way, then back.

And of course, it wasn’t going to be one half an hour, it was going to be an hour and a half.

He worked fast, trying to save me money, talking to himself non-stop all the while. I was impressed that he was talking to himself in English rather than Polish or Latvian – maybe for my benefit, or maybe just for practice.

I plug this in here, I plug this in there, I eliminay this, eliminay that… We switch on the kettle, see if this works. Turn on wash machine… Now tumble dry… Now telly… 

I live mostly in silence. By this time we were surrounded by more noise than I felt I could bear…

Now toaster – see if it pop. Yes it pop.

Can I turn it off now?

No, not yet. Upstairs please.

For a moment I hesitated, thinking he might have some sort of ravishment in mind. However, the risk of his being overcome with lust for my ancient personage seemed vanishingly small; well worth taking to get the tumble drier, washing machine, television and pop-up toaster concerto turned off sooner rather than later.

Turn on iron, please. Show me plug sockets. In this room? In this room? Where is water cylinder please? By this time I was worn out.

Eventually he located the fault. As he unravelled from a hole behind the fridge and behind the panelling at the back of the kitchen cupboards more and more seedy, dreadful-looking wiring and an appallingly brown and perished-looking extension lead, the credit card in the handbag switched from quiet little bleats to high-pitched whimpering.

What is that? I asked.

I show. He unscrewed the cover the mottled brown plug, which had once belonged to the fridge. See this – big cable – very, very bad. See this – two wires from very big cable, wired into very small plug. Very bad. House burn down.

He told me a great deal, as he high-speed drilled things and twisted stuff, about the fire-damaged houses that were his speciality. He told me what melted PVC windows looked like, and how fire blew the glass out into strange, frosted patterns. Scary. But like the art, you know?

And the burnt wiring he said – cannot strip – he made imaginary cable-stripping motions with an invisible penknife – all – all – stick –

Fused?

Exact! All melt together.

Where he had dragged out the fridge and the washing machine, I now noticed, was a deep, disgusting layer of wood-pellet cat litter, swollen-up cat biscuits, drifts of fur, little bouncy balls, screwed up bits of paper and broken glass. Anything that could lurk under a fridge or a washing-machine had been lurking, for the last three years. And it was going to need cleaning up. By me. Chaos was now truly come again, but having seen what all that old brown wiring looked like, I realised he might well have saved my life, or my buyer’s.

He was a nice young man. He told me he had a family to keep. I suddenly felt really sad that he – along with other foreign workers who had settled here, worked hard, felt they belonged – might now feel unwanted – which I was pretty sure had never been anyone’s intention. Were they afraid that they would be loaded onto boats and aeroplanes and summarily thrown out?

At the end of it all, sweaty and covered in cobwebs and quite probably prehistoric cat-wee  (one of those ancient plugs had been suspiciously wet inside) he sat down to work out the charge, hampered by Rosie, who seemed to have taken a fancy to him – Hello, little Rosie-cat.

It was exactly as huge an amount of money as I had been envisaging. Credit card gave a sob of utter despair on being dragged out of the handbag – but somehow, in spite of everything, the electrician had cheered me up – a little.

On the way out he got a phone call. Pssst, where Stain? he asked me.

Staines? Not sure. Middlesex? Essex? Other side of London.

I get there in half an hour? It was eight o’clock by this time.

No, no. More like two.

Sorry mate – can’t do Stain from here.

A long time after he had gone I realised the iron was still blazing away upstairs, eating up my electricity. Then I opened the door of the washing machine and out fell a whole lot of water. Several cats were deluged, but at least the TV was working.

Better tune in, quick. Might have missed a disaster.

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

Healthy, wealthy and wise

I had to think for a minute – what was the rest of that proverb? How many hundreds of years since I last heard it. Then it came back to me:

Early to bed and early to rise / Makes a man healthy, wealth and wise.

Man, not woman. Apparently it didn’t much matter when women dragged themselves out from under the medieval duvet or switched off their medieval TVs with their medieval remote controls (i.e. extra-long poking-sticks). In any case, a woman couldn’t and shouldn’t be wise, though healthy and wealthy would have been desirable attributes.

This particular saying really does seem to go back a long way – the first printed mention being in the Book (or Boke, if you were medieval) of St Albans in 1486, when it was set down as:

As the olde englysshe prouerbe sayth in this wise. Who soo woll ryse erly shall be holy helthy and zely.

NB: zely. Middle English word from which comes ‘silly’ but in 1486 meant ‘auspicious’ or ‘fortunate’.

(I’m trying hard here to give the impression that I just happen to have all these wonderful linguistic arcanities floating around in my stupendiously compendious female brain – rather than looking it up on the net.)

I wonder if it’s true? Can’t say I’ve ever been healthy, wealthy or wise, but maybe that’s because I tend to get up early (or sometimes late, depending on how many cats decide to jump on me) and go to bed late. Except when I go to bed early, usually because I’m bored or have a headache. Though I did manage to get through the whole of the Eurovision Song Contest last night.

I wonder, if we Exit on June the 23rd, does that mean we don’t have to be in the Eurovision Song Contest any more, please God? Nah, but that won’t wash. They’ve got Israel in it now (surely Israel isn’t Europe?) and now, permanently, Australia. Now Australia definitely isn’t Europe. You see, I’ve always thought we should have a rival song contest featuring Us, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Then you might get some decent songs. But if Australia has now decided it’s part of Europe

jamie lee.jpg

 As Graham Norton said, they had a whole lot of costume ideas and liked them so much they used every one of them.

No, I think it (the proverb) is a relic of a time before electricity when any sensible (un-zely) person would have risen when the sun rose and slept when the sun set. If you stayed up later than that, with no natural light, you would be burning/wasting extra candles or tallow-lamps. You would also be straining your eyes, and probably some sort of thief or evil night-person. And if you got up late – well, you were lazy and unreliable, and in a predominantly agricultural society you wouldn’t earn much.

The lack of electricity must have been quite a problem for all those medieval TV sets. Presumably they were powered by steam, generated by boiling cauldrons of well-water over giant bonfires of faggots. That would have been a woman’s job – boiling stuff an’ all.

Would there have been a Eurovisione Songe Conteste in ye olden days, do you think?