Biting the bath plug

Still enjoying the voluminous (luckily, electronic) diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt, alias Maggie Joy Blunt.

One woman shouldn’t be cheered by another’s problems, of course – but since we have quite a lot in common – single-wise, man-wise, too-many-cat-wise and compulsive-record-keeping-wise – discovering that she too has her bad days and disasters is a consolation. Oh, the violence lurking just beneath the surface in a tranquil country cottage!

Here are three entries from 1952:

Wed 16 April

The final straw was to see that my longed-for bath water was disappearing instead of mounting in the bath. The plug for some reason has gone on strike – it doesn’t seem to have perished but simply would not stay in the hole. This brought on such a paroxysm of rage that I bit a piece out of the rubber.

Thursday, May Day

I found the perfect grey cardigan and put my live cigarette end right through the back of it the same night. It has been mended professionally, but the place still shows a little. I could have strangled myself.

housewife 2

Wed 2 July

My story about biting the bath plug has met with huge success. E.D. suggests that I keep the plug hung in a convenient place and bite chunks of it whenever overcome by rage. But I should not let myself be seen doing so, or I should be locked up.

housewife

 

(Rubber-gloved/green gingham lady: Jennifer Lopez in disguise, I do believe.)

Cats and Jean

When I first made her acquaintance she went by the name of Maggie Joy Blunt; she was writing reports of everyday life on the wartime home front and posting them off to the Mass Observation project. She was one of many Mass Observation diarists sampled in a popular series of books by social historian Simon Garfield. The books threw up quite a few eccentric and entertaining characters, but Maggie Joy stood out as a natural writer. Indeed she was constantly trying to get things published – just not very often succeeding – and her diary entries had a cool lucidity; a kind of intelligent overview, that some of the others lacked. I looked forward to reading her entries.

Sometimes I would amuse myself by trying to work out what the real names of these ‘characters’ might have been, before Garfield disguised them. What could ‘Herbert Brush’ have been called, for instance? (Now thought to have been Reginald Charles Harpur, of Sydenham). And Maggie Joy? Now revealed to be Jean Lucey Pratt, who died in 1986. I often wondered what happened in the gaps between her war diary entries. What sort of life did she really live? Well, now we know because Simon Garfield has edited extracts from sixty years of her diary-keeping to bring us A Notable Woman, the romantic journals of Jean Lucey Pratt.

She wrote in fountain pen, usually in Woolworth’s exercise books – about anything, but mostly about men, work and cats. Unlucky in love, with an unfortunate leaning towards married men and charming scoundrels, she was desperate to be a wife and mother. Maybe the desperation was her undoing? She never does find a husband but finally succeeds, well into her thirties, in losing her much-loathed virginity and from then on has a series of lovers, or ‘affaires’ as she liked to call them. She talks rather a lot about sex, and desire – and is frank for a woman writing in the ‘thirties and ‘forties. This element is missing from her wartime reports, which tend to focus on the shortage of fully-fashioned silk stockings and her perpetual search for cigarettes. Sometimes, reading her, you wish you could shout down some kind of time-funnel/megaphone – no, don’t smoke those dreadful things, don’t you know they’ll kill you? or Not another married man, Jean – can’t you see he’s an out-and-out rotter and just using you? But of course, she didn’t know, and she couldn’t see. Like the rest of us, she was staggering along in the dark, doing the best she could.

jean pratt 3.png

She was also a fellow cat-woman. Yes. I know: women who for whatever reason don’t have children are likely to be verging on insanity and surrounded by cats. Jean, after forays into architecture, journalism and biography, spent her later life running a small shop in Farnham Common, Buckinghamshire. It began as a general shop, but later she specialised in book-selling, and cat-book-selling in particular. She did better at this than at any of her other career choices and ended up supplying cat books to devoted customers all over the world. I’m most of the way through her diaries at this point but find myself a bit flummoxed, really, by her attitude – or perhaps I mean the then-prevailing attitude – towards cats.

She is obviously deeply attached to all her pets – it’s obvious both from the frequency with which she writes about them and the affection in her ‘voice’. As Maggie Joy Blunt in one of the previous Simon Garfield books she tells the story of how her favourite little cat is extremely ill, and she has to take it to the vets, on the bus. The cat is in a basket on her knee, and a child happens to be sitting next to her. After a while her cat gives an awful howl and ‘Maggie’ becomes aware that that she has just died. The child asks about the cat and Maggie, knowing she mustn’t upset the child, fights back her grief and says something to the effect that puss is just having a little nap right now. She records it in a very spare, contained sort of way, but it’s the story that everyone remembers reading in floods of tears. I am hoping it doesn’t come up again in A Notable Woman because I don’t think I can bear to read it a second time.

And yet – none of her cats seem to be neutered. Did cats just not get neutered in those wartime and pre-war days? And her female cats are constantly producing kittens. At intervals she records having to take both mother and kittens off to ‘the cats’ home’ in Slough, or finding a new home for this kitten or that kitten. I just don’t think I could have done it – any of it. It seems – well, irresponsible on the one hand and impossibly pragmatic on the other.

She tells of two kittens ‘stoated’ in the woods (her own invented word – I tried it in a game of scrabble recently); one kitten with a hole in its chest which at first she thinks must have been made by a bird, and another kitten that she had to send one of her visiting gentlemen out to despatch – he later mentions not having been able to do this. Why are kittens roaming around outside, in a wood, to be set upon by stoats? Why isn’t an injured kitten taken to the vets to be despatched, if it’s so severely injured? And why is she sending a man to do it, as if it’s one of men’s jobs to kill things?

I’m not blaming Jean – indeed, perhaps it’s just me being over-sensitive. I’ve come up against this same attitude before, in conversations with my mother, who is perhaps a generation younger than JLP, and it was the one subject over which I felt we were seriously at odds. She tried to explain it to me – that cats in her day were regarded as ‘just animals’ (which annoys me, since we are also ‘just animals’ and I don’t believe that stuff about God setting us in authority over them – as far as I’m concerned, if he did that, he wasn’t a God worth his salt). She said dogs and cats would be fed the scrapings from plates, the scraps from the table. I can’t remember whether she said there just wasn’t commercial cat-food in those days.

Jean herself mentions taking one of her cats to the vet to be advised that it isn’t getting enough of the right sort of food, and how she manages to beg a few extra scraps of meat from the butcher on the way home, since rationing was in place. To be fair, Jean herself didn’t seem to be getting the right sort of food at the time and was plagued with chest infections, recurring boils in the ears and so forth.

The thing that really annoys me is when older people refer to animals as ‘it’. We wouldn’t refer to one another as ‘it’. I can tell male from female cats by sight, but even if faced with a dog, say, or a parakeet – I’d make an attempt at its gender. Better to be wrong than insulting. Mum fudged it, really, by making all cats ‘she’ and all dogs ‘he’. I was never sure if this was a devious way of saying ‘it’ – one less likely to infuriate Linda – or whether dementia had genuinely deprived her of the ability to make the leap – if all dogs are ‘he’ how do puppies get made? Dementia did rob her early, and very noticeably, of logic – of the patently obvious, of the ‘if this then – inescapably – that’ process.

I’d be interested to hear what anyone else thinks about attitudes to pets, particularly if they have happened to stumble across A Notable Woman. I’m going to see the book through, in any case. Sixty years of diary-keeping, throwing a clear light on a period of recent British social history fast vanishing from actual memory, deserve to be read to the end.

jean pratt

 

Dead People Who Would Have Been Bloggers

I’m not suggesting that to paint a bison on a wall, or blow coloured powder through your fingers to make your hand-print on a cave wall is the equivalent of blogging – communication, yes; symbolism, yes but for blogging you do need words. However, words have been around for a long time, and as long as they have been around there have been people who wanted to… just update you on their Daily Doings, on their Thoughts, people who just had a weird idea or two and found some sort of pleasure in putting it out there… see if there was any reaction.

These individuals were not necessarily novelists. Writing a novel is a specialised, long-term project and requires a lot of sterling qualities that bloggers may or may not be somewhat deficient in – gritty determination; staying power; that passionate, obsessive attention to detail; that ability to remember who in God’s name Catherine Earnshaw is and why there need to be two Catherine’s in one book; that ability to keep going day after day, pushing that knot towards the invisible end of that invisible piece of string, building that wall whilst standing two inches away from it, telling the joke for which there may well turn out never to have been a punchline; wading on through that dark, dark treacle when one’s novel sinks into its inevitable Soggy Bottom – or rather it’s Soggy Middle.

I’m not like that, fellow bloggers. Maybe you are – in which case why are you wasting your time on this frippery? Wamble off somewhere and pen that novel. Get thee to a nunnery, why woulds’t thou be a breeder of sinners?

All through history there have been people who have something to say – sometimes frivolous but equally often unique, subtle, interesting, humorous; people who wanted to gossip rather than lecture; people who just wanted to say, hey, what do you think about this? In the past those people did blog, they just didn’t call it that, and they used whatever medium came to hand. In Ancient Rome Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, tutor and advisor to the truly horrible Emperor Nero, wrote letters.

seneca.jpg

Except that they weren’t really letters. His one hundred and twenty-four were formally addressed to a friend, a distant student, but whether or not such student actually existed – is unimportant. The Letters were Seneca’s way of talking to the world. Give him a computer, he would have blogged.

Diarist Samuel Pepys would probably have blogged. He eventually had to give up diarising because of his eyesight. He was afraid that having to write, with an inkpot and quill pen, by candlelight, was damaging it further. However, he might well have blogged in his own private code, based on the well-known (in those days) Shelton’s Shorthand, plus Spanish, Italian and French, since the grown-up stuff was interspersed with quite a lot of saucy stuff about maids and mistresses that he that wouldn’t have wanted his wife to read, also a lot of stuff about his wife that she probably wouldn’t have wanted other people to know.

pepys

For example (skip this bit, children):

“… and did tocar mi cosa con su mano [ touch my thing with her hand] through my chemise but yet so as to hazer me hazer la grande cosa ” [make me make the great thing (orgasm)]

Jane Austen would have blogged, you betcha. She would probably have called herself Johan Austen for more gravitas, or Herbert Finke and had one of those little round pictures where you can almost but not quite see someone’s face, and it might not be them anyway (not that I can speak, hiding behind a picture of a stuffed witch puppet). Can you imagine her observations, this quiet, mob-capped auntie in the corner? I think I would almost rather have been able to read Aunt Jane’s blog than Pride and Prejudice. Almost.  Better still, Cassandra might not have been able to get her censoring little hands on it after her sister’s death.

Charles Dickens would have blogged. He published those enormous and rather wonderful novels of his in weekly instalments – respect to him; it’s no easy feat to write a novel on the hoof, no safety net – the possibility of tossing the whole thing in the wastepaper basket half way through or drastically rewriting it. But he was also a businessman and wrote and published several magazines. I can imagine his blog as being more of a zine, but a wonderful zine. A wonderful new(ish) word zine is, too – so useful for Scrabble.

And then there are the women’s magazine journalists, the newspaper columnists, the poets, the publishers of scandalous broadsheets and lofty sermons. Do you think they would have been able to resist the lure of that lit-up screen? Two more, and then I’ll shut up.

Nella Last (or Housewife, 49 so brilliantly played by the so recently late Victoria Wood) who wrote page after unpunctuated page, in pencil on scraps of paper, and submitted them to Mass Observation movement during the Second World War. What she writes about is so dull, so every-day and yet, running beneath it all, the sorrows of a real-life mismatched but stuck-to marriage, the loved but not entirely comprehended son, the struggles, the clever ‘dodges’, the pride in being able to manage, the pleasure in making her ‘dollies’ for the hospital, the achievement of running a wartime charity shop; the emergence of a downtrodden middle-aged woman, partly through her writings and partly through war, into a circumscribed individuality. She’d have blogged – if her husband had allowed her on the computer.

George Mackay Brown, eccentric poet and dramatist from Stromness, Orkney, Scotland, and regular columnist in The Orcadian. He died in 1996. Apart from one or two sorties to university and so forth, he spent his whole life in this one, beloved place and he wrote about the small things, the daily things that were important to his readers. He said he wrote for an imaginary Orcadian, someone exiled to America maybe, or Canada. He wrote to give them a taste of home, to keep them in touch with what was important to all. After breakfast each day he would push aside the marmalade pot and the breadcrumbs and start writing. He often had a bit of a struggle to get his handwritten column to the post-box on time, when it was blowing a gale or the up-hill-and-down-dale streets were a sheet of ice. Often he was cold, in his own little house. Sometimes he was ill, sometimes depressed. Sometimes – pretty often, in fact – he turned to whiskey for solace and when he did he drank too much of it, but always he wrote. He brought Orkney to life. He knew so much about its history and geography, and was constantly referring to his overloaded bookshelves for the meaning of some tantalising word or phrase in the Orkney Norn – the old Norse language.

He was a nerd, before there was such a thing. He would have been a blogger, although he might have had to use the computer in the Public Library, since he had little money and only the most basic possessions. His newspaper columns were eventually collected into two books:  Under Brinkie’s Brae and Letters from Hamnavoe. He wrote about what he ate for his supper, his bachelor experiments with cooking; about the challenging Orcadian weather; about taking friends and visitors round the island and showing them the sights; about long walks and seabirds; about problems with heating, postal strikes; ballpoint pens; a sagging couch a friend had bought on his behalf in a sale; nature, football matches and television programmes… anything.

And that’s the thing about blogging, isn’t it? You don’t have to have a theme, or a purpose, or a noble aim. You don’t have to be coherent, you don’t need to be propagandising or sending some sort of message. You can write about anything. Just because.

A brush with Herbert

The person I would most like to sit down and have a chat with in front of a roaring log fire is: Herbert Brush. And he’s not even a real person. Or rather he was a real person; Herbert Brush was just not his real name.

It may be partly the name. My grandfather was a Herbert. At his funeral service the lady vicar, never having met Grandad and assuming that Bert was short for Albert, referred to him Our Brother Albert throughout. I should have stood up for him. I’ve always felt guilty that I didn’t. I should have stood up regardless of the embarrassment to myself, my parents and the lady vicar, and screeched HERBERT, HERBERT, HERBERT. But you don’t, when it comes to it, do you?

Herbert Brush, almost certainly, was the pseudonym attached to a gentleman called Reginald Charles Harpur, from Sydenham, South East London. He kept diaries for a UK wartime project known as Mass Observation, submitting his daily life “observations” each month. Today, I suspect, he would be an enthusiastic blogger.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass-Observation

Mass Observation was an eccentric anthropological study, run on a shoestring by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. ‘Herbert’ was one of approximately 500 volunteer wartime writers. Even more famous than Herbert is the redoubtable ‘Nella Last’ (also a pseudonym) from Barrow-in-Furness whose later life was dramatized in 2006 by British comedienne, actress and writer Victoria Wood.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Housewife,_49

Nella wrote and wrote – and wrote – approximately two million words between 1936, when she was aged 49 – hence Housewife, 49 – and 1966. She used her diary to counteract the depressions to which she was prone and also to ‘vent’ a side of her personality that her gloomy, awkward husband suppressed. Her diaries – unintentionally – follow her partial emancipation from the stereotypical ‘housewife’ she sees herself as at the beginning – to a much stronger, feistier woman by the end. She was so prolific, so idiosyncratic in character and power of expression (and punctuation) that she has books all to herself:

  • Nella Last’s War (Ed: Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming)
  • Nella Last’s Peace (Ed: Patricia and Robert Malcolmson)
  • Nella Last in the 1950s: Further diaries of Housewife, 49 (Ed: Patricia Malcolmson)
  • She also makes brief, early appearances in Our Longest Days: a people’s history of the Second World War (Ed: Sandra Koa Wing).

Nella Last has her dark side, and her tragedies, though on the whole reading her observations is pure delight. She loves cooking, and details all the crafty ‘dodges’ she contrives to whip up meals of some sort for her family during the worst years of rationing. We also hear how she goes about making clothes, saving money and sewing her ‘dollies’ for the hospital.

Herbert Brush is, if you like, Nella Last’s southern equivalent and he is an extraordinary character – lighter, more comic than Nella Last although, living through the same war and at a more advanced age, his life had its difficulties too. I do hope that someday there will be a ‘collected’ Herbert Brush, since at the moment his entries are dotted about, mixed in with all the other published observations and therefore a pain to locate. It takes a while to build up a ‘flavour’ of Herbert.

Reginald Charles Harpur (almost certainly Herbert Brush) was already 73 years of age in 1945 but lived on until 1959. He lived in the same house in Sydenham from 1939 to 1959, sharing it with ‘W’ (thought to be Winifred Gunton), ‘D’ (thought to be Dorothy Woods) and a cat. This is a mystery in itself. What was the relationship between these three people (and the cat)? We will probably never know. He was a retired electricity board inspector and wrote for Mass Observation between 1940 and 1951.

He is a master of the non-sequitur, of po-faced inconsequentiality, and the joy of him is that you will never, ever be entirely sure that he intends to be amusing. It’s those killer final phrases, those bathetic endings. He also writes poetry to rival that famous Scottish poet William Topaz McGonagall, originator of the immortal lines:

  • Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
  • Alas! I am very sorry to say
  • That ninety lives have been taken away
  • On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
  • Which will be remember’d for a very long time

and

  • On yonder hill, there stood a coo…..
  • ….It’s no there noo,
  • it must have shifted

 Apparently students used to bang on poor McGonagall’s front door in the middle of the night, to wake him and tell him how bad a poet he was.

Impossible to choose which of Herbert’s many utterances to include so here are just a few, taken from wherever Our Hidden Lives happened to fall open. Best really to get copies of the books in which he appears (eg. from Amazon) and meet Herbert for yourself.

  • Our Longest Days (Ed: Sandra Koa Wing)
  • Our Hidden Lives (Ed: Simon Garfield)

7 p.m. I have been on the plot most of the day. I believe the judges in the competition come round for their first visit before the middle of May, so I have been busy trying to make the plot tidy. I have fixed up another seat at the end of the plot close to the hedge so that I can sit in the shelter during showers. This was the spot where I pressed myself into the hedge with the bucket over my head when a rocket burst overhead and bits of it came down all round me.

Wednesday 9 May, 1945

I have been reading about Harry Price’s book on poltergeists in England and it makes me wonder whether it was a poltergeist which worried me when I lived in Rose Cottage, River, near Dover. The noises got so bad that I was glad to leave the house.

I never managed to explain the things that happened to me there. I might be reading a book by the fireside in the evening, when suddenly my back hair would seem to stand up, a cold shiver would run down my spine and I felt sure that someone or something was behind me in the room. I asked a local spiritualistic medium to come and investigate, so he came with others, and presently he went into a trance, or seemed to, and said that a man who used to live at the house, and who committed suicide years before, objected to me very much.

Wednesday 21 November, 1945

I went to Hyde Park to see the captured German aeroplanes which are parked there, surrounded by a fence. I noticed a few bullet holes in one of them and wondered whether the German who flew the machine had died there. I hope so.

There were hundreds of people walking about, with little crowds near each plane. One young man brought his chair close to the fence, and with his face pressed close to the railings was staring in a sort of fascinated way at one of the planes, as though he wanted to memorise every detail. I watched him for some time but he never moved a muscle.

I got a seat under a tree and ate my lunch, and I forgot to look for the young man when I came back. Probably my thoughts were on the chances of a ticket collector coming along and charging me 2d. for the chair.

Monday 17 September, 1945

The BBC news at one o’clock said that there was quite a pea-soup fog in some parts of London, but in SE26 it was quite clear, so I went to the plot and sewed a row of broad beans. I had only just finished when I smelt fog, and, looking up, saw a wall of it coming my way. Very soon the sun was yellow and then vanished, so I came home as I don’t like the taste of London fog.

I thought I’d see what sort of verse came out of it if I put pen to paper.

  • Sometimes I sit and think
  • Sometimes I only sit
  • And do not even blink
  • For quite a bit
  • Is this a sign of age
  • Does life just flow
  • Like turning on a page
  • I’d like to know.

It sounds morbid, but after my exercise on the plot I’m feeling very fit.

Tuesday 21 January, 1945

I think I probably feel an affinity for Herbert because he reminds me so much of my own grandfather. It’s more than just the coincidence of the name. In all the time I knew him I don’t remember Grandad smiling once, yet he somehow managed to make people laugh. If we children were chattering too much he’d sit in gloomy silence for half an hour before intervening, in his creaky old voice: Can I say something now?

If anyone asked his opinion, he’d say: You do what you want – you usually do.

And if he was asked what he was going to do tomorrow, he would provide a gloomy summary, finishing with: IF I’m spared.

A visiting daughter-in-law presented him with a huge cake once, and his response was: How am I going to get rid of all that?

And yet this was the man who, as a teenager, liked to sit with his mates in the upper tiers of the music hall, peeling oranges and dropping the peel down the necks of the people sitting below.

For further information on Herbert Brush and Sydenham visit:

http://sydenhamforesthillhistory.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/mass%20observation

PS: I recently discovered an old blog called Blue, with Stars, and discover that I already posted about dear old Herbert there and even used the same title for the post. And I thought I was being so clever inventing that one. So here, for comparison, is my Blue, with Stars post for: Saturday, May 21, 2005

  •  A Brush with Herbert
  •  Still reading the book of post-war reminiscences (Mass-Observation Project). It’s surprising how they do come out as characters, even though no one is ‘writing’ them. Each person is just rambling on happily through his or her diary, commenting on everyday things, and yet you can almost see them. Pensioner Herbert Brush is the best – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally funny. He is greatly concerned about his health – his piles, a lump on his back which the doctor charged him 5/- to tell him was harmless, the purple marks appearing on the backs of his hands. He wonders about things. He spends a long time playing with numbers and searching unsuccessfully for a book which gives all the prime numbers up to some huge amount. He writes dreadful poetry. He does a lot of travelling about on buses, changing of library books, growing of vegetables in his allotment, and always seems to be creosoting his fence.
  •  I am enjoying it because that’s when I grew up, and yet I don’t remember. I didn’t enjoy being a child. Didn’t understand why people were the way they were, and things were so drab and dreary. This book has explained why to me. And I envied in a way their modest expectations. They accepted their everyday lives, even when they complained about them. They didn’t expect anything exciting to happen. I suppose they were just relieved to be still alive. However, that lack of aspiration, that dulling of everything – suburban England in the 50s was not a good time to be a child, not a good start for a dreamer.