Things I’ll never do again

You’re supposed to write a list for this one.

Come on, think, think! There must be a whole lot of things you’ll never do again – or would that be a whole lot of things you never did in the first place and now it’s too late.

I’ll never again…

Go shopping in Oxford Street. No money. Never any money. Air pollution and far too many people.

Paddle at the seaside. I’d like to think I would, and no physical reason not to. But if I did – ah, if I did it might all come back, the wash of the little waves, the smell of seaweed, the way pebbles change colour under water – and I might never leave…

Visit the house I grew up in and find it anything but empty – no Mum, knitting in the living room; beavering away up the top of the garden and not hearing the doorbell; making a huge fuss of a bony, toothless cat that’s just trying to get some shut-eye; standing confused in the kitchen, wondering why she’s in there or listening to her voices coming in from outside through the cupboards.

Fly in an aeroplane. Nowhere to go. And who wants to risk weird people diverting you to Cyprus on a whim?

Write a really brilliant poem and think, at the end of it, that’s what I’m alive for. Poetry is like mathematics – a game for the young. Though skill remains; the muse deserts us all.

Write a novel. I wrote a novel, once. It was one of those Mills & Boons. I thought someone might pay me to write soft porn, which would free me up for my own version of War & Peace. Mills & Boon were very kind. Quite a long rejection slip, with suggestions for improvement; a recommendation not to rewrite this one but to start afresh. I gather if they really hate you, you just get a little square slip: No Thanks. But, to be honest, I haven’t got it in me to write long stuff. As my ancient friend Michel de Montaigne once put it:

…I am a sworn foe to constraint, assiduity, and perseverance; and that nothing is so foreign to my style as an extended narrative.

Walk all round the British Isles. Not that I ever did, but I planned to, once.

Buy a car – well, I suppose you can never say never. I live in hopes of an elderly and as yet undiscovered Australian uncle leaving me pots and pots of gold – but he’d have to be pretty ancient to be my uncle – in which case he’d be dead by now. My car and I will see each other out – she with her mended windscreen, a big gouge out of the dashboard, various bits like headrests gone missing and several red and orange lights permanently flashing. Me with… Well, me with. She’ll fall to bits one day – or like Mum I’ll forget how to drive her. The roads I once knew so well will overnight turn into spaghetti to match my brain, and that will be that for us both.

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.

THE DESERT ISLAND QUESTION (3)

Montaigne also wrote:

I hear some people apologise for their inability to express themselves, and pretend to have their heads full of good things which they cannot bring out through lack of eloquence. This is a delusion…these are shadows cast upon their mind by some half-shaped ideas which they cannot disentangle and clear up inwardly, and therefore are unable to express outwardly; they do not yet understand themselves.

Best keep your mouth firmly closed until you know what you are talking about, then. But it’s not always that easy.

I always seem to be three steps behind in conversation. Even if I have a bright idea, by the time I’ve found a gap everyone’s moved on and my solitary insight is greeted more often than not by an irritable silence. And then everyone starts talking at once, as if they may just have heard Tinkerbell tinkling – or was it a gnat? Writing is better for me. No need to keep up, no need to compete. Once I have written something down its flaws jump up at me from the page. I can then rewrite it and no one will know whether it took one draft to get it right, or fifteen.

Many, maybe all, writers write because they are damaged. Some deep wound in the centre of them, the psychic equivalent of our Desert Island’s hypothetical ravine, is in the process of growing its own bridges; patiently, laboriously, stitching itself back together with words. Papermice, I call them, and imagine them, way past the witching hour, dipping their little feet into poisoned ink and, in agony, dancing upon the paper. Papermice do not so much need readers as time, and to be left in peace.

And then there are the rest of us: confused, mediocre, neither craftsmen nor artists but unholy hybrids flip-flopping between wanting money and adulation and needing to express ourselves. We love words, but the bills needs paying. We would rather like to be published but just can’t quite bring ourselves to switch to soft porn, How To manuals and romances set on ranches in Texas.

By the way, if you haven’t yet read Stephen King’s On Writing there’s a lovely passage in which he describes a time when he and his wife were out with their baby daughter, who had an ear infection and was feverish. They knew what would cure it, liquid amoxycillin or The Pink Stuff, but at the time they had no money to buy it. By the time they got home the child was burning up against his chest. Stuck through the door of their apartment they found an envelope containing a cheque for $500 for a story he had written, which meant they were able to pay for a doctor’s visit, a bottle of The Pink Stuff and one decent meal.

It’s no use pretending that money isn’t important. Unless you are lucky enough to have private means or live on a desert island you must earn money, if not from your ‘art’ in its pure form then by prostituting and diluting it; or in some completely unrelated profession which means having little time or energy to spare. In an ideal society the Government would pay poets, writers, musicians and artists some kind of grant, but no point holding your breath. The idea of some glorious El Dorado to be attained through writing still haunts me at times. It’s hard to rid myself of the illusion that my scribbles are destined to be my salvation. I cling to this with some tenacity, having no other talents, bankable or otherwise, and no other inclinations either.

All my working life I’ve taken any job anyone was misguided enough give me and honestly did my best to live up to everyone’s expectations, if only because it was so humiliating when I couldn’t. But writing always tripped me up sooner or later. Either the job suppressed completely my ability to write, or it left me no time to write, or writing – having that sadly specialised kind of personality – interfered with my ability to do the work. Daydreaming/ wool-gathering/ creative visualisation – whatever you like to call it – doesn’t get you through a pile of word-processing or equip you to deal with a call from a stroppy client, and it positively disadvantages you when it comes to negotiating the white-water rapids of office politics.

Writing is possession – maybe demonic, maybe angelic – and when your angel or demon feels thwarted he either strikes you dumb or spills out of your mouth a stream of weird words, wild imagery and confabulation, neatly bypassing all those translation protocols it took you a lifetime to construct. Writing isn’t something you do, or even something you are, it’s something that is you. It’s a disability, in this particular version of reality, but there are other worlds. You already know your way around them, and in them you have wings.

THE DESERT ISLAND QUESTION (2)

Is your writing ego-driven? Are you, in your fantasy life, interviewed on Radio 4 by some really clever person? As you write, do you perhaps picture yourself on Breakfast TV’s red sofa, explaining what inspired your latest best-selling children’s book or modestly outlining plans for your upcoming stint as Poet Laureate? Did you read Stephen King’s account of his journey from hospital laundry (maggots crawling up his arms) to best-selling wonder-person and find yourself being Stephen King?

Now, on your Desert Island, is there going to be any point in writing?

Our island is metaphorical, of course. Desert Islands come in all shapes and forms – poverty, disability, obscurity … unpublishability. In fact I discovered a new kind of Island only yesterday.

As you will see from my previous post my blog ‘stats’ stopped working, or appeared to have. Normally I get feedback on the number of people who have looked at my blog and the countries they are in at the time. But for a day and a half there was nothing: no lit up countries, no nice little national flags. I had no way of telling whether this was computer weirdness or whether there actually was nobody at all in the entire universe reading my blog. Suddenly I didn’t feel in the least like writing, or posting. Oh, woe, whatever’s the point, I was asking myself, if even that one inexplicable individual in Bosnia Herzegovina will not be perusing my deathless prose? And then the penny dropped – time to put your money where your mouth is, Clever Clogs – time to answer your own Desert Island Question. Post on into the CyberVoid intrepid BlogLady – if you dare.

 Anyway…

Something to mull over, from American poet Emily Dickinson:

‘Publication is not the business of poets.’

Can we lump prose writers and poets together? Well, yes and no. I see it as a continuum, with, on the extreme left ART FOR ART’S SAKE* and on the extreme right MONEY FOR GOD’S SAKE**.

* L’art pour l’art – French philosopher Victor Cousin, early 19th Century

** Money for God’s Sake (10CC – more recently)

On the whole I’d say poetry – real poetry, not the verses you find in greetings cards and newspaper obituary columns – falls close to the Art for Art’s Sake end of the scale, if only because a person is lucky to get a poem published anywhere let alone make any money out of it – so if they persist with poetry they are likely to be doing so for love.

Prose is harder to locate between the two extremes. There are many ‘craftsmen’ writers who, although they enjoy writing and are good at it, do it solely to make a living. On our metaphorical Desert Island, with no prospect of, or need for, remuneration, they would probably be channelling their energies elsewhere: using some of that delicious stash of paper to design a raft, or to draw up plans for a three-story, dual-aspect extension to the hermit’s cabin. They would be figuring out better ways to catch fish, or constructing ingenious bridges out of liana vines to cross the ravine which I have just this minute discovered divides the island practically into two. They might pause to pop a message into a bottle: no harm in covering all angles.

And then there are – or we must presume there are – the ‘artist’ writers, those who write because they must, or because writing serves some sort of higher purpose for them.

Flannery O’Connor famously said she wrote ‘because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say’. I find this too. I find it difficult to follow a line of reasoning through to the end, feel overwhelmed sometimes by the chaos of new ideas. Everything splinters; it’s so hard to hold on to, like living inside a kaleidoscope. But when I write the shiny fragments settle down and start to form a picture. The more I write the clearer the picture becomes. I don’t express myself very well verbally, either. I used to mind a great deal about being forced into the role of Good Listener whereas inside I knew myself to be a Rampant Natterer. I am more sanguine nowadays, consoling myself with the words of Michel de Montaigne:

The world is all babble, and I never met a man who did not talk more, rather than less, than he should; yet half our lives are wasted in this way.

(Essay: On the Education of Children)

To be continued…

READING MONTAIGNE IN THE BATH

I was reading Michel de Montaigne in the bath (as you do) and thought to check back over the various pink postit-notes I had attached to him.

‘A dog one knows’ said one postit.

‘Cat in a pasty’ said another.

‘Cat and bird’ said the third.

‘A dog one knows’ is Montaigne quoting St Augustine (‘an ancient father’) who apparently said:

‘We are better off in the company of a dog we know than in that of a man whose language we do not understand’. Montaigne goes on to say ‘Therefore those of different nations do not regard one another as men.’

I agree with him (or rather St Augustine) about the dog we know; I also agree that not knowing someone’s language makes it more of a stretch to see them as real or human in the sense that you yourself are real and human. What I’m not sure about is how Montaigne is making the second the consequence of the first.

In researching Montaigne on the internet I kept coming across the famous quotation about Montaigne and his cat. You may have seen it yourself – when I play with my cat, am I amusing myself with her or is she amusing herself with me? Which reminds me of Lao Tzu asking, on waking from sleep, having had a dream in which he was a butterfly: Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?

Even before that first cat quotation I guessed that Montaigne would be a cat person – how could he not be since we were kindred spirits? – but quickly became tired of reading the same quote over and over again. Surely he must have made other moggie-mentions? I decided to postit them as I went along.

I’ve only found two so far but have such a lot of Montaigne ahead of me that I’m confident there are more to come. The first, ‘Cat and bird’, links back to my first ever post (Felix brought me a mouse) in which Felix rescues me from a dying mouse. Montaigne is interested in the connection between mind and body – not just our own mind influencing our own body, but other minds influencing bodies not even their own. He starts with a rather suspect list of examples – ostriches hatching their eggs merely by looking at them, hares and partridges turned white by the snow on the mountains and so forth – but goes on to tell this little story:

Someone in my house recently saw a cat watching a bird at the top of a tree. After they had gazed fixedly at one another for some time, the bird dropped, apparently dead, between the cat’s paws, either stupefied by its own imagination or drawn by some power of attraction of the cat.

Didn’t I tell you? Felix rescued me from a mouse.

The second, ‘Cat in pasty’, is my favourite:

I know of a gentleman too who, three or four days after having entertained a large party in his house, bragged, by way of a joke – for there was nothing in it – that he had made them eat cat in a pasty. One young lady in the company was thereupon so horrified that she was seized with a severe dysentery and fever, and nothing could be done to save her.

Which, being an example of mind over matter, prompts me to mention the other book that I happen to be reading at the moment: ‘Getting Well Again’ by Simonton, Simonton and Creighton (1978).

Carl Simonton was a cancer specialist who demonstrated a link between certain typical mind-sets and both the likelihood of getting cancer and the likelihood of dying from it. He demonstrated that a person may unconsciously be choosing to die, that even if they don’t realise it their death is solving a problem for them. He and his wife also found various ways of helping cancer patients, through relaxation and visualisation, to take control of their illness and often affect its outcome.

This is such a clearly-written and inspiring little book that if you know someone who has cancer or have recently been diagnosed with it yourself, it’s worth getting hold of a second-hand copy. As it happens, thankfully and fingers crossed, that wasn’t why I was reading it ; in spite of the usual ‘getting older’ problems – sore knees, sore eyes, sore back – I’m OK.

I was interested in finding out whether some of us might unconsciously be choosing to end our days with dementia / Alzheimer’s. I know, whoever would choose the scenario everyone’s terrified of? But then who would choose cancer? If the principle – that people’s minds have the power to destroy their bodies – applies to cancer, why wouldn’t it apply to any other illness?

Pamela Frankau: imaginary friend (4)

She tells another story – the vineyards reminded me – where she is (again, no details supplied) in Martha’s Vineyard in America. It is the winter of 1950 and she is writing one or other version of a novel at a kitchen table ‘littered with scattered foolscap’. A certain Mr Butler enters, bringing with him ‘the clean clothes on their wire hangers and a certain amount of snow’. He asks her where her typewriter is and she tells him she doesn’t have one. As she speaks, it strikes her that for each 100,000 word novel she must in fact be writing 200,000 words. Mr Butler stumps back out into the snow, with this parting shot:

‘Henry Beetle Hough, the editor of the Vineyard Gazette, – he has two typewriters’.

This caught my imagination on several levels. Presumably in America they delivered dry-cleaning to your door? Could anyone really have the middle name ‘Beetle’? What exactly was Martha’s Vineyard?

Re-reading the passage itself as opposed to my paraphrase, I realise I absorbed more about the art of storytelling from the way Pamela Frankau wrote in Pen to Paper than I ever did from her more straightforward instruction in the matter. I learned that you didn’t have to fill in the gaps, in fact to leave them was often more effective, because the two imaginations involved – yours and your readers – then started to work in tandem, creating the scene together. She told me nothing about Martha’s Vineyard except that it was sometimes snowy. I pictures this Mr Butler – a small, bald man – getting out of some sort of black sedan, struggling with an armful of clothes and wire hangers into thick, white snow – no footsteps as yet, he being the first visitor – into a clearing surrounded by pines – except that didn’t quite go with vineyards and stuff. I imagined a kind of log-cabin, cosy and warm, a big American kitchen, that eerie pink kind of light you get when it’s snowing… None of this she tells me, and yet she does.

Without actually instructing me she showed how to edit a book as if it was a film, that is was possible to zoom in and out of locations and back and forth in time, that you could cut out a lot of stuff. She taught me the value of an arresting sentence and the power of précis. We had been made to ‘do’ précis in English, of course, but no one had ever told us what for. This was what for.

Martha’s Vineyard brings me to the third surprise. First I had learned that Pamela was not exactly alive. Then I had had to accept that her actual novels were not really to my taste, although they might have been, had I been her contemporary. And then a year or two ago I learned that the other person with her at Martha’s Vineyard was not so much Sacha Distel as (gasp!) a lady. Suddenly the slightly nautical air, the twisted cigarette, the severe cut of the shirt in that photograph, all fell into place. It was like that moment in every single episode of Stargate where the massive heiroglyph thingies clang into place in whatever mysterious sequence, the stargate opens to reveal…watery stuff… and in rush the aliens. Pamela was bisexual. If you had mentioned the word to me and Lydsay Barwell wandering around Woolworths that day, we would have imagined…well, I don’t think we could have imagined. Now, of course, it is not shocking at all, just another detail.

Of course Pamela Frankau has not been my only writing buddy. Over the years I have been lucky enough to bump into one or two more. There’s the Dylans – Bob and Thomas – who remind me that words have their own magic, an intrinsic weight and a whole string of resonances aside from any information they might happen to convey. And then there’s my mate Michel (de Montaigne) who dispenses acerbic French advice, not so much on writing as on how to live and how to grow old amusingly. Sometimes, in the wee small hours when the horrors strike, I turn to him and find myself Laughing Out Loud. And as for me and Pam, we have weathered a number of awkward injections of fact into our fantasy friendship. When dusk is falling you’ll still find us out in the Rec, scuffing our shoes, twisting the chains of the swings and yattering about this and that.

By chance I happen to be the only one left this side of the veil, but we don’t let that bother us.