Might as well be hanged for a sheep

Janice was the bane of Miss Milligan’s life. Every teacher has at least one Bane, of course, but Janice – in Miss Milligan’s opinion – came straight from Hell equipped with her own pitchfork.

According to staff-room gossip – overheard, since for some reason Miss Milligan never seemed to be included in these gossipy huddles – Janice was some kind of genius in English and Art. On the other hand, the little beast failed abjectly in any subject that failed to engage her interest. Music was one of those subjects – the subject Miss Milligan had so far failed abjectly to teach her.

The child refused to read music. Miss Milligan was sure Janice understood perfectly well how to read music, because how could anyone not be able to grasp something so very simple? After a term with Miss Milligan every girl in class could read a simple musical score, could compose a pleasing sequence of four notes and then sing them back correctly upon request.

Janice scattered notes about the stave at random; true notes and psuedo-notes incorporating some design of her own with a hat or a smiley face. When asked to sing them back she would take a deep, shuddering breath and sing four completely different notes. The class would dissolve in laughter whilst Janice stared out of the window, seemingly having ascended to a higher plane.

It was Dumb Insolence: the child was putting it on, aiming to make a fool of her teacher. But put the little wretch up in front of the whole school and she’d have to get it right, or look like a fool. Miss Milligan flattered herself she knew a thing or two about teenage girls. Consumed with self-consciousness, they were, and Satan’s Daughter would prove no different.

Forced to turn the pages for Miss Milligan during assembly, Janice hovered by her side, perspiring, her hand trembling above the score for Jerusalem (the school song) as if hoping the exact moment to ‘turn’ might be conveyed by psychic wave or other mysterious means from Miss Milligan’s head to her own. When no such hint arrived she would make a wild snatch at the page, obliging Miss Milligan to make a similar wild snatch to turn it back.

When they were within a few bars of turning the next page, Miss Milligan waited for the girl to give in and turn it, but she did not. Miss Milligan resorted to a heavy nod. Janice did not appear to understand what was meant by the nod, and any case was now frowning at a stain on one of the floor tiles. Assembly hymn-singing proceeded in fits and starts, and with each fresh fit or start came a wave of stifled giggling. The Headmistress was also frowning at a floor tile.

Miss Milligan resolved to move the battle to an alternative field – left-handedness. Sinistrality might be an unavoidable defect in a small percentage of boys but was quite unacceptable in a girl. Miss Milligan was on the school dinner supervision rota, as were most of the teachers, and had spotted Janice lifting her dessert-spoon to her mouth with the wrong hand.

Today was jelly-and-custard, the ideal test. Miss Milligan positioned herself close to the Devil’s Spawn’s table. When it came to dessert, and the wrong hand started to convey the jelly upwards, Miss Milligan took a brisk step forward.

No, Janice – other hand.” Janice sat there, her mouth hanging slightly open, as if trying to process this perfectly simple instruction.

“In polite society, Janice, we eat with our right hands. So pick up your dessert spoon in your right hand, and eat.” Impossible to tell whether the surrounding brats were sniggering at the girl or herself.

Janice picked up the spoon in her right hand and carefully loaded it with red jelly. With equal care she lifted it towards her mouth, but failed to locate it. The spoon collided with her nose. She lowered the spoon, reloaded it, this time with a mixture of custard and red jelly, and tried again. Once again the spoon drifted wide. By now the whole room had fallen silent.

“Can I be of some help, Miss Milligan?” Miss Milligan had not been aware that the Headmistress was in the room.

“No, thank you very much. The situation is under control.”

“One more try, Janice.”

Janice was scarlet in the face and Miss Milligan scented victory. Any minute now she’d start to cry and that would teach the awkward, sullen brat. If she’s been in the WAAFS –

When the jelly – not just a spoonful but the entire plate – collided with Miss Milligan’s chest, she could not for a moment believe it. The jelly was cold, the custard even colder, and both were sliding downwards. Triumph arose in Miss Milligan’s soggy breast. Assault on a teacher: the girl would be expelled for this.

The same thought seemed to have occurred to Janice, for a whole tableful of jelly-and-custards were subsequently hurled, left-handed, with surprising accuracy. If only the girl played cricket –

And were the other girls actually passing jellies to her? Was she to be the recipient of a whole dining-roomful of red jellies?

“Headmistress!”

But the Headmistress seemed to have temporarily left the room.

There’s a rockabilly party on Saturday night…

Readers may recall – though probably not – that I recently gave up my TV licence as a protest against the Government/BBC’s plans to remove free TV licenses from the over 75s next year. Annoyingly, the BBC mentioned on their radio news programme this morning that TV viewing figures are falling drastically, especially among the young. I imagined I was rebelliously depriving myself of something for the sake of a principle – now I discover I was conforming to some mindless Younger Generation.

Staring mournfully at the gap where the TV set used to be, I realise I used to use it to switch off, ie to become part of the mindless Older GenerationNow I am finding being at home all day quite hard work – all that thinking about stuff – all that What should I be getting on with now? TV was an excuse to sit still and do nothing. Or knitting.

I’ve been managing quite well with my collection of radios, each tuned to a different station – not being much of a re-tuner of DAB radios. I have one stuck on Radio 4, for the News and Woman’s Hour. I sampled The Archers (‘an everyday story of countryfolk’), in the hope that, being older now, I would suddenly be able to stand to listen to it.

I still hated it, apart from one episode when a character called Hayley was going round frantically demanding money from fellow villagers in order to solve her mortgage shortfall problem – telling them she was entitled to it. She was being so annoying and so manifestly and counter-productively foolish in her approach, and all in a fake rural accent, that I just wanted to slap her. I suppose I was gripped, but not enough to make me tune in to the next episode.

One of my other radios is tuned to something called Mellow Magic. I have always resisted anything with the word mellow in it, along with the words heart-warming and epic – but I tried it and was hooked. Basically they play all the songs you remember quite a few of the words to, that whisk you back to your past.

Another radio is tuned to Scala, which advertises itself a classical music station with a modern twist. I use this as background music for reading. I used to use Spotify for this, but was always worried that by listening online I might be using up a lot of data, whatever that is.

Most of the time it’s fine – film scores, sad tinkly piano music – but occasionally you are jolted back into the living room by something unexpected and truly ghastly such as the Dam-Busters March or Mars, the Bringer of War. It’s even worse when you’re trying to get to the end of a popular physics book which is proving beyond your comprehension. I used to read books that dealt with string theory, multiverses and spooky action at a distance, but I think my brain must have atrophied since then.

So, I just migrate from one radio to another. Now what I need is some kind of hooked pokey-stick, or series of long pieces of string tied to all the radio like reins – to take the place of the TV remote control.

Then there are the TED talks. Someone stands on stage somewhere in the world – Iceland, Toronto, whatever – and records a short talk about whatever they happen to know or feel strongly about. These talks are free to listen to and are useful if suddenly craving the sight of a human being moving about and gesticulating, as opposed to disembodied voices. You have to be selective – no point watching fifteen minutes of someone enlightening you on how to sell a million pink plastic water-jugs in one day.

That’s how I came to be watching a lady psychologist talking about deathbed visions. I think she worked in end-of-life care or similar. She was saying people attending at a death should not be surprised if the dying person was able to ‘see’ other people in the room, or even reached up to them. One person had regular visits from an old dog who had died many years before, and which slept curled up on a chair. The psychologist lady explained that visions would usually be tailored to the person’s cultural background, so people in different countries might see angels, or the Buddha, or the Hindu god of death. And children tended to see visions tailored to them – so one child told his parents that the children’s train had arrived at the station; it was time for him to go.

People also see dead relatives or friends, and have the sense that they have come to greet them from the after-world, and help them across. This set me to thinking – who would I want to come and meet me? At first I thought, nobody.  What dead person would be willing to go to the trouble of struggling into human form again, and go and lurk around at some windswept crossroads waiting for me to turn up? And then I thought, well it would be the ultimate poor sad me thing, wouldn’t it – turning up at the afterlife crossroads and nobody – not even the Devil – who I gather has a tendency to keep assignations at crossroads-es to collect the souls people have sold to him – could be bothered to be there to say ‘Hi’.

So I settled for Nan, who would probably be wearing her cardigan and her flowery overall; Sophie, a long-lost and much loved black and white ‘tuxedo’ cat, and Godmother. Godmother isn’t actually dead yet, but she’s ninety, so presumably she would be by that time. Unless, of course, what probate solicitors often refer to as The Under The Bus Scenario were to happen fairly shortly. I even considered Ex but then I thought no, he’d be tapping his watch saying You’re three-and-a-half-minutes late! Don’t you know that you are Low On My List of Priorities?

Who or what would you want to crowd around your deathbed, or be waiting for you at the crossroads?

rockabilly

There’s a rockabilly party on Saturday night
Are you gonna be there?
(Well I got my invite)
Gonna bring your records?
(Oh, will do) …

Mott the Hoople, Roll Away The Stone, 1974

Party On, Gran!

The usual Christmas card came from an old friend, many miles away. It contained the usual folded-in-four, once-a-year letter. I’m not sure how old Jen is now but she must be ancient, considering she was a great deal older than me when we typed together for a while, in that tiny, exhaust-fume filled basement next to the ring road – bars on the windows; stiflingly crammed with sweating female bodies and those massive old word processors and printers. She tells me that her husband and his mother are on different floors of the same hospice – rooms above and below one another – and that she walks uphill for twenty minutes or so several times a week to visit them both. Neither of them know who she is.

One sentence from her letter has stuck in my mind – “I am afraid my world has become rather narrow”. Poor Jen, it was always narrow, though she wasn’t one to complain – a narrow, if cheerful, upbringing, narrow horizons, narrow expectations, narrow opportunities – and now it is narrower still.

Yesterday I went to the free Christmas Dinner the Parish Council put on every year. This place gradually seeps into your bones. You find yourself beginning to acquire the local cunning, which basically boils down to a series of mottoes such as:

  • Pay no more than 50p for anything.
  • Get the 9.30 bus so that you can use your bus pass. Argue piously with the driver if he says it’s 29 minutes past. By the time you have finished arguing it will be 30 minutes past. And then you can use your bus pass.
  • Leggings go with everything, and they are very cheap.
  • Tee shirts go with leggings, and they are also cheap.
  • Get your hair (beautifully) cut and (unpredictably) coloured by college students. They are very cheap.

Everyone goes to the Christmas Dinner, and every tiny parish has one. You have to fill in a form from the Post Office requesting a place. You have to be old, and local. There are a series of Christmas Dinners on different days in one of the three possibly “venues”. Sometimes the same venue hosts different parishes on different days of the month. It’s complex. But free. And actually, quite good. At least there’s plenty of it, even sprouts, even those tough-ish roast potatoes that remind you of school – even if a rainstorm is swirling outside, the car park is a sea of mud, your baby elephant sized paper hat is falling down over your ears and you are being forced to listen to mega-amplified Sixties classics sung by a man with sideburns in a shiny suit.

saw him, hiding behind the amplifier, wolfing it down before he began. A plate of Christmas Dinner must be part of the fee.

Poor chap, he worked really, really hard, but they made the mistake of calling the raffle (30 sumptuous prizes, including a box of biscuits-for-cheese) moments before he got up to tune his guitar (new strings, he was having problems with them). Immediately afterwards all the oldies started struggling into their coats and hats to go home. Mr Guitar Man was left, mid-afternoon, trying to ginger up a three parts empty hall, the few remaining oldies in the middle with their elephant hats, full of Xmas Pud and clapping sporadically, and a few schoolgirls (still in uniform) propping up the bar. Presumably they were related to the proprietors rather than hardened drinkers.

And oh, he sang Driving Home For Christmas. Extremely tunefully, but very loud. How I loathe that song. And Another Brick In the Wall by Pink Floyd, which I used to like but only for about three and a half minutes back in the Seventies. Very, very loud. And that Ride, Sally, Ride one. What’s that all about? Wasn’t that the Fifties?

And this – by way of attempting to bite one’s tail, post-wise, serpent-wise – is what really worries me. But I don’t think I can explain it. Oh well, I’ll have a bash.

It’s what my first-paragraph friend said about the narrowing of one’s world. I see it happening to me, of course, and yet, oddly, not. I see the advantages of being sucked in and submerged, the comfort and blanketing ease that narrowness brings – old age, no money, working class. Belonging. You see, that is what I have never, ever experienced, and part of me wishes only to be absorbed into it, never to have to think ‘outside the box’ again. Never again to be forced to sit on some hard, chilly seat and observe. I didn’t want to write this, because I observed it.

All the while I was sitting in the corner on that hard, chilly seat and knew however much I was clapping and smiling and chinking glasses and wishing people Happy Christmas at the socially appropriate (also observed) times, playing with the debris from the Christmas crackers, wishing I’d got one of those tiny spinning tops instead of a tiny yellow car – I was making mental notes, and I couldn’t stop. And I knew that I would never be able to, however lonely it was.

Watching my friend (of this paragraph) struggling to her feet to clap and sing along to Driving Home For Christmas; watching her propping her telescopic walking stick out of sight and hobbling onto the dance floor to do a kind of dignified, shuffling Sixties dance in the middle of the floor with another woman; observing her dancing, her with her floaty, surprisingly-coloured-by-students hairdo, wearing a blouse so large, twinkly and besequinned it was like a little constellation all of itself, I so wished I could do that, be like that. And yet I didn’t, and I couldn’t. I would rather the floor had opened and swallowed me whole than venture forth to dance. The other half of me was wondering how soon it could think of an excuse to go home and feed the cats.

The part of me that recognised courage in the face of adversity, a certain inexplicable joyousness about her, also felt the horror.

Of Olive And Her Ankles

This will not be a long post, being simply a response to a ridiculous prompt: mnemonic.

It will not be a long post because although at school – when mnemonics are most useful – I was quite good at thinking up mnemonics, I was not at all good at remembering what they stood for. I was interested in the mnemonic for its own sake, not the boring thing that originally necessitated it, and I had a tendency to forget boring things.

The one everyone recalls from school, I suppose, is Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – EGBDF. This is something to do with Music – maybe the notes on a piano? There is also FACE. I never had the faintest interest in learning to read music, so I instantly forgot what they stood for and was persecuted by Miss Spokes the music teacher for ever after. Miss Spokes was going thin on top, and her false teeth occasionally fell out on the piano whilst she was playing. She had a voice like Hilda Ogden from Coronation Street (on a bad day) all cracked and hideous. She told me I was a soprano, and forced me to sing – or rather mime – the soprano part in every single song we ever sang, even though I was, and knew I was, and have for ever after continued to be, an alto of severely limited range.

At school I was even less interested in Maths than I was in Music. This was partly my mother’s fault. Just before I started infant school, aged 4.5 or possibly 5, she foolishly told me she had never been any good at Maths at school and didn’t expect I would be either. Instant fear. Instant failure. They sat me on the ‘bottom table’ for Maths and the top table for English, and in these locations I remained, either metaphorically or actually, for the rest of my school career.

In my thirties, however, I decided I needed to teach myself Maths and get a Maths ‘O’ level. I bought that year’s text book in Smiths – a great, fat thing it was – and taught myself. I did it mostly by working backwards from the answers. One of the Engineers at work taught me some basic algebra. So – this is where the mnemonic comes in – for the exam I had to memorise the rules for calculating sines, cosines and tangents.

In those days, by the way, there were no calculators. You had a skinny, dog-eared set of tables full of tiny, tiny numbers and you had to look them up, and since I have the kind of eyes that cannot follow a row all the way along, but will skip up and down at random  I would have to put a coloured ruler underneath the row and follow it along that way.

I recall that sines, cosines and tangents are something to do with right-angled triangles but have no idea now – and I suspect had no idea when I passed my Maths O Level with flying colours – what possible use one might make of them once one had calculated them. I invented a mnemonic to remember them, which was:

Olive Has Always Had Orange Ankles
Opposite over Hypotenuse, Adjacent over Hypotenuse, Opposite over Adjacent

Olive, by the way, was the receptionist at the Power Station where I worked (hence the availability of Engineers to help with the algebra). Olive was harshly made-up, sour faced and completely lacking in a sense of humour. She once crashed her car on the way to work, I remember, by ‘just looking down on the floor for her handbag for a moment’. She did not like me.

Poor Olive: presumably she’s dead by now. And what a way to be immortalised – in a mnemonic invented by someone you didn’t much like, for something nobody much understands or ever wanted to much understand in the first place.

A Doze By Any Other Name

My father, in his declining years, had a propensity for dozing off with his mouth wide open in the presence of visitors. He also had a thing about his pyjamas. Around lunchtime he would start to ask my mother: Can I get into my pyjamas yet? Almost as soon as you arrived he would start looking at his watch, covertly – except it wasn’t very covert because he had eye problems and had to peer quite closely and at a certain angle – apparently counting the seconds until you left, so that he could revert to Pyjamas.

At the time I found these features of my father embarrassing and mildly irritating. Now, as I move closer and closer to old age/older age I begin to understand that it had to do with the way time increasingly telescopes, in ageing perception. Hours feel like quarter-hours. Minutes pass like seconds. Presumably, on that final day, one senses that time has halted, that one has entered some perpetual state of Now…

I always promised myself I wouldn’t start dozing off. Particularly I wouldn’t start dozing off and drooling – a disgusting habit. Still vivid in my mind is an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer Simpson, in the mistaken belief that the world is going to end the following morning, decides he has neglected religion and vows to spend his last night on Earth reading The Bible from cover to cover. So he starts, at Genesis, and a few seconds later is fast asleep. Morning finds him in his armchair, Bible still open at page 1 of Genesis, drooling copiously – and the world has for some reason not ended.

I do doze off, only I tend to call it Listening To Music. I think, well, I have been busy for all of an hour now and accomplished quite a lot, for me, so I will just plug in the ear-thingies and listen to Spotify for a while, thus broadening my musical horizons and revisiting old favourites. Several hours later…

This evening when I emerged from my musical not-a-doze I discovered the three-legged cat (the same cat that bit me most viciously before Christmas and caused me to spend the entire festive season driving back and forth to hospital to have antibiotics injected into a cannula in the crook of my arm) cradled in that same crook, gazing up at me adoringly. It occurs to me that cats may be the only animals – aside from human beings – that would waste time and energy in gazing adoringly at that beloved, but totally unconscious, Somebody Special.

This was not particularly unpleasant. What was unpleasant was discovering that my eardrums were now being assaulted by an appalling, appalling cringe-makingly mawkish Irish ballad entitled Scorn Not His Simplicity, performed by someone with a big-ish red beard by the name Luke Kelly. Upon not-falling-asleep I had been listening to Irish ballads – I seem to have quite a Celtic thing going on recently. I had started off with my current favourite Loreena McKennitt and moved on to Bert Jansch singing The Curragh of Kildare

I feel bad that I cannot abide Scorn Not His Simplicity since on googling it I discovered that it was written by songwriter Phil Coulter about his struggle to come to terms with the birth of his Downs Syndrome son. I do feel bad, for him, but it is still a very bad song. And yet Sinead O’Connor also recorded it: the great Sinead O’Connor – so can it really be that bad? Apparently it’s an Irish classic. But it’s still bad.

I think why it’s bad is that 1970s ramming the message home with a sledgehammer thing. There was a phase, in the late 60s, early 70s, when everything had to have a message and the message was so Crucial, Man! that nothing in a song was allowed to take precedence over it, and especially not the music. It was a phase analogous to that Victorian one where people were greatly affected by tales of orphans giving up their porridge to other orphans in work-houses and little match girls freezing to death on street corners with seraphic smiles on their pinched little faces.

Irritating that a Downs Syndrome child – such children now being readily accepted and even cherished – should then have needed to have excuses made for him, a special case in his defence. Irritating the golden hair and the ‘eyes that show the emptiness inside’. (Irritating also that Spotify listed it as Screen Not His Simplicity.)

What does this dreadful song remind me of? I asked myself, levering myself up from the corner of the sofa and dislodging the worshipping three-legged cat. And back came the answer: Camouflage.

Camouflage was actually written by someone called Stan Ridgeway in 1986, but about the Vietnam war. It reached number 4 in the English pop charts, number 2 in the Irish – surprise, surprise. Camouflage tells the story of several young marines caught in a barrage (how I abhor that phrase) who are rescued by a huge marine who suddenly appears in the jungle and performs all sorts of unbelievably heroic feats, thus saving their lives. On returning to camp they learn that the massive marine was in fact known as Camouflage. Whilst lying on his deathbed the noble Camouflage had expressed one final wish – to save some young marines caught in a barrage. At the very moment he expires – pouf! his giant-sized ghost reappears in the jungle and saves the young marines who are indeed caught in a barrage. Oh… eushhh!

I just recalled another one called Working My Way Back To You. In this case it wasn’t so much the song itself that was cringe-worthy as the Top Of The Pops dance routine that went with it. They were dressed in shiny jackets and lined up and miming rhythmical shovelling as if digging a whole row of imaginary graves and throwing the earth over their shoulders…

detroit

The Poemworm

I have to confess that though overblown imagery and gothic, post-romantic medievalism are out of fashion at the moment (they are still, aren’t they? or have they snuck back in again?) I just love Alfred, Lord Tennyson and particularly cherish The Lady of Shalott. And this is despite the fact that he named her after a type of onion. I wonder why he did it. Perhaps in late Victorian times shallot didn’t mean a type of onion?

Well – I discover, belatedly checking it on the internet – that’s not strictly true. The Lady of Shalott has one L and two Ts, whereas the onion’s cousin has two Ls and one T.

According to my battered copy of The Everyman Book of Victorian Verse: The Post-Romantics, Tennyson’s story corresponds to the death of the Lady of Astolat of unrequited love for the oh-so-beautiful Sir Lancelot. Why didn’t he stick with Astolat, I wonder? It’s easy enough to rhyme.

The other linguistic peculiarity is one of which a sheltered late Victorian gentleman like Alfred, Lord Tennyson was probably unaware – that, to English women at any rate, The Curse is code for a very specific event. So when ‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried / The Lady of Shalott – it can tend to produce a wry smile of sympathy.

It just shows you, though, how brilliant the poem is, that I can read that particular verse again and again, and still enjoy it:

She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces thro’ the room,

She saw the water-lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

She look’d down on Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried

The Lady of Shalott.

 I have not yet found a way of forcing this particular off-the-peg WordPress website design to do single spacing when it comes to poems, so I won’t go on quoting. No doubt if I was a Techie Tinkerer with Code and Stuff I could do so. Life is too short for Techie Tinkering. It falls into the same category as Mushroom Stuffing, Filing Old Paperwork and Rearranging Living Room Furniture.

The Lady of Shalott will keep buzzing around in my head at the moment. Not so much an earworm as a poemworm, although music is tangentially to blame since I have also been binge-listening to Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt  on Spotify, and one of her songs is – guess what, set to music? Yes, The Lady of Shalott. I am haunted, by this lady imbowered on her island.

‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said

The Lady of Shalott…

And of course, if you love the poem you have to love the art too. I revel in those lurid colours, the weird twilights and, I’m afraid, all that wafting ginger (sorry, Titian) hair. It’s the luscious excess of it all. It’s because of cigarette cards, and Sunday evenings.

When I was a child I spent every Sunday with Nan and Grandad along the road. As I have written before, those Sundays were my childhood-proper, my respite time. Along the road was where I belonged, safe with N and G, by a roaring fire, in a fug of tobacco smoke, with Sally the fat, cream-coloured labrador asleep on my feet; waiting for my newly-washed hair to dry, and consuming crumpets passed to me from the tines of a brass toasting-fork, by Grandad.

Anyway, in those days cigarette packets were smaller and – as an incentive to buy them and ruin your health – contained small, rectangular, brightly coloured cards. Children collected these. There were famous footballers and famous Shakespearian characters –  and Grandad had a collection of these, in an album. It was there I first saw the picture I called – just inside my head, thankfully, not aloud – The Floating Green Lady (who is actually Ophelia, by John Everett Millais) and all unknowingly became hooked on the Pre-Raphelites for ever.

ophelia

And looking at her now, she’s not even green, is she?  Everything else is green but she’s kind of dampish silver-grey. But it was the green-ness that made an impression on me – and the chilly wetness, and the floating flowers, and the tragedy of it all; the way she was floating with the weed, the way her dead hands rose up out of the water, as they would in real life, or real death. I used to practise the Green Lady Floating Hands in the bath.

Do you have any Guilty Pleasures, art or poetry-wise? Any Poemworms? Any guilty bathtime memories?

Trad Jazz and Tarantulas

If you had asked me to make a list of what I was expecting from last night’s Outing tarantulas would have been unlikely to feature on it.

Not that I would have probably got round to making such a list because making such a list would fall under the banner of Mushroom Stuffing, Mushroom Stuffing being but one of that multitude of things that life is too short to do. A further example – Bertie spent much of our Thursday bus stop waiting time recounting the lengths he had gone to in rejuvenating his last year’s Remembrance Day poppy. The black bit in the middle had come out, he said, and he couldn’t find it, but eventually he did find it under the fridge/ washing machine/ spare-room bed/ hallway hat-stand, and then it was a matter of attaching a fresh bit of wire, hunting out the superglue and attaching the battered red petals to the new framework… This must have taken him several hours. Mushroom stuffing.

I mentioned mushroom stuffing. Nobody knew what I meant, of course.

Last night I went on an Outing. For most of my life the concept of Outings has been a foreign one to me. I am that pathetic, lone-wolf type person whose default position would be Do This Alone, Go There Alone, Solve This Yourself etc. But now I no longer have a car and have perforce become more reliant on other people and have had to retrain myself, somewhat, if not exactly into sheep-hood, at least into a lone-wolf/ovine combination. I have also read that Social Interaction might help you not get Alzheimers.

This I how, with three of my fellow Over 50s I came to be being driven into town (after dark) in a frankly odoriferous – dog/ cigarettes/ air freshener/ unidentified-but-unpleasant, possibly nappies – car, to a district on the outskirts of Town that I would until now have been nervous of frequenting in daylight let alone on the night before Bonfire Night, with premature fireworks lighting up the sky. I focussed on my breathing. There was very little air inside this car, and so many people breathing it.

However, it was a good night, if stressful. In this district the new owners of an old shop were renovating it when they came across a sealed room. On breaking in they found a perfect little music hall theatre left over from 1879 or thereabouts and somehow forgotten. It had offered “rational amusement for all classes”, including a one-armed juggler.

The sound of one arm juggling…

They restored it, making it into a mixture of tiny heritage centre, tiny museum, tiny cinema and tiny theatre. Just the sort of place I like. Sort of place you could set a book in.

Behind the Scenes at the… oh no, that’s been done before.

I wasn’t expecting much from a 1920s evening. Not even the oldest Over 50, I think, can actually remember the Roaring Twenties. I imagined we might be in for a party of not-very-good flapper dancers in thick, cheerful make-up, performing ragged Charlestons, or maybe re-enacting romantic scenes from Noel Coward plays. But it was an Outing. I just went because Outings are supposed to be good for one.

But it wasn’t that at all, it was an “orchestra” of six elderly chaps playing traditional jazz, and rather well, plus a slightly younger crooner-type singer, wearing a tuxedo, a bow-tie and sinister BBC announcer/German spy type spectacles, and playing the saxophone in between. They consisted of a trumpeter, with mute; a clarinet player with a white ZZ Top type beard; a snowy-haired, feisty drummer, for whose life I feared during a vigorous drum-solo; a guitar/banjo player who appeared to be asleep through out, with mouth open, but nevertheless kept on playing, and someone in the middle at the very back playing what I assumed to be a tuba – something like a battered brass snake that enveloped him, with a giant gramophone horn attached to the end – but later discovered it was a souzaphone.

I promised myself I would not, Kermit-fashion, jiggle up and down in my seat in time to the music, or even tap my feet, but of course I did. They played all those bits of jazz I remember from black and white films on TV on rainy Saturday afternoons in my childhood. Long, silly introductions. Little sung stories leading into sudden bursts of rampageous jazz. I looked around. We were surrounded by union jacks and tasteless swags of red ribbon, and vases of lilies, something that looked like a church organ, weird deco. It could have been wartime. How appropriate, as Britannia sinks beneath – or, fingers-crossed and baited breath, may just about float upon – the waves…

Never, Never, Never to be Slaves….

Afterwards, as we were standing outside awaiting the return odoriferous lift , I asked a silly question. What’s behind that great big wall?  Right opposite us, mere feet away, was the tallest and oldest brick wall I think I have ever seen. This would not have been a silly question for a visitor from outer space (and I could see by the micro-expressions on my companions faces that I had just asked that sort of question) but I do live here. That, I was told, is the Dockyard.

And this is where the tarantulas come in. Behind that wall, my companions explained, as our breath steamed in the damp night air, is the Dockyard. And in that wall are tarantulas that have escaped from all the crates that were ever unloaded here. They live in the cracks in the wall… The wall is still pitted with shrapnel holes from where this street (well, they were obviously aiming for the Dockyard) was bombed in the last war.

Really? Do they bite?

No, they’re not the biting sort. They just live in the cracks.

Someone has tested that?

And suddenly I imagined all these poor little tarantulas and the lives they must have led. The Wall was as far as they could get. Scuttling out of their crates into, not the tropical sunshine they had been used to but some grey, damp February or November day. Heading for the nearest cover – that Wall. Living in the cracks, unable to go any further, unable to go home. How sorely they must have missed it, the music of the oil drum bands, those joyous calypsos beneath the palm trees. I hope they were at least tapping their feet along to strains of jazz drifting across from the little theatre. I hope they were jiggling just a little, Kermit-fashion in their shrapnel holes, and those crumbling interstices.

souza

 

A little early in the morning for Thomas Tallis

It seems a little early in the morning for Thomas Tallis…

(We are rifling through my CD collection. My inner Monkey seems far more ‘precious’ and intellectual than me. I’m not at all sure I like him.)

I’ve been reading The Untethered Soul by Michael A Singer – a New York Times Best Seller in 2007.

You always get them late…

I am thinking this is going to be…

Finally!

…a really useful book, mostly because it’s in such brutally plain English it’s almost scary. I read a lot of stuff about Zen back in… oh, who knows? Particularly the splendidly named Christmas Humphreys, though he wasn’t much help. I recall a lot of stuff about monkey-mind, fingers pointing at the moon; bullocks, or maybe oxen, pulling carts; monks carrying beautiful ladies across raging rivers but scarcely noticing; people who went around saying “Mu” a lot; people who somehow ‘saw’ flowers in a way that lonely housewives from Kent could not ‘see’ flowers, and the Sound of One Hand Clapping. Now what’s that all about? That One Hand thing, it’s bothered me ever since.

But then of course, since it’s a Koan, it’s meant to bother you. It’s meant to explode your mind into some higher consciousness…

Why hasn’t it, then?

Maybe some Jackson Browne? Blast from the past? That rather lovely picture of him emerging from the river – or possibly just the local swimming pool.  Kate used to like him, didn’t she? She had that polaroid photo of the two of them together blu-tacked up on her notice board at work. Taken at some concert in London. Treasuring it into her old age. She looked so young then, with that sixties hairdo and all the kohl eye-liner…

Shut up!

Who exactly are you telling to shut up? I am not you, remember? I am a figment, a chimera, an ostrobogulation… and yet I am you – whatever you might actually be – attempting to control the outside world, manufacturing an illusion that it’s not as real and random as it truly is…

An ostro-what?

Good one for WordsWithFriends. Daisy’ll never have heard of that one.

That’s because it doesn’t exist, you…Monkey!

Look it up.

It doesn’t… Good God, there is such a word as ostrobogulation.

Slightly risqué, indecent, bizarre, interesting, unusual..

Why would there even need to be such a word?

I don’t think I ever ‘got religion’ though Ex informed everyone I had. That was around the time I left him, and shortly after the time of reading Christmas Humphreys.

You can see how he conflated the two concepts. And it would have made sense of it for him – exchanging his Godlike self for another.

If only I could have got religion, life would have been so much simpler. How very much I would have liked to be sure that Jesus would save me if only I was good…

…as in Norman Greenbaum: Prepare yourself you know it’s a must / Gotta have a friend in Jesus / So you know that when you die / He’s gonna recommend you to the spirit in the sky…

You’re even heckling me with forward-slashes now?

… but I could never narrow myself down to that.

I remember being temporarily impressed by something a visiting Methodist preacher said, about all the leaves, and all the tiny veins on the leaves, and… because where else did all this come from, if there wasn’t a Great Designer?

Ah, the old Argument From Design; but leaves-and-such – an intellectual argument, and not satisfying. And you didn’t know about evolution then. Not that it negates evolution. Actually, if I was God I’d use evolution because after all I’d have invented evolution. So elegant, so subtle, so classy…

Actually, how am going to think if I can’t talk to myself? It is possible to reason at all without words?

Is that the same Monkey, or another Monkey?

Many Monkeys. Mind full of Monkeys…

Even as a child, leaves, planets, the vast unfathomable reaches of space… none of that was enough. What was enough was the harum-scarum flight It took me on one stormy afternoon, over fields and walls and fences, to a field with one great tree in it. Enough was when It told me that It loved me and wanted me back. Nothing else, but that stormy day, the pink light, the thunder and the lightning flashes, the falling of raindrops on laurel leaves…

Nothing else but that solitary, magical, childhood flight has been enough.

flight

You’re the colour of the sky

Reflected in each store-front window pane

You’re the whispering and the sighing

Of my tires in the rain

You’re the hidden cost and the thing that’s lost

In everything I do… *

 

*Sky Blue and Black: Jackson Browne

Surreal

A Poem Can Bloom In The Middle Of The Road

A poem can change the colour of her hair

And dress up kinda tarty;

A poem can wear an unfashionable hat

And push a bomb in a basket.

 A poem can make you believe she’s a song

Crooned by some pretty kid;

A poem can paint himself on a wall

And be worth four million quid.

A poem can spill out her heart on the news –

Doesn’t have no help, no food;

A poem can wade to you from a boat

With all his children drowned.

 A poem can bloom in the middle of the road

Or climb up your garden wall;

She can build a nest in your guttering

Or be anything at all.

paint

Abracadabra (A New You Effective Tomorrow)

Hmm, being someone new, tomorrow, anyone in the world I wish, alive today or long ago. Hmm….

This is one of those Daily Post prompts. You’re meant to write a Post in response to the Prompt, then create a Pingback within the Post – somehow. That’s an awful lot of Ps to get one’s head around but I’ll have a go, though knowing my technological luck it’ll either fail to ping or it’ll pong instead. Another hazard of pingbacking, apparently, is self-pinging. I envisage this as some nightmarish feedback loop, my blog feeding back to my blog feeding back to my blog…

Talking of ponging. We weren’t, but it sort of ties in – I can’t help but hear the late Kenneth Williams fulsomely singing in a commercial for toilet cleaner. Kenneth Williams was a comic genius, one of those chaps you couldn’t help laughing at. But uneasily, always uneasily. A strange mixture, always: ultra-camp/scary. Anyway, a rudimentary cartoon loo, having inserted into its tank a block of a freshening product called Bloo, announces “Oooh, I feel like a New Loo.”

I wonder what it would be like if you could, though? Take some sort of magic tablet, wave some sort of wand, yell Abracadabra – and there you are all of a sudden: someone else. And maybe somewhen else.

Apologies: marginally relevant Blast from the Past.

Well, I definitely wouldn’t choose to be me again: one lifetime of me-ness has been way more than enough and if reincarnation turns out to be a kind of Groundhog Life and having to come back as the same person again and again and again until I get it right… Nooooooooo!

I’d like to be a Man, for starters. Men on the whole lead more interesting lives, and they are free in a way that women still aren’t. Still. And probably never will be. I want to lead a proper life.

And I’d like to be musical because that’s something I’m not – except in my soul. In my soul I am a great composer, I am… In reality I am the girl who could never make sense of musical notation. I got stood next to the music mistress in Assembly and told to turn the pages while she belted out some hymn or other on the piano. She knew I couldn’t read music. I’d had to report to her in the staffroom after school about not being able to read music, even. So why… ? Revenge, I suppose.

Of course I turned the pages in all the wrong places and nearly died of fear. She was bald, I remember, my music teacher. Going thin on top. And Apparently her false teeth fell out during one of her music lessons – landed with a porcelain chatter on the piano keyboard, apparently. If only they had obliged during my page-turning-assembly-humiliation, everyone might have laughed at her instead.

And if I’m going to be musical and a man I want to be Thomas Tallis, who wrote Spem in Alium, the best piece of music ever. I always wanted to meet Thomas Tallis – how much better to be him.

In which case I’ll have been born towards the close of Henry VIIIs reign and will have started out as an organist in Dover Priory, in my own county of Kent (so perhaps I am Thomas Tallis, spookily reincarnated for some unfathomable reason as a lumpy old Englishwoman). And then I’ll make music at Canterbury Cathedral (been there, done that, paid the entrance fee, investigated the souvenir shop – they won’t let you out otherwise).

Throughout my career, though ‘an unreformed Roman Catholic’ I’ll play a careful political/musical game, subtly adjusting my style to suit the tastes of four successive monarchs. Not much else is known about my life except that I will write quite a lot of the world’s most fantastic music. But what else matters apart from that?

I’ll die peacefully in my house in Greenwich in November 1585 and be buried in a church called St Alfege, the exact location of which has disappeared from the maps. My bones may be discarded by labourers when the church is rebuilt between 1712 and 1714. All that will remain of me is a brass plate upon which someone has engraved some verses so dire as to be worthy of that remarkable (and much later) Scottish poet William Topaz McGonagall:

“Entered here doth ly a worthy wyght, / Who for long tyme in musick bore the bell: / His name to shew, was THOMAS TALLYS hyght, / In honest virtuous lyff he dyd excell.

“He serv’d long tyme in chappel with grete prayse / Fower sovereygnes reygnes (a thing not often seen); / I meane Kyng Henry and Prynce Edward’s dayes, / Quene Mary, and Elizabeth oure Quene.

“He mary’d was, though children he had none, / And lyv’d in love full thre and thirty yeres / Wyth loyal spowse, whose name yclypt was JONE, / Who here entomb’d him company now beares.

“As he dyd lyve, so also did he dy, / In myld and quyet sort (O happy man!) / To God ful oft for mercy did he cry, / Wherefore he lyves, let deth do what he can.

Underwater fireworks

In my last-but-one post I managed – finally – by accident to embed a YouTube video – I mean the actual video not just a naff old link. And couldn’t for the life of me work out how I did it. Sigh!

So I’ve been mining the WordPress Codex – whatever that might be – to discover the secret of embedding videos, and might just have cracked it.

So, if this works, it will be Spem in Alium, 40 voice motet by Thomas Tallis.

Underwater fireworks.

Heaven on earth.

Yay!!  Turn up the volume.

Just tell me it’s not the end of the line

The Greasy Café is where we go most Sundays, Mum and I. We go there because you don’t have to walk far if it’s raining, or if Mum’s feet are bad, as they are at the moment. And it’s near mini-Tesco’s, in case of a Ryvita and currant-cake famine. Actually, the things we end up buying in Tesco’s seem to have little to do with what Mum has in her store cupboard or even what she likes – they are more likely to be what her internal elves instruct her to buy, and in whatever strange quantities they stipulate – four currant-cakes when once home she will say she doesn’t like cake, a single yoghurt when she eats at least two a day, meat cat food when the cat prefers fish, no bananas when she has no bananas. I have learned not to argue, on the basis that it will do no good in any event, and any food in her cupboard is better than none at all. I am not sure whether she remembers to eat it, or what she eats, but she seems to stay around the same weight so she must be eating something.

But, before that we go to the Greasy Café. We always have to have the same thing – two Choice One. The frothy coffees are free. It’s really a breakfast meal – two slices of toast, one underdone tomato cut into quarters, two potato cakes and a mountain of rubbery scrambled egg, which I suspect starts off as yellow powder in an industrial-size tub. The café is run by Cypriots, a husband and wife team, with occasional weekend waiters or waitresses. Every other week Mum asks me in a deaf person’s whisper where I think they come from, and whether they are Indians, and I pretend not to hear since they are only a foot or so away. If there is a waiter he will learn how handsome he is – could have been a model. If there is a waitress she will learn how slim she is – surprising with all this food around. People are enormous nowadays. Great wobbly things. Look at his stomach! And why do the women wear those long dresses?

The café owners know us well. We walk in and they wave at us, he from the kitchen and she from behind the till. The usual?

Are you going to give them our order? I don’t think they’ve seen us.

They know our order. They’ll be along in a minute with the coffee.

But she hasn’t come to the table with her notebook.

They know our order. We always have the same.

I don’t think they’ve seen us.

They know our order. They’ll be along in a minute…

And then we sink into silence and wait, because Mum doesn’t like to wear her hearing aids, and can’t hear me. And anyway, we have nothing much to say, having got through any ‘business’ over mugs of tea before we came out. I have a notebook and biro in my bag in case of emergencies.

We’ve been waiting for half an hour. Are they very busy?

The café is empty apart from us, the Cypriot owners and a couple of middle aged men commenting the sports pages of the newspaper. They are always here. Seem to be friends of the boss. And outside, there are the vapers – a strange-looking couple who sit at one of the outside tables in all weathers, vaping. Lady boss takes coffee out to them at intervals.

It’s only been ten minutes. She’ll be here with the coffee shortly.

Do they know we’re here? She didn’t come to the table with her notebook.

Outside is the shopping precinct. It was built long after I left, on the land which used to belong to Mum’s school. They demolished Mum’s school. The playground is now a bookmakers, and a Wilco store. Behind that there is a pet shop where Mum sometimes buys cat-biscuits because she feels sorry for them, and a bookshop which I am not allowed to go into because Mum doesn’t do browsing, and a charity shop side window. I make sure to be facing the window, and every Sunday I look out at clumps of fat people going past, the women in the long frocks my mother so dislikes, the children in hoodies, on skateboards, the men with their big bellies in long shorts and tattoos. I am just too far away to read the titles of the second hand hardback books stacked in the bookshop window, but in any case I have been in there on my own and know he overcharges. And I know they’ll be unweildy histories of naval battles in the Second World War, and indexes of all the films ever made, and craft books showing you how to make floral covers for paper tissue boxes, or Easter Bunny peg-bags. And in the charity shop, the same three dresses – a red one, a very short blue one and a longer, beige-coloured one. Always the same three, in some tiny size. Obviously there are not enough small women around here. Oh yes, and a handbag. A battered brown handbag, very large, with black clasps. A homeless handbag.

Our coffees arrive. There is a spoon each to spoon off the froth.

I’ve got three bags of sugar.

Oh, I’ve got two this time.

But I don’t need three bags of sugar.

Put them in your handbag for later, then.

It’s not the done thing. And they might need them for other people.

Leave them on the table, then.

But why have I got three and you’ve got two?

I don’t know. Sometimes I get three and you get two. Sometimes we both get two…

Do they know we’re here? She hasn’t been over…

Our two Choice Ones arrive. I shall be feeling queasy all afternoon. I am thinking, I’ve got a bit of a headache. The toast isn’t too bad, though. I’ll leave half the egg.

This is better than the beans, isn’t it? The one with the beans we used to have. So many beans they used to spill off the edge of the plate. And they made the plate wobble. I could never keep my plate still. Yours never seemed to wobble. Why did I always get the wobbly plate?

I don’t know. Maybe it was a wobbly table.

There’s a dead fly on this table.

It’s just a mark. Look, I’ll poke it – it doesn’t move.

It looks like a dead fly.

But it doesn’t move.

It won’t move if it’s dead.

There is no fly. Look, it’s a mark on the table.

This is better than the beans, isn’t it?

They’ve turned on the radio. Music, to soothe a savage breast.

It’s very noisy in here. What’s that noise all of a sudden?

But I am floating away on a tide of music, and none of it matters any more, not the three same dresses and the homeless handbag, not the unreachable books or the fat people, or the hooded children on their skateboards, not the people in wheelchairs, the people smoking, the tattooed men, the grey clouds overhead, the likelihood of rain, Tesco still to come…

I drew a broken heart

Right on your window pane

Waited for your reply

Here in the pouring rain

Just breathe against the glass

Leave me some kind of sign

I know the hurt won’t pass, yeah

Just tell me it’s not the end of the line…