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

Listen With Mother

It had sat in that same corner all my life – beside the window chair in the living room – my mother’s sewing box – and yet I had forgotten about it.

When I was a child she often gave me the sewing box to tidy, and I genuinely believed I was helping rather than – as seems more likely now – being kept amused. I remember sitting on the floor surrounded by cotton reels and cards of press-studs and hooks and eyes and being full of my own importance. I was helping. This goes back to the time before things went wrong, before Mum started lying on the sofa and crying for most of the morning instead of dusting. The time before Nan started coming along to help, and Mum started taking two aspirins every four hours for most of many days.

In those days we would listen to Listen With Mother together on the radio. She would sit me on her lap and I would start twiddling a lock of my hair in sheer anticipation. What would it be today? See-saw Marjorie Daw or the one about the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie? We had to have teddy with us. The radio lady always asked us if we had our teddies with us, and whether we were sitting comfortably.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

But back to the sewing box. I think I took it all rather seriously. I not only sorted out the cotton reels but wound in every loose end and secured it in the little notch at the top. I not only tidied the button box but threaded the buttons into a long string using one of Mum’s darning needles – little buttons at one end, all the way up to giant coat-type buttons at the other. Duffle-coat toggles were a bit of a worry…

I had to go back there about a week ago – I think I wrote about it – to remove Ex’s paintings as the house is now being sold to pay Mum’s fees. I was dreading it, and it was pretty dreadful, in some ways. Arriving half an hour before the removal firm man, I sat on the doorstep for ten minutes unable to go inside on my own. When he arrives, I thought, I’ll usher him in first and he can confront the ghosties! But then the neighbours started making casual passes back and forth. I realised they didn’t know who I was and assumed some sort of Bag Lady. Maybe they were about to call the police and have me removed… so I plucked up my courage and went in.

I busied myself packing Nan’s blue half-a-tea-service, which I had promised Mum I would save, and which nobody else seemed to want. I remembered the tea service from Sundays with Nan and Grandad. When first Nan and then Grandad died the half-a-tea-service (presumably my uncle had the other half) moved along the road and took up residence on a Welsh dresser in Mum’s living room. I had brought newspapers with me, and carrier bags.

Take anything you like, my sister said. The house clearance man was coming to take the lot. Probably been and gone by now.

I found a little album with a few random photos in it, of Mum and Dad and me maybe fifteen years ago, exploring the local chalk-pit that had been turned into a tourist attraction (or that was the idea) by the addition of wooden walkways and stairs. I have no photos of Mum and Dad – indeed, no photos at all of any part of my life – somebody else seems to have had them all at each step of the way, so I put that in the bag. I found a grubby old “Knitting Patterns” album containing not knitting patterns but recipes – all Mum’s favourite recipes in her familiar handwriting, recipes torn out of women’s magazines and annotated. Little interjections, mostly with her favourite exclamation marks

Delicious!

I substitute sultanas for mixed fruit!

360F, middle shelf!!

I thought I might share a few of the recipes with you, in occasional future posts. A way of Mum living on and in a small way contributing to the future, if you see what I mean.

And then I spotted it – the sewing basket. It was very, very heavy but I brought that home too. It sat at my feet high up in the removal man’s van. You need to be a veritable mountaineer to get into one of those things, and I all but landed in a heap trying to climb down out of it at the other end.

And then there was the dilemma. That evening I sat with Mum’s sewing basket on my knees and shed the few tears I ought to have shed a year earlier, at the thought of Mum to all intents and purposes gone. Mum in that home. Mum not at home. The house I grew up in not my home now. Everything off with the house clearance man to be distributed, no doubt, among charity shops.

But what should I do with the basket? Part of me wanted to sit on the floor, take out a whole lifetime of bits and bobs, half-cards of bias binding, folds of orange ribbon, samples of hessian (whatever did she use that for?) and of course the button box which, when I was a child had seemed a huge and magical container and now seemed to have shrunk to a hexagonal toffee tin with pictures of rabbits and 1950s postmen on the front.

Part of me wanted to leave it exactly as it was, so that the muddle inside should be Mum’s muddle, her memorial, a little bit of her practical, creative mind. In a way I wanted to keep her boxed, rather than bottled.

The dilemma continued for some time. Should I use the sewing box – as she would probably have wanted – or leave it undisturbed? After all, they were not really magic, the rusty tin of pins, the darning needles rusted into the tartan pincushion… I remember her teaching me to make a version of that pincushion for my Brownie sewing badge. They were just old things.

And then today I decided to design something to sew. Now, don’t laugh. There is a reason for it but I haven’t got time to go into it right now. I designed a Sad Cat Hat, taking the pattern from a sunhat I bought at a market stall on a recent visit to Canterbury, cutting out paper pattern pieces from the front cover of the Radio Times and pinning them onto an old pillow case for my “trial version” of this unlikely object. And then I thought, I no longer have any dressmaker’s shears and the kitchen scissors are too blunt. Maybe Mum has some?

In the bottom of Mum’s sewing box was a perfect pair of dressmaker’s scissors and – and this is the strange thing – left handed ones. Now, how does that happen? Mum was right handed. I’m left-handed.

And it seems to me that Mum – wherever she hides, inside that poor old grey head – was trying to get a message to me. Take the middle way. Use what you need but only when you need it, leave the muddle mostly, but not entirely, undisturbed.

Some fairly substantial fairies

I was once forced to go see an Alan Bennett play entitled Kafka’s Dick. It was with my writers’ group. Why on earth had this group of fusty, elderly people – most of them, I have to say, considerably older and fustier than I – chosen for their annual outing a play about a literary gentleman’s body-part? They may of course have assumed Dick was a close friend of Kafka, that strange novelist, more famous for accidentally becoming a beetle overnight.

It was just dire – and I do appreciate Alan Bennett’s gifts. I particularly enjoyed his Talking Heads sequence on TV. There was a lot of giant scenery that didn’t seem to represent anything but kept being twizzled round; I couldn’t follow at all what was going on, and to cap it all there was this tortoise – a mechanical tortoise that seemed to be under the actors’ feet all the time. I have no idea what the significance of the tortoise might have been vis-a-vis the plot, which I also had no idea about, but I spent the whole play in a fret in case one of the actors might accidentally take a step backwards and tread on it. Metal shards and clockwork everywhere. Because if that happened I might laugh; and might not be able to stop laughing.

I was sat next to Dora, who was faded gentry. In the interval I confided in her my difficulty with plays – live plays, that is. I can read a book and be totally involved. People have to wave their hands in front of my face to bring me back – from Hogwarts, or wherever. I can watch a play on television – that’s fine too. But I fail completely when it comes to either radio plays or live performances.

Radio plays – I can just always imagine the man with the cocoanuts pretending to be the horses’ hooves; the man with the tiny door that creaks, pretending to be the full-size door of some haunted castle, and the man shuffling around in a litter tray pretending to be footsteps on a gravelled drive.

Live plays – it’s the fact that the actors are real. They look as if they’re on television, way down in the distance (we always seem to get the cheap seats right up in the rafters – and that’s another thing – vertigo) but they’re alive – I know they’re alive – and I can ‘hear’ them pretending. The acting just doesn’t work, when they’re really there. And I’m terrified someone will forget their lines and there’ll be an awkward silence, and then a little voice from somewhere below their feet, stage-whispering the words. I can’t bear it.

“It’s because you didn’t grow up going to the theatre,” Dora said, kindly. She means I’m working class, I thought. She can tell.

Unfortunately, it’s not just plays: it’s anything on a stage. Ballet – I mean, it’s beautiful, magnificent and wonderful, but it’s people in tights and tutus prancing about and… And yet on telly, I can watch a ballet till the cows come home.

As for opera. Well to be honest I can’t abide opera whichever medium it happens to be infesting. It has the same effect on me as football; an instant grab at the remote control. It’s something about the voices, all that trilling and bellowing, just can’t get into it. And yet I love classical music.

kafka

However, what I do enjoy about going to plays, is the company of my friend, N. I used to work for N but now I mostly see her once a year. Since neither of us is a natural conversationalist we tend to go to a play, which gives us something to talk about over coffee afterwards. The enjoyment is not so much in the play as in the silent, shared amusement a really badly-acted play can generate.

We tend to go to the University theatre, where the plays are performed by drama students. The one before last was a Greek Comedy, the Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes. N muttered something about having received a telephone message from the theatre the previous day, warning her the performance might not be suitable for children. Obviously not everyone had thought to check their answerphones, because there were quite a few of the little dears in the audience, some as young as eight or ten. As to the play – my entire memory is of the enormous stuffed pink phalluses that popped up from under every short, frilly Ancient Greek male skirt at intervals. And the student-actors kept falling over – hay-bales, their own feet – any excuse to perpetrate even more comic stuffed-phallus-popping-outing.

We didn’t look at one another, but at coffee afterwards there was quite a bit of spluttering.

The one before that was the same student faculty attempting A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Behind a wobbly cardboard tree, centre stage, we could see part of a largish, green-tighted thigh and a wisp or two of purple net. After a while we realised that other fairies were concealed behind other woodland furniture, pretending not to be there. As these large young ladies emerged from their leafy concealment and began to flutter about, N leant sideways in her seat and murmured –

“Some fairly substantial fairies.”

 

Eight tracks, one book and a luxury item

I don’t know how many people outside the UK will have heard of Desert Island Discs? It’s a BBC Radio 4 programme which has been running since January 1942. It’s a British institution along with Doctor Who, the children’s programme Blue Peter, the sacred Shipping Forecast and that ghastly, never-ending Northern soap Coronation Street. All are much loved, much mocked and never likely to be forsaken by viewers and listeners. This little cluster of programmes is infinitely reassuring to the British. Whatever else may change – terrorists threatening to blow us up, immigrants battering down our borders, farmers releasing cows in supermarkets to protest at the price of milk, an unlikely person with a beard being elected as Leader of the Opposition, weather forecast data no longer to be supplied by the Meteorological Office – as long as we have this handful TV and radio programmes we are going to be OK. No need to worry. Have another cup of tea. All’s right with the world. Underneath, we are a very nervous nation.

The basic premise is this: each week a guest, called a “castaway” during the program, is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item that they would take if they were to be cast away on a desert island, whilst discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices. (Thank you Wikipedia for the definition).

Why discs? These pieces of music would once have been encoded on gramophone records, children. Gramophone records were black discs originally made of something called shellac. Shellac was easily breakable, as I can attest, having accidentally parked my teenage posterior on my ancient shellac disc of Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly’s True Love – oh, I loved both the song and Bing Crosby. I’m sure sitting on and shattering them set an unlucky precedent for the rest of my life .

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAO8vlvPS88

Latterly shellac was replaced with plastic, and plastic was replaced by downloadable tracks. Unless something has replaced tracks? Forgive me, I’m old and still listening to CDs with occasional recourse to a Tesco generic MP3 for yomping along the sea-front. Actually, I don’t so much yomp as totter nowadays but the fresh air is good for me.

Guests are invited to imagine themselves cast away on a desert island, and to choose eight pieces of music to take with them. Excerpts from their choices are played or, in the case of short pieces, the whole work. At the end of the programme they choose the one piece they regard most highly. They are then asked which book they would take with them; they are automatically given the Complete Works of Shakespeare and either the Bible or another appropriate religious or philosophical work. (Wikipedia again. Why bother to rewrite something when it’s perfectly well-written already?)

There’s one final element. Guests are allowed to choose one luxury item to take with them. It must be inanimate and can’t be something you could use either to escape from the island or to communicate with the world beyond. Comedian John Cleese of Monty Python’s Flying Circus fame was allowed to take Michael Palin with him on one condition – that Michael Palin would be dead, and stuffed. People tend to ask for pianos, and champagne, for example. If you’re fascinated to see a list of what people actually do ask for (I love lists, don’t you?) here is the link:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Desert_Island_Discs_episodes_(2011%E2%80%93present)

The above list answered one of my questions – what about electricity? I suspect the desert island must be attached to the mains by an underwater cable, since people have asked for electric guitars, cappuchino-makers, a Sex and the City DVD boxset (why on Earth…?), though others, when requesting laptops and i-pods, and taking the whole frivolous concept ultra-seriously, have been careful to specify solar-powered.

Working out and Desert Island Disc list is something I have never attempted before but, for your edification and delight, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am going to attempt it now. I suggest ‘Desert Island Discs’ as a good game, perhaps for power-cuts, or at Christmas when full of brussels-sprouts and Yorkshire Pud, or to amuse the children on a rainy Saturday afternoon. As long as you take it seriously – but not necessarily so seriously as to suggest solar-powered laptops – you might discover a few profound somethings about yourself and your fellow players. It might also be an idea to repeat it every ten Christmases or so (concealing the previous list from yourself) to see if your tastes have changed.

So, my current eight Desert Island tracks would be:

  • Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, Tallis Scholars version
  • Fire at Midnight by Jethro Tull (Songs from the Wood)
  • True Love by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly
  • Famous Blue Raincoat (Leonard Cohen, but Jennifer Warnes’ version)
  • Another Monday – instrumental, by John Renbourn from the album of the same name
  • The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams
  • Eternity by Dougie MacLean
  • Who Will Sing Me Lullabies by Kate Rusby

My ‘most highly regarded’ would have to be Spem in Alium. I have blogged about that before. Also about desert islands, actually, though in a slightly different context.

I won’t go into all the reasons for my choices. Quite often these are down to personal/ sentimental associations with the tracks as much as the tracks themselves. And by now I am sure you are no longer listening and are busy disagreeing, arguing amongst yourselves or compiling your own list.

How I could manage with only one book I don’t know, since at the moment I have about 2,000 and will never get to the end of reading them. However, the best thing seems to go for value for – not money but words. Mercifully I’ll already have the Bible and Shakespeare – there’s an entire desert island’s-worth in the Bible. Shakespeare is just the icing on the cake.

My first thought was to go for Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill – a fearsomely abstruse book on a subject that interests me greatly. I feel that reading it would be greatly to my spiritual benefit, but wonder if I actually would read it in my changed circumstances, given that it is so challenging, both in terms of subject matter and a thorn-thicket of elaborate and antiquated English. After all, if you can’t meditate and attain a state of higher consciousness on a desert island, with blue sky above, the sound of the sea and a warm, sandy beach, where can you? So I decided to follow the example of many other castaways and ask for the biggest possible anthology of poetry. Poems have such potential for entertainment – not just savouring and studying them, but learning them by heart, making up tunes and singing them, discovering hidden messages in them by opening the volume at random (also possible with the Bible and Shakespeare, of course) declaiming them aloud to the seagulls so as not to forget the sound of your own voice…

And for my luxury item, a solar-powered… no, it would have to be a giant, inexhaustible, damp- and weather-proof store cupboard or underground vault stacked from floor to ceiling with green and yellow A4 writing pads, wide feint, cardboard-backed, and an equally inexhaustible supply of top-quality 2B pencils, with pencil sharpeners. Maybe a ring-binder file or two… and a box of paperclips…