More Comething and Wentething

Further to my previous post. I should link to it, but I’ve forgotten how. It’s just… diddle down a bit.

The Maths Book Cometh

Sometime today. At intervals throughout my life I have attempted to fulfil my fantasy of Being Surprisingly Good At Maths. I did eventually get an ‘O’ level in Maths, many years ago in my twenties. I was quite proud of myself, since I was the one at the (very) bottom of the class who got 12% in one yearly exam, which the teacher informed me was for spelling my own name right at the top. Forced to re-take it, I achieved 7%. Presumably I had even got my name wrong this time. I was humiliated.

Perversely, ever since I have been fascinated by famous mathematicians and physicists, by unintelligible blackboards covered in chalked formulae, by genius. Even more perversely, I have been convinced that I am really a mathematical genius, or was destined to be. Something just went a bit wrong. It is a dream that won’t leave me alone.

So, in the spirit of crossing things off the bucket list of ongoing Lifetime Annoyances, and after spending most of one afternoon covering old envelopes with laborious pencil sums to compare one putative dual fuel tariff to another prior to switching  – yes, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing – I was quite proud of myself – I decided to send for a maths book and study it throughout the forthcoming Winter, a bit every day.

Partly this is to fulfil my inner conviction of being an Einstein or Hawking manqué, partly to fend off dementia. I read somewhere that the best thing you can do to Fend It Off – apart from eating vegetables a lot, jogging cheerily round the park and drinking several gallon of water a day – is to challenge your brain. Maths is the thing that challenges me most, but yet – I have noticed whilst wrestling with the calculator and the well-chewed pencil, that I am totally absorbed in the struggle. Sudoku (taught myself, still bad at it), comparative electricity prices, desperately creative household budgeting, whatever – I am lost to the world. This seem to me a good thing. This seems to me exactly the thing to generate new brain cells and forge new connections between them. The maths book should be arriving later today. Suppose I will have to start at fractions again.

Rationing Rumoured To Be Comething

It is as I suspected. Because of Brexit – sorry, should have said ‘The B Word’ – there are now rumours of rationing after we leave, due to possible hold-ups at customs points in this country or on the Continent, long queues of lorries on the motorways, etc., etc. I knew it, and have been stocking up on tins of cat food for some time. And I have other strategies, which I shall not reveal, for fear that others will copy me. Failing even these, I may have to go round the village knocking on doors, offering to swop one hour of ironing or dog-walking for a single tin of Whiskas. Failing that, I would have to let them out, to mouse as best they can, in spite of having had very little practice. Even the blind one, and the three-leggety one, and the one that’s so old it’s hard to believe she’s still alive… Sob!

Not bothered about me. I can live on bread-and-marmalade and the odd dish of microwaved porridge if necessary. (So much for the dementia-avoiding diet.) But bothered about the cats. It seems to me that if they are going to ration cat food, they will be doing so on the assumption that nobody has more than one or two cats. Stupidly! And of course, I have nineteen. I have visions of the cats and I starving together, slowly, with no way through the bureaucracy, no way of obtaining more of the life-saving Tins.

How ironic, that I should have been born soon enough after the last War for rationing of some items – sweets, I believe, and sugar – still to be in place – and here I am at the other end potentially rationed all over again. All the same, I have been fascinated by rationing all my life – bit like the maths – for no obvious reason. I read that whole series of books of correspondence to Mass Observation – people rejoicing having chanced upon an ancient tin of peaches in a corner shop – people triumphant after a three-hour queue in the rain had yielded a bunch of watercress or some spinach. I even found myself fascinated by the Potato Peel Pie in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (do read, of you get the chance) which consisted of mashed potato with an artful garnish of potato peel. I just loved all that, and imagined myself making do. And mending.

Funny how it always seem to be the awful things that most fascinate you the most. Almost like you are willing them to happen.

PS: I think there was supposed to be a Wentething, but I have forgotten what it was.

The Blanket Has Landed

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a bare teddy bear must be in want of a scarf, and so I have begun knitting him one in green speckled Aran. Blanket, that is. Something of a stretch, metaphorically, from Neil Armstrong to Jane Austen.

Blanket landed this afternoon from somewhere mysterious in Scotland, via Ebay and the Royal Mail. He didn’t cost much (I can’t afford bears that cost much) and was described as “All right as long as he is sitting down, like many of us”. I was half afraid to unbox him in case one of his legs should fall off. It didn’t, but his head seems quite likely to unless he is delicately handled, which he will be. If you didn’t know he was a bear you might think he was a lamb because he has very large floppy ears and a kind of sheep-like expression. But making that leap of faith and assuming he is a bear…

Poor Blanket, propped up among cushions in the corner of my sofa, who was in Scotland a day or so ago, then plunged into the suffocating bubble-wrapped darkness and encased in shoe-box cardboard, emerging suddenly at the far end of This Sceptred Isle, amongst a heap of cats. His expression has not changed, of course, but what must he be feeling?

His is described as Probably a wartime blanket bear. Apparently people made teddy bears out of blankets during the last war, due to a shortage of materials. There seems little doubt that he is wartime, but I query whether he is hand-fashioned out of blanket, or was made by some loving wartime Mummy for her little girl (or boy).

He is certainly made out of something vaguely blanket-like, not the usual golden furry stuff, but I wouldn’t say it was blanket. I had a coat made out of blanket, post war, and boy did it itch. I remember being taken for tottering toddler walks wearing this bright brown, be-toggled monstrosity, and being unbearably itchy everywhere the coat touched, which seemed virtually everywhere. And my mother had a dressing gown made out of blanket. A grey blanket with green woollen daisies embroidered, and green blanket stitch all round the edges. Must have taken her, or Nan, ages to make it. It weighed a ton, but was possibly not as itchy as my little coat. Nothing could have been as itchy as that.

And then there are his joints. They seem to be kind of professional, and interior. It is perhaps thanks to these joints, now badly worn, that Blanket is still, if tenuously, attached to his head and his four limbs. They don’t seem the sort of joints a housewife would have used.

So, not a forgery but a mystery, and likely always to remain so.

I seem to have gone a bit overboard on the bears. The original idea was to buy a couple of battered old bears on Ebay to model the bear scarves which I am knitting and which I thought to sell for a teensy-tiny profit. The trouble is, it’s difficult to resist. I seem to have accumulated quite a few 98p etc bears over a short period of time. Once you’ve rescued one you are kind of compelled to rescue them all, every last battered, lost and suffering one in the world. Which is of course why I have nineteen cats.

Not for the first time I wonder about the connection in my head between cats and bears. I first noticed it many years ago, in the first years of my marriage, when I had a whole series of nightmares about suffering cats – cats that I had forgotten about and escaped through the window, cats that lived in the arm of my armchair (don’t ask me – cats inhabit armchairs in my dreams) and got too near the fire and suffocated; cats that I seemed to have poisoned and was now observing as they died; cats that followed me across zebra crossings and through busy cities amongst the rushing traffic and were in imminent danger, and yet I did nothing.

It seemed to me at first that cats were an obvious symbol for babies, and it was probably something to do with thwarted maternal instinct, etc etc. But later I came to think it was sadder and more visceral than that, and that cats were an outlet for physical affection, a lonely child’s something to love. Hence the suffering cats when I married entirely the wrong man in that respect. I decided this after another dream, when kittens falling to earth on parachutes changed mid-dream to teddy bears, and came to rest in a cornfield, between the furrows. Of course there’s something about furrows and fertility…

Ah, as with my poor rickety, sheep-like Blanket, the truth will never be known, and nobody but me cares about either.

My mother gave my teddy to Oxfam and I never forgave her, but that’s another story.

Talking of metaphor, people seem to be unable to detect it nowadays. Either that or it suits them better to take some sort of manufactured umbrage. One Labour politician pleads with the leader of the Labour party to “call off the dogs” when yet another Labour MP is threatened with deselection for not following the party line. His deputy then takes grave offence because his esteemed Comrades have been insultingly referred to as “dogs”. Hunting metaphor, dear boy. Metaphor, not actual dogs.

Anyway, I will not brood on that, it will make my headache worse. This evening I have been forced to lie on the sofa in my darkened living room, playing Dire Straits to myself through an earpiece and something that was once called an MP3 player. I may be the last person in the world still using an MP3 player. This was to drown out the noise of my neighbours once again playing some kind of war game at full volume, for hours. I wonder how I am going to explain the intermittent cacophony to Canadian Sister when she comes to stay with me after Christmas, as hopefully she will. Perhaps she won’t suffer so much from it, knowing she is soon going to be able to fly off and leave it behind.

Update: by popular (well, one) request a portrait of Blanket has been added, getting to know his new little friend Whitstable. More of Whitstable later. Probably. Once coffee consumed and gigantic fish and chips and strawberry ice cream slept off.


I’m too old to be out in this weather.

Today, it rained. It was raining cats and dogs at 9.30 when I set out to collect my 100 home-shopping catalogues and it was raining cats, dogs and pitchforks at 2.00 when I finally got home. Out of 100 catalogues I only got 60 back, plus one ruined one – like a paper lettuce – plus four minuscule orders. I don’t believe I’ve been so utterly exhausted and depressed or comprehensively drenched since the day I visited St Andrews in Scotland with my ex-husband in 1974. St Andrews: sheet after sheet of cold, horizontal, needle-like rain sweeping up its main street, then sweeping back down again, and the wind blowing in all directions at once. Why am even I doing this? I asked myself.

Twelve cats and only the State Pension, I answered.

Today, by chance, is also the anniversary of the Great Storm of 1987 or, as most people call it, The Hurricane. At its height the wind reached 134 mph. It hit France first, then the South of England, and nobody was really expecting it. A woman phoned the BBC that evening, worried about the rumours she had heard of a hurricane heading this way from France. Michael Fish, the BBC’s weather man at the time, more or less told her to Calm Down, Dear. Nothing to bother your pretty little head about. And then the Storm hit. Michael Fish has been forgiven, but since that day nobody believes anything he says about anything.

My husband woke me in the middle of the night (I’ll sleep through anything) and we peered out of the bedroom window at erratic blue flashes all along the coast. These were power cables going down. The noise was like nothing either of us had ever heard: breaking glass, smashing tiles, the rain and then the howling. It was like a giant genie had been let out of his lamp.

Britain’s weather is famed for its variety and unpredictability, and Britons for their never-ending, low-level moaning about it, also their inability to talk, either with strangers or each other, about anything else. Weather-talk is the universal conversational currency in a shy nation: without it, we would probably fall silent. But no one had seen anything like this. It was beyond conversation.

We were told that the last Great Storm had been more than two hundred years before – the Great Storm of 1703. According to Wikipedia, however, storms of this strength form over the North Atlantic every thirty or forty years. The thing is, they usually hit Scotland, and this is convenient because the Scots are hardy nation, and Scotland is half-empty. This time, however, the storm tracked low, over the south-east of England, the most densely populated area of all, and the damage it did was immense. Sevenoaks, a town in Kent named for its seven mighty oaks, lost six in one night. An estimated fifteen million trees were lost.

And here’s the thing – a Great Storm could actually happen again at any time. Afterwards we comforted ourselves that that at least that was that, over and done with, for the next two hundred years. By the time the next one struck we’d be safely dead and all those white-suited future-people living in gleaming space-pods, partial to Cadbury’s Smash powdered mashed-potato and waited upon by tinny-voiced robots, could have the pleasure of dealing with it. Unfortunately, probability doesn’t work like that. Another Great Storm could hit us tomorrow; it’s just that the likelihood of its doing so is low-ish – around 0.5%. Please don’t ask me how probability works.

Maths, the final frontier…

The next morning we walked out and took a look around. It was still kind of windy, but eerily quiet. The trees on St Martin’s Field were lying down, as if they’d decided to take a nap after a century or so of standing about. Their poor old roots were on display, naked and somehow obscene, and around each root-ball a great hole had opened up. I went to the village supermarket. It was dark inside (the power outage would last for several days). In the darkness, hitherto civilised village ladies were squabbling – in that wordless but utterly determined British way – over tins of soup. We didn’t know how long it was going on, all this… untowardness. Anything might run out, and in an emergency we stock up. This is an instinct born of two wars and year upon year of rationing. We dart for tins of soup in supermarkets. As with the New Year Sales, women elbow and kneecap each other silently, viciously and ever so politely out of the way. My soup. My four-pack of economy baked beans. Mine.

The girl at the till was in a state of shock, obviously still hoping it would somehow work, even without an electricity supply. She kept pressing buttons, randomly, harder and harder, but nothing kept happening. She started trying to add things up on paper bags with a pencil and a tiny calculator. The local Comprehensive was not big on mental arithmetic. The queue, stretching back into the darkness between the aisles, started trying to help, doing its own calculations and proffering them as polite, but increasingly tense, suggestions.

Nothing would ever be quite the same again. Hurricanes aren’t supposed to happen here. And yet one did.

Our faith had been shaken. Something had been lost.

Lena Horne: Stormy Weather