Writing on a Postage Stamp

Jane Austen pursued her unusual hobby discreetly, so as not to embarrass her family or attract censure but also, I would guess, so that she could observe, unobserved, the social rituals going on all around her and the characters who came to visit. Writing in secret – hiding tiny scribbled slips of paper under her blotter every time she heard the door creak – was her way of being herself. It was her way of being ferociously clever, when women were regarded as more of a – decoration.

So in theory one could write a blog post and make it interesting no matter how dull one’s life had actually become. I have this image of myself sitting in a tiny prison cell, creating the most amazing fantasy kingdom whilst day after day, year after year, nothing ever happened but the cell door opening and a plate of bread and cheese, maybe a mug of beer, being pushed through it by some unseen jailor. That would be the extreme.

My life was never particularly expansive, though I suppose it had its moments. Most of these were too ghastly, shameful or humiliating to want to write about. I have written about a lot of stuff here on this blog, and put out there for public consumption, many tiny episodes, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes raging angry, sometimes frankly pathetic, that I have not told a single friend or relative: never would have, and never will.

Recently, life has narrowed even more for me, though we’ve not quite sunk to the prison cell scenario.  Partly it’s because of getting older and no longer being in the best of health. Partly it’s lack of money, unemployability, far too many cats… and partly it’s my natural inclination. I incline towards the hermit. This necessary stay-at-home, inward-looking-ness has thrown up new challenges, blog-wise. Mainly, the problem is that I am not Jane Austen. Jane Austen was so very gifted, she could have got blood out of a stone.

I think I got on to Jane Austen because I was debating whether or not to tell you the story of the Mystery Beep, and thinking no, that is just too small and uninteresting and generally paltry a sequence of events to write about it, and then thinking But Jane Austen…

I will tell you the story of the Beep, but in a separate post. In the meantime I will disclose that a second-hand Russian textbook has just crashed through my letterbox. The postmen round here are lacking in delicacy. Anything at all, they believe, can be got through a letter box if you shove hard enough.

That’s the thing about being retired and having no money to go out or do anything – you end up having to invent unnecessary but faintly interesting things to do. ‘Projects’. I have three of them on the go at the moment.

One is turning every scrap of yarn, material etc into something just in case I need to swap items for tins of cat food, should cat food be rationed in the case of You Know What. I just have a feeling they aren’t going to ration with nineteen cats in mind. That would constitute a cattery, and I am not one. Officially. So I am making things that could be offered as a swap for either one, two, four or six tins of Whiskas – hippie stuff – knitted dishcloths and pet blankets, knotted hemp bracelets, origami cranes and anything else I can dream up. I will probably end up with a box of items nobody ever wanted, but hey – before that they were boxes of odd balls of wool, balls of string, patchwork scraps. What’s the difference?

Another is re-reading a lifetime’s collection of paperback books. I know I have been determined to do this ever since I began writing this blog, and have never got round to it. I did give quite a few bags away to charity, but now I have sorted what’s left – still a lot – into alphabetical order once more. Since I do not have enough bookshelves (the bottom shelves have to be kept empty so that the boy cats can’t pee at the books when I’m not looking) I have brought in some splintery old apple crates from the garage. Apple crates, when lined with strips cut from plastic cat-litter sacks, make quite good bookshelves. Luckily I’m tall, as they go right up to the ceiling.

The third project is learning languages. I know I will never have occasion to speak another language to another human being, but why should that matter? What I am interested in really is linguistics, and what I really want is to learn as many languages as possible to read and to a certain level, i.e. I do not need to become an expert; I don’t even need to pronounce them correctly, though I’ll try. I’m interested to know how languages work, and how they compare to one another, and to find out whether I can still learn. I imagine myself, during those long, cold winter days – not so far off now – bundled in duvets and shawls to economise on heating, striving to master the intricacies of foreign grammatical systems – and keeping my brain alive.

Today it was Russian – most of these books can be had for less than £1 second-hand on Amazon, plus postage. I sat down with my cup of tea and dipped into it. Some kind soul had annotated many of the pages in tiny, annoying pencil writing, but I suppose for £1 you can’t complain. After a short perusal I decided Russian was going right to the bottom of the languages ‘to do’ heap, even under Welsh. I did learn one word, though – in the Cyrillic alphabet it’s written something like Myxa and pronounced (well of course) moo-ha. It means ‘fly’. So next time one of them is buzzing around my living room I can tell it to Buzz off, you little moo-ha.

Not yet the flaky roses…

(Sofa In Multiple Occupation)

(Shadow: Sunday Morning Chillin’)

I just typed into Google Is ADHD the same as flaky? (should it have an ‘e’? why does it sometimes have an ‘e’ and sometimes not? distracting…) and Google reckons it is, sort of.

To be exact, Google opines that flaky seemingness (to one’s friends, employers etc) is in fact but one symptom of high-functioning ADHD. So whilst one is not technically or actually flaky (or flakey) everybody will always be convinced that one is. Furthermore, flaky-seemingness is but the visible tip of a very large iceberg when it comes to the daily struggle for survival in a world where 99 out of 100 brains are wired the opposite way to your own.

This is depressing, and the thing is, since I retired – or rather, since the world decided it could no longer be bothered to pay me for being bad at various kinds of work I really didn’t want to do – the ADHD, or whatever it is, has got distinctly worse. I used to be able to read, for instance. Spent hours engrossed, rapt, with my nose in some novel or some abstruse metaphysical text, trying to figure out how exactly I seemed to have missed Birmingham and been taken on to Crewe.

Oh Mr Porter, what shall I do?
I wanted to go to Birmingham but they’ve taken me on to Crewe.
Take me back to London as quickly as you can –
Oh Mr Porter what a silly girl I am!

Now I can read for twenty minutes, as long as it’s something lightly-ish and historical and I’m immersed in hot soapy water. My current in-the-bath read, by the way, is The Posy Ring by Catherine Czerkawska. It’s good, even in damp, twenty minute instalments. About antiques seller Daisy Graham who inherits an ancient house on a Hebridean island. She put a little publicity card in with Blanket.

Because, believe it or not, this is the same lady who, under a different name, sold me Blanket the rickety wartime blanket bear (or just possibly sheep) via eBay, and posted him to me in a shoebox from Scotland. I have now knitted Blanket a warming yellowy-browny scarf, by the way, and fastened it with a big yellow kilt pin. I would have posted a photo (as requested when he last appeared) but it is too dark indoors to take one at the moment. I will put it on my To Do list, which I very occasionally manage To Do something from. (Done)

(This is because it’s dark outdoors too, which seems to happen at intervals.)

The trouble is, you spend your life trying to appear not-flaky. Today, for instance, I agonised for several hours before texting a friend to say that I would not be able to come on a coach trip to Southend because I wasn’t feeling too well. The thing is, I am not feeling too well, so it’s a perfectly genuine excuse, this time. But I know she does not believe me. And if I were her I would not believe me either. But what do you do? The constant battle against flaky-seemingness results in a lifetime of ghastly events sat through with gritted teeth or perspiring brow. Boredom or pain, and no escape in either case because to flake out would be viewed as… flaky. Or flakey.

I think I reached some sort tipping point today. I realised I have to stop trying to explain myself, otherwise I am in for an Old Age as dire and dull as my Youth and Middle Age have been. Well, Bog It, I think, I just want to do what I want. Or at least not continually have to be doing what I don’t want.

And finally… another quote, this time from author Claudia Carroll, writing in an old Woman’s Weekly Godmother passed on to me on Friday:

When you’re in your 20s and 30s, life gives you things, if you’re very lucky. Love, a partner, maybe even kids. But you hit good old middle age, and that’s pretty much when life starts taking things away from you…

A cheering thought there, from Claudia.

It set me thinking, what Life did actually give me in my 20s and 30s. Certainly not children. It took away my husband and gave me a lover who was nice while he lasted, though he didn’t last very long. It gave me wrinkles round my eyes… and violent toothache… or was that in my forties?

But I suppose it did give me a few things. A giant(ish) healthy body inherited from my father, which has served me faithfully till recently. Now not quite so faithfully, but it’s doing it’s best, poor thing. Nineteen cats. I do believe the nineteen cats are my equivalent of the nine lives cats are supposed to have. Every time I lose a cat I lose one of my lives. Conversely, of course, every time I gain a cat I gain a life, but that can’t go on. Moggie Gathering Must Stop. And it’s given me a sister who, if not quite as flaky-seeming as me, is getting there. Or maybe equally as flaky-seeming, but a kind of variant. Same reason (backwards brain wiring) but different manifestation. However, it means that she understands me, and I understand her, and so we can love each other, which is a blessing indeed.

flaky1

Homo What?

Homo What?

We were just retrieving her disabled badge from the dashboard of my car, and as she leant in she spotted the paperback book I had casually jettisoned onto the driver’s seat to make less weight in my bag. Its actual title was Homo Deus and it was by a gentleman I had never heard of until I spotted him on the Three For Two shelf at W H Smiths – Dr Yuval Noah Harari “who now lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: specialising in World History”.

One thing I am good at is lightning deconstructions of trains of thought, ie what people were thinking before they came out with that strange remark. OMG, I thought, she doesn’t speak Latin (not that I speak Latin per se but enough to know what Homo Deus means) and now she is anxious that the Nice But Dim lady she befriended at a rainy bus stop sometime last year, suggesting she might like to come along to the local Over 50s, is going to turn out to be a Man In Drag, and she might turn out to have bagged herself a Gay Best Friend rather than someone to provide convenient lifts here and there: her very convenient disabled badge – which allows us to park free for hours-and-hours in all sorts of car parks – nice wide spaces so you are not forced to damage the door of the car next door, take a huge breath in and slither out like the Basilisk from Harry Potter – versus my very convenient little red car, and continued ability to drive it. (She has a car – a very nice car – but is scared to drive it now due to dizzy spells.)

One thing I am not normally very good at is summarising books, instantly, when someone asks “What’s that you’re reading?” I always hate it when they ask that, especially when I’ve only just started reading it. However, a quick reply was obviously needed, so I took the sort of huge breath normally reserved for Slytherin’ out of narrow gaps between parked cars, and exhaled: Oh no – it’s – it’s, um, about Men being gradually upgraded into Gods.

It was a good enough one-line précis of a huge book, but I could see it hadn’t helped. She clutched her disabled badge to her chest and dropped her walking stick again.

Got to cut this short, I thought.

“It’s non-fiction,” I said. “Nothing to do with – you know.” And so we went on our way, possibly for another lot of Tea and Buns somewhere, I can’t remember.

Anyway, I’ve got a bit further on with Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow now. It makes excellent bath-time reading, though I keep having to discourage the three-legged cat, who is convinced he can navigate the entire soapy edge of the bath without Slytherin’ into this trough of steamy bubbles containing the mysterious bare human.

Thanks to Homo Deus I have decided I am an Animist rather than a Theist or a Humanist. Yes, I am some sort of primitive throwback to times when one could communicate with trees, and ghosts and spirits mingled unselfconsciously with mice, deer, bears and human beings, and all had an equal value in the universe, and equal rights. I have always been one of these, without knowing it, and that is why thing like factory farming and cruelty to animals make me so miserable. Ah, all those trees I failed to hug, back in the days when tree-hugging was an acceptable pastime and not associated with the Prince of Wales. All those yurts I failed to build and wild nights out under the stars I failed to experience…

And now I am too old. My neighbour pointed out a tree branch to me yesterday, that had somehow got trapped underneath my little red car. I had been driving around with said branch dragging along the ground for a week, I guess, judging by the length of time the unexplained knocking and banging had been going on. He was obviously expecting me to throw myself full-length on the ground, man-fashion, that instant (even though it had been raining) and retrieve the shameful branch before it “gets tangled in the electrics” but my days of throwing myself full-length are over. It’s not the getting down, it’s the getting back up.

So I temporised. I thanked him for pointing it out and slunk off indoors, returning with a patchwork cushion and the long metal hooky-thing the previous occupants of my house had once used to hook down the loft-ladder, and knelt, in the damp, with a creak or two. I was dreading a kind of wrestling match with some ferociously entangled-with-electrics piece of wood but actually it came away quite easily. I looked round, hoping against hope that he wasn’t still observing me from his front room window, as I clung to the wing-mirror and mountaineered myself up the side of the car, clutching pole, patchwork cushion and branch. The neighbours feel sorry for me, but they think I’m weird.

You know how you can always tell, when people think you’re weird?

I wonder why I started writing this? Oh yes, The Ratties.

I have rats – or at least I did, until yesterday. I don’t dislike rats, or any other living creatures, and had quite enjoyed watching them scuttling backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards at the bottom of the garden, pinching pieces of bread and seeds from underneath the bird table. They had neat little tunnels, I realised, allowing access from the piece of waste land beyond my end fence. Then they did a kind of circuit round the myrtle bush, and that green shrub that gets yellow spots on it in the summer. They had worn little rat-runs through the grass.

It was OK when there were only two of them. For a whole winter there were only two of them. Then, suddenly, there were little baby rats and then, equally suddenly, there was a garden-full, and they were right up by the back door. Every time I looked out there was one running off with a lump of cat food from the stray-cats’ dishes, or a lump of dog-food from Mystery Dog’s Dish. I could see that soon they would start coming in through the windows, running up the drainpipe and chewing the electrics in the roof, causing neighbours to complain to the Council; the Rat Catcher in his smelly moleskin trousers, knocking on my front door.

So I’ve had to bite the bullet, stop putting food out. Now Sunshine the stray ginger tom no longer even bothers to detour through my rat-run grass. Last night I heard Mystery Dog woof-woofing mournfully in the garden, wondering where his monster plate of food had got to. And no birds sing (mournful sob!)

O WHAT can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

I have gone against my every instinct, and am become La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

My disbelief grows weary of suspending itself…

I’m onto a sticky wicket with suspenders, I know. American suspenders are as illustrated below:

suspenders

British suspenders are things that hold up stockings, supposedly wicked, lacy and black (or red) but as I recall them from my uncomfortable schooldays, more often medical, pinkish and rubbery, and held together with sixpenny pieces when they broke. They always broke. The rubber perished. The little suspend-things cracked and disintegrated…

So what do Americans call suspenders-suspenders if what we call braces are there known as suspenders? But what holds up American stockings? If that’s suspenders too, how do they know what they are holding up? Is it just a matter of deduction from the context?

But this post is not about that.

When I was at school, struggling with the uncomfortable suspenders and the 60-denier sun-mist-stockings-with-seams – surely the ugliest stocking ever invented (not about that, remember!) it was explained to me that when we get completely lost in a book, or a film, or a story told by some grey-haired hippie-type lady whilst sitting cross-legged on a cushion in the library (pre-suspenders) was called ‘suspension of disbelief’.

I did not used to find this difficult, except in the case of plays. Plays have never done it for me. I’ve never been able to get past the reality of a lot of foreshortened real human beings prancing about on a stage and acting at one another. I can tell it’s acting. I can always tell it’s acting, even if it’s good acting, and it annoys me. People are pretending and I can see them doing it.

A posh lady I went to a play with once advised me that this was probably because I hadn’t grown up in a theatre-going household. She didn’t mean to be patronising, and she was right, partially – we didn’t go to plays, or the ballet or opera, come to that.

My parents were working class and, even if they could have afforded to go, would have been terrified to pass through the doors of a theatre. They wouldn’t have known what to wear or how to behave. They would have felt they stuck out like a sore thumb.

An all-encompassing self-consciousness is one of the things which go with being not-posh. Only when you are middle class can you raise your voice above a low murmur, not minding if others hear. Only when you are middle class can you walk about with your shoulders back and your snoot in the air, flinging your purple pashmina dramatically over your right shoulder, and not even know you are doing it. That’s confidence. Read Alan Bennett’s loving tales of his Mum and Dad if you don’t believe me. He knows. Alan Bennett is the greatest.

But I could get lost in a book. So could my mother, but my father appeared not to possess the suspension of disbelief gene. Maybe he lost it, as he lost so much, as a young conscript in the second world war. The war really did for him in a lot of ways, I think. He could never leave me alone when I was reading. He used to wave his hands in front of my face and think it was funny. ‘Look at her – she’s miles away. Away with the fairies.’ He never did understand why this was annoying.

Same with films, although mercifully my father wasn’t usually with me when I went to the pictures: I could be immersed in the story, living inside even the most far-fetched sci-fi blockbuster. I would be one or all of the characters, fleeing in terror from the scary monsters, falling in love, falling off a high building… The film’s ‘afterglow’ would stay with me for days afterwards, the story re-running itself in my head, scenes acting themselves out before my inner eye. And maybe it would still be the same, if I could afford to go.

Instead of fiction-reading, my father used to read out columns from newspapers – anything he found to be of interest. He was interested in politics and the financial markets, the way they worked, even though these things had little effect on his everyday life. We used to sit there bored, and the read-out paragraphs seemed to get longer and longer. When he grew ancient, however, propped up in a chair with a cushion behind his neck and the walker by his side, he lapsed into depression and scarcely spoke.  My mother used to gauge how happy, or not, he was by whether he read out any paragraphs. Eventually, he read out no paragraphs. He read nothing. He told my sister he had forgotten everything he had ever been or ever done. God save us.

As I have grown older I have become more interested in politics and found it more and more difficult – not to read – the words still make perfect sense – but to get lost in reading. My suspension of disbelief seems to have suspended operations. I am turning into my father, and this saddens me. Reading was all I had. I got through a tedious and difficult life mostly by daydreaming. I could lose myself in stories, and in plans I would never carry out, journeys I would never, practically, be able to make. Now, although I am still doing my best to get it back I feel – now here’s a simile for you, or maybe a metaphor – like a hunted rabbit, all exits sealed by the men with the dogs – or is it ferrets? – just an airless darkness and waiting for Whatever-it-is to be sent down after me.

Whatever gets you through the night…

I was going to call this post Loose Elastic (there used to be jokes, in the days when ladies’ undergarments were held up by perilously slim pieces of actual elastic, about a young lady called Lucy Lastic) but decided against. A bit frivolous for the subject matter, I decided.

Because these are a few passing thoughts about anxiety and depression. I don’t know about you but I usually seem to be suffering from one or another of these. I’m lucky in that although these two Nasssty Creatures walk alongside me more or less daily they rarely get unbearably Nasssty. I have witnessed real clinical depression: I know I’m lucky.

Of course they’re not really two separate Creatures but alternative and interchangeable manifestations of the same Creature and it occurs to me that both are the result of not being able to stay in the present moment. You could say that depression is the result of being pulled back into the past, and anxiety the result of being pushed into the future. It’s as if your poor mind is on a piece of elastic and being bounced first this way and then that.

When I am depressed it’s usually because I’m going over and over thing that happened in the past, thinking about people I once knew, people who died, people I said the wrong thing to, situations I handled badly; terrible, terrible mistakes I made. My imagination busies itself with ‘what ifs’. I resurrect the vanished and dead and hold long, sad conversations with them. I replay the dreadful bits of my past, trying to get them right second time round. I imagine lives where this or that wouldn’t have happened, in which I might have been happier.

If I’m anxious it’s usually because I am going over and over things that are scheduled to happen soon – it might be something simple, like a visit from the plumber or driving to an unfamiliar place – imagining all the things that might – no, are bound to – go wrong, hoping that if I rehearse them well enough I will be able to influence what happens, inoculate myself against an evil future. Stop The Bad Thing Happening.

Neither makes any difference. The past remains the past, the dead are still dead, the gone are still gone. The future remains unknown and uncontrollable. I am still right here, and still exactly as unhappy/afraid.

Meditation is supposed to be good for staying in the present moment, and I keep meaning to do that, when I can stop fretting for an hour or two. What I have found is that it helps at least to attempt to be mindful. Once you start to notice that you are maundering around in the past or fretting away in the future, you can take a deep breath and return yourself to the present moment. No use trying not to go there in the first place, just start noticing when you have.

I usually say something to myself, like: Well, you’ve done quite a bit of worrying about that, now concentrate on your driving/walking/washing up – or whatever. This is really the equivalent of the technique they teach you at meditation/relaxation classes: identify your worry and place it in an imaginary black sack; tie the sack up and place it to one side for the time being; you can come back and open it any time. Except you don’t really need the black sack. If you can just get as far as noticing, the worry tends to leap into the sack and tie itself up automatically.

I’ve also noticed I tend to get most anxious or depressed when I am doing nothing – lying in bed trying to sleep, for instance – or doing semi-automatic but uninteresting stuff like driving, walking or washing up. Ping! There goes the elastic and there I am, sloshing around in the past or tiptoeing around in the future. The answer seems to be to keep busy, but for preference at something interesting, that absorbs you. You know what your particular thing is, and when you are in the zone, don’t you? It’s when time flies without you noticing it, where you are filled with a kind of joy, an almost feverish excitement about the task in hand. Whatever it is, when you have completed it you are aware that you have achieved something, and that you have been, for a while, entirely and perfectly yourself.

Writing is mine, and reading used to be. I am now re-training myself to read – properly, deeply – that ‘getting lost in a book’ feeling that I used to get as a child. The internet is rewiring our brains, did you know that? We are in the process of becoming skimmers, clickers, extractors of key words and phrases. The only way to get reading back is to keep practising. After a while – maybe many weeks or even months – the ‘getting lost’ facility comes back. What you really need is a brain that can do both – skim for information, read for pleasure. Stories – either telling them or listening them – ideal. Stories distract you from that dreary self-absorption, that endless monologue.

I can imagine that for some people the key to at least a temporary ‘present momentness’ would be music (to sooth the savage breast, etcetera), for others it might be a complicated piece of knitting or the challenge of drawing a difficult subject or capturing a landscape. I can imagine it might be maths, or solving puzzles if you are that way inclined.

But is reading or writing really being present, or might it be the ultimate form of being elsewhere? Maybe I can’t bear to be here at all, even for a second; can only sustain life on this ghastly planet, in these terrifying times, by being as much as possible, second by second, elsewhere? What is a book but a yet another imaginary world, an alternative world, another place?

In which case, I’m tempted to say to hell with it! I’ll be elsewhere in whatever way happens to make me happiest, or at any rate least unhappy. I’ll be absent without leave. Bother the Buddha, I’m going to get through my compulsory sojourn on this doomed planet in any which way I can.

Whatever gets you through the night.

gin-lane

When the bookmark stops moving

There were a lot of signs that Mum had veered off the path through the woods and was heading in the direction of fairyland, but we tended to ignore them. We put everything down to her deafness, to not wearing her hearing aids, to general cantankerousness, to elderly stubbornness, to a lifetime of unsociability. We did our best to keep her going, to cope with one disaster after the next. It couldn’t be that, not in our family.  But it was that. The D word.

The thing that brought it home to me was quite small, really. Mum stopped reading. She was no intellectual – not on the whole a literary reader – but she had read all her life. She once showed me an exercise book she had kept as a teenager, with neatly-ruled pencil columns, listing every book she read. Title, Author, Date Started, Date Completed. I still have one or two of her school prize books – Jane Eyre, Villette.

At one point I started reading Dickens, but in a random sort of way. Mum was inspired to read Dickens too but being Mum she had to get the complete set (identical, must be identical) and read them in chronological order from Pickwick Papers to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and keep a list. We often shared pointless projects like knitting blankets for charity, jigsaw puzzles or reading particular authors; it gave us something to talk about when really, apart from genetics, we didn’t share much else.

One day I noticed the bookmark in her latest ‘read’ hadn’t moved. It’s one of those things I have a kind of eye for – whether tiny things have changed since I last saw them. Even a few pages would have made a difference. She’d been busy, she said. Summer – out in the garden a lot – and she did find nowadays she read a few pages and fell asleep.

Next week the bookmark hadn’t moved. I noticed she had put an elastic band round the book as if afraid the pages would decide to unglue themselves and flutter off somewhere.

Next week the bookmark hadn’t moved. The book hadn’t moved. Mum didn’t seem to have moved much, either.

Anyway – what this is leading up to, when I can get there, is this. Over the past few years I have been reading less and less. I believed I was reading. I kept telling myself I was reading but what I was actually doing was sipping, a few lines here, a page or two there, perhaps. I was not finishing books. I kept losing interest, or starting another book, and then another. All over my house, books with bookmarks a few pages in, bookmarks that hadn’t moved. And then the writing dried up. Recently I have realised that the two are connected. You need to feed the writing with reading, the thinking that comes from reading, the connections between this bit of reading and that bit of reading.

In my defence, it has been an abysmal last few years. I’ve had a lot to worry about, financially, workwise and, of course, the greatest worry of all, Mum. Until you’ve been forced to ‘walk with someone on their dementia journey’ (cringe, cringe, cringe!) you don’t realise what it does to you. It takes your life over. It sucks all the energy out of you, and kills all the joy. As you battle to communicate, to comprehend, to follow them at least part of the way into fairyland, you get a bit demented with them. I mean, that’s the way it is. You can’t just cut the psychic connection you once had with them, particularly if it’s a parent. Instead you turn into a kind of wraith, shambling along behind them like Gollum with The Ring. My precious, My precious.

My bookmark – multiple bookmarks – had stopped moving too.  Something had to be done because – well, because it hangs over you, dementia does. Life’s never the same again. From that point on you watch yourself and you dread what you might notice. Every time you forget something. Every time you find the teabags in the fridge. Every time you can’t immediately call a name to mind. Is this it? Is that going to happen to me now?

So I started trying to read again, i.e. set aside the time for reading and actually finish a book, and it was more difficult even than I had imagined. I just couldn’t focus. I couldn’t concentrate even on stories that would once have absorbed me to the point where people would be waving their stupid hands in front of my face and asking me where I was. (I hate that, don’t you?)

The internet hasn’t exactly helped. Current thinking is that this access to instant information, the ability to click rapidly from one subject to the next, the constant distraction, is actually altering our neural pathways and leaving us with short little spans of attention. We are metamorphosing into something else. Internet Man/Woman.

In the end I had to take desperate measures. I started selecting books for teenagers, science fiction, fantasy – anything to kick-start my imagination and keep me absorbed and turning those pages. I suppose I am entering my second childhood, reading-wise and, fingers crossed, it seems to be working.

So this is a cautionary tale. Don’t let them creep up on you, the no time to read, too stressed to read, too tired to read, too sleepy to read, too poor to read, not worthy of reading monsters. Stay alert at all times and keep that bookmark moving.

Lovely Bones

I imagined a heaven for my father, when he died. In my father’s heaven there would be cycling, lots of cycling. There would not be us, or even Mum. There would be narrow country lanes – the kind with hedges you can see over the top as you pedal past. There would be hills to freewheel down – great, twisty down-hills with splashy bits at the bottom like the one in Goodnight Mister Tom. The sort of hill you could cry out joyously “Yaaaaaaaay!” all the way down.

I imagined no cars in my father’s heaven – cars only got in the way of the cyclist. I imagined mostly sunshine because it is most pleasant to cycle in the sunshine, but the occasional downpour so that he got to to wear his yellow cape. He liked the yellow cape. He’d arrive home and drip all over the kitchen in it.

I imagined a heaven with no conscription, no draughty barracks in Lincolnshire with a single pot-bellied stove to keep out the winter chill. I imagined no such place as the India he had experienced, with its dead dogs and beggars. No being forced to drive trucks across it, the steering-wheel so hot it burned your hands. No such place as Burma, either. No malaria; no “top brass” to come by and insist that you stand by your bed and salute when burning up with fever.

Now, as Mum passes the age at which Dad died, I’ve moved on to a new project. I am starting to conjure a personal heaven for her. She hasn’t gone yet, of course, but when she does it will be all nice and ready for her to move into.

Mum’s heaven will be a garden, I think, with a lot of lawn to be mowed in precisely the right pattern and then raked. It will have no rose bushes but probably a peony bush to shed bright pink petals and a lot of those pretty, droopy things that seed themselves everywhere – aquilegias. There will be trees, mature trees, all different, and she will be fighting fit again so she can prune them with one of those long-handled whatsits.

I will be sure to include a massive, ancient chestnut tree, as without all those spikey green seed-cases getting stuck in the long grass and those sacks and sacks of dead leaves to rake up and take to the tip there would be nothing to grumble about. I am sure the tips in heaven will be much sweeter-smelling than the ones on earth, and the attendant angels will be more helpful when it comes to dragging stuff up all those steps to the skip labelled ‘Garden Waste’.

There will be no beds to make, no soot-filled grate to clean out, no potatoes to peel, but there will probably be a lot of ironing. Ironing was therapy.

There will be paperback books – those really thick ones that you get your money’s worth from – seagoing adventures and historical blockbusters, and always the complete set; never a stray hardback to pollute a line of paperbacks. And jigsaw puzzles, great stacks of them, giant and complex, and she will be able to do them with ease.

This morning Betty and I watched her playing with a ten-piece ‘Active Mind’ puzzle they had given her.  She picked up first one piece and then another. She tried to fit the biggest piece in the smallest space. She’d forgotten about the sky being blue, trains being shiny and red with brass bits and edge-pieces always being straight. She moved her plastic beaker of cranberry juice into the middle of the puzzle. Just another piece.

I thought of those two-thousand piece puzzles she used to do in winter. How methodical she was, huddled over the dining-room table evening after evening, sorting different patterns or colours into separate little pots; how patient, trying the same piece first here, then there…

It was Susie Salmon’s heaven in The Lovely Bones that set me off on this track. In this Alice Sebold novel a young girl, having been raped and murdered by a neighbour, finds herself in a place that contains everything she wants it to contain, even her old dog. Occasionally the edges of other people’s heavens will intersect with hers so that she has company for a while. The Being with the long white beard seems absent. Must read that novel again to check the details.

If you could design a personal heaven for yourself, or someone close to you, what would it be like?

Midsummer Snowfall

Why did this never happen to me?

Holding thickly-mittened hands with a young (enough to be my grandson) man in perfectly edible yellow jumper, perfectly accessorised with a scarf in avocado green, only slightly made up, hair only slightly enhanced by styling products…  And they’re at a skating rink and she’s got that sweet fair-isle jumper on and that kooky hat and ah, don’t they look nice together and it’s Christmas and all…

Except it isn’t. I’ve been stuck in front of the television set in the middle of a hot, sticky afternoon watching the second half of a film of some romantic novel called Winter by Rosamunde Pilcher. Furthermore, to land on Winter, with all its Christmas frippery, I had to bypass a session on Christmas Crafts on the crafts channel. What’s going on? It’s not even July.

And why did I get stuck in front of the TV on a June afternoon? Wasn’t I half way through planning a story (sheets of green file-paper are scattered on the floor around my computer even now); the cats were due to be fed; four games of WordsWithFriends waiting for me to make my next electronic move. I had worthier things to do.

Could it have been the snow? It looked so real, so crisp, so glistening… Was it the country house with the long, gravel driveway lined with snow-loaded fir-trees and snow-capped stone statuary? Could it have been the romance? Not a lot of romance in my life – maybe I’m starting to yearn for it in my second adolescence – a kind of balancing out? Could it have been the soft-focus… everything? Could it have been the acting?

No, it definitely wasn’t the acting. Despite the fact that the film contained at least four famous actors that I recognised from other things – in which they had been able to act – in Winter they seemed to have switched off normal acting in favour of prolonged, soft-focus, emotionally-charged, silent staring at one another. The stared at one other over grand pianos; on the snow-laden steps of the that country house; over expensive pairs of white skates; reflected in huge ormolu mirrors in London flats with lilies in the foreground; in the stable over chestnut horses; in the drawing room over the half-restored paintings… You could tell they were thinking deep and moving thoughts. But about what?

There are several schools of acting – the Shakespearian kind where everything is  enunciated at you, and charged with great import – the Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellen school, as it were. There’s the Australian soaps style where everything is either gasped or screeched at you and goes way, way up at the end of every line. And then there’s the John Wayne/Hugh Grant strategy – look and sound exactly the same whether playing a cowboy, an Irish leprechaun, a deep-sea diver or a restrained but lovelorn eighteenth century gentleman. Oh, be a trifle bandier (having just got off the horse) when being a cowboy, possibly, and allow the fringe to foppishly flop a bit (having ridden post-haste from Bath) for the eighteenth century. This was the soft-focus-looking-somewhat-wistful school.

So why didn’t I just turn it off? Well, I suppose I’m having a slightly bad day. Some days you just seem to need a too-small, saggy sofa and a romantic film. You need to dine on yoghurt, hacked-off lumps of cheese and cream crackers, and drop a lot of crumbs on the carpet. You need to shed a tear when the patriarch lies prostrate at the bottom of the slippery stone steps in his wine-coloured smoking-jacket – like a rheumaticky, white-haired snow-angel. “I always did like the snow,” he remarks with a faint but rueful chuckle, before expiring.

One of the things reviewers keep pointing out about Jean Lucey Pratt, whose diaries I reviewed in a recent post, was that she “read widely, but not well”.  And it’s true – the many, many novels she mentions in her diaries are all also-runs: long-forgotten stories written by long-forgotten novelists of the forties and fifties. I think this is a bit unfair. Better to read widely than not at all. And as a writer you can learn just as much, probably more, from a bad book as from a good one. And she enjoyed what she read. What’s wrong with that? Maybe I need to defy my inner critic and read a Rosamunde Pilcher. Then I might then understand what was happening in the film.

I just checked out the works of Rosamunde Pilcher online. Apparently Winter is only one of a suite of soft-focus romances called the Four Seasons. So there is a Spring, a Summer and an Autumn featuring the same characters. Fortunately, the others have been shown already. Winter (in June) must have been the last one. Or unfortunately.

Sigh!

pilcher 2

I mean, she does this all the time – slightly pensive, slightly sideways, anticipatory, innocent and yet… wondering

Synchronicity in writing

It seems to me that if you start looking for something in earnest you are almost certain to find it, or something weirdly related to it, and often where you would least expect. It’s a kind of coincidence thing – no logical explanation. Start reading and thinking and you will find that other, related stuff starts seeping out from under the skirting boards, wafting down the chimney and tap-tap-tapping at the window.

I am not the first to notice this. Famously, C G Jung talks about the coincidences that seem to happen in the world outside one’s head when something is going on inside it. This phenomenon he referred to on his good days as synchronicity; on his duller days he called it acausal parallelism. It is implied in common sayings like Seek and Ye Shall Find and When the pupil is ready, the Master appears. Anyway, enough of the Biblical/mystical stuff. I will give you an example of something synchronicitous that happened to me last year.

I had been writing about Sherlock Holmes and the justifications given in the novels for his rather shocking – to the modern reader – use of cocaine when bored. It happened to be my birthday that day and I was forced to take the day off, not to do anything birthdayish but to drive my car to a garage forty miles distant for its annual service. Car services take several hours and it was far too cold to be hobbling around the windswept streets of this distant town whilst waiting, so I spent part of the time in a nearby Tesco store, slowly filling a wire basket with birthday cards, cheese and pickle sandwiches, packs of fifty black biros and all those other things you tend to purchase when you just need to be somewhere indoors and heated in the coldest month of the year.

One of the things I spotted was a glossy science and technology magazine called Focus. I never normally buy magazines and had never heard of Focus, but it was in this randomly-purchased item that I discovered an article by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin (Professor of Psychology at McGill University, Montreal). There were several interesting bits. For example, did you know that human beings can only pay attention to a maximum of four things at any one time? So if you’re driving the car and searching for a parking space you may need to turn off the car radio to concentrate. (According to Cesar Milan the TV Dog Whisperer, by the way, dogs can only attend to one thing at a time.)

The two sentences that really caught my attention were these:

Ten thousand years ago things didn’t change very fast, so if something novel presented itself it was a good adaptive strategy to pay attention. We evolved a chemical system whereby we get a little shot of dopamine that makes us feel good every time we encounter something new.

and further down the same paragraph:

Dopamine is the chemical released when you eat chocolate, when gamblers win a bet and that gets people addicted to cocaine.

So do you see? Although Arthur Conan Doyle was a qualified doctor he could not have known about the neurotransmitter dopamine, since he died in 1930 and it was not discovered until 1957; yet he had Sherlock Holmes resorting to the drug cocaine when the stimulation he got from detection (encountering something new) was absent – spot on! The connection is dopamine, but the creator of Sherlock Holmes could not possibly have known this.

It’s a trivial thing, and would probably only be useful if you were writing a scholarly paper about Sherlock Holmes, but that’s what I mean about synchronicity. The more you read, the more you wonder, the more you become absorbed in, fascinated by and focussed upon a subject, the more related information will somehow pop up, get mentioned on the news or wander across the road in front of you. You will find that books fall open at the right page; the poster you glide past on the escalator will contain the quote you need; a random internet page will lead you to another and then another – and there some relevant something will happen to be.

Safe (2)

This is another one of those prompts, this time a non-fiction one. The actual prompt is:

The place where you felt happiest or safest…so I’ll go for safest.

Which only leads me to wonder whether I have ever felt safe anywhere, which sounds rather dramatic. Which in turn reminds me of something novelist Pamela Frankau once wrote about writing:

The number of people who have said to me since I was nineteen, ‘I imagine one can only write when one feels like it’ merely sets me wondering whether I have ever felt like it. Discipline alone makes the hand with the pen move; keeps it moving; sees to it that the snail-pace of the morning accelerates by afternoon.

 You can tell it was the 1960s. One doesn’t tend to say ‘one’ anymore, does one? And who writes with a pen? But she was right, whatever she wrote with, and even with ‘ones’ sprinkled around like fairy-dust.

I’m avoiding the subject. Safest.

I suppose I must have felt safe with Mum and Dad at times. I just wonder why I can’t remember any of those times. I mostly felt nail-bitingly anxious, particularly around my father whose moods were erratic. I was afraid of my father: of his coming home from work; of his strong-jawed face and blue-grey eyes; of his towering height; of his booming, sarcastic voice; of the things he said or was capable of saying; of the things he did or was capable of doing; of his casting his eye upon me and finding me – aggravating.

He was good with words, my Dad. He would wind me up and then verbally demolish me. And I knew I had the ability to do that too, to someone else, if I lost control. I had all his words at the tip of my tongue, that same streak of cruelty. As soon as I heard his footsteps coming round the side of house, although I plodded on methodically at whatever I had been doing, I would be cataloguing the minor and major crimes I had committed in his absence, and of which he would at any moment be informed. I schooled myself to say as little as possible when he was at home, not letting him catch my eye, but the more distant I became the more he baited me. Then one day when I was fourteen and he was trying to drag me away from the sink where I was washing my hair, I turned round and hit him back. It was a clumsy, soggy, ineffectual kind of hitting back but it shocked us both.

But years later, finding myself in a hospital A&E Department after a car accident, nauseated, confused, semi-conscious – after what felt like hours of being left bleeding on a trolley waiting for some nurse or doctor or someone to get round to doing something about me – I caught sight of Dad’s face, floating like a balloon between me and the ceiling. The hospital had telephoned my parents and they had jumped in the car and driven down to find me. And everything was all right then. I was five years old; my Daddy was here for me now, and he would look after me. Until that day I had not known how much it meant just having a father, in spite of everything, and how much I loved him. I suppose that moment was safety.

So I always felt safest when invisible, but it was difficult to be invisible because I was not that  small. Having a 6 foot 4 inch father, you’re never going to be easily stowed away. I towered over the children in my infant’s school class. At eleven, mercifully, I stopped getting any taller giving my classmates a chance to catch up. But still, I would try to hide. In hockey, for example, I would shrink into the back of the goal (where they always put me) and, staring poetically into the middle distance, jump lightly over the ball if and when it came my way, closely followed by a horde of sweaty, screeching, stick-wielding amazons. The two team captains used to argue over me in loud whispers:

It’s your turn to have her this time.

I had her last time and I’m not having her again.

But as you get older disappearing gets easier. It gets so that you can put it on like a cloak, something J K Rowling also knew. Supermarkets are good – everybody’s looking at the shelves, wondering where the baked beans have got to, trying to work out whether this packet cereal is 5p cheaper than that one, or only seems to be. And I like railway stations, particularly the out-of-the-way rural kind where there’s one train an hour and you could sit all day if you wanted to, pretending to read, listening to the crickets in the hedgerows, the birds in the trees and the faint ringing in the rails when a train is on its way. And I like motorway service stations. But that’s the thing with any kind of travelling: in between places you are in between identities – not so much no one as anyone – anyone you want to be. I believe such in-between zones are known to anthropologists as liminal spaces. And when you write – fiction, at any rate – the place you write from is another liminal space. I feel it as a kind of forest, separating this land and that land.

And then there were Nan and Grandad, balancing the scales. I spent most of every Sunday with them, and they were the best refuge any child might hope for. There I got my Sunday Dinner – an excellent feast – and my Sunday Tea, which involved a whole head of celery in a jug, thin buttered bread, shrimps from the shrimp man and toasting crumpets in front of the fire with Grandad.

There I got my hair washed, and dried it in front of the same fire.

There a fat old Labrador snored and Grandad’s pipe filled the room with choking, scented smoke.

There I read Woman’s Weekly, The Carpenter and Joiner and whatever I could dig out of the bookcase – dictionaries, Pilgrim’s Progress, outmoded novels, anthologies of children’s verse, encyclopaedias. Nan and Grandad’s was where I was whisked away to in the middle of the night while my mother was giving birth to my sister, and where I sat upright under the slippery counterpane in their spare bedroom, my feet resting on one of their stone hot water bottles (wrapped in a jumper to save is burning my feet) singing Once in Royal David’s City over and over and over. It felt Christmassy, somehow, rather than my sister’s zero birthday.

There I watched Pinky & Perky on a tiny TV with a dodgy vertical hold, and Sooty and Sweep, and the divers Armand and Michaela Denis conducting bubbly undersea investigations in black and white.

There I watched Grandad planting potatoes in the garden, pulling up carrots by their green topknots, or out in his Lodge making tables and sideboards.

There in the kitchen I was in charge of stirring the gravy for Nan while Grandad stropped his razor on the leather strap hanging from the cupboard and covered his face with foam from an enamel cup, ready for shaving. I marvelled at the complicated loops and buttons that held his trousers up and his braces down.

There I asked for, and was told, the facts of life.

There I learned to darn a sock, sew on a button, polish brass and mix mint sauce.

There I helped to make jam and bottle fruit.

There I watched the washing being boiled in the copper, hauled steaming into a tin bath on a bleached white stick, rinsed, starched and “blued” in the sink and pushed through a wrought-iron mangle.

There I examined Nan’s wide pink corsets hanging on the line, and wondered how hard it was to get the whalebones in.

There I did forward-rolls in the grass and made buttercup chains, and swung from the apple-tree swing that Grandad had made.

There I was told about foxgloves, known to some as dead man’s bells or witch’s gloves, that a poison called digitalis could be made from them, and that an Ancient Greek had once been forced to poison himself with it.

There I saw a bisque doll’s head stuck on the branch of a tree.

There I heard about the War, and how we had to eat horsemeat and paint lines up the backs of our legs to look like stocking seams, and about how a baby slept in its crib unharmed while a bomb reduced the house to rubble all round him; and about how the lady next door  collected aprons and wore them one on top of another; and about how the woman down the road lost her drawers in the High Street but kept her composure – ‘I just picked them up and put them in my bag’ – and about how that bleached blonde floosy from over the road was No Better Than She Ought To Be, went about Done Up Like a Dog’s Dinner, and all sorts of other stuff.

That, once a week, was my childhood, and once a week I was safe. It was as if I had been given more than other children, all crammed into Sunday, to make up for the rest.

On the burning of books

Stories are invisible, portable, private, personal possessions.

Where did that come from? Now I remember – Jeanette Winterson and a story she tells about books in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2012) This is a true story. If you think your parents are dreadful you really need to read Why Be Happy, together with Winterson’s first novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985) based on the same set of experiences. It’s the story of a little girl adopted by completely the wrong woman, for Mrs Winterson is truly monstrous. If still in the mood for Monstrous Mummies after that, try Jerusalem The Golden by Margaret Drabble (1967).

Jeanette Winterson’s story is about books. As a girl she loves reading, but there are only six books in our house. Mrs Winterson, a religious fanatic, disapproves of and forbids all books because The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.

Loveless, beaten and hungry, frequently locked out by her adoptive mother and forced to sit on the doorstep, she survives by working her way through every single fiction book in Accrington Public Library, starting at A for Austen. She also begins to buy books and hide them in layers under her mattress. Gradually the mattress grows higher until one day Mrs Winterson catches sight of the edge of D H Lawrence’s Women in Love emerging from under it. In a rage, she throws all the books out of the window into the back yard, douses them in paraffin and sets them alight. But:

“I realised something important: whatever is on the outside can be taken away at any time. Only what is inside you is safe. I began to memorise texts … I had lines inside me – a string of guiding lights. I had language. The books were gone, but … what they held was already inside me, and together we could get away. And standing over the smouldering pile of paper and type, still warm the next cold morning, I understood that there was something else I could do … I can write my own.”

And speaking of memorising and burning of books, if you haven’t already, why not try the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953).

I SO ENVY YOU, IF YOU ARE YOUNG…

Do you have someone in your family who, when you are absorbed in a book, waves their great hairy hand in front of your eyes and shouts: Wake up! Ha ha, he/she was away with the fairies”?

Or maybe you have someone who suggests to you that you might be doing something more constructive with your life – such as loading the dishwasher, planting trillions of daffodil bulbs on the rockery in the back garden or attending every single Manchester United football match and buying a stripy shirt for an extortionate amount of money in order to demonstrate your allegiance to your beloved team?

Retire to a point fractionally beyond the radar of the hairy-handed numbskull, the frantic dishwasher-loader.

Pick up your book again.

And, by the way:

  • there is no rule that you must read one book at a time. There is so much else to read. Reading more than one book at a time will not give you indigestion, strain your eyes, fry your brain or anything else unpleasant.
  • there is no rule that you must finish a book once you have started it. If you’ve been stuck on page 23 for the last six months and hate the thing, pass it on to somebody else or give it to the charity shop. This I’ve started so I’ll finish thinking arose, I’m fairly sure, from a wartime economy culture, or even earlier, from Victorian frugality.
  • there is no rule that you must only read good books. Reading anything is ten times better than reading nothing, and all reading connects up at some mysterious, deeper level anyway. You don’t stumble across things by accident; you are drawn to them – even if they do only appear to be Cornflakes packets or your aunt’s cast off romance mag.

You will find, however, that the more you read the more discerning you tend to become. The more good stuff you are drawn to or stumble across the less satisfying and readable the bad stuff becomes. You don’t have to make heroic efforts to read the ‘right’ stuff, it will just sort of happen if you keep on reading.

Literature is a vast subject. However long you live you will not succeed in reading all the books you wanted and needed to read – so best get started now. There’s an ocean of books out there and it’s waiting for you – so push your little boat out and hoist the sail.

I so envy you, if you are young, the time you will have to make that voyage. No matter what life throws at you – and it will throw some stuff, believe me – in books you have at least one escape route from the dailiness of life.

What a girl called “the dailiness of life” / (Adding an errand to your errand. Saying, / “Since you’re up . . .” Making you a means to / A means to a means to) is well water / Pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world. / The pump you pump the water from is rusty / And hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel / A sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny / Inexorable hours. And yet sometimes / The wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty / Pump pumps over your sweating face the clear / Water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands / And gulp from them the dailiness of life.

Well Water: Randall Jarrell (1914 – 1965)