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

Will you still need me, will you still read me?

I’ve noticed before – and have no doubt written before – I can’t remember what I have written, to be honest, there’s so much of it – about synchronicity; the way things and people tend to mysteriously come together, jump out of books, out of Twitter, allow you to overhear them being spoken about on the bus, even find their way into those weird pamphlets the Jehovah’s Witnesses insist on giving you. It’s as if the universe wants you to think about something and therefore starts summoning stuff, coalescing it around you like… growing crystals or something. No one believes me of course.

So it has been with David Mitchell. I read Cloud Atlas ages ago and marvelled. I read it again, and still marvelled. That must be the best idea ever for a book and he had it, not me. Curses!

Recently I caught the end of a Meet the Writer with him, on the news channel. He didn’t look like I’d imagined him to look, even from the photos, and I found him extraordinarily difficult to listen to. It wasn’t what he was saying, it was the way he spoke – something about the hesitancy and the broken rhythm of his speech just worried me. I found myself getting anxious for him, like you do when someone has a stammer. I had to turn it over.

Then I gave Twitter a bit of a spin on the old Kindle. It still makes me seasick, to be honest, all that scrolling and scrolling and endless stuff I’m never going to have time to read. I was only really looking for my post (vain, I know) and there was David Mitchell again and something about a tree project and books buried for a hundred years. Well, not exactly buried – they’re going to be kept in a special tree-decorated room in the new library in Oslo.

Mitchell’s book is called From Me Flows What You Call Time. They left off the ‘From’ in the article I was reading, which threw me a bit. I know he’s a bit Japanese-y and all that, having lived and worked in Japan, but Me Flows What You Call Time seemed unnecessarily inscrutable. Then I found a piece of music on You Tube called – you guessed it – From Me Flows What You Call Time, by a composer called Takemitsu. Interesting piece of music – flute-y and atmospheric:

The project, then is an artwork from Scottish artist Katie Paterson. It started in 2014 and involves a forest of 1,000 trees planted outside Oslo. In a hundred years’ time (so 2114) the trees will be cut down to provide paper for an anthology of one hundred texts. It’s a time capsule – similar to those things they used to do in my youth involving biscuit tins buried in the back garden for the little green men to dig up when they invaded us in the fingers-crossed-far-distant-future, except this is more interesting. Each year one novelist contributes one novel. The novel will be displayed in the Future Library or  Framtidsbiblioteket but no one will be allowed to read it and the author will not not allowed to talk about it. The first one was Canadian author Margaret Atwood, who provided a manuscript called Scribbler Moon and the second is David Mitchell.

The artwork is meant to be a statement of faith in the future, ie that there will still be people around in one hundred years time, still a Norway, still an Earth, still a Universe… and that people will still be reading in dead tree format. Can’t decide whether this idea is more fascinating than annoying or annoying than fascinating. I want to read all those books NOW, even though only two of them have even been written yet. I won’t be here in a hundred years. On the other hand, of course, there’s reincarnation…

mitchell

So, this is David Mitchell handing over his secret manuscript, and above Margaret Atwood (who looks remarkably like I imagine my sister will look in thirty years time, only cheerier) doing the same thing in 2015.

I wonder what reading will be like in a hundred years? Maybe people will have forgotten how to read altogether? It won’t be necessary. Stories and information will exist on memory sticks, dongles or whatever; the whole story to be downloaded into the reader’s brain in seconds via a port on their neck. No need to digest: it comes pre-digested with its own instantly accessible dictionary to supply the meanings of those unfamiliar, hundred year old words. Oat-So-Simple for the literary mind, as it were.

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)