Sink Or Swim

Naturally gloomy, daughter of a depressed, introverted mother and a controlling, extraverted father, more than a little neurotic, probably ADD – and of course living alone for the last twenty-seven years. It’s not exactly a recipe for success. One of my neighbours said to me recently ‘But you’ll cope with it, my dear (serious illness diagnosis) because you’re a Strong ‘un!’ Am I? The possibility had never occurred to me, but I suppose it must be true, otherwise how come I’m still here?

It seems to me that if life is like being adrift at sea after some kind of shipwreck, people can be divided into three groups –

Floaters: those – not necessarily the nicest or the most deserving – who will come out on top no matter what, eg President Trump.

Sinkers: those – they could be sinners, or saints-in-the making – who have so little support and so few advantages, that they were always likely to end up behind bars of some sort, whether in jail or in a mental hospital. These are the ones who are going to be found dead in the gutter, overdosed in a squat; splatted by the swimming pool having falling from a hotel balcony during a drunken party, and so on.

Survivors – these are the ones that carry on not-exactly-sinking even as they don’t-exactly-float, the ones who are mostly on the surface but sometimes under it, who are battered and submerged by every passing wave but somehow carry on bobbing along, year after year after year.

I suppose I am one of the latter, though recently this prolonged Brexit business has really begun to get to me. I find myself alternately glued to the radio or refusing to listen to it, weeping for no reason over situations that might happen but haven’t happened yet and – in the cold light of day – seem quite far-fetched. It’s only politics, after all. Many people manage to spend their whole lives not actually knowing what politics are, and not caring. I have one friend who refuses to think about anything but her next shopping trip. I worked with a woman once who said she had never bothered to vote and couldn’t see the point. I said: Women campaigned and suffered to get that vote for you. One woman threw herself in front of the King’s horse and was trampled to death so that women like you should have the vote. You owe to them. She sniggered. That was about it.

Perhaps I should just snigger. If only that were possible.

Emily

Death of suffragette Emily Davison in 1913

I think the problem is the length of time it has gone on, and the uncertainty. I mean, I would be very angry if the decision of the majority in the referendum were to be side-lined, somehow, or ignored. I would feel – I would know – that my one, but precious vote had been stolen from me. I would no longer be living in a democracy. However, I would rather take that defeat and get it over with than carry on in this state of muddle and uncertainty. I am (possibly) ADD, designed for perpetual change, for quick, instinctive decisions then moving on. New subject. New idea. New project.

I am already trapped here, in this house, in this less than scenic corner of England. I will never have the means to move again. I used to move house a lot, and each new place would refresh me, somehow. I would have shed past me and become new me. For a time. Not a very long time, but better than nothing.

I used to escape through reading, and day-dreams. Now I can’t. Escape through fantasy is only possible when one’s every day life is more or less secure. Currently we are not secure and I need to focus my imagination, what’s left of it, on working out ways to survive in any number of potential futures. I don’t feel British anymore, merely Unspecified Human.

But on the lighter side, I was listening to a radio programme in which a Polish girl explained that  the comedy series Monty Python had been a huge hit in Poland, possibly even bigger than in the UK. She said she thought it was because the Poles and the British shared a sense of humour, quite different from American humour, which she described as ‘darkly absurdist’. I liked that phrase. But then she went on to say that now it seemed as if the whole of the UK had become Monty Python Land, the sort of place where a granny in a phone box would leap out and set upon passers-by with a rolled umbrella.

Trying to find an image for The Way We Live Now (to steal the title of one of my favourite books) I lit (?lighted) up one in another radio programme. It was a nature programme, about butterflies. When the speaker first learned of the bizarre, amazing life cycle of the butterfly, he had vaguely imagined that once a caterpillar had turned

butterfly2

into a chrysalis, inside that hard outer casing all the incipient butterfly was doing was adding a few legs, growing a pair of pretty wings. He said it had come as a bit of a shock to learn that inside the chrysalis what had been a caterpillar was completely dissolved into a kind of primordial genetic soup. And out of that liquid a butterfly was made from scratch, chemical by chemical and cell by cell.

It seems to me that this is what is happening to us now. It’s a deathlike, painful, but perhaps ultimately hopeful process. We are becoming nothing. We are chaos. All the things we believed ourselves to be have proved to be untrue. All the people we placed our trust in have shown themselves unworthy of that trust. All of our history may or may not have been true. We have no place in the world, no purpose, no national identity.

Yet, maybe we are becoming something else. Maybe, battered and bruised, half-drowned as we are, we are about to emerge as something different. Maybe nothing as glorious as a butterfly but something new. I’m going to have to hang on to that hope. Just hang on in there.

Indeed…

I have been pondering the safest answer to any possible remark, comment or question during the hyper-sensitive next six months in this Disunited Kingdom of ours. I have a few favourites. This one, from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In:

very interesting.jpgVerrrry interesting…

The only trouble, what with the fake German accent and all, is that you might be seen as taking the Michael. And you’d have to remember not to add the … but also shtupid .

I love Spock’s Fascinating! This is a good one because if you can only say it with a straight face no one can tell whether you are fascinated by what the other person has just said, fascinated that they should have been so shtupid  as to come out with it in the first place or fascinated by their weird human physiognomy.

You can’t really say Exactly or Absolutely because both imply an enthusiastic agreement with the speaker which you may be far from feeling. You might try the psychotherapist’s interrogative Uh-huh? But how long are you going to be able to fend them off with that?

I personally favour Teal’cs grave Indeed. Preferably with the head inclining slightly to the left. I think I might get away with Indeed.

One of the things that attracted my younger self to Ex was that he was strong. He always said exactly what he thought. Unlike me, he did not scrabble around desperately trying to fit in: he did not temporise, he did not simper and he did not squirm. He treated all alike – from the little autistic boy on the railway to the multi-millionaire client in his mansion by the Thames – all were addressed in exactly the same vague, lofty yet booming tone of voice. When he started speaking everyone else in the room stopped – not always instantly, but they stopped. I often felt Moses would have spoken thus, on coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments. And he seemed to get away with it.

I remember we once went out to Canada to visit my sister, and almost immediately, whilst still exhausted from the journey, were inveigled into Trivial Pursuit evenings with dips and carrot croutons, crudités or whatever those little veggie stick things are. (Playing by American rules, we were at a loss most of the time, since most of the questions were about baseball stars and presidents we had never heard of.) We were overwhelmed with good-neighbourliness and extreme hospitality. We were asked how many children we had – oh dear – none? – and what church we belonged to – church? – and a whole lot of other stuff we didn’t have satisfactory answers for. We were confused, jet-lagged and culture-shocked.

I squirmed and simpered whilst praying to the God I had never been interrogated about before that I might please become invisible or fall through a trap-door – or that at least somebody could sneak me an easy-peasy instruction leaflet for this unfamiliar lifestyle/version of the English language. But Ex continued to be resolutely and monumentally Ex. Asked what he thought of Canadian houses, which in that part of Ontario at least seemed to be huge, luxurious and timber-built, he replied that they reminded him of Glorified Garden Sheds.

Ohhhhh no, I was thinking whilst trying not to catch the eye of anybody in particular… but the conversation went on, just as before, without so much as a sharp intake of breath or an infinitesimally awkward pause.

Ex was just Ex. Whether he bewildered or impressed people into not being offended I don’t know. No doubt right now he is uttering the most appallingly nuts-and-bolts tactless statements about the European Union, people who voted this way or that, foreigners, politicians…

And no doubt everyone is hanging on his every word. Fascinated. Indeed.

 

Featured Image: Teal’c from Stargate

No prophecy at all, just sadness

Yesterday I watched David Cameron outside 10 Downing Street, being calm and dignified in the face of overwhelming political defeat. This was something my generation grew up with and took as read – that an Englishman would be generous in victory and gracious in defeat. That was ‘only cricket’. I can’t say I’m a fan of Westminster, politicians, the establishment or the political élite but he managed that particularly sad situation just as you – or we, in earlier times – might have expected an Englishman to do.

So whatever happened to the rest of us?

Last night I watched a young, white woman drown out an elderly academic during what was supposed to be an interesting political discussion on the results of the Referendum. He was an old, white man, she shouted, and that was why he felt entitled to talk over her and steal her air time. I suppose technically she won since she got all this in before the interviewer could moderate her. Yes, she succeeded in being sexist, ageist, racist and cruel in a single sentence and stunned the elderly academic into silence. He had been trying to say that in a democracy we each have one vote. Where did this sense of entitlement come from? Did she think maybe that people under forty should have two votes, and those over forty none?

This morning I went out in the car for a while. When I came back my neighbour was out in the front garden. He and his wife are retired prison warders and since retiring they have been spending more and more time at the house they are building in France: they had returned just in time to vote.

They and I have history. When I first moved to this area I was told – by another neighbour – a horrible story about the male prison warder. It may or may not have been true, but at the time I believed it. There was so much ghastly detail attached; how could I not give it credence? I was told that he killed one of a neighbour’s cats with an air rifle, because he didn’t like cats and it came into his garden. I was told he got rid of the creature’s body in the Council’s green bin and then laughed about it, boasting of what he had done.

Anything to do with animal cruelty horrifies me. I can’t abide it. Until then my cats had roamed freely out of doors: that ended that night. At ten o’clock at night, with a torch, I rounded up my whole feline tribe and have never dared let them go outside since. If one of them does escape, as of course happens at intervals, I spend the many hours it takes to find them and persuade them to come back indoors in a torment of anxiety, imagining that at any moment they might get shot from a bedroom window.

And yet, over the years, though I wouldn’t say we’ve got to know each other any better, we have come to an unspoken agreement. I still don’t know if the cat-murder story is true, and probably never will know, but we talk to each other now, in passing. He asked if he could come into my garden to prune his roses from the other side of the fence. When, during a gale some time back, his roof sent a ridge tile crashing through my car windscreen, he and his wife knocked on the door, came in and paid me, unasked, for the inconvenience this had caused.

This morning we chatted about his impending move to France, and mine to the far side of the county. During the talk it became clear to me that we had voted in opposite directions in the Referendum. I carefully adjusted anything I might have said. He carefully avoided saying anything that might require me to confirm which way I had voted. We talked generally about immigration and about people’s motives for voting Leave or voting Remain in this neighbourhood. We talked about the endless legal delays and complications involved in moving house. I told him I was dreading mowing my lawn, which had grown so long recently the mower was unlikely cope with it. He laughed and said he had had to take the strimmer to his, having been away in France so long. We talked but we kept it general; we steered the conversation onto safer ground.

neighbours 3

That’s what British people do – or what they used to do. We avoid confrontation.  Along with the Japanese – another overcrowded island race – and, I gather, the indigenous peoples of Australia – we practice something called negative politeness.

There are things both parties to a conversation know, but avoid putting into words. We avoid asking the other person any question that might conceivably embarrass them – even if it wouldn’t, and they are in fact just dying to tell us what we are just dying to find out.

We proceed on the assumption that the speaker is imposing on the listener, and that this imposition should be prefaced by elaborate apologies. We go to great lengths to avoid putting the other person in an awkward position.

We tread delicately, gently alluding rather than baldly stating, mentioning the unlikely possibility of rather than directly asking for. Occasionally we become so veiled in our allusions that we give bewildered visitors the impression that we are talking in code, which of course we are, in a way.

As a nation we have many faults but we used at least to be kind – courteous to one another and to strangers, anxious above all not to give offence. What changed, I wonder, and when?

neighbours 2

prophecy

Now out fly the little demons

I have no idea who Godot actually was, have you? But Vladimir and Estragon were waiting for him. Waiting, waiting, waiting… It’s how I feel today – as if Godot, in all his multifarious forms, is never going to arrive, and I haven’t even got a fellow-tramp to grumble with.

I’m waiting for WordPress to email me back with the solution to my ‘no links’ problem. They promise twenty-four to forty-eight hours. Suspect even if they do email me I will neither be able to comprehend nor implement their solution, but you never know.

Waiting…

This morning I phoned a firm I used to work for (twice) and asked them if they would take me back for a ‘third term’. I know they are likely to say no, and it has taken me the best part of a week to muster the courage to even phone them. But – can’t afford to leave any stone unturned. You owe it to the cats, I told myself. Not that the cats care. Anyway, now I’ve gone and done it.

And I’m waiting…. and it’s thirteen minutes past two…

Human Resources need to check round various different departments. I am thinking maybe check round various different departments is HR code for no, but we’re too kind to say so; we will say no later today; or maybe we just won’t call you back so that you can surmise that’s what we probably meant? Or does it in fact mean we need to check round various different departments?

So I’m waiting….

And I’m doing what most people do while they are waiting – trying to get on with other stuff. I watched half a repeat of Stargate but remembered the plot so well I turned off the TV. I plodded through a big heap of ironing. Well, that’s done now… I got an idea for a post and here I am writing it.

Well, that’s good…that’s…positive…

We spend so much of our lives on hold, don’t we? At the moment we are waiting for the Referendum, which is Thursday. I get a postal vote and voted weeks ago but still, I’m waiting…

Until today I was telling myself Que Sera, Sera. My one little vote isn’t going to decide things. Who’d want that responsibility? Que sera, sera – but I am starting to be afraid. Whatever the outcome, by the end of this week things will be altered.

Half of the population will be jubilant. The losing half will be furious and will never forget that the winning half opposed them, and won. Either half may decide to consume all the lager they can lay hands on, wrap flags round their stupid shoulders and riot semi-naked in midsummer streets. We seem to be good at that.

The losing half will lose faith in the democracy they totally took for granted up to this point, and the losing half will spend the next ten years blaming the winning half for Every Single Thing that goes wrong with Anything and Everything, from Friday forward, whether related to Europe or not. We will never hear the last of it.

They gave us this choice – that’s democracy. They shouldn’t have given us the choice, that’s the political and psychological reality of the thing. They opened the little wooden casket: now out fly the little demons.

Waiting… My mother is waiting to die. We visited her yesterday and found her in a wheelchair, too weak to stand or even rearrange herself in the chair once the carers lowered her into it. She had spilt porridge and water all over the place and had just been changed yet again. Grey-faced and distracted, she can no longer speak and no longer looks at us. I write our names on the white-board. She stares at it in terror.

She stares out of the window, hoping that a bird or a squirrel might land on the boundary fence. Sometimes she points at the boundary fence, but we but we can’t see what she’s seeing. Her hands shake. Her nails have grown long, like claws. I can’t help her and she can’t help herself. Even the carers can’t help her, only change her, lift her, feed her and bring her beakers of cranberry juice.

It kind of puts paid to my theory of souls. Until this last thing happened to Mum I chose to console myself with the belief that we designed our own life, between lives, when we were again souls. We passed on what we had learned from our past life, rested for a while and then gradually became aware of what we still needed to learn; with help from the wise ones we chose our next incarnation. And down we came, flutter-flutter-flutter, into our new bodies, to continue the eternal learning process. But what can this day-to-day, hour-to-hour, week-to-week suffering possibly be teaching her? What possible purpose is there in being like she is now?

Waiting… waiting… Learning to wait.

waiting 2