Men Don’t Make Passes… full stop.

When I was a mere slip of a girl in the 50s and 60s there used to be this horrid, patronising, sexist saying: “Men Don’t Make Passes At Girls Who Wear Glasses”, and in my experience this was true. Of course, it may only have been true in my experience. It is possible that other girls with glasses were having a whale of a time.

At least part of this may have been due to the ugliness of glasses in 50s and 60s Britain. From 1948 to 1985 there was a phenomenon unique to Britain – the National Health Spectacle Frame. Apparently these were the envy of other countries, who had neither a National Health nor its spectacle frames, but they were loathed in this country. The range was – limited – to say the least, and what there was seemed to have been designed, either to discourage you from availing yourself of their extreme cheapness, or to advertise to the world that you were too poor to be able to afford anything else. Which of course, you were.

I remember a little boy called Steven Savage (forgive me little Steven, if you are still alive). All the kids used to call him Steven Sandwich, since it sounded like that. Poor Steven Sandwich had National Health specs, and worse, one of the lenses was permanently covered in pink sticky plaster. I believe this was a technique to strengthen a weak ‘other’ eye, by forcing it to do twice the work. Either that or the glass was cracked.

And glasses or not, I had other issues. It wasn’t just the glasses that failed to attract men to me, but me being taller than all of them and possessed of what a doctor once (erroneously, a it turned out) referred to as “child-bearing hips” or was it “child-bearing thighs”? My Dad was 6 foot 4 inches tall and all my female relatives on his side were Amazonian in build. I had an aunt and a sister both pushing 6 foot, and another sister 5 foot 10. I was actually the lucky one – I was the shortest.

And I didn’t know how to talk to them. I grew up with sisters. I went to school with girls. Boys were – alien. They guffawed a lot. They patronised. They obviously felt themselves to be superior. And the advice then was not, under any circumstances, to appear to be cleverer than them. Men liked clever girls even less than they liked girls who wore glasses. So I tried to be stupid but could never quite pull it off.  Unable to speak my actual thoughts, I was left with nothing at all to say. Banter was beyond me. Giggling – just couldn’t manage it. Flirting – never quite got the hang.

Eventually I managed to bag a man or two, but only by signalling my availability really, really obviously, and how I even did that I can’t remember. And even then these chaps didn’t exactly rush to take advantage of me. Special Offer, and all that. It was more like an unenthusiastic amble.

And then I didn’t fancy them anyway, because:

Premise Number 1:

Who would want a man who only ambled? I wanted my Hero, my Knight on a White Charger, that man who would pursue me desperately to the ends of the earth; somebody driven frantic by my very presence in a room. I wanted romance, I wanted passion.

But even if there had been a Mr Darcy I would have instantly lost interest in him, because:

Premise Number 2:

If he was the sort of man desperate enough to want me he couldn’t be a proper man. He needs must be wimp, a total loser; there had to be something seriously wrong with him.

Premise Number 2 is the killer because there’s absolutely no way around it. For an entire lifetime your logical mind can argue the self-defeating ridiculousness of Premise Number 2: some primitive, damaged part of your subconscious will continue to know it is true.

At one point I had an inspiration. I could be a Lesbian! I wasn’t sure, to be honest, what Lesbians did with each other, but I knew I was already built for the part. All it would take was one of those shaven hairdos and perhaps a silver stud through my tongue. My niece – she of the pink hair, the Doc Martens, the many exotic tattoos and, sadly, now, the failed kidneys, once shared a flat with a gaggle of Lesbians and it didn’t seem to do her any harm. In fact my exotic niece seems to have had an awful lot more fun in her life than I ever did.

Anyway, so I looked around at women and attempted to find at least a few of them attractive but, inconveniently, could not. (My old friends Rose and Daisy will be relieved to hear this.)

And now – well, now things are better. I don’t feel obliged to attract men at all, and certainly not in that competitive, trophy-hunting, 1960s kind of way.  I like men – mostly and I like women – mostly. And mostly people are just people to me nowadays. I treat them alike, whatever they are.

And – bonus – the National Health Spectacle Frame is no more – abolished, I believe, by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. I can wear any specs I like. I can send for them through the post, I can try them on at home and send them back if I don’t like them. I can have three pairs. I can have purple ones, or tortoiseshell, or knicker-pink.  I can go Dame Edna or John Lennon. I can – what else can I do…? Oh well, you know what I mean.

nhs

From my bookcase: Less Than Angels: Barbara Pym

Thought I’d go for something less scary this time, so ‘Less Than Angels’ by Barbara Pym, 1955. It’s quite a while since I read this book and so I’ll crib from the back cover:

Catherine Oliphant is a writer and lives with handsome anthropologist Tom Mallow. Their relationship runs into trouble when he begins a romance with Deirdre Swann, so Catherine turns her attention to the reclusive anthropologist Alaric Lydgate, who has a fondness for wearing African masks. Added to this love tangle are the activities of Deirdre’s fellow students and their attempts to win the competition for a research grant.

The course of true love or academia never did run smooth.

I remember thoroughly enjoying this book.  The African mask thing: the wonderfully-named Alaric Lydgate, who wears the masks (in the privacy of his back garden, if I remember) is a true eccentric, seen in snatches through the eyes of his very ‘normal’ neighbours. A troubled man, but things turn out all right for him in the end. Pym’s knowledge of Africa and anthropology came from seventeen years working at the International African Institute in London, from 1946. She was the assistant editor for the scholarly journal Africa. I think she felt herself to be a kind of anthropologist – observing the ‘tribal customs’ of suburban post-war Britain with a quiet fascination, from the outside.

Two things about Barbara Pym.

First: she is much underrated and only now being rediscovered. She has been described (by Alexander McCall Smith of No 1 Ladies Detective Agency fame) as a modern Jane Austen, and you can see it there – the very small canvas – a gathering of essentially good or well-meaning, if rather restrained, muddled and emotionally inexpert – characters – English, in other words – and the overall female tone to the book.

This is not to say that her stories are dull, or bland. She can be witty, and very sharp. Her characters may not indulge in explicit sex (this was 1955, after all) but it is there in the background. Barbara Pym herself had quite a number of love affairs, though these  seem to have ended in unhappiness. She was at one point involved with a much younger man, as is Catherine Oliphant in the book. Barbara Pym was reticent about her private life and inner world but you might see a partial self-portrait in Catherine.

One of the things I like about the book is the sense that men and women in those days actually did expect to ‘court’ one another, and were hoping for romance even if they did not always find it – or find it with the person the expected to find it with – followed by marriage and children. These were – how would you put it – quieter times, and kinder.

Second: when you have read one Barbara Pym book you are almost certain to want to read them all. That’s another reason I can’t recall the plot in detail – because at the time I was working through the whole of her oeuvre (such a pretentious word, whyever did I use it?) one after another. Every now and then I put my books back into alphabetical order and am always surprised and pleased at the sight of all those colourful long-lost Pym paperbacks sitting neatly in a row. Sad, yes.

Barbara Pym’s books tend to contain lots of little bits of poetry – her characters, being academics, tend to toss quotes back and forth quite naturally. This leaves you with the delightful task (if interested enough, as I always am) of discovering where the stray lines came from. To give you a head start, at the end of Chapter 4 a character refers to a sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti beginning: When do I see the most, beloved one? I notice I have even glued the sonnet into the back cover:

Lovesight, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

When do I see thee most, beloved one?

When in the light the spirits of mine eyes

Before thy face, their alter, solemnize

The worship of that Love through thee made known?

Or when in the dusk hours, (we two alone)

Close-kissed and eloquent of still replies

Thy twilight-hidden glimmering visage lies,

And my soul only sees thy soul its own?

O love – my love! if I no more should see Thyself,

Nor on the earth the shadow of thee,

Nor image of thine eyes in any spring,

How then should sound upon Life’s darkening slope

The groundwhirl of the perished leaves of Hope

The wind of Death’s imperishable wing?

I used to feel guilty about ‘customising’ my paperbacks but nowadays book customisation is all the rage – a sub-category of scrapbooking, apparently – and anyway, to slightly paraphrase Lesley Gore (1963-ish) and many others:

It’s my paperback and I’ll glue if I want to…

 

The Folks That Lived On The Hill

When the light started to fade and the wind began to really howl in preparation for the night of mayhem to come the tree in the garden of Aslam House, down the hill, was perpendicular. Before daylight had properly returned next morning it was leaning to the left. So far to the left it was obvious it hadn’t just casually decided – as, who knows, trees may do during the night or when they assume nobody’s watching them – to have a bit of a lean, maybe, just rest the old roots for a moment…

No, the tree was uprooted. All that was holding it up even this much was another much smaller tree. Furthermore, it was leaning over my garden shed and, I realised – for it was a very tall tree – my garage/workshop. Ah well, there was nothing to be done. I murmured a little ‘thank you’ to Whoever for the tree actually not being in my garden and therefore not about to cost me thousands of pounds I did not possess to have it cut down. And I murmured a little ‘fingers crossed’ that the person at Aslam House would possess the pounds to get something done about it before it crushed my garden shed and garage/workshop.

I made some porridge. Outside the rain still rained and the wind still howled, but less viciously. I wasn’t expecting to hear from the mysterious owner of Aslam House at all, far less see him that same day.

I’d always liked to look down at Aslam House. Partly because of the name, which reminded me of the lion (in fact we must capitalise it – Lion – since he is at least partly a  Christ-like figure) Aslan from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It gave Aslam House a magical air. Anything might be going on in a house like that, I told myself.

Aslam House is like nothing else round here, architecturally. It’s very much older, and bigger. Its roof dips and sways in an Elizabethan fashion. It’s made of higgledy-piggledy slates rather than row after row of greyish dry-ridge tiles. It has beams – real ones not fake ones. Its windows are tiny and heavily-curtained and go right up into the attic. Sometimes, at night, I see a light in one of the upper rooms; always the same room. No blue flickering, which usually means a TV set. It has a garden, a higgledy-piggledy garden that goes all round the house. The garden has untended roses and a broken down shed without a roof. I can see that now, because now the tall tree has gone.

It has a conservatory, a fair-sized one, with a lot of furniture in it and – I can see if I screw my eyes up – some sort of coffee table, and paintings on the wall. No one is ever in there. A whole conservatory to himself but he doesn’t use it. My, how I would make use of such a conservatory, if I had one. I’d spend the whole of winter in it, warm and toasty, savouring the sight of my snow-covered roses and snow-filled, roofless shed. The birds you could watch from down there, out among the roses; the peaceful thoughts you could have surrounded by all that comfy chintzy furniture.

It occurs to me that Aslam House must have here right at the very beginning – it and the tall trees that are dotted about the hillside, interrupting people’s boundaries. How quiet it must have been back then, for The Folks That Lived on the Hill. No 1980s excrescence of a housing estate; no miles of concrete and brick, everything more or less identical to everything else; nothing much of anything between them and the sea in one direction or the great field in the other.

Turning one way they would have been able to watch the plough going up and down the great field, the men and women coming along later to harvest the wheat and stack it in  old-fashioned V-shaped stooks rather than the great net-covered bails the combine harvester will spit out nowadays.  Turning the other way they might have watched the red-sailed barges coming in, or maybe bigger ships.

I didn’t expect to see him, but later he came round. I don’t know what I had expected – pointy ears, perhaps; hairy feet or a suspicion of a mane – but he seemed an ordinary middle-aged/oldish man. He didn’t look too happy, but then who would be happy with several thousand pounds worth of tree-surgery suddenly looming?

Could you give your husband a message for me? Could you warn him not to go in his workshop or shed just yet? That tree’s about to go over and he’d best not to be in there when it does.

No husband, I replied, rather too swiftly. He looked nonplussed. It was the wrong thing to have said; I should have just gone along with it.

I suppose I was put out, though I should have been used to it by then, by that assumption every male over a certain age seems to make that there will be a husband. Women just don’t inhabit houses – or anywhere – on their own, apparently. What would a woman want with a workshop? She obviously shouldn’t have bought a house with a workshop, not being a man and having no earthly use for a workshop. What foolishness!

And to be honest I was saddened all over again by my man-less state. What was I doing on my own? What was I doing with a workshop? How did I end up sitting out winter after winter of storms, rough seas and gale-force winds alone in an ugly house in the back of beyond? How come I woke up – alone – with some great uprooted tree leaning over most of my garden? Why wasn’t there some broad-shouldered, check-shirted, corduroy-trousered somebody to go striding down the hill with a chainsaw, offering his services to his neighbour? Why wasn’t there a husband to make stuff and fix stuff out in that workshop, to store his well-used garden tools and spider-infested wellingtons in the shelf in the garden shed?

Bad luck – about your tree, I said. He shrugged: I’m beyond caring, he said. My wife died last year.

I am sorry to hear that, I said. And I was.

Now if this had been one of those Mills & Boon stories this would have been the moment for the reader to start hearing the ringing of bells, if only faintly. Ah, lonely woman, lonely man; she with an undeserved workshop and feeling a mite shaken in the aftermath of the storm; he conveniently widowed, having rose-bushes and an unused conservatory. But life is not a Mills & Boon story. I felt sorry for him, for his current hopelessness, the tree and all, but he was pretty ugly. Also, he had a large drip on the end of his nose and was either unaware of it or making no effort to wipe it away. If there’s something I find it hard to see beyond it’s a drip on an unwiped nose.

He went on his way un-romanced, did the gloomy inhabitant of Aslam House. Within a few days a bunch of local hooligans arrived to make a noisy and inexpert job of butchering the tall tree. Now all the shade has vanished from my kitchen. The sun shines in so brightly now, I can no longer see the flames on the gas cooker and have to exist on yoghurt and sandwiches until night has fallen.