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.

We can ask and ask…

The title comes from A Month In The Country by J L Carr. I have read this slim novel twice now. I also recently found the film on Prime – one of the free ones, of course. It was so old I didn’t recognise Kenneth Branagh as one of the lead actors till half way through it. I kept thinking Why does that chap look familiar?

The quote comes from the last page and I am going to type it out in full, partly because it chimes with what seems to be happening in my country right now, but mostly because it’s great writing:

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

Having recently been accused of Nostalgia – which in the course of the three years since the Referendum has become seriously politically incorrect, or at any rate a laughable aberration – I gave myself over to a few thoughts on the matter. I wondered what it was that made me able to re-read the lyrical, romantic, A Month In The Country with great pleasure, and yet suddenly find myself unable to stomach a non-fiction work of 1968/70 – John Hillaby’s Journey Through Britain. 

Journey Through Britain is about the long walk from Land’s End, Cornwall, to John O’Groats at the top of Scotland. Completing this trek by whatever means – walking, cycling – even naked-cycling once – I saw the photo – is one of the challenges foolhardy and/or energetic Brits have traditionally set themselves, like swimming the Channel, climbing all the ‘Wainwrights’, ie all of the 214 peaks (‘fells’) listed in Alfred Wainwright’s seven volume Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, and the 182 mile Coast To Coast walk (also devised by Wainwright).

Was it something about the book itself? Partly. Grubby and second-hand to begin with, it has an unattractive cover and has not aged well; too many house moves, too many winters stored in a damp garage have done for it. Though I only read it once, and treat my paperbacks with care, the spine was broken and its crumbly, brown-tinged pages were beginning to fall out, as too was a dull but prolific interleaving of black-and-white photo illustrations.

So, Journey Through Britain had become an uninviting object, but that wasn’t it. “It” was Brexit. Somehow, as the ghastly process grinds on (and on) I have entirely lost any hankering for either our geography or our rural past, and particularly the wandering-hippie 1970s kind.

And yet I had no problem reading A Month In The Country for the second time, or sitting through a film of the same with the ubiquitous, and miscast, Kenneth Branagh in it. I came to the conclusion that A Month In The Country is not really a love song to rural England, though the county of Yorkshire, still largely unspoiled in the 1920s is so ever-present it is essentially another character in the book. It could in fact have been set anywhere quiet and remote, in any summer month, anywhere in the world. A Month In The Country is about youth and memory, healing and loss, and the speaking of one artist to another over the centuries.

It is as if – and this is hard to explain – a whole swathe of my country’s past has now ceased to be accessible to me. It is as if I can no longer allow myself to escape in that direction. The Past never really seemed Another Country to me before, but now it does.

I was trying to write it down last night, if only to get it out of my head so that I could get to sleep. But I couldn’t really capture it, this post-Referendum, pre- (possibly) Brexit sense of desolation and dissolution and the sheer numbing tedium of it all. At this point MacArthur Park sidles back into my brain again – someone left the cake out in the rain, all the sweet green icing – etc., etc. When will that dirge go away?

Maybe in the next post I will type out a few of the more comprehensible of my midnight Brexit Angst jottings. That done, perhaps it will leave me in peace for a bit. I might even write something about Poor Wet Dogs In The Middle Of The Road, or The Coming of Autumn, which I recently had to explain to a computer helpdesk operator in, if I remember correctly, the Philippines.

Yes, it’s the one when all the leaves fall off the trees. No it happens before the Winter but after the Spring… He said they only had two seasons in his country and was fascinated by the idea of four. I suggested maybe he could come over and live in my country for a year, and then he would experience all of our many seasons at first-hand. Yes he said wistfully. But very expensive to live.

My Kindle Fire is still un-helped, woefully un-fixed by Mr Philippines although he did his best. Irretrievably and infuriatingly dead, it is. All now rests on this giant, clunky old desktop and a mobile phone with a dodgy battery and a superiority complex.