Dead People Who Would Have Been Bloggers

I’m not suggesting that to paint a bison on a wall, or blow coloured powder through your fingers to make your hand-print on a cave wall is the equivalent of blogging – communication, yes; symbolism, yes but for blogging you do need words. However, words have been around for a long time, and as long as they have been around there have been people who wanted to… just update you on their Daily Doings, on their Thoughts, people who just had a weird idea or two and found some sort of pleasure in putting it out there… see if there was any reaction.

These individuals were not necessarily novelists. Writing a novel is a specialised, long-term project and requires a lot of sterling qualities that bloggers may or may not be somewhat deficient in – gritty determination; staying power; that passionate, obsessive attention to detail; that ability to remember who in God’s name Catherine Earnshaw is and why there need to be two Catherine’s in one book; that ability to keep going day after day, pushing that knot towards the invisible end of that invisible piece of string, building that wall whilst standing two inches away from it, telling the joke for which there may well turn out never to have been a punchline; wading on through that dark, dark treacle when one’s novel sinks into its inevitable Soggy Bottom – or rather it’s Soggy Middle.

I’m not like that, fellow bloggers. Maybe you are – in which case why are you wasting your time on this frippery? Wamble off somewhere and pen that novel. Get thee to a nunnery, why woulds’t thou be a breeder of sinners?

All through history there have been people who have something to say – sometimes frivolous but equally often unique, subtle, interesting, humorous; people who wanted to gossip rather than lecture; people who just wanted to say, hey, what do you think about this? In the past those people did blog, they just didn’t call it that, and they used whatever medium came to hand. In Ancient Rome Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, tutor and advisor to the truly horrible Emperor Nero, wrote letters.

seneca.jpg

Except that they weren’t really letters. His one hundred and twenty-four were formally addressed to a friend, a distant student, but whether or not such student actually existed – is unimportant. The Letters were Seneca’s way of talking to the world. Give him a computer, he would have blogged.

Diarist Samuel Pepys would probably have blogged. He eventually had to give up diarising because of his eyesight. He was afraid that having to write, with an inkpot and quill pen, by candlelight, was damaging it further. However, he might well have blogged in his own private code, based on the well-known (in those days) Shelton’s Shorthand, plus Spanish, Italian and French, since the grown-up stuff was interspersed with quite a lot of saucy stuff about maids and mistresses that he that wouldn’t have wanted his wife to read, also a lot of stuff about his wife that she probably wouldn’t have wanted other people to know.

pepys

For example (skip this bit, children):

“… and did tocar mi cosa con su mano [ touch my thing with her hand] through my chemise but yet so as to hazer me hazer la grande cosa ” [make me make the great thing (orgasm)]

Jane Austen would have blogged, you betcha. She would probably have called herself Johan Austen for more gravitas, or Herbert Finke and had one of those little round pictures where you can almost but not quite see someone’s face, and it might not be them anyway (not that I can speak, hiding behind a picture of a stuffed witch puppet). Can you imagine her observations, this quiet, mob-capped auntie in the corner? I think I would almost rather have been able to read Aunt Jane’s blog than Pride and Prejudice. Almost.  Better still, Cassandra might not have been able to get her censoring little hands on it after her sister’s death.

Charles Dickens would have blogged. He published those enormous and rather wonderful novels of his in weekly instalments – respect to him; it’s no easy feat to write a novel on the hoof, no safety net – the possibility of tossing the whole thing in the wastepaper basket half way through or drastically rewriting it. But he was also a businessman and wrote and published several magazines. I can imagine his blog as being more of a zine, but a wonderful zine. A wonderful new(ish) word zine is, too – so useful for Scrabble.

And then there are the women’s magazine journalists, the newspaper columnists, the poets, the publishers of scandalous broadsheets and lofty sermons. Do you think they would have been able to resist the lure of that lit-up screen? Two more, and then I’ll shut up.

Nella Last (or Housewife, 49 so brilliantly played by the so recently late Victoria Wood) who wrote page after unpunctuated page, in pencil on scraps of paper, and submitted them to Mass Observation movement during the Second World War. What she writes about is so dull, so every-day and yet, running beneath it all, the sorrows of a real-life mismatched but stuck-to marriage, the loved but not entirely comprehended son, the struggles, the clever ‘dodges’, the pride in being able to manage, the pleasure in making her ‘dollies’ for the hospital, the achievement of running a wartime charity shop; the emergence of a downtrodden middle-aged woman, partly through her writings and partly through war, into a circumscribed individuality. She’d have blogged – if her husband had allowed her on the computer.

George Mackay Brown, eccentric poet and dramatist from Stromness, Orkney, Scotland, and regular columnist in The Orcadian. He died in 1996. Apart from one or two sorties to university and so forth, he spent his whole life in this one, beloved place and he wrote about the small things, the daily things that were important to his readers. He said he wrote for an imaginary Orcadian, someone exiled to America maybe, or Canada. He wrote to give them a taste of home, to keep them in touch with what was important to all. After breakfast each day he would push aside the marmalade pot and the breadcrumbs and start writing. He often had a bit of a struggle to get his handwritten column to the post-box on time, when it was blowing a gale or the up-hill-and-down-dale streets were a sheet of ice. Often he was cold, in his own little house. Sometimes he was ill, sometimes depressed. Sometimes – pretty often, in fact – he turned to whiskey for solace and when he did he drank too much of it, but always he wrote. He brought Orkney to life. He knew so much about its history and geography, and was constantly referring to his overloaded bookshelves for the meaning of some tantalising word or phrase in the Orkney Norn – the old Norse language.

He was a nerd, before there was such a thing. He would have been a blogger, although he might have had to use the computer in the Public Library, since he had little money and only the most basic possessions. His newspaper columns were eventually collected into two books:  Under Brinkie’s Brae and Letters from Hamnavoe. He wrote about what he ate for his supper, his bachelor experiments with cooking; about the challenging Orcadian weather; about taking friends and visitors round the island and showing them the sights; about long walks and seabirds; about problems with heating, postal strikes; ballpoint pens; a sagging couch a friend had bought on his behalf in a sale; nature, football matches and television programmes… anything.

And that’s the thing about blogging, isn’t it? You don’t have to have a theme, or a purpose, or a noble aim. You don’t have to be coherent, you don’t need to be propagandising or sending some sort of message. You can write about anything. Just because.

O Tink, did you drink it to save me?

Why is it that some things creep you out and others don’t?

Poison’s always done it for me. I have heard that people are sometimes haunted in this life by violent, dire and dreadful things that happened to them in past lives: a person who died of thirst might drink too much; a person who was imprisoned in a dungeon for long, long years might be claustrophobic in their present life. So, perhaps I was poisoned. Alternatively, perhaps I was one of the Borgias and poisoned everyone else – in which case this lifetime’s faint fear is an echo of long-ago guilt.

Whyever it is, scenes – even talk – of poisoning have always haunted me. As a child, I walked round Nan’s garden with her. When we came to the foxgloves she explained – firstly how those beautiful, long purple spotted flowers might make gloves for foxes and secondly how the seeds were the basis for the a poison called digitalis, and that it was with this poison that Socrates, the Greek philosopher, had been commanded to poison himself.

In this I believe she may have been wrong, since Socrates poisoned himself with hemlock, an innocuous looking white plant, whereas foxglove makes digitalis – but the effect on me was the same – fright. The world was not a safe place.

hemlock.jpg

I later – accidentally – read the account of a similar ‘state execution at a distance’ in the form of Tacitus’ account of the death of Seneca. No Stephen King novel could match this for sheer creepy nastiness.

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We were due to go to a carol service at the Methodist. I was seven or so and waiting in the living room of a schoolfriend’s house for her to finish getting ready and come downstairs. The TV was on – a tiny, flickering, black and white box in those days. It was a cowboy film and there, in the middle of a clearing, languished a cowboy who had been bitten by a deadly snake. Engrossed, unable to look away I watched him struggling against the effects of the poison. After that, snakes got added to my list of things to be terrified of, although I retained an idiosyncratic fondness for anacondas. There was an wonderful colour plate of an anaconda in my Odham’s Encyclopaedia (the magical ‘ae’ was sill around in those days) – luxuriously dangled around a tree. Anacondas only crushed their victims to death by wrapping their coils around them and squeezing, and then swallowing them whole (they can unhinge their jaws). This results in a victim-sized lump that moves slowly down the snake as the days pass. Nothing scary about anacondas at all, as far as I’m concerned.

And at some point – oh joy – I was taken to see Peter Pan in London, and when it got to the bit where Tinker Bell – inexplicably played in this production not by a proper fairy actress but by a torch beam and a bell from off stage – sacrificed herself by drinking the poison intended for Peter, how unexpected and terrifying that was. The torch beam/bell combination entered into the glass of “medicine” to which had been added by the vile Captain Hook – according to the book – “a yellow liquid quite unknown to science, which was probably the most virulent poison in existence”. How I hated Captain Hook, and how I worried for Tinker Bell/the offstage torch-beam as she faded, faded, fluttered, fluttered… and all in defence of the bumptious Pan. Any boy less worth drinking imaginary virulent yellow poison for would be hard to imagine.

And then of course we were all forced to clap to show we believed in fairies because children believing in fairies is what keeps them alive. Even then, there was a whiff of circular logic about this claim, something deeply suspect… but how could you not clap? Just in case the torch-beam/bell was really a fairy?

What were you most creeped out by as a child?

At the first clank of a chain…

When I was first attempting to supplement my income by writing Kindle e-books I would write about things that interested me, but hardly anybody seemed to want to buy the books. The logical thing, then, seemed to be to reverse tactics and write about things that didn’t interest me. I’ve always been a bit of an alien, so if I were to write e-books about things that felt utterly alien to me, normal people might really like them. And more importantly buy them.

So one evening I trawled the internet for records of subject matter most frequently googled by normal people, and the most popular subject matter for blogs. It seemed Music was number one with Fashion in second place. Unfortunately Music and Fashion were subjects as to which, as an Ancient Person, I was unlikely to be able to write with any credibility.

Ancient Person – where did that come from?

I knew it came from a poem and had in mind this phrase: Ancient person of my soul. I was inclined to think it was from a poem by Lewis Carroll called You are Old, Father William. This was possible as my uncle, who was at that time an officer in the Royal Air Force, would occasionally recite this poem when home on leave visiting my grandparents. But I was mistaken.

I googled Ancient person of my… since I was dubious about soul – and discovered it was in fact a line from A Song of a Young Lady to her Ancient Lover by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647 – 1680). John Wilmot was a member of the Hellfire Club, notorious at the time for his drinking, womanising and riotous behaviour; now chiefly remembered for a pet monkey and some poems. Sure enough:

Ancient Person, for whom I / All the flattering youth defy, / Long be it e’er thou grow old, / Aching, shaking, crazy cold; / But still continue as thou art, / Ancient Person of my heart.

I particularly like the line Aching, shaking, crazy, cold. I suppose I must have read Ancient Lover at school, though I’m pretty sure that at that stage in my life I wouldn’t have understood the last verse – or indeed most of the poem. Probably just as well, as I would have got into trouble for giggling if I had. This link should take you to it:

http://www.druidic.org/roc_love.htm#ancient

Having sorted that out I began to compile a list of potential money-spinning e-book titles:

  • Pimples No More – a Guide to Teenage Skincare – or possibly Acnephobia????
  • Outsmart Your Supermarket – how to stop them selling you stuff without you realising they’re doing it!!
  • De-cluttering Your Home – boot fairs versus charity shops; befriend your waste disposal operative!?!
  • How to Get Someone Else to do Your Gardening!!!

…and so ad infinitum.

(Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite them, / and little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum).

And then I came across the word Frenemy. This was a new one on me but I knew what it had to mean; sour memories of a number of  Frenemies were already coagulating in my mind. I looked it up all the same and yes – Frenemy was one of those annoying portmanteau words, the musical equivalent of which would be The Birdie Song. Hear them but once and such  earworms will never leave you. Other examples would be Brangelina, Texarkana, Spork (spoon/fork) and Liger (a cross between a male lion and a female tiger). There are also, of course, Tigons. Who knew that lions and tigers/tigers and lions could even reproduce – together?

Portmanteau? It’s a word we adopted from the French which at the time meant ‘a bag for carrying coats in’ and English-speakers still (though rarely) use portmanteau to denote a large, old-fashioned kind of bag, often made of leather or carpet material. In France, in the meantime, portmanteau has come to mean coat rack.

Foreign words ‘borrowed’ into English, usually because English doesn’t already have an equivalent word, may over time acquire either a different shade of meaning or a different meaning altogether in the donor language. Translators refer to these little pests as False Friends, in that if you are not careful they will lead you astray.

Returning to Frenemies. The concept of Frenemyship held no interest at all for me except as a linguistic curiosity, so it seemed exactly the subject to write about if I wanted to sell e-books/pay the gas bill. I started brainstorming for slick, bestselling titles:

  •  Keep Your Friends Close But Your Frenemies Closer
  • Are You a Frenemy?
  • Frenemy No More – How To Get Revenge on that False Friend
  • Forgive Your Frenemy?

Etc., etc.

It was a hateful exercise but that gas bill was due, and then the Council Tax. Slowly, however, I did begin to warm to the idea, not so much of Frenemies as of the double-edged nature of friendship. What constituted a friend? What constituted an enemy? How easy was it to tell them apart? So there was a degree of interest to be wrung from the subject after all. But then if I became interested, wouldn’t that be the kiss of death as far as book sales went? Perhaps I had better abandon Frenemies in favour of Acne, Gardening, De-cluttering or Supermarkets. But what happened if I found myself becoming fascinated by them? In the end I just abandoned the idea of making money from e-books.

However, this abortive experiment did produce a splendid example of synchronicity. That same evening, in the ad-break between two TV programmes I particularly wanted to watch, I accidentally knocked a book off the coffee table. It was Seneca: The Letters. I had bought it a quite a while back but hadn’t got round to reading it. It looked difficult, and the front cover was putting me off. Black and shiny, in the tradition of Penguin Classics, it featured a depressing photo of a bust of Seneca – an ugly stone face, a bad stone hairdo and sightless stone eyes. It looked like a death mask.

With less than a minute before my next programme started, I opened the book at random at Letter IX which, synchronicitously, dealt with the subject of false friendship:

… the wise man, self-sufficient as he is, still desires to have a friend if only for the purpose of practising friendship and ensuring that those talents are not idle. Not, as Epicurus put it… ‘for the purpose of having someone to come and sit beside his bed when his is ill or come to his rescue when he is hard up or thrown into chains’, but so that on the contrary he may have someone by whose sickbed he himself may sit or whom he may himself release when that person is held prisoner by hostile hands. Anyone thinking of his own interests and seeking out friendship with this in view is making a great mistake. Things will end as they began… at the first clank of a chain that friend will disappear.

Interest yourself in a particular subject and books will begin to fall open at the right page, or you may overhear a relevant conversation on the bus, or against all the odds there will be something about it on the 10 o’clock News. Seek and ye shall find. Keep your antennae a-waggle and sooner rather than later you will bump into the very thing you were searching for. Or perhaps something you weren’t searching for but will discover you actually needed.