A Plague By Any Other Name

William or Leetle Weely as the vet calls him has a disgusting-looking ailment of the paws. The vet speaks very good English, but it is not his first language and I believe has not quite got the hang of seaside postcard humour and double entendres. It may be that double entendres are the last linguistic hurdle a foreigner has to cross.

Speaking of double-entendres, even I missed one the other night. I was in a long conversation with my sister in Canada, complaining bitterly about an overbearing male who entered my kitchen and even, irritatingly, sniggered at the way I cut the cheese, saying it was probably because I was left handed etc., etc. Said man has now been disposed of (fingers crossed) but not before he nearly electrocuted himself by poking a kitchen knife into my toaster, whilst said toaster was plugged into the electric socket and red hot, because he had managed to get a crumpet stuck in it. He then asked me why I had turned the toaster off and I mentioned saving him from electrocution. Probably I should just have left him to it – would have been easier than trying to convince him to kindly leave me alone – but, as one of my neighbours said to me when I went out to mow the lawn this afternoon, you wouldn’t want the corpse of a fat, condescending old baggage cluttering up your vinyl floor covering.

Anyway – rambling again – I kept referring to cutting the cheese as part of this sisterly transatlantic rant, and it wasn’t until the end of the conversation that my sister told me that cutting the cheese in Canadian was actually a euphemism for breaking wind.

Anyway, William has a paw complaint, which hopefully will be improved by antibiotics and steroids. Its scientific name is Plasma Cell Pododermatitis but it’s also known as Pillow Foot or, the vet tells me, Bumble Foot. Really, if you hadn’t seen Leetle Weely hobbling about on the sore, scabby and peeling paws in question you might imagine him joyously floating about with a tiny white pillow strapped to each foot, or maybe being transported by a quartet of little fluffy bees…

It made me think about the names we choose for diseases, and why they are so often really attractive names when the ailment they represent is so unattractive. When I was a child I had Scarlatina (why Scarlatina and not Scarletina?). I don’t remember much about it except that I had a sore throat and my mother hung white sheets at my bedroom window. They had to be soaked in something-or-other (disinfectant, probably). I believe  Scarlatina was quite serious – children often died – and yet what a lovely name someone chose for it! Can’t you just imagine it – a flamenco dancer in a red silk dress, clacking black cube heels on a polished floor.

And then there was Impetigo. Just down the road from me lived the butcher’s twin girls (well, one of them was a girl, the other nobody was ever quite sure). They were not identical, obviously, but what they did have was permanent identical Impetigo – like crusty stuff around their mouths. In those days the treatment for Impetigo was Gentian Violet (another lovely name) and so the poor non-identical twins were permanently daubed in purple. But Impetigo – can’t you just imagine it stalking silently through a green and gold jungle, the ghost of twinkle in its eye?

We were once asked in an English lesson what our favourite-sounding word of all time was, and whether we loved it for its sound alone, or for the meaning of the word. One girl said she just loved the sound of Diahorrea (the spellcheck obviously doesn’t – I could never decide how to spell it) which caused much laughter but showed that, as Shakespeare put it, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

And what about Schizophrenia, Chlamydia, Fasciitis, Eczema. If you didn’t know what these words meant, wouldn’t you think they were rather lovely?

All that glisters is not gold

Funny word, isn’t it? A mixture of glitters, sisters and blisters. The dumb-down-everything brigade are perpetually trying to replace glisters with glitters because people are, in their reckoning, unable to make the mental ‘hop’ from this funny-old-funny-sounding word to the (very similar sounding) word they may have occasionally heard used on some gameshows on TV, even if it isn’t part of their teensy-tiny little personal vocabularies.

Oh, I am so bitter today!

One interesting thing – apparently the exposure of the paedophilic activities of ageing British pop singer Gary Glitter has caused ‘glitter’ to become less popular. It is even possible that people will once again prefer Shakespeare’s poetic alternative. On the other hand, it has got more than one syllable, so they’ll probably plump for ‘bling’.

The quote is from The Merchant of Venice:

O hell! what have we here?
A carrion Death, within whose empty eye
There is a written scroll! I’ll read the writing.
All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscroll’d:
Fare you well; your suit is cold.

[By the way, if there are any ‘s’s missing from any of my posts, it’s because this keyboard is refusing to type them upon the first striking of the key. No, you have to repeatedly strike the ‘s’ and then it might… However many times I check, I always seem to miss one or two.]

I had to ‘do’ The Merchant of Venice at school. I remember enjoying it, at the time, and it being about a pound of flesh, and there being a court case involved, and that a lady called Portia – or was it Desdemona? – no, she was the one that got strangled by Othello over a handkerchief – no, Portia, dressed up as a man to defend – someone or other. Or did she?

This demonstrates the scant usefulness of most of what we are forced to learn in schools, although you might say that, even if I can no longer remember the plot of either The Merchant or Othello I still love Shakespeare and his genius with language – more and more so in retrospect.

So, one little story to illustrate the saying All That Glisters Is Not Gold:

You may or may not know that I have been volunteering with an Organisation that helps Old Folk in a number of different ways. I’m not much of a volunteer, even, since I have but a single client, a very old lady with dementia. This was not much of a challenge to begin with – just a short bus ride/drive once a week, and an hour spent mostly listening and eating chocolate biscuits. Unfortunately the dementia has taken a sudden turn for the worse, as often happens (I remember it with my Mum) and things have become more challenging. I am finding it difficult, really, after Mum, to find myself on that slippery slope to oblivion all over again, albeit with less responsibility.

Anyway, since before Christmas I kept getting these emails from my contact at the Organisation, asking me to pop in to the Centre whenever I next happened to be in town, as a small Christmas gift awaited me. I kept forgetting. To tell the truth I go into Town as infrequently as I can manage, since it depresses me. I come away feeling as if I have been Captured By The Dementors and Imprisoned in Azkaban for several millennia. Well, an exaggeration maybe but all those tattoo parlours, all those £1 stores, all those boarded up shop (s, keyboard, s!) …

However, the only way to stop the emails was to get in the car and drive to Town specially. I knocked on the back door and was admitted. (Luckily the chiropodist didn’t pop out of his lair like a Scottish spider in a white coat, as I am avoiding him.) The girl led me through to the office and handed me a beautifully wrapped little gift attached to a card. It even had that ribbon that they make all curly by stroking it with the blade of the scissors. Someone had taken a lot of trouble.

‘We had decided to eat them if you didn’t come in by the end of the week!’ she joked.

Ah, so chocolates. But chocolates is/are OK.

I thanked them and made for the door, once again avoiding that beady-eyed chriropodist. I walked the entire length of the High Street back to Tesco, where you can park your car for free for three hours (then they send rude letters to you). I drove all the way home. I put the kettle on and opened my Little Gift, and it was a tiny packet of Maltesers.

Maltesers are OK I suppose. Just not worth that long drive into town, that long, cold, drizzly walk up the High treet (s! foul keyboard – how hard can it be?) past all those tattoo parlours, boarded-up shops, £1 stores and bunches of hoodie-wearing teenage louts who no doubt all carry knives, or at least have perfected the art of looking at you as if they do…

But, a Malteser is a Malteser. Not much chocolate involved, maybe, but…

I opened the box and sat there, with my cup of tea and my half-read historical novel (Lamentation by C J Sansom), and proceeded to pig the lot.

A Doze By Any Other Name

My father, in his declining years, had a propensity for dozing off with his mouth wide open in the presence of visitors. He also had a thing about his pyjamas. Around lunchtime he would start to ask my mother: Can I get into my pyjamas yet? Almost as soon as you arrived he would start looking at his watch, covertly – except it wasn’t very covert because he had eye problems and had to peer quite closely and at a certain angle – apparently counting the seconds until you left, so that he could revert to Pyjamas.

At the time I found these features of my father embarrassing and mildly irritating. Now, as I move closer and closer to old age/older age I begin to understand that it had to do with the way time increasingly telescopes, in ageing perception. Hours feel like quarter-hours. Minutes pass like seconds. Presumably, on that final day, one senses that time has halted, that one has entered some perpetual state of Now…

I always promised myself I wouldn’t start dozing off. Particularly I wouldn’t start dozing off and drooling – a disgusting habit. Still vivid in my mind is an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer Simpson, in the mistaken belief that the world is going to end the following morning, decides he has neglected religion and vows to spend his last night on Earth reading The Bible from cover to cover. So he starts, at Genesis, and a few seconds later is fast asleep. Morning finds him in his armchair, Bible still open at page 1 of Genesis, drooling copiously – and the world has for some reason not ended.

I do doze off, only I tend to call it Listening To Music. I think, well, I have been busy for all of an hour now and accomplished quite a lot, for me, so I will just plug in the ear-thingies and listen to Spotify for a while, thus broadening my musical horizons and revisiting old favourites. Several hours later…

This evening when I emerged from my musical not-a-doze I discovered the three-legged cat (the same cat that bit me most viciously before Christmas and caused me to spend the entire festive season driving back and forth to hospital to have antibiotics injected into a cannula in the crook of my arm) cradled in that same crook, gazing up at me adoringly. It occurs to me that cats may be the only animals – aside from human beings – that would waste time and energy in gazing adoringly at that beloved, but totally unconscious, Somebody Special.

This was not particularly unpleasant. What was unpleasant was discovering that my eardrums were now being assaulted by an appalling, appalling cringe-makingly mawkish Irish ballad entitled Scorn Not His Simplicity, performed by someone with a big-ish red beard by the name Luke Kelly. Upon not-falling-asleep I had been listening to Irish ballads – I seem to have quite a Celtic thing going on recently. I had started off with my current favourite Loreena McKennitt and moved on to Bert Jansch singing The Curragh of Kildare

I feel bad that I cannot abide Scorn Not His Simplicity since on googling it I discovered that it was written by songwriter Phil Coulter about his struggle to come to terms with the birth of his Downs Syndrome son. I do feel bad, for him, but it is still a very bad song. And yet Sinead O’Connor also recorded it: the great Sinead O’Connor – so can it really be that bad? Apparently it’s an Irish classic. But it’s still bad.

I think why it’s bad is that 1970s ramming the message home with a sledgehammer thing. There was a phase, in the late 60s, early 70s, when everything had to have a message and the message was so Crucial, Man! that nothing in a song was allowed to take precedence over it, and especially not the music. It was a phase analogous to that Victorian one where people were greatly affected by tales of orphans giving up their porridge to other orphans in work-houses and little match girls freezing to death on street corners with seraphic smiles on their pinched little faces.

Irritating that a Downs Syndrome child – such children now being readily accepted and even cherished – should then have needed to have excuses made for him, a special case in his defence. Irritating the golden hair and the ‘eyes that show the emptiness inside’. (Irritating also that Spotify listed it as Screen Not His Simplicity.)

What does this dreadful song remind me of? I asked myself, levering myself up from the corner of the sofa and dislodging the worshipping three-legged cat. And back came the answer: Camouflage.

Camouflage was actually written by someone called Stan Ridgeway in 1986, but about the Vietnam war. It reached number 4 in the English pop charts, number 2 in the Irish – surprise, surprise. Camouflage tells the story of several young marines caught in a barrage (how I abhor that phrase) who are rescued by a huge marine who suddenly appears in the jungle and performs all sorts of unbelievably heroic feats, thus saving their lives. On returning to camp they learn that the massive marine was in fact known as Camouflage. Whilst lying on his deathbed the noble Camouflage had expressed one final wish – to save some young marines caught in a barrage. At the very moment he expires – pouf! his giant-sized ghost reappears in the jungle and saves the young marines who are indeed caught in a barrage. Oh… eushhh!

I just recalled another one called Working My Way Back To You. In this case it wasn’t so much the song itself that was cringe-worthy as the Top Of The Pops dance routine that went with it. They were dressed in shiny jackets and lined up and miming rhythmical shovelling as if digging a whole row of imaginary graves and throwing the earth over their shoulders…

detroit

The Poemworm

I have to confess that though overblown imagery and gothic, post-romantic medievalism are out of fashion at the moment (they are still, aren’t they? or have they snuck back in again?) I just love Alfred, Lord Tennyson and particularly cherish The Lady of Shalott. And this is despite the fact that he named her after a type of onion. I wonder why he did it. Perhaps in late Victorian times shallot didn’t mean a type of onion?

Well – I discover, belatedly checking it on the internet – that’s not strictly true. The Lady of Shalott has one L and two Ts, whereas the onion’s cousin has two Ls and one T.

According to my battered copy of The Everyman Book of Victorian Verse: The Post-Romantics, Tennyson’s story corresponds to the death of the Lady of Astolat of unrequited love for the oh-so-beautiful Sir Lancelot. Why didn’t he stick with Astolat, I wonder? It’s easy enough to rhyme.

The other linguistic peculiarity is one of which a sheltered late Victorian gentleman like Alfred, Lord Tennyson was probably unaware – that, to English women at any rate, The Curse is code for a very specific event. So when ‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried / The Lady of Shalott – it can tend to produce a wry smile of sympathy.

It just shows you, though, how brilliant the poem is, that I can read that particular verse again and again, and still enjoy it:

She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces thro’ the room,

She saw the water-lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

She look’d down on Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried

The Lady of Shalott.

 I have not yet found a way of forcing this particular off-the-peg WordPress website design to do single spacing when it comes to poems, so I won’t go on quoting. No doubt if I was a Techie Tinkerer with Code and Stuff I could do so. Life is too short for Techie Tinkering. It falls into the same category as Mushroom Stuffing, Filing Old Paperwork and Rearranging Living Room Furniture.

The Lady of Shalott will keep buzzing around in my head at the moment. Not so much an earworm as a poemworm, although music is tangentially to blame since I have also been binge-listening to Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt  on Spotify, and one of her songs is – guess what, set to music? Yes, The Lady of Shalott. I am haunted, by this lady imbowered on her island.

‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said

The Lady of Shalott…

And of course, if you love the poem you have to love the art too. I revel in those lurid colours, the weird twilights and, I’m afraid, all that wafting ginger (sorry, Titian) hair. It’s the luscious excess of it all. It’s because of cigarette cards, and Sunday evenings.

When I was a child I spent every Sunday with Nan and Grandad along the road. As I have written before, those Sundays were my childhood-proper, my respite time. Along the road was where I belonged, safe with N and G, by a roaring fire, in a fug of tobacco smoke, with Sally the fat, cream-coloured labrador asleep on my feet; waiting for my newly-washed hair to dry, and consuming crumpets passed to me from the tines of a brass toasting-fork, by Grandad.

Anyway, in those days cigarette packets were smaller and – as an incentive to buy them and ruin your health – contained small, rectangular, brightly coloured cards. Children collected these. There were famous footballers and famous Shakespearian characters –  and Grandad had a collection of these, in an album. It was there I first saw the picture I called – just inside my head, thankfully, not aloud – The Floating Green Lady (who is actually Ophelia, by John Everett Millais) and all unknowingly became hooked on the Pre-Raphelites for ever.

ophelia

And looking at her now, she’s not even green, is she?  Everything else is green but she’s kind of dampish silver-grey. But it was the green-ness that made an impression on me – and the chilly wetness, and the floating flowers, and the tragedy of it all; the way she was floating with the weed, the way her dead hands rose up out of the water, as they would in real life, or real death. I used to practise the Green Lady Floating Hands in the bath.

Do you have any Guilty Pleasures, art or poetry-wise? Any Poemworms? Any guilty bathtime memories?

Pas de cherry-peeking, Breets ridicules!

Now that’s set your teeth on edge, hasn’t it, proper French speakers?

I had a very unoriginal thought today.  I googled it and discovered that it was in fact even more unoriginal than I imagined. I was looking at my books, all 2,000 of them piled vertically now (for cat fur/ease of hoovering reasons) into a high stack of de-shelved book cases.  It suddenly struck me, if I had to take the complete works of a very limited number of authors to a desert island with me – say, ten – which authors would I choose?

Now this isn’t as easy as it seems. It would be no good taking to a desert island a book with a thrilling but memorable plot, for example. However good it was, what would be the point of reading it again?

No good taking anything too distinctive, either. Harry Potter, for instance. I loved reading Harry Potter, each new book as eagerly anticipated as if I had been thirteen and three quarters rather than middle-aged. But once you’ve read them the surprise is gone out of them – they were whizz-bangs when they landed on our bookshelves but now… they’ve fizzled.

Not really much point in taking thrillers or detective novels, for the same reason. You might not think you remember whodunit but as soon as you start to read, you will.

And humour probably wouldn’t travel well. Only so many times you can laugh at a conversation between Bertie Wooster and Jeeves whilst fishing in the sea with a piece of string and an improvised hook, or trying to persuade yourself that shredded palm leaves are edible. Jokes are best not repeated – to the same audience – yourself.

No, the books would have to be kind of meaty. The sort that, though they may be a bit of a struggle to get into, pay dividends on later reflection. Also books with plots so labyrinthine that it is impossible to remember them on re-reading.

But you’d also need an element of comfort reading. So some of your books would be there just because they reminded you of home in some way – winter afternoons by the fire and snow falling outside; long walks down country lanes kicking autumn leaves with your wellies – whatever.

I’m thinking that, as with Desert Island Discs, a few ‘master’ works should be taken for granted – found in a deserted cabin, chewed a bit by moths but still perfectly readable, say. I believe Desert Island Discs allows castaways to assume The Complete Works of Shakespeare and a copy of the Bible, and I would add the Complete Works of Dickens. (It’s my island, I can make Dickens be in the deserted cabin if I want to. Maybe I’ll put the skeleton of the previous inhabitant in there too…)

Of course, the books you take may also reflect the age you happen to be when cast away. If you are twenty, say, you will have longer to savour the books of your choice, but also longer to get heartily sick of them. If you are ninety-five you might want to be more rigorously selective still, or take rather more spiritually-inclined reading matter.

So this is my list, in no particular order Still a work in progress. As you will see at the end I still haven’t managed to whittle it down to ten. I did consider simply putting the total up to twenty, but that seemed like cheating.

  1. Isaac Asimov
  2. A S Byatt
  3. Neil Gaiman
  4. Annie Proulx
  5. Charlotte Brontë
  6. Rose Tremain
  7. Alice Munro
  8. George McKay Brown (non-fiction, comfort reading)
  9. Ellis Peters (comfort reading – how could you be on a desert island and not have Cadfael for company?)
  10. ….

And here’s where I’m stuck. I feel I should take at least one author that I always felt I should read but only ever got round to reading around the edges of – so I’m torn at the moment between George Eliot, Anthony Trollope and Aldous Huxley. Maybe Huxley would be a bit dated? Trollope would certainly be meaty but… as well as Dickens? And Eliot – is she perhaps one of those authors you feel you ought to read but Life’s Too Short for – like whoever perpetrated Moby Dick and War and Peace? Not to mention Ulysses. I carted that fat paperback of Ulysses around with me for years when I was a student: never managed to get beyond the first page.

I don’t know… I don’t know… And remember you have got to take all their works – pas de cherry-peeking, Breets ridicules! as I like to imagine they would say in Brussels. So you can’t take Howard’s End and leave the posthumous Maurice behind, or take the whole of Neil Gaiman except American Gods which is just too long.

To digress slightly. Having just discovered (after how many years?) that I can watch more or less unlimited dramas and TV series on my Kindle Fire for absolutely-free merely by tapping on that dull little icon top right – who knew? – I launched into American Gods on video, thinking I might find it more digestible.

They were putting each other’s eyes out! Severed limbs were flying through the air! I don’t remember that, in the twenty percent of the book I did manage to get through. So I plumped for The Night Manager.

To digress again. I read a comment on the internet by a girl who felt it should correctly be deserted, not desert island, since how many islands do you find in the desert? Duh! An island with nothing on it but a lot of desert-type sand and perhaps a wobbly palm tree and a man in faded rags with several weeks-worth of stubble – not an island rising majestically from the sands of the Sahara.

Anyway, enough. What would be your ten desert island authors? Or just the first one on the list…

There’s a long, long worm a-crawling…

You know how you get earworms – bits of songs going round and round in your head that just won’t go away. My latest episode of musical torment is a song called The Boys of Summer by Don Henley of The Eagles (1984). I won’t embed a video in case it attacks you too.

There is usually an underlying reason for a particular song getting stuck in one’s head, at least I believe so. Our conscious minds are very word-orientated; Subconscious doesn’t ‘do’ words – but he does almost everything else. Famously, of course, he does dreams. Freud and co were always banging on about the messages to be found in dreams. For example, a man dreams that a white horse is charging through his house in a panic, wreaking havoc. Not long afterwards he is dead. The house symbolises the body, because your body is the ‘house’ your soul, or what you experience as you, lives in. So, that horse was not good news.

Almost any source of imagery that is not-words can be, and is, used by Subconscious to get his message across. You just have to listen to pictures. Sometimes it can be a piece of music that haunts you. Sometimes it’s flashes of imagery that don’t seem to be apropos of anything in particular. I have, for a few seconds, found myself flying. Not actually flying but seeing the world from a completely different, aerial, perspective, and not from an aeroplane.

He ‘does’ déjà vu, I suspect, and he does coincidences. Whenever you get a sense of the uncanny, a slight chill or blurring of reality, that sense of something else going on – he’s probably lingering about. However… the boys of summer.

So the actual words of Don Henley’s chorus are:

I can see you –

Your brown skin shinin’ in the sun

You got that hair slicked back and your sunglasses on, baby

I can tell you my love for you will still be strong

After the boys of summer have gone…

It’s about lost love, summer love, growing older, not going back – a mixture of all those things, perhaps.

It kept nadging at me, where does that phrase boys of summer come from? It just didn’t sound like something anyone would have made up on the spur of the moment, if you know what I mean – it was too compact. And it was ringing bells; very, very faint and annoying bells.

Weeks went by and I gave up trying not to think about it. I knew it was time to put on my Detective Hat again. I kept thinking – Shakespeare. So many phrases originate either in the Bible or one of Shakespeare’s plays – any mystery quote stands a 50/50 chance of being from either one or the other. In Cymbeline – a play with a plot so complicated that theatre managers were said to offer a reward to anyone who, having seen Cymbeline, could explain what had just happened – there is a beautiful funeral song. In Shakespeare’s time it would have been sung, but the music has been lost:

Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun

Nor the furious winter’s rages;

Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone and ta’en thy wages.

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Here are some golden lads who, being gone (dead) need fear no more the heat of the sun. It felt like the beginning of the trail, but not all of it. It wasn’t close enough.

One red herring – somebody on a message board suggesting that Don Henley got the phrase from a book called The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn, which is about the Brooklyn Dodgers – presumably a baseball team. Nope, I thought – red herring. Roger Kahn, whoever he was, got that phrase from somebody else. Like many authors before him, he had used a quote for a title, but it was a quote. It just felt like a quote.

Then somebody else suggested Dylan Thomas, and things finally began to fall into place. I read everything I could find of Dylan Thomas’ in my youth and what had been bothering me was a bat-squeak of memory. Dylan Thomas wrote a poem called I See the Boys of Summer. It’s complicated, scary, beautiful, and too long to include in full, so here’s an extract:

I see the boys of summer in their ruin

Lay the gold tithings barren,

Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils;

There in their heat the winter floods

Of frozen loves they fetch their girls,

And drown the cargoed apples in their tides.

 

These boys of light are curdlers in their folly,

Sour the boiling honey;

The jacks of frost they finger in the hives;

There in the sun the frigid threads

Of doubt and dark they feed their nerves;

The signal moon is zero in their voids.

 

I see the summer children in their mothers

Split up the brawned womb’s weathers,

Divide the night and day with fairy thumbs;

There in the deep with quartered shades

Of sun and moon they paint their dams

As sunlight paints the shelling of their heads.

Dylan Thomas – his poems are like paintings by Hieronymus Bosch or Salvador Dali – or like the intricate covers of fantasy novels. You read them and think – this makes no sense. But yet it does. And that’s what’s so powerful and terrifying, that it does.

Dylan Thomas’ father was a teacher of English Literature at a Grammar School, and taught his own son. Dylan Thomas was brought up on Shakespeare. Dylan Thomas drew on imagery from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline when writing I See the Boys of Summer. Don Henley studied poetry at university in Texas and could easily have read I See the Boys of Summer, then used the image in The Boys of Summer.

Well, thank goodness that’s all sorted out.

And I still can’t get rid of that earworm.

earthly delights

Bosch: from The Garden of Earthly Delights

DOUBLE, DOUBLE TOIL AND TROUBLE

  • Double, double toil and trouble;
  • Fire burn and caldron bubble.
  • Fillet of a fenny snake,
  • In the caldron boil and bake;
  • Eye of newt and toe of frog,
  • Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
  • Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
  • Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
  • For a charm of powerful trouble,
  • Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
  • Double, double toil and trouble;
  • Fire burn and caldron bubble.
  • Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
  • Then the charm is firm and good.

This, from Macbeth, is one of those little Shakespeare song/poems that most people recognise but few people – apart from actors – read very carefully. I say people don’t read these things very carefully because, just look at the last verse of the witches’ curse – Cool it with a baboon’s blood. Fenny snakes, blind-worms, bats, newts, dogs, lizards and howlets (owlets?) might be presumed to be freely available in Mediaeval Scotland, but where might a witch have sourced a baboon? And poor baboon! How could they? Did they murder him for the sake of a few drops of his blood and a silly curse? Or did they keep him, chained in a cave, feeding him on howlets and tapping the precious fluid as and when necessary?

Which reminds me of a boyfriend I once had – you can’t really call them boyfriends when you’re middle aged, but what else can you call them? He showed me the ornamental pond he had dug in his back garden, and something black swimming around in murky water. It’s my newt. Ha, ha ha, ha, ha ha ha, ha… He had obviously been working on this joke for some considerable time. It put me off him. That and the pointy nose.

How did I get started on curses and baboons? Oh yes I was thinking about tedious tasks. A tenuous link, I admit, but it occurred to me that the attraction of spell-making might lie not so much in the power to do harm, or exercise one’s wickedness, as in the comforting process of stirring. Just stirring. It’s the same as knitting. Why do people knit? The end result is itchy, usually unwearable, and quickly gets stretched and bobbly in the tumble-dryer. And yet we continue to knit, because it’s soothing. In my time I have made cat-blanket after cat-blanket out of six-inch garter-stitch squares. In times of stress – or distress – I tend to knit, stroke cats or iron piles of stuff that doesn’t need to be ironed. My Canadian sister, staying with me, once passed the room where I was ironing and exclaimed, ‘Did I just catch you ironing a knicker?’ And all to save my sanity. When my cat Sophie needed to be put to sleep I took her to the vets alone, I watched her die alone and came home from the vets alone – and mowed the lawn alone, and howled, and mowed the lawn a bit more, and howled a bit more. I had to break the howling up with something.

The boyfriend mentioned above – setting aside for a moment the sticking points of his minute newts and his pointy nose – had had troubles of his own from time to time. His first remedy had been to walk. He walked from one side of northern England to another following one of the Wainwright maps. And he made curries; more curries than he could ever possibly have eaten. It was his own recipe, which he knew by heart. In the corner of his kitchenette lived a teetering stack of shallow, empty margarine tubs and the transparent lids to go with them. On his down days he would fill vast numbers of margarine tubs with home-made curry, and freeze the results. The lodger was never short of something to microwave when he staggered in from the pub.

Shelling peas is another soothing thing. Sitting on the back doorstep in the sunshine, shelling a great heap of peas into a bowl; preparing any sort of vegetables, really – peeling potatoes, diagonally slicing runner beans, even cutting those daft little crosses into the stalks of Brussels sprouts. Are the crosses really necessary? Would the world come to an end if a sprout entered a saucepan uncrossed? And sharpening pencils. In the absence of inspiration: sharpen.

So I am hoping to be pleasantly soothed rather than excruciatingly bored when, on returning from the inevitably sad and stressful Sunday visit to my mother later this afternoon, I am going to have to start cutting up a ream of self-printed paper label sheets ready for my new catalogue-delivering venture. Yes, as from next Wednesday when several enormous cardboard boxes of catalogues are due to arrive via Parcel Force, the paucity of the State Retirement Pension and twelve ravenous rescue cats will have forced me to walk the streets of my village, and most probably all the other villages within drivable distance. I must remember not to wear a Red Hat (luckily I don’t possess a Red Hat) as a Red Hat is said to mean No Drawers. I suspect I’ll be safe enough out there on the streets of shame, and the exercise will do me good. Won’t it?

I hate exercise. But you need exercise. But I hate exercise. But it will be soothing. Didn’t you just say tedious tasks are soothing? But what if the books won’t balance?

What if it rains?