“A Room Full of Plesbians!”

Ex and I and a friend of his walked into a pub one night. It was not our usual pub but one of those twee, twinkling, village high street pubs – lots of brass, lots of shiny beer glasses on shiny glass shelves with wrought-iron edges – and an impressive array of spirits bottles hanging upside down in what I think they used to call “optics”. Nowadays optics seems to mean something else – the way a political move or action will look to the public – usually bad.

Anyway, it was a middle class pub full of middle class people making a lot of noise – that kind of hearty, communal chortling noise middle class people make in pubs – and as we looked around we realised from the brightly-coloured and slightly outré form of dress that we had in fact walked in on a group of amateur actors from the Little Theatre over the road, who were enjoying a post-performance snifter. They were all pretty full of themselves, and suddenly they were all turning round to look at us.

Now, Ex had many admirable qualities, including a deeply resonant, “dark brown” sort of voice. A very loud and carrying sort of voice. One of the qualities he didn’t have, unfortunately, was the kind of cringing self-consciousness that stops you from saying exactly what comes into your head.

The other unfortunate thing was that, being an almost entirely visual person, he might occasionally misinterpret something he read. I remember him requesting an Orange Gasping in a shop at the very top of a steep, cobbled hill in Clovelly when what he meant was an orange ice lolly. The tin advertising board outside had said something like: “Gasping? Come inside and buy one of our luscious orange ice lollies!”

clovelly

Clovelly, Devon, West of England

Or occasionally he might misremember a word.

“Oh look!” he boomed, as the three of us walked into that crowded bar that night: “Look at that man in the hat with the feather, and that woman in the long purple cloak! It’s a room full of PLESBIANS!”

My disbelief grows weary of suspending itself…

I’m onto a sticky wicket with suspenders, I know. American suspenders are as illustrated below:

suspenders

British suspenders are things that hold up stockings, supposedly wicked, lacy and black (or red) but as I recall them from my uncomfortable schooldays, more often medical, pinkish and rubbery, and held together with sixpenny pieces when they broke. They always broke. The rubber perished. The little suspend-things cracked and disintegrated…

So what do Americans call suspenders-suspenders if what we call braces are there known as suspenders? But what holds up American stockings? If that’s suspenders too, how do they know what they are holding up? Is it just a matter of deduction from the context?

But this post is not about that.

When I was at school, struggling with the uncomfortable suspenders and the 60-denier sun-mist-stockings-with-seams – surely the ugliest stocking ever invented (not about that, remember!) it was explained to me that when we get completely lost in a book, or a film, or a story told by some grey-haired hippie-type lady whilst sitting cross-legged on a cushion in the library (pre-suspenders) was called ‘suspension of disbelief’.

I did not used to find this difficult, except in the case of plays. Plays have never done it for me. I’ve never been able to get past the reality of a lot of foreshortened real human beings prancing about on a stage and acting at one another. I can tell it’s acting. I can always tell it’s acting, even if it’s good acting, and it annoys me. People are pretending and I can see them doing it.

A posh lady I went to a play with once advised me that this was probably because I hadn’t grown up in a theatre-going household. She didn’t mean to be patronising, and she was right, partially – we didn’t go to plays, or the ballet or opera, come to that.

My parents were working class and, even if they could have afforded to go, would have been terrified to pass through the doors of a theatre. They wouldn’t have known what to wear or how to behave. They would have felt they stuck out like a sore thumb.

An all-encompassing self-consciousness is one of the things which go with being not-posh. Only when you are middle class can you raise your voice above a low murmur, not minding if others hear. Only when you are middle class can you walk about with your shoulders back and your snoot in the air, flinging your purple pashmina dramatically over your right shoulder, and not even know you are doing it. That’s confidence. Read Alan Bennett’s loving tales of his Mum and Dad if you don’t believe me. He knows. Alan Bennett is the greatest.

But I could get lost in a book. So could my mother, but my father appeared not to possess the suspension of disbelief gene. Maybe he lost it, as he lost so much, as a young conscript in the second world war. The war really did for him in a lot of ways, I think. He could never leave me alone when I was reading. He used to wave his hands in front of my face and think it was funny. ‘Look at her – she’s miles away. Away with the fairies.’ He never did understand why this was annoying.

Same with films, although mercifully my father wasn’t usually with me when I went to the pictures: I could be immersed in the story, living inside even the most far-fetched sci-fi blockbuster. I would be one or all of the characters, fleeing in terror from the scary monsters, falling in love, falling off a high building… The film’s ‘afterglow’ would stay with me for days afterwards, the story re-running itself in my head, scenes acting themselves out before my inner eye. And maybe it would still be the same, if I could afford to go.

Instead of fiction-reading, my father used to read out columns from newspapers – anything he found to be of interest. He was interested in politics and the financial markets, the way they worked, even though these things had little effect on his everyday life. We used to sit there bored, and the read-out paragraphs seemed to get longer and longer. When he grew ancient, however, propped up in a chair with a cushion behind his neck and the walker by his side, he lapsed into depression and scarcely spoke.  My mother used to gauge how happy, or not, he was by whether he read out any paragraphs. Eventually, he read out no paragraphs. He read nothing. He told my sister he had forgotten everything he had ever been or ever done. God save us.

As I have grown older I have become more interested in politics and found it more and more difficult – not to read – the words still make perfect sense – but to get lost in reading. My suspension of disbelief seems to have suspended operations. I am turning into my father, and this saddens me. Reading was all I had. I got through a tedious and difficult life mostly by daydreaming. I could lose myself in stories, and in plans I would never carry out, journeys I would never, practically, be able to make. Now, although I am still doing my best to get it back I feel – now here’s a simile for you, or maybe a metaphor – like a hunted rabbit, all exits sealed by the men with the dogs – or is it ferrets? – just an airless darkness and waiting for Whatever-it-is to be sent down after me.

Memento Mori

My sister sent me an email, advising me that she had moved Mum into her new Home. So far so predictable but at the foot of the email was one of those little grey paperclip things and hidden behind the little grey paperclip thing a disconcerting photo, of my mother peacefully asleep in her new bed, in her new room, and my sister with her hand resting on Mum’s forehead being photographed by – whom? Godmother and I agreed, there was something spooky, even gruesome about it.

It’s not that I do not know what my mother looks like now, in her 87th year and suffering from dementia; how her face has thinned and yellowed and her smile has gone. I saw her only last weekend after all. I fed her a belated Christmas Dinner and wrote a post about it. It’s worse than that. It’s two things:

Firstly (my sister couldn’t have known this, but if she had it wouldn’t have stopped her) it reminded me so much of the painting on the cover of one of my old paperbacks of metaphysical poetry. It’s a mourning painting. Sir Thomas’s fine white hand beneath a frill of stiff white lace, rests on a skull. People are ranged around in their best-black-and-lace, looking mournful but resigned. The deceasing lady is propped up on many pillows, only her head and shoulders visible. And unfortunately, my sister had managed to mirror that exact pose in her smartphone snap.

Secondly, it reminded me of all those wildlife programmes where a vulture inspects the corpse of some recently slaughtered elephant or wildebeest – avidly, thoughtfully – as if debating whether a sprinkling of salt and pepper, or maybe a handful or two of chives might be a good idea.

The fact that associations like this are made my mind is shocking, even to me. Why do I – why even can I think such things? Couldn’t I switch off this poeticising, or in this case anti-poeticising, facility when appropriate? The answer is no. This sort of brain doesn’t switch off; there’s no editing what goes into it, no stopping it from ‘seeing’. And what it has seen can never subsequently be forgotten. It’s what makes people like me able to write. It’s what forces us to write, to exorcise what we cannot but see and know. It’s what makes living difficult.

Whilst on the subject of death (might as well get it all over in one post!) I am reminded of those roadside floral tributes, and my parents’ attitude towards them; also to funerals.

My mother in particular despised those bunches of flowers people nowadays tend to sticky-tape to lamp-posts or thread through the links of chain-link fences at the exact spot where a close relative had died. She hated how the flowers were renewed, month after month, year after year, “littering up the place”. What she really hated, I think, was the naked expression of grief. To my parents a death meant a cremation, as soon as possible. It meant a funeral service in a modern chapel with no embarrassing tears or screams of anguish, as characterless and forgettable as possible. After that, that was that, done with. The person, done with. Rarely mentioned again.

I like the flowers. I sometimes walk along the seafront passing all those memorial benches people have donated, and stop to read how Gerry loved to play the guitar or how Sid the taxi-driver is now driving the angels around in heaven, in a shiny white taxi. I love the bunches of flowers and imagine the relatives coming here, with a fresh bunch and a fresh card, and having a little chat with Gerry or Sid.

I like graveyards; when I worked in an office I used to eat my lunchtime sandwiches in one. On a sunny, summer’s day there is less to be afraid of in a graveyard than in the whole of the rest of the world. The dead enjoy your company. They appreciate a little chat every now and again. And did you know that you can talk to any dead person in any graveyard? They will always make themselves available even if what remains of their bodies is on the other side of the country.

I always found this sanitised modern death difficult. I longed for great black Victorian hearses, pulled by black horses and festooned in black lace. Brought up in the lowest possible church, and that most conformist of social groups the upper working class, my instincts are entirely Catholic and Gothic. I need those swinging censers, the trails of incense, the solemn faces, the cascades of tears, the wailing and the beating of breasts. I need the man with the black hat walking in front of the coffin with his mace and his black-crêpe streamers.

And I need a place to go to be with that person. I do understand the allure of the exact spot where someone died. I know that the lost one may still in a sense be there, exactly there.  Magical thinking, of course, but I know that where they went up they may, in a sense also, if earnestly implored, and if they choose, come down. Their ghost is anchored there. This is their own place, their little ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’ as that poem puts it.

Let us not deprive people of their magic, if magic is what they need to process the horror and the loss. Let’s not sanitise it all and cut out the ritual, if ritual is what people crave. My parents would have said – but the dead person isn’t there any longer – what’s the point of going to all that expense and – more importantly from an upper working class perspective – making all that unnecessary and embarrassing fuss and show – showing off like that?

But rituals are not intended for the dead, they are for the healing of the living.

Featured Image: Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his First Wife: John Slouch

An Anti-Hyacinth

There used to be a TV show called Keeping up Appearances starring the great comic actress Patricia Routledge. It was the BBC’s most exported show of all time, so it’s possible that readers in other parts of the world will have seen at least some episodes. Routledge played Hyacinth Bucket – always pronounced Bouquet – a delicious, appalling monster of a woman, a snob and shameless social climber who strikes terror into the heart of the postman, the neighbours and anyone who can’t find an excuse to avoid her ‘executive style’ candle-lit suppers.

Poor Hyacinth is doomed to fail in all her endeavours to be accepted into the ranks of the middle classes, not least on account of her relatives – two hopeless sisters, the layabout husband of one of the sisters and a mad ‘Daddy’ who lives upstairs but is never seen (apart from the occasional receding flash of brown raincoat as he escapes yet again). Daddy has flashbacks to the War and an ill-defined predisposition to cause offence to young ladies. All four have a tendency to show up, go missing or require assistance at inconvenient moments, and infuriate Hyacinth by refusing to modify either their slovenly ways or their Northern working class accents (which Hyacinth tends to revert to when flustered).

appearances-1

Well, I suppose it’s a bit the same in my family. I no longer visit my sister – well, I don’t seem to get invited but that may be just, you know, the way things happen to have happened. In a way it’s a relief to be amongst the not-invited because I am always conscious, whilst trying to reverse inconspicuously (no attention-drawing grating of gears) and at an awkward angle into a sweeping front drive, of the impression my beat-up little car is making; of how it – and I – are subtly polluting all that mock-Tudor serenity.

Everything about me and my poor little beat-up Skoda starts to feel shabby in such surroundings; our presence amongst one of those artfully-designed cul-de-sac mazes and trimmed-with-the-kitchen-scissors front-lawns an affront to the illusion that England is a safe and orderly place, a tranquil haven for the adequately remunerated and comprehensively insured – no raggedy edges, no dirt, no unexpected explosions from rusty exhaust-pipes.

I always find myself wishing I’d remembered to get outside with a bucket – sorry, bouquet – of hot soapy water, vacuumed the sandwich crumbs from the creases in Her upholstery and wrestled Her passenger seats back up – but I know perfectly well that I wouldn’t have done any of these things even if I had remembered.

So I suppose that makes me the Anti-Hyacinth. The rusting car nestling amongst the weeds in the front garden of Hyacinth’s embarrassing relatives always reminds me of the rusting car several doors down from my house. Its owner has health issues and can no longer drive, but neither can he bring himself to say goodbye to his little ‘mote-mote’ so there it sits on rotting pancake tyres, its go-faster stripes fading year on year, its windows broken. I think I can understand that. Maybe one day, when either the Skoda or I cease to function (simultaneously, I suspect) there will be yet another clapped-out, rusting hulk of a car on a driveway to lower the tone of the neighbourhood and cause estate agents to despair.

I made my almost-daily pilgrimage up the hill to the rusty post-box today, and looked around me. And realised something, which was that for all my past attempts to get away from this place, and for all that I can see that it’s ugly, in its way, I am also attracted to shabbiness and disarray.

On my way to the rusty post-box I had stepped over broken paving-stones and walked past a series of garden walls that have fallen down and just kind of been stacked up again, anyhow. A big dog had rushed out to bark at me, reminding me of the Alsatian that scares Hyacinth Bucket into the hedge every time she passes, to emerge with her hat askew and her dignity in tatters.

The grass verges are mountainous with thistles, nettles, thorns and weeds of every description: things that don’t even have a name but grow like wildfire and to enormous size, flower, seed, die and spring up again simply because they left alone to get on with being themselves. They are just joyous in their wildness.

It occurred to me that this is a kind of pattern with me. I must be the only person in the world who rather enjoys those memento mori paintings, sculptures etc – skulls, rotting fruit and dusty hour-glasses, the sand trickled almost through.  Is there anybody else in the world who feels more at ease where everything is rusty, dusty, weedy, peeling and disintegrating?

And finally it occurred to me that this weirdness of mine isn’t even new. The first article I ever got published, in 1987 – which gives the impression that there have been scads published since – was called In Defence of Sleazy Pubs, and even in that I was analysing why Kentish pubs are so much better when they are sleazy, so much worse than at home; when there are bendy cardboard Babycham ladies on the beer-puddled bar; where there is dark-green flock wallpaper on the walls and the toilets are out the back somewhere, spider-infested and sharing a single lightbulb; where the ceiling is brown with nicotine and old men sit on tall stools at the bar with their old dogs at their feet, playing ‘pokey di’ and telling lies about the size of their carrots or runner beans; repeating the same well-worn jokes year after year.

The Silverado train of thought

Until yesterday I didn’t actually know Silverado was a western – a revisionist, postmodern western in fact. There are quite a few craters in my cultural consciousness. Silverado came out in 1985. I don’t know what happened in 1985. I lost interest in most things round about 1980 and didn’t start taking an interest again till 1994.

It never occurred to me either that I could watch a full three-quarters of an hour of a movie starring my heartthrob Kevin Costner without once realising he was in it. Was that really him? Which one was him?

Until yesterday, I’m ashamed to admit, I thought Silverado was a unique, characterful little jewellery shop in a narrow street in Brighton where, in the company of my former friend Isobel (Made Up Name) one Gay Pride Day – it was a coincidence, honestly – we just used to go shopping – I once bought a pair of dangly silver earrings with exotic dark green oval gemstoney-things. The earrings are long lost. I think the hoover ate them.

I didn’t even know Silverado was a chain of unique, characterful little jewellery shops (I am so naïve). It occurs to me now that Silverado (established 1994) may well have named their chain of jewellery shops after the movie. How can I have lived so long and learned so little? I need to know this stuff. Nerdy. Can’t abide those missing details.

Isobel and I should never have been friends, really. We found ourselves working together as secretaries – she considerably more elevated, secretarially, than I – in an educational establishment. She kind of adopted me. I wasn’t aware of having made much of a choice or done any work to achieve Friend status. I have since realised that Only Children do tend to do this – home in on the loner, the drifter, the one without the social skills to wriggle out of it.

She also had one of those credit cards you can buy anything on, just because you feel like it, whenever you feel like it. This meant a lot of standing around outside shops when we went shopping in the afternoon, pretending to prefer watching passers-by to rifling through trays of exotic beads and silver fastenings and buying long cheesecloth skirts and expensive Jumpers.

She had Hobbies. At that time it was jewellery-crafting. Later it moved on to keep-fit and even – briefly, I suspect – belly-dancing.

She was very posh, the daughter and one-day-to-be heir of farmers. I was permanently anxious in case I said the wrong thing or exhibited working-class manners I wasn’t even aware of. She was also very well-educated and had charming, witty, kind intellectual other-friends. I was forced to mix with them too, at intervals. This made me even more nervous.

I don’t know what I did wrong in the end – something. I think I might have accidentally pointed at the door to the Ladies in a Pizza Hut. She gave me a Look, which of course I was completely unable to interpret except it was Not Good – so that might have been what it was. Well, she asked me where it was.

But until it all inevitably went pear-shaped we made a few good memories. We went to Brighton quite a few times. She had appointments at some New Age herbalist for her migraines. While she was consulting the man in the multi-coloured stripey jumper in the back room I would lurk obediently in the waiting room for what felt like an entire Ice Age reading little fold-out pamphlets about Aromatherapy, Reiki and Counselling, then reading them again. Wondering why these places were always so dusty and had that funny sweet smell

But then came the good bit. We would go to an Italian restaurant and have yummy stuff with names like Margherita and Tagliatelle. She showed me how to wind the tagliatelle round my fork using the spoon as back-stop so that it and garlicky, cheesy mushroom sauce didn’t slide all down my tee shirt. We had a couple of glasses of wine and enjoyed the wiggling of the waiters between the tables. Waiters in Italian restaurants wiggle on purpose, did you know that? It’s part of their performance. And they make the effort to smile. They smiled as if they found us beautiful, and that is an art. Life was good, for a lunch-hour at least.

 

Mutton dressed up as lamb

Time and again the ash-blonde woman wandered

Along the gangway to the duty-free,

Cigarette poised just so, her sway exactly

Matching the salty swagger of the sea.

 

Mutton dressed up as lamb, my mother whispered,

And when she turned I saw that it was so;

Beneath the makeup and the white-gold halo

The face was bony, skin pulled tight and dry.

 

Funny how you always seem to notice

The same ones coming back as going there.

She’d found herself a friend, some sort of salesman,

With braces, rolled up sleeves and slicked-back hair.

 

She cried as though the very world was ending

(She would be drunk, of course, they always are)

The man in braces all the while pretending

He wasn’t with her. Later, though, I wondered

 

How it comes to be, that a woman of a certain age

And uncertain pedigree

Should howl like a dog in a very public place

While friends and strangers

Simply turn away.

 

nuance

In the darkness on the edge of town

Some things you remember are just too dark to write about. But they stick in the back of your brain. Templates are formed from them. And always after that your life is patterned. Your chance of freewheeling gone.

This is the tale of the Brown Books. I first wrote it down for the biography module of a creative writing course at the University of Kent. Sitting there one evening in one of their black-walled basement classrooms (I was told they recycled plans for a prison complex, when designing the University of Kent) amongst a selection of Yummy Mummies with Literary Leanings, I felt ill at ease, common and awkward. I had ventured into the borderlands of the Middle Classes. I wondered how they would react, whether they might feel what I felt when it happened, but didn’t hold out a great deal of hope. The telling required more skill and subtlety than I possessed at that time. Suspect it still does.

There was a whole bookcase full of them – big, thick hardbacks covered in brown paper, the titles written in my mother’s neat hand and underscored with her trademark wavy line. She was a very neat person. She made a lot of lists, and they were neat too. She never read those books but I did. They were my private horde; somewhere for my imagination to go.

I’ve forgotten most of them now. There was one for Housewives. The pictures were poor quality, grainy black and white on shiny paper. It featured ladies with stiff hairdos and white aprons, heads bent over their needlework. It told you things like how to make a petticoat out of parachute silk. There were crochet patterns for baby layettes, with instructions for threading the ribbon through; there were sections on keeping bees, making rose-water and unblocking chickens that were egg-bound.

There was one about Gregg shorthand. I suppose she must have studied it at school, or maybe was teaching herself. I tried it. It was beyond me, but I liked those Egyptian squiggles, the whole idea of there being a language made of shapes – that a language could be made of anything you wanted – maybe sounds, maybe colours, maybe numbers. There was one called The Science of Mind At seven years old I read about the Id and the Ego, picturing the one as a statue or an angel, the other as a black burr-thing, like the ones that got caught in your clothes when you walked across the field. Id and Ego floated just above my head, casting sideways glances at one another. There were photographs in that book too. There was one of a Congenital Idiot. I was glad I hadn’t come to earth as one of those.

There was a book about tropical fish. You could make out the spots and the stripes, the fanciful fins. You had to imagine the colours. I imbibed those fish names, recited them over and over on my way to school, like a charm or amulet, to drown out the bullies in my wake…

… Angelfish, Pufferfish, Guppy, Molly, Piranha…

One afternoon I came home from school and she was kneeling on the floor by the bookcase, her print skirt flounced out around her, pulling the brown books out and packing them into a cardboard box. I remember the flare of distress, the hot flare of rage, the welling-up of tears. ‘What are you doing with them?’ I asked.

‘Jumble Sale,’ she said.

gregg shorthand

‘She’s highly strung, that child,’ a neighbour once said in my hearing, ‘a regular Prima Donna.’ Afterwards I asked my mother what a Prima Donna was. She said an opera singer which made no sense. I couldn’t sing. But rage and sorrow would certainly rise up and overwhelm, like a storm, in seconds. On the outside I was small and dull, and nobody listened. On the inside I was Old, and engaged in listening to the universe. I would hear Her screaming; feel her fists hammering, on carpet, on wood, on people – on one occasion punching through a glass window. The Old One watched the purple blood blossoming out of her wrist like a fin.

And now the Old One observed and waited as she cried, cracked and undignified, her face swelling up. She had one of those faces, the Prima Donna: cry for a minute, red balloon for days. It is for that reason that I rarely allow myself to weep nowadays.

As she bawled and hiccupped and kicked the skirting board with her brown school shoes, the Old One looked on. It won’t work, it was telling her. Be calm. Listen to the universe.

‘Let me look after them in my room,’ she screeched. ‘Let me have them. Please, Mummy, please‘ – knowing all the time they would not fit into her room, which she shared with the airing cupboard, a chest of drawers and the larger of her two sisters.

‘Please, Mummy, please.’

She was very tidy, my Mum, and quite young herself. You tend to forget how young your parents were, when you were young. I doubt if she would remember the death of the Brown Books now; indeed, she has forgotten almost everything about those early years – almost everything about everything. But I find I still can’t manage to forgive her for the Brown Books – the ignoring – the ignorance – of what lay behind the tantrum. I was one of those who came after the War. All those other sons and daughters lost – we were their replacements, saplings planted in the gaps where others had been cut down. We were bred, like piglets, and I think we were not quite real to our parents in the way that children had been real, once upon a time, in the long, sunny days before Hitler.

Sometime after that I turned to stone. My face became a kind of mask, my voice ceased to work in any meaningful way. Behind the silence and the blank expression the Old One continues to observe and proffer advice and, I suppose, to commune with the universe. Although the universe feels further and further away as time goes on, its signals fainter. And with it, behind the mask, lives a seven year old Prima Donna, still spiky and black, still screaming. Still putting her wrist through the glass.

gregg alphabet