Sink Or Swim

Naturally gloomy, daughter of a depressed, introverted mother and a controlling, extraverted father, more than a little neurotic, probably ADD – and of course living alone for the last twenty-seven years. It’s not exactly a recipe for success. One of my neighbours said to me recently ‘But you’ll cope with it, my dear (serious illness diagnosis) because you’re a Strong ‘un!’ Am I? The possibility had never occurred to me, but I suppose it must be true, otherwise how come I’m still here?

It seems to me that if life is like being adrift at sea after some kind of shipwreck, people can be divided into three groups –

Floaters: those – not necessarily the nicest or the most deserving – who will come out on top no matter what, eg President Trump.

Sinkers: those – they could be sinners, or saints-in-the making – who have so little support and so few advantages, that they were always likely to end up behind bars of some sort, whether in jail or in a mental hospital. These are the ones who are going to be found dead in the gutter, overdosed in a squat; splatted by the swimming pool having falling from a hotel balcony during a drunken party, and so on.

Survivors – these are the ones that carry on not-exactly-sinking even as they don’t-exactly-float, the ones who are mostly on the surface but sometimes under it, who are battered and submerged by every passing wave but somehow carry on bobbing along, year after year after year.

I suppose I am one of the latter, though recently this prolonged Brexit business has really begun to get to me. I find myself alternately glued to the radio or refusing to listen to it, weeping for no reason over situations that might happen but haven’t happened yet and – in the cold light of day – seem quite far-fetched. It’s only politics, after all. Many people manage to spend their whole lives not actually knowing what politics are, and not caring. I have one friend who refuses to think about anything but her next shopping trip. I worked with a woman once who said she had never bothered to vote and couldn’t see the point. I said: Women campaigned and suffered to get that vote for you. One woman threw herself in front of the King’s horse and was trampled to death so that women like you should have the vote. You owe to them. She sniggered. That was about it.

Perhaps I should just snigger. If only that were possible.

Emily

Death of suffragette Emily Davison in 1913

I think the problem is the length of time it has gone on, and the uncertainty. I mean, I would be very angry if the decision of the majority in the referendum were to be side-lined, somehow, or ignored. I would feel – I would know – that my one, but precious vote had been stolen from me. I would no longer be living in a democracy. However, I would rather take that defeat and get it over with than carry on in this state of muddle and uncertainty. I am (possibly) ADD, designed for perpetual change, for quick, instinctive decisions then moving on. New subject. New idea. New project.

I am already trapped here, in this house, in this less than scenic corner of England. I will never have the means to move again. I used to move house a lot, and each new place would refresh me, somehow. I would have shed past me and become new me. For a time. Not a very long time, but better than nothing.

I used to escape through reading, and day-dreams. Now I can’t. Escape through fantasy is only possible when one’s every day life is more or less secure. Currently we are not secure and I need to focus my imagination, what’s left of it, on working out ways to survive in any number of potential futures. I don’t feel British anymore, merely Unspecified Human.

But on the lighter side, I was listening to a radio programme in which a Polish girl explained that  the comedy series Monty Python had been a huge hit in Poland, possibly even bigger than in the UK. She said she thought it was because the Poles and the British shared a sense of humour, quite different from American humour, which she described as ‘darkly absurdist’. I liked that phrase. But then she went on to say that now it seemed as if the whole of the UK had become Monty Python Land, the sort of place where a granny in a phone box would leap out and set upon passers-by with a rolled umbrella.

Trying to find an image for The Way We Live Now (to steal the title of one of my favourite books) I lit (?lighted) up one in another radio programme. It was a nature programme, about butterflies. When the speaker first learned of the bizarre, amazing life cycle of the butterfly, he had vaguely imagined that once a caterpillar had turned

butterfly2

into a chrysalis, inside that hard outer casing all the incipient butterfly was doing was adding a few legs, growing a pair of pretty wings. He said it had come as a bit of a shock to learn that inside the chrysalis what had been a caterpillar was completely dissolved into a kind of primordial genetic soup. And out of that liquid a butterfly was made from scratch, chemical by chemical and cell by cell.

It seems to me that this is what is happening to us now. It’s a deathlike, painful, but perhaps ultimately hopeful process. We are becoming nothing. We are chaos. All the things we believed ourselves to be have proved to be untrue. All the people we placed our trust in have shown themselves unworthy of that trust. All of our history may or may not have been true. We have no place in the world, no purpose, no national identity.

Yet, maybe we are becoming something else. Maybe, battered and bruised, half-drowned as we are, we are about to emerge as something different. Maybe nothing as glorious as a butterfly but something new. I’m going to have to hang on to that hope. Just hang on in there.

Goodbye, Miss Chips

I originally trained to be a teacher. Three entirely wasted years at training college, using up all the grant students were then entitled to claim from their Local Authorities: bridges now were burnt; boats had been sunk; no second chances.  Why did I do that?

At eighteen, going on fourteen, I had based my decision on a range of factors, which were:

Not knowing what else to do, apart from getting a job, which I sensed (accurately) would be a disaster at this stage of my life. All I wanted was to be a poet, but there didn’t seem to be any openings for poets. A tutor suggested working in a factory while I wrote. I had never been in a factory and at that age was still running on the inverse snobbery of my parents, who were upper-working/lower-middle class. Only lower working-class people worked in factories. I had read Altarwise by Owl-Light from beginning to end. I had read The Wife of Bath’s Tale, albeit the bowdlerised schoolbook version. Duh! How could such a prodigy; a future poet almost if not quite as good as Dylan Thomas; such a towering intellectual be expected to work in a factory?

Later, I was to work in not one but several factories – collating greetings cards – week after week of sickeningly scarlet Valentines cards in the middle of July, I remember, glue and glitter that got everywhere – and a bookbinding factory. I would feel more at ease in such anonymous, uncompetitive, unchallenging environments than in any other. But at eighteen, going on fourteen, you know nothing and you think you know everything.

The shorter-than-me, half-Austrian boyfriend had accepted a place at a teacher training college in London. He was a maths genius, or so he’d been telling me for the past year. I had no way of knowing since I had never scored higher than twelve per cent in any maths test. I had spent the larger part of the previous year being dazzled by his talk of infinity and quadratic equations, while doing nothing very much in the way of studying English and French.  As a result I passed my two A Levels, but with grades so very, very low that to all intents and purposes they were fails; and this in spite of having achieved high-grade O levels in the same subjects.

I was supposed to be doing sociology A Level as well. People would joke that certificates in sociology were printed on toilet paper. I must be the only person from that era who hasn’t got one. I can’t remember a thing about sociology except that the textbook was heavy, and by Stephen Something-or-other. I must have stopped going to lectures early on in order to spend more time in the company of my long-haired pocket genius drinking black coffee and cheap cider, sharing plates of chips and learning about infinity and quadratic equations.

I knew I would never see him again but somehow my going to another, similar college maintained the connection to what had been the best year of my life in the sense of being alive. You don’t realise – the exhilaration of being eighteen and in love for the first time – the sense of possibilities – a whole vast planet yours for the taking. How soon that fades, but at the time you don’t realise, which is a mercy.

students

I needed to get away from Dad, but by some strange Freudian miscalculation managed to get myself accepted at a training college a short bus-ride away – so no actual leaving home and another three years of fierce and occasionally violent rows with Dad. I could have got away. And yet I couldn’t. It would take marriage – the classic short hop to another, similar man – to achieve that.

My mother said I was making a mistake – that I wasn’t temperamentally suited to be a teacher. But hey, I’m a trial-and-error kinda gal: I kinda have to do things, mess them up, realise I messed them up, then do the same thing over and over and over again.

So, for whatever reason I ended doing three separate six-week teaching practices in three separate schools and being dreadful on every occasion. I could hardly eat for terror during these six week torments. I hardly slept at night, knowing I would have to get up, get the bus and walk into that room full of evil, antisocial aliens all over again the following day.

Yes, I was the trainee in tears, who had to be rescued by her tutor from a room full of paper-aeroplane throwing, desk-banging, screeching, cheeking, fighting, mocking, singing, rioting teenagers.

I was the cowering, red-faced idiot in the too-short skirt being leered and sniggered at by boys taller, and only two or three years younger than myself, in black blazers. ‘Get yourself some glasses,’ my tutor suggested. ‘They’d make you look older: plain glass, of course.’

I was the one who had to be taught fractions in the staff room by the maths teacher before assembly, then fight my way in to 4B and teach a double lesson of it before it faded from short-term memory, praying the kids didn’t ask any questions because at that point I would be stuffed.

I was the inspiring young pedagogue who set creative writing tasks and got back forty-two almost identical one-line stories about Frankenstein creating a monster, the film having been on telly the night before.

The Certificate in Education, on crisp, cream paper with fancy scrollwork, which I was awarded at the end of the three years in spite of the above catalogue of disasters, apparently on the basis of an ‘outstanding’ in English (my Main Course) would rapidly become the albatross around my neck. Prospective employers would query, naturally, why, having studied for three years to be a teacher I wasn’t actually, now, teaching. And how could I explain without telling them the whole sad story I have just told you? Then they would have thought – what a dork. And why would anyone employ a dork? Nothing – believe me, nothing – fails like failure.

After a while I had a bit of a brainwave: what was to stop me leaving the Certificate in Education off my CV? And so I did that. It created a secondary problem in that with those three years  blank it looked as if you had been locked up in some sort of young offenders’ institution or living rough on the streets, but I found ways round it. I began to apply the only talent I actually possessed, and that in goodly measure – creativity/lateral thinking – the ability to spin an ever more intricate protective web of tales around myself – to my CV and other areas of my life. I became an invented, acceptable, suitable person. In the process, for many decades I lost sight of whoever was underneath.

But I survived.