Like a bird on a wire

When the song first came out I wept, picturing the bird (aka Leonard Cohen) trapped in a snare, a loop of wire pulled tight around its leg. In those days we didn’t know so much American. I learned later that what we would call a telegraph line Americans would call a wire, and so the bird was probably just perched on it, ready to fly away.

The lineman in Wichita Lineman, then, should have been obvious to a Brit but he wasn’t. He was something ultra-romantic, science fictional almost, a wandering, lonely creature performing some unimaginable task for The County (what was The County?) – not one of those blokes that climbs up poles to fix the electrics.

Of course, I wept at the bird in its imaginary snare, flapping and flapping its tiny wings in a desperate, futile to escape because the bird, aka Leonard Cohen, was also aka me.

I was always two people. One of me was lonely, wild and free. One of me had known even as a child making messy daisy-and-buttercup chains on her grandmother’s lawn, that one day she would take off. As time went on I read the colour supplements my father discarded from the weekend papers. I pored over the photos of remote temples and marketplaces and traveller accounts of exotic destinations.  I was that traveller. One day very, very soon that would be me on the road to Marrakech in my long hippie skirt and my cheesecloth blouse, a fraying backpack containing all that I had in the world; feet blistered, sandals dusty and worn.

The other me knew it couldn’t go, knew even as a child that it was tethered to a family in which it had no place, engaged in a lifelong struggle of trying but failing to earn that place. The other me knew it needed the mirror they formed, because without that mirror it would vanish. I was only what they showed me; away from them I had no substance: I was a ghost.

And so I enrolled in a teacher training college only a short ride away from home. I took my Mum to a film show there once; she wasn’t impressed. I plodded away at that course for three years, trying to be interested in tessellations, Cuisenaire rods and lesson-planning whilst my friend Anji – she of the wispy, piled up hairdo and the Indian father; she of the many-page letters in green ink and that great circular artistic script; she of the long white raincoat and cool sunglasses; she of the unmistakeably gay boyfriend she was always hoping wasn’t entirely absolutely gay and one day might be startled into kissing her  – Anji went to France with a girlfriend. They worked as waitresses for a while until her friend stole a tablecloth and they were dismissed. She slept under lorries with lorry drivers. It was all in the letters, until they stopped.

But I have found that at least some of those fantasy Me’s do appear, eventually. But it’s like they get watered down and de-romanticised. So, at one point I imagined myself a mysterious Englishwoman living out her final days in a cliff-top village in Brittany or Normandy or somewhere. And here I am, not exactly in France and not exactly mysterious but certainly alone and in a village with a cliff-top.

I imagined myself a hippie traveller, someone who never put down roots, someone who passed through places and had brief conversation with exotic, world-weary strangers. And there I was yesterday, catching buses after years of car-driving, alighting from one train, searching for the next and being talked to (or mostly at) by a series of eccentrics of my own and other generations.

At a bus stop a group of us tried to understand the murder of so many children by a terrorist scarcely older than they were.

On the bus I learned about sunflower seeds.

In a train a young man with learning difficulties spent a long time explaining to me that the train I was on was indeed the right train, and how to tell, in future, if it wasn’t (‘It won’t be at this platform’).

At a station I discovered the Station Master’s name was Estelle and she was the sole member of staff so she had to sweep the platform in the intervals between trains. Also that the station had no loo and the nearest one was Burger King over the road.

In another train I watched a sober old man trying to calm and distract a very drunk young man so that he wouldn’t bellow the F-word aloud in a railway carriage.

I sipped on warm bottled water and ate granola bars in instalments.

I sat behind a boy with a brutally shaven neck and the top of his head crisply waved and dyed bright orange.

I saw many exotic tattoos exposed in hot sunlight and realised how difficult it was to get twins in a buggy off a bus (you have to climb down backwards).

I sat on what might have been an artwork or merely a dysfunctional bench to wait for my friends outside Marks and Spencer.

Hejira, finally.


Do you ever get those nights when your head is too full of ideas to let you sleep? Nights in pink neon. And it doesn’t help to have cats warring over your supine body.

I want her pillow.

No ‘smine. You can have the feet.


Like most writers I keep a notebook by the bed, but the more you write things down the more things seem to need to be written down. Each time I heave myself upright, displacing a cat or two, grope for the light, then the pencil falls on the floor…

Last night was one of those. It seemed to be a night for inventions. I don’t normally think of myself as an inventor, not like that woman who invented the rubber suction gadget for sticking on your kitchen wall and pushing your tea-towel into. Whatever happened to those? I suppose they went the way of the lava lamp, the knitting-machine and the pressure-cooker. My mother had a knitting-machine: you couldn’t hear the TV over it. Bloke down the road from me’s still got a lava lamp, and one of those lit-up waterfall pictures, and year-round fairy lights, and a karaoke machine. I had a pressure-cooker, once. I forgot to add water and it kind of went booooom and became like a football. The makers wouldn’t replace it. I hated it anyway. Wedding present.

But – all those ideas.

Well the first one was inspired by that message I saw in the rear windscreen of the giant tattooed man’s car yesterday. Why not, I thought, have a pink neon strip built into the rear windscreen of cars, so that digital letters could move along…and along…and along…like on the trains . That way you could do so much more than signalling to the driver behind you.

You could be terse and to the point:


You could be flirty:

Hi there, big guy! 

Hi there, sweetie pie!!

You could even be intellectual:

…that BEHIND a VITAL religious life for the WEST there has be FAITH which is not expressed in things to which one CLINGS…

But it would need to be voice-activated; you couldn’t be tapping stuff in at the same time as driving. And it probably wouldn’t work that well if you were English:

I say, er, excuse me. Sorry to interrupt. Lovely day. Might get some rain later. Would you mind awfully, that is to say – just a smidge too close to the bumper. Hope you don’t mind my pointing this out, but…

Then you’d need a catchy name. Rear-speak? Window-witter? Glass-blast?

Still on a transport theme, what about lorries with their blind-spots lit up in red? There’s a really big area to the front, sides and indeed the rear of a lorry where it’s terribly dangerous for a cyclist or pedestrian to be. Well, if those areas were lit up in red – or any colour really – if you were a cyclist or pedestrian you’d know not to go into them. Or at least you wouldn’t be surprised when you got mangled.

Then babies. Supposing you could turn them down a bit? Something like a remote control for times when they were screaming, in restaurants, while you and a friend you hadn’t seen for three weeks were trying to catch up on the gossip and you were both a bit deaf. But how could that be achieved? You’d have to have some sort of electronic baby.

And then it occurred to me that you could have a kind of inflatable life jacket for books. You’d read the book in the bath in the jacket. The moment you lost your grip on the book and gravity was inexorably drawing it down towards the soapy water beneath, motion sensors would pull some kind of rip cord and the jacket would inflate around the book, thus saving it from a watery fate and three days of attempting to dry itself out in the airing cupboard, telling itself that as soon as it was dry it was going to look as good as new.

And then I thought. Maybe if I go downstairs, microwave a mug of milk, lie on the sofa and watch low-volume repeats of River Cottage, programmes about the secret life of dogs and how tornadoes happen. That usually works.



‘smy turn for that pillow!

Where have the feet gone?