Did History Happen?

My father had this weird idea about history. Every now and then he would repeat it, which would embarrass my mother and bewilder me. My mother told me not to get into arguments with him about it, because Dad was a bit like the Incredible Hulk – you wouldn’t like him when he was angry. However, I did get into arguments with him about it. I was one of those horribly logical children, and if I had to say something I had to say it, even if it earned me a slapping. I couldn’t bear that he would come out with anything so obviously wrong and not at least attempt to explain why he thought it was right.

The only thing he ever said was this: when he was at school, which I suppose must have been in the thirties, he was shown a map of the world and a huge part of it was coloured pink. The pink bit was the British Empire. I can’t remember exactly what his teachers told him about the British Empire, but it was something to do with the British Empire stretching from pole to pole, destined to go on for ever and full of grateful natives who just loved us for bringing the gift of civilisation to them. Hideous claptrap, obviously. So far so good.

Then he got conscripted and shipped off to India, where he discovered that things were not as he had fervently believed as a child. So far so good, again.

But somehow he extrapolated from this that no history had ever actually happened. He seemed to literally believe this. I remember trying all the usual teenage arguments on him. But what about your memory? You can remember the past, at least that bit of it that took place in your lifetime. And what about fossils? And books, written before we were born? What about pieces of music written in the past, and paintings painted? What about the stories my grandmother told me, about her past, her mother, her sisters?

None of this had any effect, apart from calling forth the Incredible Hulk, in his green, shirt-bursting form.

Many years later, my parents and I used to go to Leeds Castle. We all enjoyed Leeds Castle. My mother saw it as a magnificent addition to her small garden at home. I liked the lake and the quiet, being able to see to all the way to the horizon, no houses in between. Mum and I used to repeat the tour of the castle every now and again, to see the Queen’s Bed and Henry VIII’s (amazingly broad and short) suit of armour and a cupboard full of gorgeous, if dusty, 1920s shoes. My father refused to go in. He would sit on the wall and read his newspaper because – yes, the past had never happened. Did he believe that Henry VIII’s armour was a fake? By this time I knew better than to ask. It still annoyed me, though.

Dad is long gone, but that argument with him has gone on in my head. It’s like being haunted, not by him but by this one bizarre conviction, because in all this time I haven’t been able to prove the reverse – that the past does exist. In despair, I googled it.

It is always a relief when you find that other people have googled the same question as you, and even discussed it amongst themselves – seriously, at length.  It seems that philosophers – actual philosophers – have done work on this problem, intermittently, and have come to the conclusion that no proof is to be had. Everything you remember, the whole of history, might just have been implanted in your mind. This is the “dinosaurs were put there by the Devil” argument.

There is also something called “Thursdayism” which holds that all memories of the past were constructed at the creation of the universe – last Thursday. Though this seems unlikely, it cannot actually be disproved.

I was listening to an interesting podcast yesterday, about problems people have with their brains. One of the cases was an American lady who runs, and regularly wins, the most extreme marathons on the planet, ie hundreds of miles over many days, without stopping, hardly sleeping. As a child she suffered a prolonged seizure which, although nobody realised it at the time, damaged a small area of her temporal lobe. As an adult, she began to have seizures again. In the brief warning period she would put on her running shoes and run – at first to the mountains but eventually for hours and hours. Running enabled her to avoid the seizure altogether.

However, eventually the balance tipped in favour of the seizures. She no longer got any warning, so could not run. As she had children, she opted for removal of that part of her brain that was causing the fits. And it worked. She had no fits after the operation, though she now had problems with short-term memory, and time. It was as if she was living in a permanent now. She also lost the ability to read maps, and navigate. However, she continued to enter extreme marathons. She says when she is running she has no idea how many days she has been running for. She runs, alone, dropping pieces of ribbon at forks in the road so that she can find her way back, if lost. She runs until she reaches her destination, being only aware of the rhythm of her feet and of her breathing, and because she does not know how tired she ought to be, she does not feel tired.

If “time” can be cut out of a person’s brain, doesn’t that mean that time is a product of the brain, something imposed on reality? This would make the brain a kind of gatekeeper.

The explanation I find easiest to accept is this – that all time is happening at once. Therefore it is meaningless to talk in terms of a ‘past’ or a ‘future’. Maybe if we substitute ‘awareness’ or ‘knowledge’ for ‘memory’ it might be closer to the truth. From the present moment we have a sense of the ‘past’ (going on now) and of the ‘future’ (also going on now). We only think of them as taking place ‘then’ and ‘now’ because a small part of our brain is designed to limit us to a linear experience of time. Maybe that is all we can cope with, without going mad.

What do you think?

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

Cows with no legs; a church with no congregation; radioactive singing frogs

In their latter years Mum and Dad ‘did’ the same holiday year after year: they went to Middle Farm. Middle Farm was in the middle of a long and sinuous lane between two villages, and in the middle of the Marsh. They packed the car with practised ease. Mum had a list and she ticked things off. In earlier years they took the bicycles, strapped to the back of the car. Dad never went anywhere without his bike. But later… later there was no point in the bike. He just sort of sat.

They usually went September or October. It was a bit cheaper end of season but the sun still shone, at least once the mist had burnt off the fields. We – ie the three separate sisters, our partners, husbands – or later not – Godmother, cycling chums and other increasingly ancient persons – were invited down there for days, or an afternoon. Mum kept a schedule, I think, and ticked people off with relief.

It was dullish, but it made a change of scene. Mum and Dad didn’t see much of the farm, nor were they really interested in doing so. Not for them the borrowed wellies, lending a hand to muck out the pigs and all that rural stuff. They were happy enough to potter down through the farm, to the bridge over the ditch that marked one of its boundaries, and to sing the praises of Cecilia, the farmer’s wife. Cecilia was the person they saw, since she ran the chalet business.

Three chalets, later four, in a row, in a field next to the winding road. Sheep in a vast field behind, and a branch railway line, a long way in the distance, chugging down to Rye. During the day you hardly noticed the trains. At night, though, they came through lit up and spectacular, and were a point of interest, something to exclaim over. My parents always exclaimed over them. I expect Mum kept a list of trains too, and ticked them off.

Cecilia irritated me. She was kind of glam and ‘anyone for tennis’. Indeterminate age, long, somehow expensively blonde hair casually caught up. Always bouncing off to the gym, suitably attired. Trim figure – Dad liked that. Dubiously posh accent. Mum liked that. Painted. OK paintings but not brilliant. Several hanging (casually) on the walls of the chalet. Different ones each year. Prices on the back. High prices, for what they were.

But – good, clean accommodation, pleasant surroundings, value for money.

We would go for walks, on our allotted visits. Apart from the walk to the boundary there were three ‘proper’ walks, and Mum had the casting vote. The first was very long and eventually took you, sore-footed, into a village with a pub where you could get a cooked meal and a cup of tea to fortify you for the the very long walk back. I dreaded that one.

There was the one to the church in the middle of the field, for which you had to collect the key – a big rusty iron object – at a cottage some way down the road. We went there once in later autumn. There were cows in the field – sheep, cow and rabbit droppings to crunch over – but you couldn’t seen the cows’ leg for the mist. Half-cows. Inside there were a party of Scottish bell-ringers, on a holiday of their own. Their mission: to ring all the bells in all the churches on the Marsh. They rang them while we were there. But the church itself, rather like a film set. No feeling of people – real people – ever having been there. Just musty. Meaningless. Enclosed.

And then there was the one with the frogs. This was the least onerous. No key to collect, no blisters or perspiration involved, just a square walk round narrow lanes and back again. Lanes so narrow that grass grew in cracks up the middle. Ditches on either side. The Marsh is a magical place but when you’re out in it it always gives you that same uneasy feeling, that this time you might not get back. It might be intending to…swallow you. There’s something dank about it, something ancient, cynical and not entirely welcoming, like the glint in Cecilia’s eye.

At a certain point it was obligatory to stop and listen for the song of the Marsh Frogs. These frogs were famous, and supposedly of a giant variety. They were as invisible as they were audible, so there was no way of telling – and anyway, I’m not sure any of us really knew what a normal frog was supposed to look like. When I worked at the power station, rumour had it they were radioactive, having at some point wallowed in radioactive ditch-water near the plant, and that was why they had grown so monstrously large. I doubt if it was true since the power station were always careful – paranoid, in fact – about not making stuff radioactive. Another rumour was that the frogs had been imported from a far-off land where there were Especially Big Frogs – and had escaped from some domestic pond, gaily to multiply and sing in all the ditches.

But then came the day when Dad was taken ill. We came back from that walk and found him secretly bathing his bandaged bad leg. It had been kind of leaking for a while, we knew that – something to do with the valves inside the veins disintegrating, like a series of broken ladders. But this – was a horrible sight. He had kept secret how bad it had become, not wanting to spoil Mum’s holiday. He had driven down there, somehow, but was in no fit state to drive back. He wouldn’t be persuaded to be taken to hospital, either. In the end I enlisted Ex and (inevitably) My Replacement. They didn’t live that far off. Dad had always got on with Ex and Ex had a way of imposing common sense on chaotic situations. He had never been able to bring himself to say ‘Dad’ so he breezed in with: “Now then Mr — what’s all this then?”

They had a jolly, masculine chat, the pair of them, whilst the rest of us tried very hard to not to look at that monstrous, suppurating leg; but the old Ex magic didn’t work this time. Eventually Mum packed everything up and drove the both of them home. They had only been there a couple of days. There was no refund, of course, and they never went again. Just in case. Just in case.

And that’s what life’s like, isn’t it? That is the way of Time. There is always going to be the Giant Hand, imposing a full stop at the end of our half-finished sentence. We just don’t notice that Hand till afterwards. It descends in silence and always, always, takes us by surprise.

giant frog

Never Jam Today

“The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.” It’s one of those things you think your Granny must have said, but no – well, she might have said it, but it comes from Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.

It does remind me of my Granny, though. I remember her kitchen on jam-making days, and Nan stirring away like a Queen Mother-shaped witch at some great metal pot on the gas stove, tipping in sugar and goodness knows what. Presumably Mum must have been there, otherwise why would I have been? I never remember Mum being anywhere, even when she was.

I remember a lot of jam-jars, all hot and steamy. Presumably Nan had been collecting them in some cupboard or shed and now they had to be washed to get rid of dust and dead spiders. I remember that there was always some nervousness as to whether the jam would set, and that something had to be added to some sorts of jam to make it set. I remember the sweet, sugary smell as the contents of the saucepan were decanted into the jars, and the circles of greaseproof paper that went on the top of the jam. Would she have cut these out for herself, maybe using the neck of a jam-jar to draw round? Or perhaps you could buy packets of them at the corner shop – same place you bought pink and blue birthday candles and red candle-holders, hundreds-and-thousands; that strange green stuff, angelica; cake cases, paper doilies, chocolate sprinkles, silver dragees, marzipan.

The paper caps always pleased me, pushed over the top of the jar and pinched in with a bit of ribbon. The sticky labels pleased me most of all, because I was allowed to write those. I remember the jars lined up along a high shelf, along with bottled fruit sealed tight in sinister kilner jars, like tiny dead babies. Tasted all right with ice cream, though, and kept us going all winter.

I wonder what happened to all that time – the time women seemed to have to do stuff like that, to make preserves, polish brass and mend socks on a wooden darning mushroom. What happened to knitting jumpers, replacing buttons and sewing on square patches? What happened to pulling up carrots and digging new potatoes just before a meal? What happened to mint sauce made in a teacup with mint from the garden? What happened to damsons picked from the hedge, and playing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as you lined up the cherry pips around the edge of your plate? What happened to buttered crumpets, pipe smoke, coal fires and elderly snoring dogs?

Sometimes I think they must be still going on somewhere – that in one – or maybe all of my concurrent ‘other’ lives, and to paraphrase Rupert Brooke, there must be crumpets still for tea. And that I must be seven again, with a gap where my two front teeth should be and a crumpled ribbon slip-sliding out of my hair.  And in those other lives I am forever consuming crumpets as butter drips through those curious holes to make my fingers greasy.

The Folks That Lived On The Hill

When the light started to fade and the wind began to really howl in preparation for the night of mayhem to come the tree in the garden of Aslam House, down the hill, was perpendicular. Before daylight had properly returned next morning it was leaning to the left. So far to the left it was obvious it hadn’t just casually decided – as, who knows, trees may do during the night or when they assume nobody’s watching them – to have a bit of a lean, maybe, just rest the old roots for a moment…

No, the tree was uprooted. All that was holding it up even this much was another much smaller tree. Furthermore, it was leaning over my garden shed and, I realised – for it was a very tall tree – my garage/workshop. Ah well, there was nothing to be done. I murmured a little ‘thank you’ to Whoever for the tree actually not being in my garden and therefore not about to cost me thousands of pounds I did not possess to have it cut down. And I murmured a little ‘fingers crossed’ that the person at Aslam House would possess the pounds to get something done about it before it crushed my garden shed and garage/workshop.

I made some porridge. Outside the rain still rained and the wind still howled, but less viciously. I wasn’t expecting to hear from the mysterious owner of Aslam House at all, far less see him that same day.

I’d always liked to look down at Aslam House. Partly because of the name, which reminded me of the lion (in fact we must capitalise it – Lion – since he is at least partly a  Christ-like figure) Aslan from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It gave Aslam House a magical air. Anything might be going on in a house like that, I told myself.

Aslam House is like nothing else round here, architecturally. It’s very much older, and bigger. Its roof dips and sways in an Elizabethan fashion. It’s made of higgledy-piggledy slates rather than row after row of greyish dry-ridge tiles. It has beams – real ones not fake ones. Its windows are tiny and heavily-curtained and go right up into the attic. Sometimes, at night, I see a light in one of the upper rooms; always the same room. No blue flickering, which usually means a TV set. It has a garden, a higgledy-piggledy garden that goes all round the house. The garden has untended roses and a broken down shed without a roof. I can see that now, because now the tall tree has gone.

It has a conservatory, a fair-sized one, with a lot of furniture in it and – I can see if I screw my eyes up – some sort of coffee table, and paintings on the wall. No one is ever in there. A whole conservatory to himself but he doesn’t use it. My, how I would make use of such a conservatory, if I had one. I’d spend the whole of winter in it, warm and toasty, savouring the sight of my snow-covered roses and snow-filled, roofless shed. The birds you could watch from down there, out among the roses; the peaceful thoughts you could have surrounded by all that comfy chintzy furniture.

It occurs to me that Aslam House must have here right at the very beginning – it and the tall trees that are dotted about the hillside, interrupting people’s boundaries. How quiet it must have been back then, for The Folks That Lived on the Hill. No 1980s excrescence of a housing estate; no miles of concrete and brick, everything more or less identical to everything else; nothing much of anything between them and the sea in one direction or the great field in the other.

Turning one way they would have been able to watch the plough going up and down the great field, the men and women coming along later to harvest the wheat and stack it in  old-fashioned V-shaped stooks rather than the great net-covered bails the combine harvester will spit out nowadays.  Turning the other way they might have watched the red-sailed barges coming in, or maybe bigger ships.

I didn’t expect to see him, but later he came round. I don’t know what I had expected – pointy ears, perhaps; hairy feet or a suspicion of a mane – but he seemed an ordinary middle-aged/oldish man. He didn’t look too happy, but then who would be happy with several thousand pounds worth of tree-surgery suddenly looming?

Could you give your husband a message for me? Could you warn him not to go in his workshop or shed just yet? That tree’s about to go over and he’d best not to be in there when it does.

No husband, I replied, rather too swiftly. He looked nonplussed. It was the wrong thing to have said; I should have just gone along with it.

I suppose I was put out, though I should have been used to it by then, by that assumption every male over a certain age seems to make that there will be a husband. Women just don’t inhabit houses – or anywhere – on their own, apparently. What would a woman want with a workshop? She obviously shouldn’t have bought a house with a workshop, not being a man and having no earthly use for a workshop. What foolishness!

And to be honest I was saddened all over again by my man-less state. What was I doing on my own? What was I doing with a workshop? How did I end up sitting out winter after winter of storms, rough seas and gale-force winds alone in an ugly house in the back of beyond? How come I woke up – alone – with some great uprooted tree leaning over most of my garden? Why wasn’t there some broad-shouldered, check-shirted, corduroy-trousered somebody to go striding down the hill with a chainsaw, offering his services to his neighbour? Why wasn’t there a husband to make stuff and fix stuff out in that workshop, to store his well-used garden tools and spider-infested wellingtons in the shelf in the garden shed?

Bad luck – about your tree, I said. He shrugged: I’m beyond caring, he said. My wife died last year.

I am sorry to hear that, I said. And I was.

Now if this had been one of those Mills & Boon stories this would have been the moment for the reader to start hearing the ringing of bells, if only faintly. Ah, lonely woman, lonely man; she with an undeserved workshop and feeling a mite shaken in the aftermath of the storm; he conveniently widowed, having rose-bushes and an unused conservatory. But life is not a Mills & Boon story. I felt sorry for him, for his current hopelessness, the tree and all, but he was pretty ugly. Also, he had a large drip on the end of his nose and was either unaware of it or making no effort to wipe it away. If there’s something I find it hard to see beyond it’s a drip on an unwiped nose.

He went on his way un-romanced, did the gloomy inhabitant of Aslam House. Within a few days a bunch of local hooligans arrived to make a noisy and inexpert job of butchering the tall tree. Now all the shade has vanished from my kitchen. The sun shines in so brightly now, I can no longer see the flames on the gas cooker and have to exist on yoghurt and sandwiches until night has fallen.

To paint the perfect dragon

(First published as ‘Landscape’ in Buddhism Now, June 1991)

What is a landscape? – an innocent sounding question but one which started me off on a train of thought which was to waste most of a perfectly good Sunday afternoon. That’s the trouble with being a philosophoholic, one thought is never enough…

My dictionary defines a landscape as ‘picture representing, art reproducing or actual piece of inland scenery’. If only it were that simple I might have hoovered the bathroom carpet, got the washing out before it rained and peeled a sprout or two.

The trouble is you see there is no such thing as a landscape. For a start, the scene you are looking at changes from microsecond to microsecond, or rather from so-vanishingly-small-as-to-be-non-existent instant to so-vanishingly-small-as-to-be-non-existent instant. Now you see a blue sky and bright sunshine; blink, and there is a wisp of cloud or one of those long-rolling shadows that blight the British summer. Who knows, a rabbit may have popped its head out of a hole while you blinked, a leaf may have fluttered to the ground, and of course the grass is growing.

For another thing, you have selected the landscape. If you are an artist you will no doubt have borne in mind the harmonious pattern, the beautiful balance it would make on the canvas, and even if you are without the artist’s eye you will be looking at that part of the scene which particularly interests and attracts you. An inch to the left here, two inches to the right, and it would be a different landscape. Unlike a painting a landscape has no edges.

Furthermore, the landscape you see depends on the way you see. If like me you are short-sighted what you see will be blurred and Turneresque – only experience and glasses tell you that it is not actually that way. If, on the other hand, your vision is 20-20 you will see every vein in every leaf, every nuance of the light. If you were an animal you would see in a different way again. If you were a frog you might see the Lake District as a series of moving coloured squares, rather like looking through a frosted glass window; if you were a sparrow you would see a range of colours undetectable to man. Who is to say which is the real landscape – a myopic blur or the bird’s kaleidoscope of subtle greens?

And it isn’t just our eyes – we see with our minds. If we didn’t, the landscape would mean nothing: a tree would not be a tree, sunshine would not be sunshine, or even yellow. It would just be. So we reinvent each landscape we see from a compound of personal associations, memories, attitudes and the way we happen to be feeling at the time.

For example, looking out of the window onto my garden at this moment I see a small black tree, leafless but decorated with strings of raindrops. Beneath that, somehow, is a memory-picture of the wire fence running alongside the allotments I used to pass every day on the way to school. After heavy rain the raindrops would be strung out along the wire in just that way and if you tapped it, it vibrated, showering raindrops anew. Now, you wouldn’t see that.

Similarly, if I am in the depths of depression I will see the most picturesque scene as boring, picture-postcard stuff. But if I am in love I may well float through some ruined dockyard marvelling at the glisten and swirl of oil in the puddles, the geometric patterns of cranes against the sky, the fiery colours of rust. We have all experienced such miracles.

A landscape is not a neutral thing – it reacts with the personality of the watcher. I worked once at Dungeness on the Kent coast and loved the bleak landscape out there, the shingle and the sea plants and the lurid skies. But a lady visitor from London hated the place. ‘It’s hideous,’ she said, ‘so empty. It gives me the creeps.’ You may be drawn to a landscape because you sense that it expresses an aspect of your personality, one which you couldn’t put into words. Equally, a landscape can be a threat, a contradiction, even a negation of your personality. It’s like women with perfume, or people with each other.

The Zen way of ‘seeing’ a landscape is different. Instead of there being an ‘I’ to view and an ‘it’ (the landscape) to be viewed, the viewer melts into the landscape. He becomes it, and it he. This is very difficult to understand and in fact cannot be understood, only done… sometimes… maybe. I am remembering here the Zen story about the man who wanted to paint the perfect dragon, and was sent away for years, until he could see dragons, hear them, even smell them. But that wasn’t enough. Before he could paint the perfect dragon he had to become the dragon. But the dragon doesn’t exist… ah, but does the landscape?

And if a landscape is something which cannot be defined because there is no universal standard by which to define it, doesn’t the principle equally apply to reality itself? A madman’s reality may be quite different from mine. Another example: some years ago I was told of a woman who insisted that there was an extra, invisible storey on her house and up there a gang of wicked men were forging money using her electricity – that was why her electricity bill was so high. Well, maybe she was right. How can I be sure?

How can I be sure that time is as it seems? I see a black bird apparently flapping across my chosen landscape, but how do I know that bird has not always been flying and will not always be flying, just so? Supposing all time is really happening in an instant, simultaneously. At one and the same time the bird is on the upstroke, the downstroke, not here yet, long gone.

Time is surely a function of perception. If I were a butterfly with only a two-day lifespan I would surely feel that my two days lasted as long as threescore years and ten. Human beings would move so slowly that they would not appear as living creatures to me at all, but static pieces of scenery, like rocks. So maybe rocks are living creatures too. If we could time-lapse film them over millions of years, would we see them heave, groan, yawn, lumber around a bit?

Perhaps I should just forget about the washing, get into the car and drive to some shady hillside. Yes, I shall reach for the thermos, break into the chocolate biscuits, wind down the window and remark to the nearest rabbit, ‘Nice here, innit?’

Time and Motion

I’ve noticed more and more as time goes by – the past materialising and dematerialising. On every street corner, in shops long unvisited and parks half-forgotten, driving late at night or in the brightest sunlight – ghosts are starting to appear.

It’s a function of growing older. The world – or at least our world – is not that big, and we pass and repass over the same territory. There used to be a time-and-motion study for housewives, I remember. The housewife had some kind of light bulb attached and her movements – from fridge to cooker, from cooker to sink etcetera – were recorded as a trail of light. I believe that’s how cooker-sink-fridge came to be known as the kitchen work triangle. In idle moments wondered what the entire track my life would look like if I had had a lightbulb attached. What a job that would be to untangle!

Today I drove past a street corner in the same town I chugged through very slowly on the train yesterday. It’s a grimy, unremarkable corner opposite a kind of mini traffic island, and looking out onto a sea of moving cars is small, shabby taxi-cab office. It was a small, shabby taxi-cab office in 1971 too, and outside it I suddenly see me and Clive, leaning against the even-then flaking paintwork, kissing. We were at college together and rambled down through the back streets every afternoon , I to wait for a bus (outside the taxi office) and he to catch a train to the seaside. He was the only handsome man I ever went out with – dark, dapper, beautiful – and I knew, of course, that he was not for me. Indeed, he was engaged to a girl called Jean back home at the seaside, but that didn’t seem to bother either of us.

We snogged, desultorily, every evening until my bus arrived. I don’t think he even found me particularly attractive but we were together, temporarily, we were friends and I was willing, so he felt he might as well. Young people did that sort of thing in those days. Probably still do.

But it isn’t just Clive. I walk along the street I grew up on. Now I am looking down at my feet, watching out for the dropped kerbs with which it is now infested, though not quite as careful as my Mum, who was convinced she was going to fall over at any minute. But at the same time the child ‘me’ is running along the street. I pass her sometimes, sat on the edge of the pavement, her feet in the road. It has recently rained (so her dress will be getting wet, but she won’t notice) and she is watching twigs careering down the gutter towards the drain.

In two days time I will drive down the lane we lived in when we were married. I will no doubt be surprised at how much the house has changed since either of us was in it. I will remember the cat buried under the blue hydrangea. Unless they’ve dug them up – the bush, the cat, or both. I will remember how you cried for that little cat – the only time I ever saw you cry about anything. I will remember trying to take your arm, another day, and how you shook me off after a few paces, embarrassed even to be touched. I will remember hurrying down that lane to meet my lover, and how my heart was beating and the blood rushing in my ears.

As I get older I sometimes get inklings of the pattern behind things. That sounds so pretentious – and I really don’t like the word inklings – and it’s only for split seconds; nothing ever sticks. I don’t think any of us are ever allowed to discover the meaning of life – but as we progress we get these little glimpses, so that we know there might be a meaning. Sometimes it has seemed to me like a carpet we are weaving, with a pattern we can’t see because we are too close. But at the end – of each individual life, maybe, we get to see the overall pattern.

But recently – since I have been blogging (in earnest) in fact – I have begun to think that it’s more intricate and complicated even than that. It’s like the past and the present are not separated as we imagine, but linked one to the other at many points – linked and interlinked. And maybe I mean that the past – all the pasts – and the present – all the presents – exist in one plane. It is only made to seem that ‘the past is another country’. So, a life is more like a blog long worked on, and richly, richly supplied with links – links between past and present and here and there, and her and me, but also links with other people’s pasts and presents, their heres and theres.

And then I wonder, if I’m a character in the blog that is my life – who – or what version of me – is doing the blogging? What giant hands are hammering out each fresh instalment of my life at 80 wpm?

Harlequin Dancers

 

They were harlequin dancers,

treading a gracious measure;

music-less, delicate, each of them being

the obverse of the other.

A fortunate conjunction, a synchronicity:

this side of time you may not see again

such symmetry.

α

 They were black and white to each other

snowfall on winter trees.

They were light and dark to each other; now

their days are pitiless, their nights are ice.

She lies bone-bare under desert sun; he

whirls in cold space.

 Masked and bespangled, androgyne,

they spiralled down the years;

but now the aeons weigh them down,

seconds are centuries.

The elegance is broken, the fine pattern gone,

and each is half of each again,

and all of none.

Ω

The Perfect Roar: a love story

IT ISN’T easy in the Jungle. Things get eaten, things get hurt. Rain falls, dislodging the tiny beetles from their homes in the river bank and washes them away. Sun shines and the drinking pools dry out. Nothing is safe from Time, that creeping predator. All the same, sometimes there is kindness. Sometimes even love.

At the centre of the Jungle was a great yellow mountain, rearing up out of the glossy green trees. The forest creatures were afraid of the mountain. They didn’t know why, exactly, except that the mountain always seemed to have been there, whilst their own lives were fleeting. And the mountain made a continuous, ominous creaking and groaning. ‘I may decide to fall down on top of you,’ it seemed to be saying. ‘Just because I haven’t, doesn’t mean I won’t.

Only one creature was not afraid of the mountain, and that was the lion. Maybe this was because he lived half way up the great yellow mountain, in a cave, and kind of felt he owned it. Or maybe it was because he roared so loud and so long that he scarcely heard the groaning.

The mouth of the lion’s cave was littered with bleached bones, also chewed skulls of various shapes and sizes. The lion never needed to go out hunting; indeed, he liked the cave so well he never left it at all. The forest creatures brought his food to him, live and sometimes kicking. They accomplished this by drawing lots amongst themselves as to who should be sacrificed each day. Mothers fed their offspring heartily, and hastened to beget more, knowing how many of their plump, furry darlings were likely to end up inside the lion.

For they reasoned that it was better to keep the lion in his cave by this means, for if he ever did take it into his head to come out he would surely start slaughtering at random, and with great enthusiasm, reaching up his long golden arms to tip the monkeys out of the trees; reaching down his long golden arms to pull the harmless rabbits from their burrows. He would delve into the river with his scimitar claws to disturb the goggle-eyed fish in their dreaming. He would snatch the many-coloured birds from the air to serve as mid-morning snacks.

All this time the lion had believed himself to be alone. Occasionally, drowsing in the midday heat, he reviewed such memories as he had, hoping to find one that contained a mother, a sister or a father. But supposing such kin had ever existed, why had they gone away and left him in the cave?

Occasionally he paused in his roaring and listened, imagining for a second that he heard an answering roar from some distant cave or forest, but it was only ever an echo. The lion, of course, was lonely, but he didn’t know it. It didn’t do to know that kind of thing.

In amongst the thick brown fur of the lion’s mane, all this time had lived a mouse. The lion, as we have seen, did not possess a good memory. If he had ever known the mouse was there he had forgotten, and the mouse took great pains to keep it that way. Safe and still she lay in his tangled coat, only climbing down in the hottest part of the day when he was sleeping. Then she would skip into the forest to look for berries and seeds.

She enjoyed these little excursions into the real world. Occasionally she even allowed herself to admit how stuffy and confining it could be to live in a lion, one’s eyes seeing nothing but coarse lion hair, one’s nostrils filled with the rank smell of lion. Over the years she had learned her Beloved’s roars by heart; she knew their complex patterns and their various meanings. She knew the angry roar, the threatening roar, the hungry roar. She even knew the sad roar he sometimes made at the end of his day, very quietly, to himself, believing that no one could hear. For yes, she had grown to love the lion and she knew it, though it doesn’t do to know that kind of thing.

And so the years passed by. The lion grew a little louder and a little lonelier; the mouse remained content to hide in Beloved’s fur and only occasionally to indulge in wistful daydreams of the big wide world and what her life might have been like had she chosen to live on the forest floor amongst the other creatures. Mostly, though, she was grateful to be a Lion’s Mouse, for she was a timid and reclusive creature, ill-suited to the seething life below.

But then the lion grew sick, which changed everything. First he lost his appetite. The Sacrifices that appeared at the mouth of the cave remained there for a while, trembling but uneaten, and eventually crept away. Then, apart from the occasional whimper, the lion fell silent, his vast golden head lolling on the dusty floor, his great golden paws limp and useless. For the first time he heard the sound of blood roaring in his ears and throbbing in his veins; heard too the terrible groaning of the mountain and began to be afraid, for he sensed he was going to die.

After a while the creatures on the forest floor began to remark amongst themselves upon the unfamiliar silence, and upon the Sacrifices that had begun to return, not even chewed or licked. They confirmed that the lion was no longer so fearsome, but rather a moth-eaten old thing really. For several days the creatures waited in case the roaring should start up again. When it didn’t, they called a council meeting around the water hole. The fishes awoke reluctantly and, between deep breaths of water, lifted their spiny heads out of the water. Foxes slunk in through the undergrowth and sat yellow-eyed, their terracotta tails disposed around their paws, contemplating rabbits. The rabbits endeavoured to become invisible. Elephants pushed a path through the trees disturbing, briefly, the birds that had come down in great rainbow-coloured clouds to perch amongst the branches. Monkeys pirouetted in from the canopy on ropes of liana, looping up again at intervals to report to others what they had heard.

The meeting took a very long time, for the languages of the animals, like the languages of men, are many and various, but unlike men the animals have never acquired the skill of taking turns to speak. Nevertheless, by the end of their long and loud conferrings they had formed a plan of action. Together, they would creep up the mountain, to the very mouth of the lion’s cave, and peer inside. If the lion merely slept they could creep away. Should he be dead, on the other hand, they could leave rejoicing, for they would no longer have the inconvenience of sacrificing themselves and their children to assuage his hunger. And should they discover him alive, but sick, they would fall upon him, with the courage of the multitude, and rid themselves of the old tyrant while they had the chance.

The mouse heard them approaching. Scattered amongst the mountain’s creakings and groanings she heard their miscellaneous chatterings and twitterings, she discerned the snapping of twigs underpaw. She heard the sly slithering of the snake and the crouched creeping of the fox, and the sideways shuffle of the monkeys, who were furtive and ill at ease when down from the canopy. She knew, too, what was in their heart, for such a knowing is the particular talent of mice.

Now the mouse had long ago understood that the lion’s roar was not so very loud. The cave magnified the roar, rolling it around from wall to wall, bouncing it off the roof until it emerged as a great wave of sound. If he had ever left his cave and tried roaring in the open the lion would have realised this for himself. Or perhaps he did realise it, a little. Now the mouse understood that she would have to save her beloved.

As the creatures approached she clambered out of the lion’s brown and tangled mane, hid herself behind one of his great golden ears and began to breathe deeply. She thought of Beloved’s most splendid and terrifying roar as she breathed in the searing air of a jungle noon. She breathed in and breathed in and breathed in until one by one her tiny ribs began to crack beneath her thin, grey fur.

And then she began to roar. She roared Beloved’s angriest, most terrifying roar, the one that contained ‘GET AWAY FROM ME!’ and ‘HOW DARE YOU APPROACH!’ and the sound came rolling and swelling and echoing out of that mountain cave, louder, more fearsome and more perfect than anything the lion himself had ever produced.

And the mouse breathed in again, and roared again, though now the blood ran from her mouth and burst from her ears and the roar-cracked ribs began to burst through her sides one by broken one and the roar became, although by then she didn’t know it, a scream of agony.

Upon hearing this, the creatures of the forest beat a hasty retreat to their homes in tree and in sky and in burrow, and it was many, many months before the boldest of them ventured up the mountain again. This was, of course, the fox, who discovered what was left of the lion stretched out inside the mouth of the cave, dead of old age, sickness and loneliness, although he had never known it. And concealed in the lion’s mane, although the fox was never to know it, was a long-dead mouse, whose tiny broken body concealed a large, and broken, heart.

Stop all the clocks

Last night I surprised the hedgehog – again. I’d got used to him, or possibly her, turning up at the cat-feeding hut at around nine o’clock, when dusk fell. I’d got into the ridiculous habit of assuming nightfall to be at nine o’clock. That was the way of the world. I can be a bit vague sometimes.  It’s not forgetfulness, it’s having an artistic nature.

At six or thereabouts I snapped on the outside light to go and feed the birds – still not quite registering that it was dark – as I should have done because, hadn’t I just snapped on the light? – and the birds would all be asleep. And there was the hedgehog, or rather the hedgehog’s bottom, poking out of the cat-feeding place. Inside the cat-feeding place its snout was deep in a bowl of Whiskas. Luckily, hedgehog’s hearing is even worse than mine. I tiptoed into reverse and he/she didn’t notice me.

But it set me thinking. Are we not the only animal that regulates its daily routine with the help of a range of complex timekeeping devices? How do animals manage without them, and how would we manage if all the clocks were suddenly stopped – or abducted? I have in mind, you see, an unmanned alien spacecraft, one of those saucer-shaped items people are always saying they’ve seen. The spacecraft skims low over the earth, scanning for life-forms to beam up, dissect and study. But it makes a mistake. Because it is a metallic life-form, and all the life-forms in its entire galaxy are also metallic, it ignores biological entities and beams up instead – every single clock, watch or other timekeeping device. Suddenly, Earth is timepiece-free. If you are a writer, by the way, I give you this plot for free. I suspect it will only make a short story but you never know, you might manage to streeeeetch it into some sort of novella.

Having always more or less disregarded clocks and watches, we are now forced to consider – urgently, since the spaceship’s ‘sweep’ took only a few seconds – what we needed them for in the first place. Or did we actually need them?

Clocks of some sort have been around for a very, very, very long time – for as long as human beings found the need to measure periods of time shorter than days or lunar months. These, of course, could be observed from the sun – the coming of light in the morning and darkness at night – and the moon, going through its monthly waxing and waning cycle. So there were sundials and water-clocks and hour-glasses – those things with two bulbs separated by a narrow ‘neck’, and sand running from one to another. When the ‘sands of time’ ran out, an hour, near enough, had passed. If you needed another hour you just turned the hour-glass up the other way and the sand started flowing again. Excellent device, and aesthetically pleasing. A miniature version used to be used to time boiling eggs.

Clocks became more and more sophisticated and accurate. Human beings can’t resist improving things, and then improving them even more. It’s in our nature to tinker. These wonderful new clocks made navigation easier for ships’ captains. As time went by, people arrived on time for church with the help of a clock rather than a chiming bell. Then there were railways, and people caught their trains on time because they had clocks and watches; the trains ran on time for the same reason: the timetable had been invented. Factory workers in the newly-industrialised cities had once been summoned by a ‘knocker-up’ or ‘knocker-upper’ who scuttled past their windows, banging loudly on them. Now he was replaced by alarm clocks. People began to get anxious about time. They worried about missing their trains and being late for work. If they clocked in even a minute late at the factory door, that day they would be docked fifteen, or thirty minutes’ pay. Time controlled people. Time punished them.

So if all the clocks were stopped, or beamed up by aliens, maybe we would be happier? Chaos to start with, no doubt. People would shamble in to work whenever they felt like it – all people, not just important people. People would leave whenever they’d had enough. Or if it was a sunny afternoon and they felt like sitting in the park eating sandwiches. Hallelujah!

I think I might try it, you know. Not now, with winter approaching and even the daytime chilly and damp. As I look out of my window, now, the sky has gone that saucepan grey it mostly is in Britain, beyond September. It’s starting to rain and raindrops spatter against my window. And the wind’s in the telegraph wires, so there’s more, and worse, to come. In a minute I will draw my curtains, as the over-the-road neighbours already have. No, I shall wait for summer, for a long, inviting day when the sun is shining. I shall turn all the clocks to the wall. I shall turn off my mobile phone and resist the temptation to just check my emails or just post a quick little something on my blog. I shall leave the TV off; I shall switch off the microwave with its glowing green numbers. I shall make myself some sandwiches and a flask of tea. I shall take a book and drive out into the country. I shall not listen to my car radio because every hour it would inform me that another hour of my life had gone – somewhere. I shall listen to the birds. I shall know the time, well enough for my purposes, because the light will change, fractionally, continually. I still have that skill, from childhood. All of us have that skill – it’s just looking. I will watch the sun and know that when it is directly overhead it’s noon, as near as makes no difference. And I shall come home when I’m tired, not when my watch tells me to. Ah, it all sounds so Perfect Day. Someone on YouTube describes it as ‘beautifully depressing’

Zanzibar the story, Zanzibar the poem

Years ago I won a short story competition with an entry entitled ‘Zanzibar’. The competition was in aid of the local comprehensive school library, so not exactly the World Cup of short story competitions, but it was judged by a Proper Lady Novelist and there were over 200 entrants. Beneath it, for interest, I’ll post a poem, Zanzibar, based on the same experience /observations.

(Pssst!) Truth to tell I won first, second and third prize in that competition, which doesn’t say much for the other 197 entries. Entries were anonymous and Proper Lady Novelist had taken it for granted that because Zanzibar was written through the eyes of a man the author must be male, and therefore couldn’t possibly be the same person who’d written at least one of the other two winning stories. This leaves one story unaccounted for, gender-wise. I just wonder how she ‘did’ her heroes when composing her heart-warming historical sagas? Perhaps her husband wrote them.

The prize was a day at her house. She’s no longer with us, but I remember she was very kind. I remember being worried that I had left the electric iron switched on, and having to phone my husband, also that I got cauliflower cheese for lunch, and we both got photographed perched on the edge of her fishpond by a journalist from the county newspaper. The article was mostly about her latest novel, just published, which was fair enough. I remember being pleased I had worn my heavy, dangly, star-shaped earrings. I had some like moons too. This must have been the eighties. I was also disappointed that in the photo I looked as if I had great rabbit teeth, like my paternal aunt, and I don’t. Really I don’t have great rabbit teeth…

ZANZIBAR: the prize-winning, but also somewhat puzzling, short story

A tannoyed announcement drifted across the gravel on a warm breeze, mixed with sparrow song and the rustling of leaves. ‘The train now approaching is the two forty-five for Hastings, Brighton, Bexhill and Zanzibar.’ The rails began to jingle as they always did when a train was on its way, followed by the metallic click of the crossing gates going down. The girl was sliding off her stool, picking up the carpet bag, throwing back her hair. ‘So long, Joe,’ she was saying. Something like that.

She was going. Misery hit him. By way of an instant antidote he began to rehearse his Last Request. He always said the same thing, very slowly and carefully so that the words didn’t fuzz. ‘Well, Joe, think I’ve got time for another?’ And when he had drunk his Last Request he would walk towards the door, also very carefully, and Joe, who was a tactful fellow, would keep his eyes on his polishing.

He opened his mouth but the words didn’t come because the girl was standing right in front of him, looking into his eyes. There was no condemnation in her gaze, only friendship and a kind of recognition. It was as if the two of them had always known each other, and not just in this life, in life before life, going back and back and back. ‘Come with me,’ was all she said, in a low but perfectly clear voice. Then she was walking away, her sandals tap-tapping away on the bare floorboards.

A tidal wave of hope, anger and indecision rose in Zak’s throat. She hadn’t spoken. He’d imagined it. Girls like that just didn’t say ‘Come with me’ to men like him. She probably hadn’t been here at all; he’d imagined the whole episode. It was a cruel mirage, another trick of the drink.

They say there are certain moments when your life flashes before your eyes. In this moment Zak saw the old brick shed at the weedy, forgotten end of the sidings, hired from British Rail. He saw stacks of warped pine doors leaning against the walls waiting to be stripped, smelt the cocktail of acids he used to do the work. He looked down at the holes the stuff had eaten into his jeans, the scars it had left on his hands. He saw Andrea, his wife of fifteen long years. Sour, skinny Andrea who paid most of the bills out of the earnings from her job at the Co-op and reminded him of the fact every day. Andrea, who preferred what she called ‘Light Classical’.

He heard the train doors slamming. He heard a sort of screaming coming from somewhere inside his body, felt tears welling up in his eyes, brimming over and pouring down his cheeks. The table went down with a crash. The whiskey glass bounced once only and then broke, shards going everywhere. He aimed himself at the familiar oblongs of frosted glass in the door, not being careful now, not caring what Joe thought. Wrenching it open by its cold brass handle he ran, ran, ran towards the train.

ZANZIBAR: the poem

‘After the eighth whiskey there is no other’.

Zak’s mind plays tricks, turning all into poetry

And he’s on the border, somewhere between

A little drunk and very, and he’s very

Sad, but in a sleepy way. Seven trains a day

On this little line, where the weeds grow thick

And the sidings trail away

Into poppies and nettles,

Old cats and dusty rail.

He’s in the Station Hotel at his usual table.

Through high Victorian windows

Sunlight’s falling on the landlord’s beloved

Railway collection. Zak sees his reflection

In dented brass, watches the sunshine bathing

Brown photographs, turning the lamp-glass green,

Making the Station Master’s cap,

Already faded, fade a little more. Time shudders

To a stop – he likes this effect.

Joe behind the bar is embalmed in the act

Of polishing a glass and a train door slams, maybe now

Or an hour ago. Footsteps come across the car-park gravel

But somehow never get here.

People materialise all the same, bar-stools fill and empty.

The more he sits the less surprised he is

By this. Like the girl, who is suddenly here

With her back to him, drinking Coca Cola, a carpet bag

Forgotten at her feet. She acts like she’s been here always,

Treats Joe like a friend, and yet

He could swear he’s never set eyes on her

Before.

He needs another whiskey but he doesn’t trust his legs.

For a minute he sees her, quite clearly,

In some African market or other, gold bangles

A-glitter at her wrist. She’s throwing her hair back

And beckoning, and laughing. The sky’s so blue

It hurts to look up, and the ground’s so hot

It hurts to stand. And Zak remembers, quite clearly,

What it was to be young. Which hurts

Most of all.

Her train’s arriving and she’s sliding

Down off the stool and coming over to him. She’s

Standing right in front of him now and my God

She’s so beautiful and saying Come with me,

Just like that, but of course

She couldn’t be. And she’s gone.

And he’s trying not to think

It could have been real, simultaneously

Rehearsing his Last Request, Time for another one, Joe?

He knows Joe will look the other way as he makes it

The chair-strewn mile to the bar, and pretend not to see

How desperate he is for that golden oblivion, hear

How slurred he’s sounding. Joe’s a good bloke, Joe is.

Doors are slamming. Suddenly

Zak’s howling like a dog, the glass is shattering,

He’s up and staggering

Full tilt, longing beyond all longing

For bangles and hope, hejira

And the train to

Zanzibar.

The poem’s better, isn’t it? It’s got some of the actual pain in it. I am guessing it was written first.