But I want to be a POET!!!

Nobody trained my parents. I mean, parents are supposed to provide Guidance, right? But nobody seems to have told my parents that. In any case, we were working class and so weren’t actually going to have careers, right? People like Us had jobs, if we were lucky. And we hung on to our precious jobs, because They might not give us other jobs, if we were to lose them. People like Us accepted we’d have to barter most of our short little lives for money.

I remember only one conversation with my parents about careers. It was when we had to choose our O Level subjects. The school sent a form, with tick-boxes. At some point during this conversation – heated and tearful, like all our conversations – one of them asked Well what do you want to do with your life? And I remember wailing

But I want to be a POET!!!”

And them making that suppressed snorting noise that parents make, and telling me no one ever made any money out of being a POET and I should pick something sensible like being a TYPIST!!!

But really, I was right. What I wanted to be was what I actually was. I WAS a poet. But really, they were right. Nobody ever made any money out of it.

Shortly thereafter I taught myself to touch-type on two different mechanical typewriters – the sort that have ribbons that are one half black and one half red, for some reason and that you never really do learn to change when they run out. I was fast and accurate on the letter keys, slower and less accurate on the numbers (I abhorred numbers) and eventually I got myself a job, in fact a series of jobs, being a typist.

I continued to scribble poems in my spare time. I was a good poet, if I says so myself, as shouldn’t. And of course I had visions of my gem-like offerings twinkling from the pages of the Sunday Supplement Magazines. In my head, I was lined up for an interview with someone like Melvyn Bragg on some sort of TV Book Programme. There I was, hair swept up in some much longer and slightly birds-nesty hairdo, eccentric-yet-stylish in fringed shawls and Laura Ashley prints, lounging in some black leather armchair by a roaring fire, being effortlessly intelligent and witty for all the world to see. I was revered, my genius rewarded.

In the meantime, I carried on typing, really fast, and my hands grew gnarly and thin from all that hammering of the keys. People tended to ask me if I played the piano, because I definitely had piano-player’s hands. Long, long fingers, flexible, prehensile, splayed at the ends. Nails cut – or bitten – short. I carried on typing year after year. My hands began to hurt, suddenly, when I went to open a door or reached out for something. That damage never went away.

So – the sad story of a poet manqué.

I am no longer good at poems. My muse slunk off into the desert early on, as the muses of poets have a tendency to do, burnt out or bone idle. However, in the last few weeks has occurred to me that what I am still good at is Short. I can write Short Stuff. Anything up to a thousand words, it just sort of flows, occasionally veritably cascades out of me. Anything over a thousand words and things rapidly go wrong. I’m like one of those little clockwork puppies. Wind me up and I buzz around busily and turn the occasional somersault, all furry and appealing. Then the clockwork stops and there’s me stranded, mid table-top.

With an effort I cranked up my imagination again – clouds of dust from the ears – and started jotting down flash fiction ideas in notebooks. At first it was one idea a day: now I can’t stop them. Soaking in the bath, in the middle of washing up, or half way through a phone conversation or a really good film and – blast it, another four or five ideas. So many pesky ideas I couldn’t actually get started on writing them, till today. Today I have written one, and it didn’t take me any longer than a blog post.

But then, it isn’t any longer than a blog post. So – Yay!

From Mum’s Old Recipe Book: Scones

Friend Daisy just tactfully pointed out that I forgot to include the quantity of breadcrumbs in Mum’s previous recipe. It’s 3oz wholemeal, and I have now corrected the recipe. You see, this is why I was a mediocre (looking kindly upon it) legal secretary and Daisy was a so much more excellenter one…

[Warning: if English is not your first language and you are using this rather odd blog to practice reading English – please do not employ that last sentence in an essay or drop it into casual conversation. You want to write proper English like wot other people writ it.]

Daisy is a very fast typist, conscientious and with an eagle eye for errors. I am a very fast typist but an impatient, slip-sloppy one who tends to lose interest in what she has typed the minute she has typed it. (Heavy sigh!)

Anyway, scones. Hopefully I can get this right as Mum’s scones were one of her best things. I still remember that waft delicious hot-air aroma when she opened the oven door…

SCONES – Recipe dated 27th August 1990 (Mum: These are good!)

8oz (ounces) plain flour

2 tbsp (tablespoons) sugar

Pinch of salt

1 tsp (teaspoon) Bicarb (Bicarbonate of Soda)

2 tsp Cream of Tartar

(Goodness, can you even buy Cream of Tartar nowadays? Isn’t ‘Baking Powder’ a ready-made mixture of Bicarb and Cream of Tartar anyway?)

2oz margarine

5 tbsp milk

Method –

Sift flour & mix all dry ingredients together

Rub in margarine

Add milk & mix to a dough

Roll out to about 1″ (inch) thick & cut into rounds

Place a greased baking tray and brush over top with beaten egg or milk

Place in a pre-heated oven

Turn out onto a wire rack to cool

Servings: 8 scones

Small (?) oven: 220ºC –   10 – 15 minutes – middle shelf

Fan oven: 210ºC –   8 – 10 minutes

Variations

  • 4 oz wholemeal flour instead of 4 oz plain flour
  • 3 oz grated cheese & 1/2 tsp mustard. Omit sugar
  • 3 oz mixed dried fruit
  • 1 oz dates, chopped and 1oz walnuts, finely chopped

Mum: The above variations should be added before the addition of milk to the dough

The Kama Sutra Mystery

My Uncle and Aunt invited me down to Devon when I was sixteen. I was to stay for a week. To this day I’m not sure why they suddenly took it into their heads to invite me. Childless themselves, maybe they were assessing me for an inheritance. If only that had worked out. Maybe my parents had secretly begged for me to be taken off their hands.

I doubt if my Uncle and Aunt were enchanted by me either – a sullen, awkward lump of a teenager with nothing to say, who insisted on going to church on her own on Sunday and spent most of the time holed up in the spare room of their narrow Victorian mid-terrace hammering away on a black Imperial typewriter she had found there. What was I writing, I wonder? Something terribly creative but not terribly good, probably.

My Uncle was blind – well, as good as. He had those creepy gobstopper glasses. Green glass, perfectly round. At that point he was still keeping up his bicycle round as a door-to-door collector of insurance premiums. He had an inner map of all the streets in Exeter, and navigated using this. When I visited years later, with my new husband, we managed to get ourselves hopelessly lost in some godforsaken suburb of the city. I had come down on the train when I visited before, so I had no idea how to drive there. We telephoned Auntie for help but Uncle answered and proceeded to talk my then-husband through the entire route to their house in the town centre from memory; which still doesn’t explain how he managed to stay on his bicycle when he couldn’t see more than an inch in front of him.

Uncle was bold, quite fearless and seemingly unaware of danger. Walking with him on the quayside at Brixham one afternoon, my Aunt and I were in a constant state of fear, ready to retrieve him as he strode towards fallen ropes, anchors and bollards as if they couldn’t possibly exist, and somehow managed to avoid them all. Later, though, he wasn’t so lucky. Someone had left open a pavement hatch leading to a coal-cellar, and down he tumbled.

On the night of the moon landing he stayed up all night in an armchair, leaning forwards, his nose pressed almost against the glass of their tiny black-and-white TV. ‘Your Uncle will be in a very bad mood by morning,’ my Aunt warned me. ‘Best we stay out of his way.’

They were an odd couple to look at – she a gawky, big-hipped, toothy six footer – far taller than other women of her generation – he a small, round man with a West Country accent thicker than clotted cream. They had met at night school somehow – quite how I don’t know, given the geographical separation between Devon and Kent – and married when my Aunt was over thirty and well-settled into the old-maidhood for which she seemed to have been designed.

Instead, Uncle whisked her off to Devon to spend many years running round after her mother-in-law, who despised this unexpected ‘foreign’ giantess of a daughter-in-law and quickly developed dementia. Years later, Uncle also got dementia, so Auntie was destined for the double whammy. But in between these two episodes of horror there would be a good few decades of peaceful companionship. My Aunt was a patient woman and content with very little – visits to the allotment; a part-time job in the Post Office; a never-to-be-realised fantasy of one day retiring to Herne Bay, where she would open a genteel cake shop on the sea front, and a series of semi-adopted neighbourhood cats, all known as David.

It may have been that night or another when I discovered paperback copies of The Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden in the bookcase, in my attic room. Full colour illustrations  of exotic, glassy-eyed men and ladies doing strange things to one another with oddly abstracted expressions. They were concealed by a row of dull Fabian Society pamphlets and thick layer of dust.

I read them, of course, then hid them again. It added a certain spice to the week and I learned quite a bit, though nothing that was to come in very useful, really. Whatever Cosmopolitan said, there never seemed to be a lot of call for all those contorted and excruciating positions… ah, well. I did memorise a number of words that have come into their own recently in Scrabble, so they weren’t wasted.

But the mystery remains: which of them had been reading The Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden, given that Uncle was blind and Aunt so very school-girlish and corseted?

And why, exactly?

Eighty Words A Minute

It was February and the wind was bitter, the municipal park

Empty apart from us, who’d come to honour

Cynthia’s redundancy. I’ve got my skills, was all she had to say,

Eighty words a minute, girls, they can’t take those away.

 

It’s not the end of the world, she said.

So we slopped the wine into the paper cups

And drank to the world not having ended, quite,

And the cold wind blew away

 

The perfume she always called Anay Anay.

Those long nails curled around her cigarette,

Those narrowed eyes, that mouth made smaller still

To drag the smoke inside.

 

She clattered up and down on spiked heels

And every now and then she’d pause to stare

Hard down into the patent leather,

As if to read her future clearer there.

 

She’s got her skills, they can’t take those away.

They take your face and your fertility,

The bloom of youth, your sexuality,

Your hope, your laughter and your dignity,

But eighty words a minute – no, they won’t take those away.