Keep Calm And Carry On

This phrase – famous from mugs, biscuit tins tea towels and whatever – was invented by the British Government in 1939 just before the start of the Second World War. It was a motivational poster intended to carry the British populace through such horrors as the Blitz, and to remind them that the British were famous for their Stiff Upper Lip. I can’t imagine what a Stiff Upper Lip looks like, in practice, can you? How did they communicate, with all that stiffness going on?

For some reason, in spite of the Blitz actually Happening and turning out to be Even Worse than Anybody Could Have Imagined, the poster was hardly used.

I was thinking it’s a bit like that now. Still no motivational poster, while we wait, with a growing sense of Foreboding, for those superpower idiots to stumble into bombing and nuking – or maybe horribly gassing and poisoning – the hell out of one another, presumably in and around what’s left of Syria. And in the meantime a military grade nerve agent, apparently capable of wiping out the entire population of the UK, is used on a former Russian spy and his daughter on the quiet streets of – of all places – Salisbury. Until now, nothing of note ever happened in Salisbury. People who don’t live there are not even sure where it is. It was just getting on with things, minding its own business.

But we are the British. We possess Stiff Upper Lips. We Keep Calm and Carry On. Apparently. But it seems to me that that is what ordinary people, everywhere, tend to do. Mostly.

My Mum had what they then called a Nervous Breakdown, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time I wasn’t aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and only aware of my Mum’s Nervous Breakdown because it involved what seemed to me like Years of lying on the sofa taking aspirins every four hours, and Nan coming along the road to do Mum’s housework after she had done her own, and me getting ignored and understanding that this was all My Fault. Indeed, my father told me it was My Fault. Mine and my sister’s, for fighting so much.

The thing Mum was most worried about, she told me later, was the Atomic Bomb. The Atomic Bomb was about to fall on all of us, any day now, and we would be just like the people in Hiroshima, reduced to piles of smoking ash, black shadows on walls or irradiated to death. Now we all live with that, don’t we? It’s got old and tired, and we no longer have Nervous Breakdowns over it. Indeed, we no longer have Nervous Breakdowns. We get Tired and Emotional, or we suffer from Exhaustion and have to book ourselves into some Clinic or other, for Cognitive Therapy.

All over the world, we carry on; we wash the dishes and put out the rubbish; we feed our pets and fill in our tax returns; we grumble because the bus hasn’t turned up – again; we wonder whether we should mow the lawn, or is it too wet still? There is nothing whatsoever we can do about the Bigger Picture: having no power to do anything else we focus on our postage-stamp lives and hope that somehow or other Armageddon will give us a miss.

Yesterday – apropos of nothing, or something, not sure – I took Fifi to the vet to get her claws clipped. For months she had been hooking up on one bit of furniture or another. It was time. But Fifi didn’t think so. Fifi is a tiny tabby, old and kind of frizzy looking, but on the nurse’s table she turned into a Wild Beast. It took two nurses to hold her, plus the application of a teensy-tiny muzzle that covered her whole face so she couldn’t see and being wrapped in a thick blanket. The nurses wrestled with poor Fifi, whose snarls and spitting could be clearly heard in the waiting room, and finally the claws were clipped. “If only you could have just Kept Calm, Fifi,” said one of the nurses, “it would all have been over with in a few seconds.”

But cats, unlike humans, are not programmed to Keep Calm And Carry On.

keep calm 2

Who made honey long ago

I tend to wamble around the house these days, opening books at random. In search of what? Entertainment? Inspiration? It may be that, having still not learned that most difficult of all lessons, I am still hoping the Meaning of Life will jump out at me one of these days.

The older I get, the shorter my attention span. I am like Edmund Blunden’s honey bee, buzzing around the sunlit meadow of incipient old age, sipping at nectar here, nectar there…

Like the bee that now is blown

Honey-heavy on my hand,

From his toppling tansy-throne

In the green tempestuous land, –

I’m in clover now, nor know

Who made honey long ago.

That poem, Forefathers, was one of the first I ‘discovered’ having crossed the threshold. I should explain. At some point, whilst still at school, poetry ceased to be one of the dire somethings that teachers tormented me with – not quite as dire as algebra, perhaps, and nowhere near as dire as netball, but dire. Maybe it happened as they were reading me Poem in October or The Wild Swans at Coole – or even during an argument between a Jehovah’s Witness girl and our poetry master, over the lines I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids / Sprouting despondently at area gates…  (there was no such thing as the soul, she maintained, and got dragged off to the headmistress’s office by the left ear for maintaining it). Whenever it happened, at some point poetry morphed into one of the loves of my life.

Forefathers, the Edmund Blunden poem – I discovered it in a little book A New Anthology of Modern Verse 1920 – 1940. And it was modern. That particular edition was published in 1943. Below the junk shop owner’s pencilled 25p someone has written in faded blue-black ink, what looks like Tring (but can’t be) – with love, Xmas 1943. Even handwriting was different in those far off days. The cheap paper is by now the colour of cappuccino, together with sprinkles. Foxing, they call that – the mottled brown spots old books, like old people, develop in extreme old age.

How lovely it is, to have a book you can hold in your hands and turn the time-buckled pages of. Such a book has its texture (cheap cloth over board), its colour (a streaky red, faded almost to pink) and a smell (dust; dried-out and crumbling glue; possibly Players cigarettes, the sort people used to buy in packets of ten, with cards inside depicting famous footballers in strange, long shorts, and well-known Shakespearian characters). A book is a thing in and of itself, not just its contents stripped out and digitally stored.

Forefathers may not even be a good poem. I no longer bother to categorise poems as good or bad: I either like them or I don’t. Maybe it’s a sentimental poem – in fact it probably is. When a country is at war its people cling to that all-important myth of their homeland. Our myth is of Englishness and goes beyond hobbits in hobbit-holes, long-bearded, wand-wielding wizards and forests full of Ents. Probably everyone has their own myth of England.

My England seems to contain larks ascending from sunlit cornfields, cumulus clouds lumbering across endless green hills, little lakes hidden among (relatively) little mountains. I’m not ashamed – too old to be ashamed – maybe it also contains that ploughman, wending his weary way through the churchyard, with its drunken gravestones; a village blacksmith or two; country choirs; A E Coppard’s higgler traipsing round the villages selling ribbons, saucepans and patent medicines for a living; convivial harvest suppers and yes, maybe even a wooing or two, lit by the Huntsman’s Moon.

Men enlisted to defend this poetic vision of an England that never was, which they perfectly understood never actually was – rather the everyday England of corned beef, chilblains, soggy fish-and-chips and queues for almost everything. This vision, I (hesitantly) suggest, is what politicians and city stockbrokers utterly failed to take into account, and are still overlooking whilst wittering endlessly on about how Brexit was Not Supposed to Happen: not a thuggish, Union Jack and knuckle-duster-wearing racism; not plebeian ignorance and the lack of a university education; not a sudden national obsession with border control; nothing at all like Donald Trump and his band of redneck followers; not the arrant selfishness of old folks who ought to just die and let young folks have what they imagine, at the moment, they want; not even the prospect of being able to make our own laws again – who, really, gives a stuff about laws? – but the heartfelt need for England. I saw a bit of film of an old man crying after the vote. I’ve got my country back, he said.

Incidentally, and on a lighter note, I learned quite a lot from that poem – the word ‘thew’ for instance – so useful for Scrabble.

These were men of pith and thew…

Pith and thew, don’t you just love the sound them, whatever they mean?

tansy

And I learned there was such a thing as a tansy-flower. It was to be many years before, thanks to Google Images, I actually saw a picture of a tansy and noted that its petals were of a very distinctive pale gingery yellow – which was exactly the hair-colour of the only lady I ever met by the name of Tansy. I suppose Tansy must have been born with a full head of hair, or at least a reasonable covering. Otherwise how could her parents have known to call her Tansy? I mean, if she’d been born bald, as most babies seem to be, she could have ended up as a Poppy, or a Violet, a Rose or even – perish the thought – a Prune-ella.

The day the war was won

Nan told me about the day the war was won,

How they stood on the back step shading their eyes from the sun,

How the aeroplanes came howling, howling by,

Scorching black patterns in the August sky.

After the aeroplanes, the song of the birds –

After the birds,

Came I.

 

The war grew in her garden – London Pride,

Poppies enough to drug the days away,

An air-raid shelter for a garden shed –

Tug at the door, feel the hot air burst free,

Sour with old earth, and poison for the weeds –

Those rusty spades, those trapped and shrivelled spiders

Hanging in corners.

spitfire

 

I was blasted in that garden before I grew,

A disregarded child who knew

Nothing, heard nothing, part of the scenery,

One with the nodding of foxgloves, the buzz of the bee.

I was never real at all, just one of their dreams,

Caught in the aftermath,

A kind of lie.

Of sunlit lakes and poisoned apples

I am going to the theatre tomorrow evening, for an audience with two very elderly ladies who worked as code-breakers at Bletchley Park during the war. This has reminded me of a trip to Bletchley Park itself.

I went with friend K on one of those elderly persons’ mini-coach trips. We saw ourselves as two sprightly spring chickens, uncomfortably roosted in narrow seats just behind the driver, adrift in a sea of white curly perms, half-mast trousers and walking frames. We felt out of place. Oddly, the owners of said perms, trousers and walking frames didn’t seem to notice this.

I have had other depressing, age-related experiences. Not long ago my sister and I went to view a dementia care home – the same one, in fact, that our mother moved into yesterday. We assumed it was pretty obvious that we were visitors, being under the age of eighty. However, eighty and ninety year-olds came surging forward to welcome us – the two charming new lady residents. We’d like it there, they said. It was a nice place. Bright and sunny. Good food. Even a cat.

Much further back in time – soon after my divorce when Mum and Dad were trying to keep me amused, thereby forestalling an inconvenient and expensive daughterly nervous breakdown – I went with them on a visit to the Dickens Museum in Rochester. Granted it was a filthy, cold day and tipping it down with rain, and we were all wearing dripping anoraks with the hoods up. All the same, it was an irritation when the lady at the till offered us three Senior Citizens tickets.

bletchley2

Anyway, K and I sat on this sunshine-yellow minibus for a very, very long time. I never realised the rush hour traffic jams into London continued until eleven o’clock in the morning. But it was worth it to be in the actual Bletchley Park, where all that clever stuff happened during the war. It’s a big old house with a gravel driveway, and a lake with sun glinting on its mildly rippling surface. It’s one of the few museums – in fact the only museum – that I would be happy to visit more than once. Code-breaking used one of my fantasies, you see – doing something absorbing, secret and clever in the service of the Nation, in a remote, grand, quiet place surrounded by lawns, with a lake – and not in any physical danger.

As the novelist John Braine pointed out in How to Write a Novel, it is quite possible to be born with the strongest of ‘callings’ to write yet possess not a shred of ability to do so. A cruel irony, he said. So it was with me, the fantasy code-breaker. As a child I was always making up complicated little codes in old school notebooks, then forgetting how they worked or losing interest. I was no good at any of the things that might have helped, such as mathematics or chess. I could only do crosswords if they had sensible clues – anything slightly cryptic and I was mystified. I’ve never even won a game of Scrabble.

But for me the saddest association with Bletchley Park will always be its star performer, Alan Turing, and the terrible waste of a promising life. I know times were different then but still I find it hard to forgive those 1950s types for hounding, prosecuting and finally chemically castrating him because he admitted to a policeman that he was gay. No matter that he was a genius, and probably Asperger’s, and vulnerable. And now they exonerate him, now they bother to apologise – so many years after he lost all hope and injected the cyanide into the apple.

turing

Winning Ways With a Scarf

Apparently, the above knitted monstrosity represents an Ewok, which is something to do with Star Wars. It certainly looks cosy. I just don’t think I could carry it off, particularly at the Gulbenkian Theatre.

I’ve been thinking about clothes again. This is because tomorrow – yes, tomorrow (silent, childlike handclapping) I am due for one of my thrice-yearly outings. NB: apparently it is now considered poor English to say ‘thrice’. You can say ‘once’, you can say ‘twice’ but when it comes to ‘thrice’ you are only now allowed to say ‘three times’. B******s to that – it’s my beloved language, and if it was good enough for Shakespeare it’s good enough for me.

Tomorrow I am going to meet my friend N at the University of Kent for The Bletchley Girls. I have written about my friend N before. N used to be my boss but by some miracle we managed to stay in touch and become friends after I left the firm. I have written before about student productions N and I have attended at the Gulbenkian (a theatre on campus at the University of Kent) and also of the illicit amusement to be had from student productions, in Some Fairly Substantial Fairies. (It seems to be a day for links today; what a fiddle links are). This, however, looks like a nice change from that. It’s an evening with two ladies, Ruth Bourne and Pat Davies, both now in their nineties, who were part of the predominantly female work force at Bletchley Park during the last war, working night and day to intercept messages and break codes. Ruth Bourne was eighteen at the time, a naval rating selected to operate the Bombe – one of genius Alan Turing’s machines.

It sounds good – nothing to be sniggered at over coffee in the interval there (unlike A Midsummer Night’s Dream). However, my mind has turned to more mundane matters. What to wear for it.

I was never very good with clothes, even when I worked for N in a posh office. It was always something of a struggle to compose my ‘look’ for the day, and sometimes I got it wrong and had to cower around all day in the wrong dress or even – more than once – non-identical shoes. You have to just keep your feet under the desk when you do that. Another tip – if yoghurt spills down your office blouse just before a client comes in – on with the cardigan and clutch it casually around you. Yet another – if skirt hem starts to unravel and no handy sewing kit in desk, staple said skirt. Aim sharp side of staple outwards otherwise – if tights ladder, arrest that run with a blob of nail-varnish or – if really desperate, soap. Soap tends to let you down.

The only thing I did get complimented on was my scarves. Year upon year there used to be a class advertised in the prospectus for the Adult Education Centre – Winning Ways With a Scarf, by Mrs Minnie HaHa, or something similar. Every year I planned to sign up for it, but never did. It sounded so like the one in the Joyce Grenfell monologue – Useful and Acceptable Gifts. I just seem to have a natural gift for impressive scarf-flinging. My niece taught me a new one a few years back – the back-to-front one that makes you look like Lawrence of Arabia. The trouble is, you can’t exactly venture out in an impressively-flung scarf and ‘nowt else.

arab scarf

Gosh, that’s a monster of picture. I thought it was going to be teensy.

[My father, by the way, danced with Joyce Grenfell in India. During the war. She would have been 106 if she hadn’t died in 1979. And drove her back to the railway station afterwards. Thought you’d like to know that. He was so proud.]

But now of course, there’s the money situation. I always wondered why old ladies’ clothes looked as if they had come from charity shops. Now I understand. It’s because they haven’t been able to buy any new ones for many, many years and the clothes have become… limp and vaguely grey. Eventually, presumably, if you carried on wearing them for a century or so, they would actually be all the same colour. Grey is the new… everything. Garments are quite substantial nowadays. They don’t tend to wear out, whatever Marks & Spencer would have you believe. They just gently, sadly, wilt.

What one has to do in this situation, Gels, is aim for the least unacceptable and/or least noticeable look. This will probably involve faded black leggings and the sale-reduced black ‘going out’ dress again. It’s so old it just kind of dangles, miserably from the hanger – no perk left in it at all. Or maybe I could aim for trousers and a cardigan with… something or other, possibly a tee shirt, under the cardigan. With a scarf to disguise or at least distract from its tee-shirt-ness. And footwear – well, it’s probably going to have to be the boots, even though it’s May and the sun has inconveniently started to shine. It’ll be evening. Bound to be a bit chilly and boot-suitable by evening. Or the flat shoes that start to pinch after half an hour but can be taken off in the car. I can drive barefoot. Except there’s all those bits of glass lingering around from when the neighbours’ ridge-tile crashed through the windscreen in a gale. It’s a toss-up between cuts or blisters, really.

No doubt one will cease to worry once in there and safely ensconced in one of those midget, itchy theatre seats. Have to stack the legs sideways to avoid pins and needles… No doubt Joyce Grenfell would have had to do the same.

But then of course, Dad being 6 foot 4, height wouldn’t have been a problem…

grenfell.png

The pig that walked away

He was unpredictable, my Dad. Most of the time I was afraid of his footsteps, homecoming; the sudden vicious swoop of his right hand; the stinging slaps; the turn of the key in some lock, with me on one side and him on the other. But I was even more afraid of the hectoring, the badgering, the elaborate sarcasm and the winding up. I had no defence to those.

He had a way with words, my Dad: he didn’t have to stop and think about them, they just came out. That’s where I got it from, this little gift, this way with words. He used them sometimes to write, more often to bully. I use them most often to write but I too, on the half-handful of occasions when rage has got the better of me, have unleashed that river of abuse at some cringeing offender and have failed to stop, when enough would have been enough. I felt that same joy, you see, the same joy he did. If you’re capable of doing something that well, however much you hate yourself, you long to let it rip. It’s a beautiful verbal violence; it’s like magic all bottled up and fizzing; you’ve become the box Pandora foolishly opened; you are what she unleashed upon the world.

But he wasn’t always Bad Daddy, and he did love us. He even loved me though I didn’t know that until he was far too old to tell me and I was far too old for it to matter much any more. I have happy memories of him too, and now that he is gone, I miss him more and more.

I prefer to recall his endless stock of “ditties”, and how he loved to sing foolish songs and recite nonsensical verses. Words for words’ sake, for their sound as much as their meaning: he was my first teacher in this regard. His material was drawn from a variety of sources, all before my time – music-hall, popular music, the military, in which he had so recently been an unwilling conscript. Nellie The Elephant was one of his favourites. We all used to sing that one:

Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk and waved goodbye to the circus…

Elephants also featured in a little poem:

A wonderful bird is the elephant/ It flits from bough to bough / It makes its nest in a rhubarb tree/ And whistles like a cow.

Then there were the peas and honey:

I eat my peas with honey/ I’ve done so all my life/ It makes the peas taste funny/ But it keeps them on the knife.

There was Jemima’s Uncle, forever swimming in circles:

Oh Jemima, look at your Uncle Jim/ He’s in the duckpond learning how to swim/ First he does the back-stroke and then he does the side/ And now he’s under the water swimming against the tide.

There was the monologue about the Little Yellow God:

There’s a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Khatmandu/ There’s a little marble cross below the town/ There’s a broken-hearted woman tends the grave of Mad Carew/ And the Yellow God forever gazes down.

There was Stanley Holloway’s lugubrious tale of The Lion and Albert:

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool/ That’s noted for fresh air and fun/ And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom/ Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was young Albert/ All dressed in his best; quite a swell/ With a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle/ The finest that Woolworth’s could sell…

There’s the song about the pudding:

All of a sudden a blooming great pudding came flying through the air/ It missed me Ma and hit me Pa/ And knocked him off his chair.

But our joint favourite was the poem about the pig that walked away:

One evening in October/ When I was about one-third sober/ And was taking home a load with manly pride/ My poor feet began to stutter/ So I lay down in the gutter/ And a pig came up and lay down by my side. Then we sang “It’s All Fair Weather”/ And “Good Fellows Get Together”/ Till a lady passing by was heard to say/ She says, “You can tell a man who boozes/ By the company he chooses”/ And the pig got up and slowly walked away.

I remember visiting Dad in hospital for what turned out to be the last time, and making myself take his hand. My hands are a mirror-image of his, as it happens – veins and knobbles in the same places, odd flattened fingertips, even the same size. I had never voluntarily touched him before.

“Warm,” he said. “Warm.”

 

 

The One-Hit Wonder

You’ve been granted magical engineering skills, but you can only use them to build one gadget or machine. What do you build?

I can think of a couple of gadgets/widgets I’d like to invent for me, but that’s pretty selfish. So, first, on a global, political level something in the nature of a Loaves & Fishes Machine for feeding the Many Millions, or Instant Rocket Vaporising Clouds to make it impossible for one lot of people to drop bombs on another just because they can. That’s the trouble; I can never just pick one thing. Give me a simple choice and everything… fractures.

Still political, but slightly more fantastical: I would breed a fox that could dress itself up in jodhpurs, a cravat and a smart red jacket (which it would refer to as ‘hunting pink’), heave itself up onto a horse, consume some nice mince pies and glass or two of champagne and then spend all day galloping about the countryside with a pack of hounds, chasing down any convenient human-being to the point of exhaustion, then encourage the dogs to rip the verminous creature apart, still alive. My fox would then return to its luxury lair, well satisfied for having Upheld British Tradition and been So Very Much More Civilised than the foxes of Less Advanced Societies.

And finally, something frivolous but extremely useful – to me. I would invent a Mechanical Moggie Maintenance Module. An hour or so before my alarm clock went off, the M.M.M.M. would silently detach herself from her Charging Pod and start wafting about, collecting innumerable little plastic bowls full of half-eaten cat food, scraping them into the kitchen bin, washing them up in steaming, sudsy water, drying them and stacking them neatly in the cupboard. She would refill a variety of water-bowls, upstairs and down. She would fill up a whole new set of little bowls with fresh cat food and distribute them at strategic distances around kitchen floor and work-surfaces so that every cat got at least some fresh meat and no snarly fights broke out.

She would go outside, in sunshine, snow or hurricane force winds, to put more food out in the dogless dog-kennel for innumerable neighbourhood strays. She would squelch or, more efficiently, hover the length of the rain-soaked lawn to feed the birds.

Then she would come indoors and start on the dirt boxes.

Oh yes, she would start on those…

 

 

In the darkness on the edge of town

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

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

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

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

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

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

… Angelfish, Pufferfish, Guppy, Molly, Piranha…

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

‘Jumble Sale,’ she said.

gregg shorthand

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

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

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

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

‘Please, Mummy, please.’

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

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

gregg alphabet

Sort of purple and hazy

You know those anxiety dreams where you just miss the bus, or the train? Story of my life.

I just missed out on a lot of things. I just missed out on the War. I just missed out on rock and roll, I just missed out on being a hippie and I just missed out on all that New Age mumbo-jumbo: all the stuff I would have been interested in, all the stuff I really needed to know. Just my luck.

The War – I was born a few years too late. I arrived, and was instantly labelled a Baby Boomer, and the minute they give you a label you cease to be anything else. Worldwide, around eighty million human beings may have been lost between 1939 and 1945 during ‘the deadliest military conflict in history’. This estimate includes not just soldiers but civilians, those who died from war-related disease and famine and the prisoners of war who died in captivity. Post-war, young marrieds everywhere did their patriotic duty, whether they were aware of it or not, labouring (literally) to restore the balance. The result was a tidal wave of babies, a lumpy, unmanageable and now increasingly unpopular ‘bulge’ in the population stats, destined to become the hippies of the sixties and seventies. Through no fault of their own they are now, or will shortly be, clogging up our monstrous, overspent, inefficient National Health Service and forcing the younger generation to work harder and harder in order to generate enough taxes to keep everything going.

Like most women in those days, Mum and Nan were Housewives, totally dependent on their men for money; their role – to stay home, clean, tidy and replenish the house, do the cooking, washing-up, laundry and shopping, raise any children and Keep Young & Beautiful. This was in order that their husbands, coming home from a hard day’s work, should not – as a result of a spreading waistline, the odd curler still a-dangle, unshapely eyebrows or a lack of careful make-up – be tempted to Stray. However, I don’t think all the women in those days minded it all that much, and I can understand why. As a stay-at-home Mum you can exercise your creativity through cooking, crafts and childcare, quite apart from being able to take up hobbies, raid the library or write novels, if so inclined.

I find the idea financial dependence on a man – or anyone – pretty nearly unbearable, but that’s just me. Bit of a Wild Thing. I’m not sure what a Wild Thing is, but it sounds good. I’d rather be as poor as a church mouse (as indeed I am) than hand to a man the power to decide, arbitrarily and without any significant knowledge of grocery shopping, how much housekeeping I ‘deserve’ at the end of each week; then have to scrimp and save out of that to buy myself headscarf or a second-hand book, or see a film.  As you can tell, feminism was the one thing I wasn’t too late for.

That being said, I envy the way women in those days had at least leisure to chat, listen to the radio and generally be themselves. Had I been able to stomach the ‘kept woman’ scenario – or been able to bear children, in which case I would have had no choice – I might have written more, and sooner, but I doubt if I would have written well. I would have missed out on the lifetime of learning, loss, muddle, fear, friends, struggle, chance encounters, odd jobs, strange bedfellows – some of them very strange – weird and appalling experiences, Getting By and Making Do Somehow – I now have to write about.

I got to hear quite a lot about the War, via the conversations that went on over my head while Mum and Nan were sitting in the kitchen, knitting. It was lucky for me that they lived at either end of the same street and would meet up several times a day. Grown-ups forget about children, if the children can manage to be forgettable enough. Once – I must have been throwing a tantrum – my mother called me a Prima Donna. I had to ask her what it meant, and was actually quite pleased when she explained. It was a step up from Diffident or Unaffectionate Child, Impossible Baby to Cuddle, etc. Being Diffident etc etc did have its advantages: I overheard a lot.

I heard about having to eat horsemeat, and what you could make from a blackout curtain or parachute silk. I heard about bombed buildings, and babies sleeping undisturbed in their cots, found amid the rubble. Under the kitchen table, hugging my little scabby knees to my chest, I heard about Nan’s experiences running a NAAFI canteen in Swindon in the War, and how they put the cabbage on to boil at ten in the morning and it was like seaweed by dinner time (and she had to throw the rice pudding out). I heard about Mum being evacuated to Wales to live in a cottage with Miners, and being forced to empty the chamber pots by the grand family in a country house near Canterbury, while my uncle was given the job of filling the coal-scuttle. I heard about painting your legs with gravy-browning when you didn’t have stockings, and drawing a line up the back to look like a seam. Maybe everyone is fascinated by the decade just before they were born. I went on to read as much about it as I could, and devoured all the Mass Observation books, made up of contemporary diary entries, or ‘reports’ sent in by ordinary people.

And then I just missed out on the original wave of American folk music, blues and rock and roll. I was just too late for Elvis – or rather he was still around but I saw no point in him. I probably wouldn’t even have realised I’d missed out, except that I married a man nine years my senior. Suddenly I was listening to his records, and to him singing and playing the guitar. This was my introduction to blues, folk and classical music. And even then I didn’t fully appreciate all that I’d missed, musically, still being contaminated with The Beatles, The Stones, The Dave Clark Five, Freddy and the Dreamers and all that sort of stuff. Ironically, long after husband and I were no longer an item I began to listen to that music again on my own account, and take an interest in classical music.

And then I just missed out on being a hippie. Oh, my mother thought I was a hippie, but that was because I never evinced much of an interest in wearing make-up (particularly eyebrow-pencil) a Playtex girdle or frilly blouses, or having my hair nicely permed. But I wasn’t – not really. I was certainly a bit on the shabby side because my tiny Tech College grant meant I had to buy my couture at Oxfam, but I was a few months – maybe even a year – too late. It had all happened, somehow, it had all jingled and jangled its way off into the rainbow-coloured sunset. And I was timid. I never experimented with LSD or smoked a reefer; I never danced in the sunshine at a festival or went to San Francisco wearing flowers in my hair. But doesn’t it look fun? Why wasn’t I there, Oh, why wasn’t I?

As it was, Free Love entirely passed me by. I went steady with a Maths student, half-Austrian and several inches shorter than me. He went off to teacher training college and so, abortively, did I – in another town. End of.

In the common-room some Hendrix look-alike practised what sounded like pretty good riffs all day, but how would I know? In the refectory I was stridden past (I’m groping dimly for the Past Perfect Progressive, or whatever that tense is, of strode past – help me out, someone…) by skinny, long-haired art students in eccentric hats, uncompromising tee shirts, big boots and scarecrow jackets. I was filled with admiration but for some reason I couldn’t actually be one of them, and was as invisible to them as I had been to Mum and Nan under the kitchen table.

And yet I think I am a natural hippie. For me it has never gone away, a way of thinking and being that I never got to manifest at the time. The ‘eighties went, and the ‘nineties, and I began at last to hear about and – thanks to Amazon – obtain copies of books on particle physics, psychoanalysis, philosophy, Zen, mysticism – anything that caught my eye – that were being written as I was being born and labelled a Baby Boomer; when I was a child at school; a teenager failing to play table tennis with the boys at Youth Club; a student and almost a hippie; an unhappy wife. One book led to another – sometimes I read several at once – and I started to see the connections between things – the way one academic discipline morphs into another, the way New Age becomes, imperceptibly, Science – the way it all adds up – the way people far apart in time and space can be approaching the same conclusion from different directions. I also became addicted to Amazon and second-hand paperbacks, which was ruinous to my finances. The postman/lady turned up every other day with yet another cardboard package, jiffy bag or brown-paper parcel – or sometimes a stack of them held together with elastic bands. I made notes, I made connections, I wondered, I thought about Stuff. Without realising it, I was knitting my own degree.

Visiting Granny Harrison: a ghost story

Nan is always doing things behind Mum’s back. She’s frightened of Mum because she’s naughty. Mum’s never naughty; she doesn’t smoke Players cigarettes from a silver case and doesn’t drink Emva Cream sherry in the mornings, and she doesn’t sing though sometimes she whistles Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag because Dad taught it to her and In A Monastery Garden which is on her Ronnie Ronalde whistling record, which I do not like the sound of at all and will not walk with her when she’s doing. Nan likes to sing, especially after her Emva Cream sherry. She sings I Like You Very Much which is by Carmen Miranda, a lady who wears a lot of fruit on her head; and Chase Me, Charlie which is about a lady who loses the leg of her drawers. Nan says drawers is the old word for knickers. She says knickers used to be pink and have legs right down to your knees, and you drew them up around your waist with a tape, which is why they were called drawers. I asked her once how the lady managed to lose a leg of them, and she said it was all Charlie’s fault.

carmen miranda 2.png

So it does not surprise me when Nan takes me up to have a chat with Granny Harrison in Saint Margaret’s graveyard instead of popping in at the Co-op to get Cream of Tartar and a couple of ounces of tea like she told Mum. Granny Harrison is Nan’s Mum, who died before I was born. I think it was when one of the Wars was on. I don’t know which one.

It is the middle of August and the sun beats down hard on the top of my head. It’s a long, uphill walk from Gallipoli Street to Saint Margaret’s. Grit has got inside my sandals, and it’s like walking on broken bits of eggshell. I want to empty them out and brush off the soles of my feet but once glance at Nan’s hurrying back makes me think again. She doesn’t want to stop. So I hobble along behind her and look forward to the overgrown churchyard grass and a chance to sit down and sort myself out.

The gate is old, wrought-iron and rusty. Luckily someone has fastened it back with hairy string. Saint Margaret’s is scary, its flint-made walls rise up in front of me, like Kevan the bully on the way home from school. I have to lean right back to see even a little bit of blue sky. Four uneven stone steps, a few paving stones spotted with confetti from last Saturday’s wedding, and then that big, chilly porch, so dark you can hardly see the side-benches and the black, studded door hidden inside. We tiptoe round the outside wall and into the graveyard, past the cupboard-in-the-wall where the vicar, according to Nan, keeps his watering can and spades. What she probably means is the gravedigger. Hard to imagine hollow-cheeked, hook-nosed Reverend Aldrich personally mowing, watering flowers or digging great holes in the ground.

I sit on a gravestone to sort out my sandals while Nan meanders around the gravestones, peering through mossy coverings, her lips moving as she reads one weather-worn inscription after another. I thought she would have known straight away where Granny Harrison was buried, that she would have been coming up here once a week, or once a month like the other village women to change the yellow water in the special vase and arrange fresh flowers through the metal holey bits. Like the old lady with the crooked back I now see over the way, pulling up fire-weeds and throwing them onto the heap by the stone wall. Gently, almost apologetically, she tugs at them, but they give way to her easily. Fire-weed, of course, doesn’t have much of a root. Nan tells me it’s called fire-weed because it flourishes in bomb craters, and the cooks-and-grannys in walls, between the pavement-stones. Nan hasn’t thought to bring new flowers for Granny Harrison, although there is a vase on the grave; Carmen Miranda seems to have deserted her today, as she sometimes does.

Mum says Nan suffers from very-sadness every once in a while. That’s why she goes away on the bus and we can’t go and see her. She goes to a big house called Sighlong, a long way away in the middle of a park with statues. It’s where the very-sad people go, and the people who believe they might be Jesus or Napoleon and march about wearing three-cornered hats, Mum says. And then she comes back and nobody talks to her about how she got on at Sighlong. She carries on as if she’s never been away and after a while Carmen Miranda comes back, and so do the Players Navy Cut and the Emva Cream, and Nan dances around the cherry tree in the garden with cherries draped over her ears singing eye-eye-eye-eye-eye-eye-like-you-very-much- eye-eye-eye-eye-eye-eye-think-you’re-grand and has no more screamy-nightmares for a while.

‘Here she is’. Nan beckons me over. We both kneel down in front of Granny Harrison’s grave, which is very overgrown and has stinging-nettles. It’s only a little gravestone, almost like the ones children have. Nan and I read the inscription together. It’s short.

  • MARY MAUDE HARRISON
  • Wife of Henry James Marten Harrison
  • 1841 – 1916
  • Resting

‘What does resting mean?’ I ask. ‘Isn’t she dead?’

‘It means she’s resting in the ground till the Last Trump,’ says Nan. ‘When the Last Trump sounds they all rise up, brush the earth and leaves and… worms and what-not off their Sunday clothes and walk towards the light.’

‘What light?’

‘There’s supposed to be a light. There’s supposed to be one, but I don’t know…’

I know not to ask any more because Nan is crying.

The old lady from over the way straightens up. It looks a bit painful, she has been bending for so long. I notice she has a veil, and black gloves. A wilting fire-weed dangles from one of them. She lets it fall, watching Nan carefully.

I want to help, but I don’t know what to do.

‘Shall I go and fetch a trowel, Nan? I expect the Vicar keeps one in his cupboard. We could do some weeding together.’

Nan doesn’t answer. Her head is bowed and her shoulders are shaking. I retreat to a safe distance, perch on a gravestone and wait, and it’s then that the old lady comes over. In fact I don’t see her come over. She’s just here. She puts one hand on Nan’s shoulder, and then rests the other one gently on the top of her head, just for a minute. Nan doesn’t seem to feel it.

And then the lady turns and walks away and I notice something quite funny. Under the lady’s stiff black jacket, with its buttons and black embroidery, her blouse is hanging out at the back, just a little, as if as if she left home in a hurry and forgot to tuck it into her the waistband of her long black skirt. It looks kind of silly, but I know I mustn’t laugh. It’s a very serious occasion.

Nan dries her tears and when we get back to my house Nan goes in for a cuppa with Mum. And Mum asks here where she has put the two ounces of tea and, come to that, the Cream of Tartar.

Nan looks at me, panic-stricken.

‘We went to the Rec and played on the swings,’ I say. The lie slides out of my mouth without my even needing to invent it.

‘It was so nice and sunny that we didn’t feel much like buying Cream of Tartar after all…’

Mum gives me one of her Looks.

‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I could swear you two are twins.’

‘How could we be…?’

Mum gives me another one of her Looks.

Mum and Nan make a pot of tea and carry it out on a tray, with two cups and two saucers and a glass of Barley Water for me; and they sit telling stories of olden times on two of the kitchen table chairs in the sunshine on the lawnwhile I sit at their feet making daisy-chains. I tend not to listen when they’re doing stuff like that. Or rather I do, but I’m listening to other things as well, like the bees buzzing, and the clouds whooshing by overhead. Clouds make a sound, you see, but nobody much seems to hear them. And I look at things like red ants mountaineering in the grass. And I wonder if I could get to Australia if I dug for a hundred years, and whether I would meet a Bunyip there so we could sit side by side on a log, biting our nails, and the grown-ups’ stories just wind in and out of my ears, like music. And Nan is telling Mum a story she already knows about Granny Harrison in the olden days. This is the story after the one about the favourite chicken that Granny Harrison killed by accident in the kitchen with her besom-broom and criedandcriedandcried. This is the one about the Sunday they all went to church, Granny Harrison, Nan and all her thirteen brothers and sisters, and they were walking down the aisle behind her to their own particular Harrison pew, and Auntie May noticed Granny’s shirt was hanging out at the back, and they all tried not to giggle but couldn’t help it, and Granny Harrison turned round with a face like thunder and…

Eternal Sunshine, Running Demons (2)

  • In the year 1718
  • ALEXANDER POPE
  • Finished the Fifth Book of Homer

Almost like a prisoner marking off the days of his captivity on the walls of his cell – although it has to be said that the real Pope did not remain entirely unvisited in this shabby remnant of a country house (most of the rooms, apart from the towers, had crumbled) and whatever gloom or pain he was suffering, it did not prevent him from writing witty letters to friends describing his surroundings. The second tower – the one Pope didn’t occupy – was entirely used as a kitchen. Cooking smoke rose up this vast, 70 foot ‘chimney’ and escaped through adjustable ‘wind holes’ in the top. The only light came in through these ‘wind holes’. The walls were blackened with the grease and soot of ages. There were two huge fireplaces, above which hung ‘tenterhooks’ (the origin of the expression) for hanging and smoking wild boar and bacon. In a letter to the Duke of Buckingham, Pope fills it with witches and installs Satan as Head Cook, stirring infernal cauldrons.

III

 O friend, if you should venture to that country,

Pass guardedly, be unseduced

By its too subtle promises of peace;

Its quiet is of a kind you should not seek.

Look not about you overmuch

Nor listen by the churchyard wall

Lest you should hear the words as soft as nightfall

Of death in promises kind but lecherous indeed.

Heed not the spirit of the twisted ash

Who counsels how to tie the noose;

Neither the spirit calling under the bridge

Where the long eel-grass twists to strangulation.

The sullen girl who smiles and shows her teeth

Is rather more than the common kind of slut:

The old man ploughing against the wind

Turns over more than soil; or in the pasture

Two men are digging not a trench –

A grave for all you know and all you hope.

Remember the weasel questing down the hedge,

The dead crow hanging from the oak.

This is a very ancient land indeed;

Aiaia formerly or Cythera

Or Celidon the hollow forest called;

This is the country Ulysses and Hermod

Entered afraid; by ageing poets sought

Where lives no love nor any kind of flower

Only the running demon, thought.

It’s a strange mixture, this poem. You have one landscape overlaying another. In Part III Keyes is fusing the ancient, mythological landscape of Britain – the one we all know about but would be hard put to define, beloved of High Fantasy writers. This is what happens to Middle Earth after Tolkien takes a wrong turn with the plot and it all goes wrong. This is fairyland, but of the Belle Dame Sans Merci variety. This is England, but overshadowed and tainted by war. In this sense only, Keyes might be called a war poet.

He is saying that the region of collective consciousness in which this version of England is to be found is essentially the same place as the one Ulysses passed through on his dangerous journey. He is merging Homer and Pope, mythological Greece and mythological England.

But Keyes was also a young man in the grips of unrequited love, and with an eccentric and rather overwrought attitude to women. At Oxford, whilst writing the poem, he was in the process of deciding to foreswear lovers altogether. He had high expectations of women but when they did not live up to his idealised version he tried to force them to change to conform to it. Understandably, they resisted this. He responded by despairing, and withdrawing from their company, to protect himself. If he had lived beyond twenty, this might have changed.

He may have distanced himself from physical relationships, yet there is an air of sex and seduction lurking in the background of Sour Land. Those spiteful serving girls; Helen, her face so beautiful it was said to have sunk a thousand ships; the girl who smiles and shows her teeth, right next to the spirit calling from under the bridge.

The poem is full of counterparts – the natural landscape with the psychological. The weasel questing down the hedge mirrors the running demon that jogs along the fallow. The long, eel grass, waving in the water, twisting to strangulation, mirrors Helen’s hair, in which Paris is drowning. Each part has its own bird or birds. Part I has the plover, club-winged and tumbling across the wind. The emphasis here is on lameness, deformity. Club-winged as in club-footed, tumbling as in uncertain movement. Part II has owls and lapwings – the emphasis here is on wisdom, and sharp pain. Part II has its dead crow. Farmers used to hang rows of dead birds as a kind of scarecrow, since crows and certain other birds are said to be able to recognize a dead bird as a sign of danger.

There is no escape in this place – the skies are dark and cloudy, the ponds are polluted with corpses, moonlight reveals shadowless demons, there is something nasty under the earth (The old man ploughing against the wind/Turns over more than soil); there is something lurking beneath the bridge; there is something waiting to strangle you in the water, the trees have spirits in them. This is a land of pure thought – the land, coincidentally, that Sidney Keyes was thinking of entering by renouncing the temptations of womankind. And the danger is in where it stops. He can renounce the physical side of life, but then will it stop there? Does reality itself begin to slip away, if not anchored by the physical side of life? He fears sliding into a realm of dreams and nightmares, from which there can be no return. This is the scenario he is exploring through his vision of Pope locked up in his tower.

Keyes died on the battlefield, in mysterious circumstances. No one saw him die, but months later a cross was found in the desert bearing his name. They could not positively identify him because no personal effects were found with the body.

Pope inherited an estate in Twickenham from his father, and was to live there for the rest of his life. He had always been in poor health and after 1738 it began to fail, so that he wrote little more. He died at Twickenham, surrounded by his friends, in 1744.

TO A POET A THOUSAND YEARS HENCE

James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915)

 I WHO am dead a thousand years, And wrote this sweet archaic song, Send you my words for messengers The way I shall not pass along.   I care not if you bridge the seas, Or ride secure the cruel sky, Or build consummate palaces Of metal or of masonry.   But have you wine and music still, And statues and a bright-eyed love, And foolish thoughts of good and ill, And prayers to them who sit above?   How shall we conquer? Like a wind That falls at eve our fancies blow, And old Mæonides the blind Said it three thousand years ago.   O friend unseen, unborn, unknown, Student of our sweet English tongue, Read out my words at night, alone: I was a poet, I was young.   Since I can never see your face, And never shake you by the hand, I send my soul through time and space To greet you. You will understand.

 

MY FATHER, ON THE OTHER HAND…

…was a different kettle of fish. My father, unlike my mother, did not throw novels away in disgust: he simply refused to read them. An intelligent man, he read the daily papers from front page to back, including the financial columns, and would often read aloud (rather too lengthy) passages that he thought would interest us all. He watched the News on TV every evening. He wrote editorials and articles for a cycling club magazine which he and my mother between them manufactured using an electric typewriter, my mother’s precise cut-and-paste/handwritten captioning, and the battered second-hand photocopier that took up most of the spare bedroom. Later he wrote his ‘memoirs’ which succeeded in telling me a lot, and almost nothing. For a working man he had an advanced vocabulary, apart from one time when he asked me what ‘priapic’ meant. Difficult to know which of us was the most embarrassed or amused by my stumbling, circuitous attempts to define this word, which he had read in the newspaper. What was priapic doing in a newspaper anyway?

Yet he abhorred fiction. In fact it went deeper than that – he abhorred history. More than that, I would say he was a History Denier. It never happened, any of it, he used to say. It’s all lies. Once or twice as a teenager I tried arguing it out with him, applying my own immature logic to the situation. With parents, particularly with fathers, it’s never a good idea.

But something must have happened in the past. It can’t just be a blank before we were born. How did we get here at all?

All lies!

When we visited Leeds Castle we mostly stuck to the gardens where there was more than enough to keep us busy for a couple of hours – places to sit down and look at swans on lakes, places to drink tea and eat sandwiches; but every once in a while Mum and I liked to go inside the castle, take another look at Henry VIII’s suit of armour, Lady Baille’s languorous and strangely elongated portrait, her magnificent 1930s shoe collection or – my favourite – the lonely little fountain in the central courtyard. Dad, meanwhile, would sit on the wall outside reading his newspaper. Inside did not exist.

I used to think something had happened to him during the War, aside from driving military trucks across India (steering-wheel so hot it would burn your hands if you weren’t careful) and getting a bad case 0f malaria in Burma (stand by your beds when the Top Brass come round, whether or not you are dying). He showed us a few sepia photographs of himself out there. It was difficult to tell him apart from various other young men in khaki shirts and shorts, hands shading their eyes, squinting into the lens.

The only other thing he ever said when the subject of non-existent history came up was this: when he was at school they had showed him the Atlas, and most of the Atlas was coloured pink. The pink areas, he was told, belonged to the Glorious British Empire. But then when he got to India it wasn’t true. The Atlas – or maybe his teachers – had lied.

Did he mean they lied because the Empire wasn’t glorious? Was no longer an Empire? Because the Indian people he met disliked rather than revered their British occupiers? Because the British were not behaving gloriously? I never got to understand why he told this half-a-story. I am not sure he knew why either but it was obviously connected in some way. Those ideas – it’s all lies… history never happened… at school they showed me the Atlas – always came up together. It was like a kind of short circuit, a closed loop. Was he pointing out that history is written by the victors? But we all know that, don’t we? We can still believe  that some sort of history happened.

My own instinct is that something, or maybe a series of somethings, happened to my father in India. There’s this feeling of betrayal, and rage. The Atlas story must be true – I’m sure schoolchildren were propagandised in this way – but it’s only one element. I get a ‘background’ of real encounters with real people – real situations – real humiliations – maybe real cruelty, his or someone else’s. Neither I nor my mother succeeded in fighting our way through that particular thorny thicket, and now my father has packed up his mysteries in his old kit bag and gone, gone, gone, leaving us none the wiser.

* http://www.leeds-castle.com/home

A brush with Herbert

The person I would most like to sit down and have a chat with in front of a roaring log fire is: Herbert Brush. And he’s not even a real person. Or rather he was a real person; Herbert Brush was just not his real name.

It may be partly the name. My grandfather was a Herbert. At his funeral service the lady vicar, never having met Grandad and assuming that Bert was short for Albert, referred to him Our Brother Albert throughout. I should have stood up for him. I’ve always felt guilty that I didn’t. I should have stood up regardless of the embarrassment to myself, my parents and the lady vicar, and screeched HERBERT, HERBERT, HERBERT. But you don’t, when it comes to it, do you?

Herbert Brush, almost certainly, was the pseudonym attached to a gentleman called Reginald Charles Harpur, from Sydenham, South East London. He kept diaries for a UK wartime project known as Mass Observation, submitting his daily life “observations” each month. Today, I suspect, he would be an enthusiastic blogger.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass-Observation

Mass Observation was an eccentric anthropological study, run on a shoestring by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. ‘Herbert’ was one of approximately 500 volunteer wartime writers. Even more famous than Herbert is the redoubtable ‘Nella Last’ (also a pseudonym) from Barrow-in-Furness whose later life was dramatized in 2006 by British comedienne, actress and writer Victoria Wood.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Housewife,_49

Nella wrote and wrote – and wrote – approximately two million words between 1936, when she was aged 49 – hence Housewife, 49 – and 1966. She used her diary to counteract the depressions to which she was prone and also to ‘vent’ a side of her personality that her gloomy, awkward husband suppressed. Her diaries – unintentionally – follow her partial emancipation from the stereotypical ‘housewife’ she sees herself as at the beginning – to a much stronger, feistier woman by the end. She was so prolific, so idiosyncratic in character and power of expression (and punctuation) that she has books all to herself:

  • Nella Last’s War (Ed: Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming)
  • Nella Last’s Peace (Ed: Patricia and Robert Malcolmson)
  • Nella Last in the 1950s: Further diaries of Housewife, 49 (Ed: Patricia Malcolmson)
  • She also makes brief, early appearances in Our Longest Days: a people’s history of the Second World War (Ed: Sandra Koa Wing).

Nella Last has her dark side, and her tragedies, though on the whole reading her observations is pure delight. She loves cooking, and details all the crafty ‘dodges’ she contrives to whip up meals of some sort for her family during the worst years of rationing. We also hear how she goes about making clothes, saving money and sewing her ‘dollies’ for the hospital.

Herbert Brush is, if you like, Nella Last’s southern equivalent and he is an extraordinary character – lighter, more comic than Nella Last although, living through the same war and at a more advanced age, his life had its difficulties too. I do hope that someday there will be a ‘collected’ Herbert Brush, since at the moment his entries are dotted about, mixed in with all the other published observations and therefore a pain to locate. It takes a while to build up a ‘flavour’ of Herbert.

Reginald Charles Harpur (almost certainly Herbert Brush) was already 73 years of age in 1945 but lived on until 1959. He lived in the same house in Sydenham from 1939 to 1959, sharing it with ‘W’ (thought to be Winifred Gunton), ‘D’ (thought to be Dorothy Woods) and a cat. This is a mystery in itself. What was the relationship between these three people (and the cat)? We will probably never know. He was a retired electricity board inspector and wrote for Mass Observation between 1940 and 1951.

He is a master of the non-sequitur, of po-faced inconsequentiality, and the joy of him is that you will never, ever be entirely sure that he intends to be amusing. It’s those killer final phrases, those bathetic endings. He also writes poetry to rival that famous Scottish poet William Topaz McGonagall, originator of the immortal lines:

  • Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
  • Alas! I am very sorry to say
  • That ninety lives have been taken away
  • On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
  • Which will be remember’d for a very long time

and

  • On yonder hill, there stood a coo…..
  • ….It’s no there noo,
  • it must have shifted

 Apparently students used to bang on poor McGonagall’s front door in the middle of the night, to wake him and tell him how bad a poet he was.

Impossible to choose which of Herbert’s many utterances to include so here are just a few, taken from wherever Our Hidden Lives happened to fall open. Best really to get copies of the books in which he appears (eg. from Amazon) and meet Herbert for yourself.

  • Our Longest Days (Ed: Sandra Koa Wing)
  • Our Hidden Lives (Ed: Simon Garfield)

7 p.m. I have been on the plot most of the day. I believe the judges in the competition come round for their first visit before the middle of May, so I have been busy trying to make the plot tidy. I have fixed up another seat at the end of the plot close to the hedge so that I can sit in the shelter during showers. This was the spot where I pressed myself into the hedge with the bucket over my head when a rocket burst overhead and bits of it came down all round me.

Wednesday 9 May, 1945

I have been reading about Harry Price’s book on poltergeists in England and it makes me wonder whether it was a poltergeist which worried me when I lived in Rose Cottage, River, near Dover. The noises got so bad that I was glad to leave the house.

I never managed to explain the things that happened to me there. I might be reading a book by the fireside in the evening, when suddenly my back hair would seem to stand up, a cold shiver would run down my spine and I felt sure that someone or something was behind me in the room. I asked a local spiritualistic medium to come and investigate, so he came with others, and presently he went into a trance, or seemed to, and said that a man who used to live at the house, and who committed suicide years before, objected to me very much.

Wednesday 21 November, 1945

I went to Hyde Park to see the captured German aeroplanes which are parked there, surrounded by a fence. I noticed a few bullet holes in one of them and wondered whether the German who flew the machine had died there. I hope so.

There were hundreds of people walking about, with little crowds near each plane. One young man brought his chair close to the fence, and with his face pressed close to the railings was staring in a sort of fascinated way at one of the planes, as though he wanted to memorise every detail. I watched him for some time but he never moved a muscle.

I got a seat under a tree and ate my lunch, and I forgot to look for the young man when I came back. Probably my thoughts were on the chances of a ticket collector coming along and charging me 2d. for the chair.

Monday 17 September, 1945

The BBC news at one o’clock said that there was quite a pea-soup fog in some parts of London, but in SE26 it was quite clear, so I went to the plot and sewed a row of broad beans. I had only just finished when I smelt fog, and, looking up, saw a wall of it coming my way. Very soon the sun was yellow and then vanished, so I came home as I don’t like the taste of London fog.

I thought I’d see what sort of verse came out of it if I put pen to paper.

  • Sometimes I sit and think
  • Sometimes I only sit
  • And do not even blink
  • For quite a bit
  • Is this a sign of age
  • Does life just flow
  • Like turning on a page
  • I’d like to know.

It sounds morbid, but after my exercise on the plot I’m feeling very fit.

Tuesday 21 January, 1945

I think I probably feel an affinity for Herbert because he reminds me so much of my own grandfather. It’s more than just the coincidence of the name. In all the time I knew him I don’t remember Grandad smiling once, yet he somehow managed to make people laugh. If we children were chattering too much he’d sit in gloomy silence for half an hour before intervening, in his creaky old voice: Can I say something now?

If anyone asked his opinion, he’d say: You do what you want – you usually do.

And if he was asked what he was going to do tomorrow, he would provide a gloomy summary, finishing with: IF I’m spared.

A visiting daughter-in-law presented him with a huge cake once, and his response was: How am I going to get rid of all that?

And yet this was the man who, as a teenager, liked to sit with his mates in the upper tiers of the music hall, peeling oranges and dropping the peel down the necks of the people sitting below.

For further information on Herbert Brush and Sydenham visit:

http://sydenhamforesthillhistory.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/mass%20observation

PS: I recently discovered an old blog called Blue, with Stars, and discover that I already posted about dear old Herbert there and even used the same title for the post. And I thought I was being so clever inventing that one. So here, for comparison, is my Blue, with Stars post for: Saturday, May 21, 2005

  •  A Brush with Herbert
  •  Still reading the book of post-war reminiscences (Mass-Observation Project). It’s surprising how they do come out as characters, even though no one is ‘writing’ them. Each person is just rambling on happily through his or her diary, commenting on everyday things, and yet you can almost see them. Pensioner Herbert Brush is the best – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally funny. He is greatly concerned about his health – his piles, a lump on his back which the doctor charged him 5/- to tell him was harmless, the purple marks appearing on the backs of his hands. He wonders about things. He spends a long time playing with numbers and searching unsuccessfully for a book which gives all the prime numbers up to some huge amount. He writes dreadful poetry. He does a lot of travelling about on buses, changing of library books, growing of vegetables in his allotment, and always seems to be creosoting his fence.
  •  I am enjoying it because that’s when I grew up, and yet I don’t remember. I didn’t enjoy being a child. Didn’t understand why people were the way they were, and things were so drab and dreary. This book has explained why to me. And I envied in a way their modest expectations. They accepted their everyday lives, even when they complained about them. They didn’t expect anything exciting to happen. I suppose they were just relieved to be still alive. However, that lack of aspiration, that dulling of everything – suburban England in the 50s was not a good time to be a child, not a good start for a dreamer.

Biting my Nails with a Bunyip

Around 1955 Mum and Dad finished building their bungalow on the site of an old orchard. This particular plot of orchard land, and most of the land in our street, had once been the inheritance of a mysterious great, great aunt. As time went by she began to sell it off in separate plots to other members of the family, and they all built houses. At one time, my grandmother, her parents, my grandfather, his parents, and a second cousin all lived in our street. My grandfather married my grandmother and his brother married her sister. There were thirteen or fourteen siblings in each family, plus a number un-commented upon reverse baby adoptions, by the older generation from the younger, which complicate the family tree. Many of the brothers died in the First World War. One, Uncle Walter, was blinded. He had been an officer, but when he came back all he could do was weave stools and baskets. They taught him this skill so that he could contribute to the family income. The children used to mock him, sometimes, at the dinner table. This made my great grandmother very, very angry.

My great grandmother was often very angry, and also disaster-prone. There is a story of her in church one Sunday – a large woman in a long, black, Victorian skirt, with her children following behind her. The children were giggling because she had left her blouse untucked at the back. Worse was the story of a favourite chicken that had strayed into her kitchen while she was trying to sweep it. Enraged, she swiped at the bird’s behind with her besom broom, but instead of exiting the kitchen the poor thing fell dead on the floor. Great grandmother wept and wept. Another, less harrowing, story was the one we used to call ‘Jelly Alice?’ which involved great grandmother offering my great aunt Alice a plate of jelly during a family meal – which promptly slithered into her lap.

There were many such catchphrases. If something had gone astray it was likely to be ‘Up in Annie’s room, behind the clock.’ If you asked what was for dinner you would be told ‘Cold kippers and custard,’ or ‘Cold cabbage and lard.’ If a storm was approaching the sky would be pronounced ‘Black as yer ‘at over Will’s Mother’s.’

And there were songs. My mother lacked my grandmother’s ebullience and rarely sang, though she used to whistle, which embarrassed me. Nan, however, used to come out with snatches of unseemly ditties such as:

Chase me, Charlie, / Chase me, Charlie, / Lost the leg o’me drawers…

And Carmen Miranda’s

I, I, I, I, I, I like you very much

(which embarrassed my mother).

When I first began to notice things, in the 50’s, the adults around me seemed preoccupied with the War – remembering it, trying to forget it, but always talking about it. I lived in a forest of voices, reminiscing, way above my head. In Nan’s living room, in Mum’s kitchen, in other unplaceable rooms, there always seemed to be these stories going on. They were about having to eat horsemeat, covering your legs with gravy-browning to look like stockings, making wedding dresses out of parachute silk and dressing-gowns out of blankets; babies slept on unscathed in buildings demolished by doodlebugs – wonderful name, horrible purpose. The doodlebugs came over making this noise, and then they stopped making this noise, and then you were for it.

I was shown, at intervals, a piece of white embroidery Grandad had made on the boats going over to France during the War. He had been injured by shrapnel (indeed, when he died at ninety-four he had shrapnel still inside him, plus the double hernia he got from having to haul great guns around on the battlefield) and this was the ‘easy’ job they gave him afterwards – travelling back and forth on the transport boats, looking after the horses. His embroidery was so delicate. I could never imagine Grandad’s rough hands, with their black and broken carpenter’s fingernails, scabby with Evostick, Bostick or whatever, embroidering. I had watched him in his workshop sawing up bits of woods and hammering in nails, of which he kept a huge collection on a shelf above his bench, in rusty tobacco tins labelled with sticking plaster. I imagined the boat rocking in a cross-Channel storm, the horses spooked, salt water everywhere, and being surrounded by hundreds of other men, most of whom, like those poor, requisitioned horses, were going to be killed. How could you embroider through all that? Imagination is a curse sometimes.

I could never get enough of my family’s above-the-head stories – well, any stories – but at the same time they made me realised how insignificant I was in the greater scheme of things. I even wondered sometimes if I was becoming invisible. I used to walk along the road and think, can people see me or not? Will I become invisible if I believe I am? Sometimes I quite enjoyed playing this game, it made me feel safe to disappear, but at other times invisibility just came over me, unannounced, and I seemed to be melting into the scenery, becoming air and bushes and fences and raindrops, and I was never sure whether I would get myself back.

How was I to compete with the War, this great cuckoo’s egg of an event, which had ended only seven years before I was born? I think I was a bit of a cuckoo’s egg myself. I didn’t fit in. Nobody seemed to know what to do with me or say to me. Everything seemed to be going on over my head. Nothing happened.

So, for something to do, I began to dig.

In the building of their bungalow, Mum and Dad unearthed small pieces of treasure. These things remained unnoticed at their feet. No doubt they would have been too exhausted to look down after all those evenings and weekends of heavy labour. In Mum’s case, I don’t suppose she could see the ground over the bump that was shortly to turn into my little sister. She was still carrying tiles up the ladder to the roof, though.

At first I thought I would tunnel to Australia. I was a bit worried about the hot stuff in the middle but I liked the idea of emerging, upside-down, among the kangaroos and aborigines. In one of my books there was a story about a Bunyip, who sat on a log most of the time, biting his fingernails. Since I bit my fingernails (and I suspect may have taken up biting them in imitation) I hoped that when I got to Australia I would catch sight of a Bunyip, and that maybe we could sit side by side on the log, nibbling companionably. To this day I am not sure whether wombats actually exist or whether they come into the same category as unicorns and flying elephants.

Unfortunately I got no further with my little tin spade than a cool layer of sand and worms. After that I contented myself with surface workings, raking around with my fingers to find, for example, great lumps of Kentish flint sheared off at unlikely angles. It was ugly stuff but supposed to be good for building walls and lighting fires. I tried knocking two of them together but no sparks came. I tried to knock bits off and make arrowheads like the cavemen, but the flints were heavy and resistant. My mother was going through one of her depressions at the time and feared that we would all be squashed by the awful Atom Bomb, which could fall on us at any moment. I began to wonder what it would be like when the Atom Bomb fell and we all had to fend for ourselves. Could we master the Kentish flint quickly enough to make arrowheads and spears?

There were all sorts of bits of china, as if someone had broken six or seven different willow-pattern tea services out there in the orchard. There were pink bits and blue bits and occasionally – much prized – green bits. Some of them had handles on. I washed them in bowls of soapy water to bring out the patterns. I tried fitting them together but time or the weather had worn away the edges.

There were bits of clay pipes, similar to the ones you could still buy in the corner shop, for blowing bubbles. I imagined our garden full of sailors dancing jigs and carelessly dropping their pipes.

Once I found a fossil, a complete starfish imposed upon a large round stone, as if it had just come to rest there one day and fallen asleep. Another time I found a fire-damaged medal with scorched, rainbow-coloured ribbons. It had an angel on it. Grandad said it was the Angel of Mons.

The best find of all was Evenings in Paris, a small, stoppered glass bottle – dark, midnight blue. Mum helped me to open the bottle and out came the most delicious smell I had ever smelt. I kept sniffing and sniffing. The smell itself seemed to be dark blue. Thick, warm and velvety. I have since been told that Evenings in Paris was considered a cheap scent, Woolworth’s sort of stuff. Maybe it was because it was my first experience of perfume, or because smells, like tastes and textures, are more vivid to children. Oh, the appalling tinny taste of cabbage; the poisonous bitterness of rhubarb; the viscous, boiled-slug texture of rice pudding!

At infant’s school you were supposed to eat up all your dinner before you were allowed back to your lessons. I remember our attempts to smuggle gristly meat and cold, lumpy mashed-potato past the giant, white-overalled dinner-ladies on pig-bin duty. You had to heap it up under your knife and fork or turn your spoon upside down to conceal the disgusting stuff. All this teaches you is that it is sometimes necessary to deceive grown-ups. I was the most cowardly child, and haven’t got much braver since, but sometimes I get pushed into corners by people. I can remember sitting in the empty canteen until three o’clock in the afternoon with a teacher urging me to finish my rice pudding, and just looking at this plateful of stuff, with its dob of synthetic red strawberry jam in the middle, wanting to be a good girl, frightened of the consequences, but not eating it. They must have given up in the end.

The other thing people used to say was ‘Eat up your cabbage/rhubarb/rice pudding because the Starving Children in Africa would love it.’ I could never believe that they would love my rice pudding; however Starving they were, but I would have been only too happy to ladle mine into a cardboard box and post it to them.

Anyway – Evenings in Paris. I promised myself that when I grew up I would buy myself a whole bottle of it and carry it round in my pocket, always. If the Atom Bomb hadn’t dropped by then. It never did. I never did.