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

Where sheep may safely graze

I always associated this piece of music with England, perhaps from constantly hearing it on The Home Service (1939 – 1967 national radio station, now BBC Radio 4) in my childhood. Now (ach!) I discover that it is in fact Bach’s Cantata 208 and the ‘sheep’ of the title are not so much our lovely, fat woolly English sheep roaming over hill and dale, as the citizens of Weissenfels, who could ‘safely graze’ under the gracious care of the Duke of Weissenfels. Presumably the Duke was a patron or sponsor. Later it came to be thought of as the sheep being looked after by the Good Shepherd. However, it’s a lovely piece of music and I have included a classical guitar version of it. Much prefer guitar to other instruments (particularly abhor trumpets).

I was thinking about the love of one’s country the other night, whilst plugged into the MP3 player, drowning out the upstairs-and-downstairs thundering of the beastly neighbours by listening to, among other things, The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams. Music is more powerful than words. It cuts through all those ‘logical’ explanations, our sophisticated smokescreens. Like Sheep, The Lark Ascending reminds me that if you are British you cannot ever really get away from the love of your own country. This is an unfashionable and somewhat embarrassing thing to say, and it usually only surfaces here when some external threat arises.

It’s one of those visceral things like there sometimes are between people – an invisible cord joining the two, painless and mostly-forgotten about until you try to pull, or find yourself being pulled away. I feel that I have always been here, through all my incarnations. I suspect some of us are ‘travellers’, soul-wise, and some of us arise the soil. We grow out of a particular landscape, and are part of it.

When I was quite young my mother sank into depression. In those far-off days everything female/unhappy-related came under the heading of – in ascending order of severity – Needing a Tonic, Nerves, or Nervous Breakdown – the standard treatments being a) bottle of iron tonic from the chemist b) Pull Yourself Together – ‘Curtains’ as the Samaritans put it – or c) Being Taken Away. Suspect Mum had the Nervous Breakdown. She did not get Taken Away, but it felt as if she had gone away somewhere, and she only half returned.

I remember she stopped practising cartwheels on the lawn and no longer felt like playing tennis on the road with us, in the gaps between infrequent (and always black) motor cars. I remember mainly that it seemed to go on for years, and involved having to be quiet while Mum curled up on the sofa with yet another headache and Nan tiptoed round doing the housework, and getting us our tea. I remember all the aspirins, and the four hour thing. On the dot, every four hours, another two aspirins. No more than twelve a day. I remember Dad telling me it was my fault, for arguing with my sister. If I was better behaved, he said, Mum wouldn’t be sick.

One thing I don’t remember, from then, but do recall overhearing Mum talking about years later, was her obsession with the Atomic Bomb. She was convinced that we, her three girls, were all going to die, at once, and soon, under some great mushroom cloud. I am guessing that this bit of her illness may have been around 1962, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Recently it has occurred to me that what with North Korea, and America, and Russia – the whole world, it seems – threatening dire outcomes and technicolour mass destruction – wouldn’t it just be ironic if what Mum so feared for her children were to come to pass after all, but over half a century later and when she was way past fearing or comprehending it? What if she even somehow wished it into being and is somehow linked, to it?

But let’s not venture onto that same dark pathway into the woods: no good ever comes of it. Let’s just say the music made me think, about all that has been, here, on this little archipelago of islands, swished around by a chilly sea, lashed by gales in winter, rained on every few days, blessedly warm and sunlit on occasions.

All our history, all those little lives. Dinosaurs once walked where I live now. We find their footprints. We find their bones. All those kings and queens, those beggars and paupers. All those families, all those mothers fearing for their children, all those wars, all that surviving somehow-or-other, all the new generations, all the moving on, the changing and the staying the same. Sometimes, like my mother before me, I feel that something pulling away, that potential for catastrophic loss, that painful tug on the cord.

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.”