Would you be in the B-Ark?

I may have a weird sense of humour but I particularly like a race of beings that appear in Douglas Adams’ book The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. They are called Golgafrinchans and they originated in “a red, semi-desert planet that is home to the Great Circling Poets of Arium and a species of particularly inspiring lichen”. The story is this. At some point in their history the Great Circling Poets decided they wanted to get rid of the useless third of their population. So they invented a story that the planet Golgofrincham would shortly be destroyed in a great catastrophe (by a “mutant star goat”). The useless one third of the population were packed into a spaceship know as the B-Ark – supposedly one of three giant Arks – and launched into space. They were told that the remaining two thirds of the population would follow in the other two Arks.

Of course the remaining two thirds did not follow – there were no other Arks – and the B-Ark was programmed to crash land on a remote planet on the spiral arm of the galaxy – which happened to be Earth. So they crashed. The Golgofrinchan societal rejects mingled with and usurped the native cavemen and became the ancestors of humanity.

But who were the useless third? According to Douglas Adams they consisted of hairdressers, tired TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, management consultants and telephone sanitisers.

I have always assumed – being a gloomy sort – that I would be included in the “useless third” and would find myself on a spaceship hurtling towards relative oblivion. But then I started to wonder – how do you define “useful”? Surely “useful” itself is relative, since it depends on the society you happen to find yourself living in, and the relative needs of that society? And doesn’t it depend on the intelligence of the individual, his or her store of arcane knowledge, unused skills and potential to change or adapt?

I mean, in some societies there is little choice. In our own, for instance. There are many pretty trivial jobs but most people need a job of some kind.  Inevitably this means quite a few will be left with no alternative but to become – telephone sanitisers or whatever. I’m pretty sure those bored gentlemen forced to stand/pace around for hour after hour in stores in a silly uniform as a deterrent to shoplifters, don’t really want to be doing that. They do it for the money, and for security.

Hairdressers – well, yes, in an apocalyptic situation or primitive society you wouldn’t need hairdressers. It is quite possible – as I have discovered – to cut your own hair after a fashion – at least well enough to keep it out of your eyes – or just to let it grow long. In our current society, hairdressers are somewhere between a necessity and a luxury: their function is to make people look and feel better; a good hairdresser is an artist in his or her own right. Do we really need musicians? Do we need artists, or tailors, or comedians? No, we could survive perfectly well without them if they all suddenly disappeared in a puff of green smoke.

If I were to be marooned on a desert island with a brilliant violinist, would he or she be able to save me from starvation and the encroaching tide? Probably not. On the other hand that same violinist might be good at maths (musicians often are) and might be able to calculate the tides around our island, so that we knew the most fortuitous time to set off on our raft – which he/she might even have been able to help me construct. Because being musical does not preclude you from having other talents – simple construction work, for example. That telephone-sanitiser might happen to know how to weave, or paddle a canoe. Or they might have qualities not previously utilised – a clear head in an emergency, people skills, courage under fire – whatever. Until you are tested, you don’t know what you can do.

So I would say, be careful who you write off as useless. Do not write off disabled people, autistic people, artistic people – or people who have never had much of a chance in life and so are forced to accept trivial or low-status jobs. Do not assume that that is all they are, or all they could be if circumstances were suddenly to change and a new and different version of society come into being.

It is a risky thing to define any skill or occupation a “useless” – we do not know enough, about the present, let alone the future, to be able to make such value judgments with any confidence.  Fate has a way of taking its revenge on those who are absolutely sure they know best.

According to Douglas Adams, the Great Circling Poets of Arium were eventually wiped out – by a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone.

Breathing Spaces

Apropos of nothing, the one-armed cat is gaining speed with every day that passes. He has now re-learned how to gallop, and therefore how to scare the bejasus out of selected other cats. This morning I spotted George clinging hot-foot to a central-heating radiator, trying and failing to haul himself up, having been chased up there by some sort of furry Grendel, now nipping joyfully at his ankles. Cats cope with adversity so much better than us. If you had lost an arm, would you be galloping?

I was thinking the other day about the spaces I have found, when I felt like the wounded Grendel. Grendel, if I remember aright, slunk off to the swamp, or maybe some sort of big pond, and drowned there. Poor Grendel! Why do I feel sorrier for him than that granite-jawed hero Beowulf, who also died – in the end?

So, when feeling like a wounded Grendel (on average once a day, when imprisoned in the world of work), I would have to get away. If I couldn’t get away – meltdown. If you’ve never seen a meltdown…

The thing is with meltdowns, you can see them happening from inside. You can witness yourself behaving like some kind of lunatic and yet you can’t stop. Not for hours, sometimes not for days can you stop. And then you have to get yourself home, still sobbing and attracting horrified glances from passers-by. I had to walk four miles in that condition, once. And then you have to recover. And then, somehow, you have to go back, hoping you haven’t been fired in your absence. Pretending it never happened.

Breathing spaces are essential, and the trick is to get to them early, to forestall… it.

When I worked at the Power Station, it was difficult. We were virtually imprisoned many windswept miles from anywhere at all, behind a revolving-gate and plastic-pass security system that sometimes would and sometimes wouldn’t let you out. Mostly I hid in the loos, but there’s only so long you can do that, and toilets are not the most pleasant of places when you’re trying to regain your sang froid. I remember once, a blowsy blonde fellow-employee (I recognised her voice and that inane laugh) entered the cubicle next to me. I took a deep breath. She let off a huge – what’s a polite word for it – oh, bother it – Fart.

Oops! she screeched – that laugh again – But better out than in!

Oh go away, I thought. But people never go away.

In later jobs it got easier, though there was always at least one meltdown per job, just as there was always one bull-necked female supervisor or superior who took a raging dislike to me. Where did I go in those latter days, to breathe?

There was the library, in winter. I would find an empty table in the reference section and prop some weighty tome in front of me. I wasn’t actually using the tome, of course, I was writing, reading or daydreaming behind it.

And there was the church. That was usually empty at lunchtimes. I’ve always liked churches, when empty. I like places with really high ceilings. I think that’s what it is, the ceilings. Which I suppose is why churches and cathedrals were designed that way – as a kind of foretaste of heaven. Occasionally though they would have art exhibitions of fairly bad paintings, or concerts, or flower-arranging competitions.  Not so good.

In summer there was the Memorial Gardens – why do I find death so restful? – where the dead of World War One were cast in greenish bronze on all four sides of a stone memorial. What I liked was the space, and the green of the grass, and the rows of trees, and the unimaginative flower bed with their soldierly ranks of pansies and marigolds. I liked the wasps, and the students mucking about in their lunch-hours, and the drunks in the far bushes with their bottles of stuff in paper bags, or surrounded by a clutter of empty tins. I liked the prim professional people with their sandwiches. I liked the blue sky and the sunshine and the distance. Distance. I have to have space. That was my best place. Most of my best poems were written there.

And at other times I have found sanctuary in cafés, sitting in a parked car in a huge, anonymous supermarket carpark, and on railway stations where I could hang around pretending to wait for trains. Distance again – those rails which might be going – anywhere. I didn’t need to go. It was enough to know that I could go. Sometimes I found a kind of harbour at harbours, or anywhere, really, by the sea. Sea is distance. It is on the edge, it is – where you could, if necessary, walk into the water and swim, or jump onto a ship and sail away, never to be seen or heard of again. Distant parts. Freedom.

Where are your breathing spaces? Or don’t you need them?


Memory: that magic lantern show

I went to visit my Old Lady yesterday and she confesses – as she always does confess – that when she sits in her armchair, sometimes, of an evening, unable to see the television clearly, unable to read – her mind drifts off and random memories come back to her. She sees the exotic places she went on holiday, the adventures she had as a little girl and a teenager, her many cousins and their many wives (all dead now), colleagues she worked with, her parents, her grandparents…

Every time she tells me this she sounds anxious. She has lived a brisk and practical life and I suppose she feels guilty now for daydreaming.

And yet it was good life. She was close to her family, when they were alive. Early on she found a job she enjoyed, worked hard, studied in her spare time and made it into a career. She has had the courage – and the means – to travel widely. She has had the gift of making friends, and now she has a store of colourful memories to dip into.

My Old Lady is a bit of a hoarder, always telling me she intends to have a good old clear out. She never actually succeeds in doing this, but in her regular efforts to do so she happens upon air-mail letters from long dead pen-friends, invitations to dances in foreign capital cities, letters from travel agents in faded type, holiday brochures and envelopes full of dog-eared photographs, and these bring everything back.

Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world – and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children! [George Bernard Shaw]

I suppose it is inevitable that this should be so.

It is better that children start life afresh and that adults are not tempted to describe to them the horrors of old age. It is better that they dance through their childhood under the illusion that life is bound to go on in exactly this sunlit way forever. When I see on the news children in awful circumstances, forced to witness or commit atrocities, converted into adults before they have properly been children, this is what saddens me – that in having their childhood and youth cut short they have also been deprived of their capacity to imagine, and of the memories of Better Days which would have sustained them later, in times of trial and in old age.

So, my Old Lady tells me once again about her Magic Lantern Show and I once again, attempting to reassure her, tell her that something very similar happens to me. I tell her that when I am washing up all those cat bowls of a morning, and gazing out at the garden and the too-long grass, and the dew still on all those fallen leaves and faded hydrangeas, images and fragments of memories flash up, unbidden.

I don’t tell her, but mostly they are unhappy fragments, of my current life at any rate: I don’t seem to have her knack for happiness. But occasionally they are strange fragments – flashes of lives I don’t remember having lived, and faces I don’t remember ever having seen before; even, occasionally, visions of flight, swooping down over lakes or battlefields, or strands of music it feels exactly as if I am in the process of composing. All of which are so brief, dissolving instantly, so that all that is left is an impression, a memory of a memory.

I worked in a call centre for five years or so, at the broken-down end of my ‘career’. This involved sitting on a rickety office chair in a kind of plywood rabbit-hutch for seven or eight hours at a time surrounded by rows and rows of other rabbit hutches. We all wore headset and the calls came in to us automatically.

Our sole task was to persuade people to do market research surveys – no selling involved – but of course people never believed that. And so, every so often an irritable person answered the phone and you had to, basically, read a script to them, asking them if they would like to take part and then if they agreed asking them a whole string of questions so nonsensical that you wouldn’t have been able to answer yourself.

On short surveys it would be seven or eight hours’ non-stop repetition of the same five minute survey. On long surveys it would be perhaps one respondent per hour; twenty minutes of script-reading and typing; nothing to do in between. We were not allowed to read, do crosswords or to write down anything apart from survey-related notes, or a tally of the surveys we had done.

Most people did not last five years. Two years was considered by the employers to be a good innings. Memory, and imagination helped me to stick with it. (I needed the money!) During those hours my mind sent me a constant magic lantern show, like the washing-up show only more so. During those hours whole poems got written in my head, whole philosophies of life were considered, rejected, constructed, deconstructed and modified.

So when my Old Lady feels embarrassed about her daydreaming I want to tell her – but don’t know how – that the Magic Lantern Show is a gift, her reward for a life hard-lived. And when young people complain that they are bored I want to tell them to go out there and make memories, learn stuff, think stuff, see stuff, meet people, have adventures, visit places, take photos, save the tickets, save that straw hat, write a diary, record your impressions and store them somewhere. Make a memory box. Start it when you are seventeen.


Just to let you know that I haven’t forgotten you.

Neither have I been marched away by the Blog Police and tossed into a dismal pit, probably with adders or scorpions.

I’ve been learning a new job – this is the first of four weeks of training. After that I go part time.

It’s something to do with telesales.

It involves an awful lot of databases and buttons you have to click.

It means you have to type numbers with your right hand, although left-handed, whilst making cheery conversation.

I have run out of corners in my head in which to stuff stuff into.

I have forgotten how to write a sentence that doesn’t end in a – whatever ‘into’ is. Possibly a dangling modifier.

I have new glasses but my eyes don’t seem to want to look out of them.

Today I attended a demonstration of different types of fancy bread, and even got to eat little samples of it. It tasted nice, for bread, but would have been nicer with butter.

I was not sure what was the correct thing to say about the bread, so I just kept chewing, and smiling every now and then.

I was given an enormous plastic jar of pasta sauce for free.

My heels are raw where new sandals have rubbed them.

I do not look right in office clothes.

But I do my best.

I have driven through a whole succession of traffic jams and rush hours twice a day for three days.

I had to run the air-conditioning to cool the steering-wheel down enough to grasp it.

I am very, very tired.

Hey ho, I’ll get over it. Sooner or later an idea for a proper post will come prancing into my head and next minute – eight hundred words of hilarious something-or-other.

Talk To The Duck

Dear Rubber Duck

You’re far too close to the edge of that ledge. I’m not good with heights and it’s making me queasy. Move in a bit. And while you’re at it, wipe that silly expression off your face.

Well, Mr Duck, I have just been reading a tale. No, a tale. Apparently in the world of computer programming there is some legendary man who keeps a rubber duck on his desk. Whenever he has a programming problem he explains it very carefully to the duck, and in doing so often finds that he has known the solution to the problem all along.

This is not an entirely foreign concept to me, Mr Duck, since many years ago I Was That Duck. I worked in an office at a nuclear power station looking out over the English Channel, which is irrelevant, really, but how many other people can say “looking out over the English Channel”? It wasn’t easy to concentrate on working with that view as a distraction. Some days – stormy days – the sky would be a livid, pink-and-silver-streaked swirling mass. End of the World Days, I used to call them. Sometimes I’d be forced to watch a seagull – one of your cousins, dear Duckie – slowly dying in the cooling water intake. Swirling, circling, unable to get itself out.

It was a brutal place: brutalist in design and brutal to any wildlife that happened to get tangled up with it. It was rumoured the Men smuggled home the giant fish that caught on the band-screens every night. When they turned out their bedside lamps, did they and their fish-gobbling wives emit a purple glow, I wonder?

Anyway, I worked in an office called General Services – a kind of dogsbody office – which included the Cashier; a strapping great thing, with a deep voice and attitude; ex-police. She didn’t like me and I didn’t like her but of necessity we pretended to get along, and I did have one useful feature.  In her eyes, at any rate, I was mathematically challenged.  I was careful to conceal any slight ability to add or subtract, move decimal points around or estimate percentages so as not to fall into the category of ‘competition’. She was not nice to competition. Harmless, I survived.

When she was in the process of “cashing up” – no computers in those days – the books would occasionally fail to balance, reconcile or whatever other tedious word she called it. She would then call me over to stand by her desk or – worse – stand breathing heavily far too close behind my left shoulder, and explain the entire calculation to me. I would make a genuine attempt to follow what she was saying, and ask a stupid question or two. At the end of my enforced lesson in book-keeping she had almost always discovered the error. Only of course she never referred to it as an error. It was a species of not-error. Often it was something called a self-cancelling not-error, meaning that a discrepancy in one column had been, by some weird synchronicity thing, exactly compensated for by a discrepancy in another column enabling it to escape detection by all but a Rubber Duck. And I was that Duck.

So, Rubber Duckie, my problem – unsolved for years and now in urgent need of solving – is this. How do I make enough extra money per month to keep my head – and the little furry heads of my thirteen moggies – a centimetre or two above the surface of the duck-pond, when I am and always have been chronically unsuited to Work As We Know It?

I have been trying to force myself to want to be a Night-Waking Care Worker, a Cleaner or an Evening Shift Laundry Operative, really I have. I have even applied for such positions. Even they don’t want me, possibly because I don’t want them and am failing to inject that note of enthusiasm into my application. I have the wrong attitude. I can write – but nobody particularly wants me to. At least nobody is going to pay me to. And anything not-writing feels like a mega-irritation, a profound waste of time.

O Duckie, must I give up my motor-car? Would that be sufficient to fill the Black Hole in my finances? Probably not. Must I go out and buy some sort of 2 x skirt-and- 3 x blouse combo and attempt to look desirable, even at my advanced age, as an office temp? Could I cope with all that silent bitchery around the photocopier, even as a largely overlooked, superannuated-temporary-additional-person? Should I, perhaps, attempt to get my typing speed back up to eighty words a minute, then try to figure out how to sign on with an internet transcription agency and type a lot of stuff I don’t really want to type for very little money? Must I, for a third time, throw myself on the mercy of that cold-calling market research place? No guarantee that they’d have me back this time. I certainly wouldn’t.

Dearest Duck, you are silent. And still with the daft expression. Well, back to the edge of the ledge with you then, and see if I care. You’re rubber, I’m sure you’ll bounce.

All higgledy-piggledy

If you had lived hundreds of years ago, what kind of work do you think you would have done? What job would you have wanted to do?

In case anybody wonders why I’m relying so heavily on ‘prompts’ at the moment, it’s because nothing inspiring is happening in my real life. Well, there’s the saga of Mum – but that situation is becoming so ghastly, it’s passing into the realms of the un-writable and the unreadable. It’ll pass, eventually – by its very nature it has to resolve itself within the next decade or so (decade – what am I writing? I can’t bear to think decade.) but in the meantime who wants to be depressed? Not you – and not me. No siree!

mole picnic

I suppose I might share that the postwoman turned up in a rabbit hat yesterday, with earflaps, eyes and whiskers. She must have a cupboard full of such hats which don’t, for some reason, seem to contradict her uniform. Everyone round here is a trifle strange – they do say there’s inbreeding – but not in a deliberate or amusing way. I find the hats a comfort.

I could tell you that I spotted what looks like yet another stray cat, eating the slimy remains of somebody’s takeaway from a plastic tray on the pavement. I keep putting food out in the cat-kennel (big enough, in fact, for an Alsatian, should a stray Alsatian happen along). I keep trying not to look out of the kitchen window; keep hoping not to spot another imploring furry face and mangy little body. The house is alive with cats as it is. Just getting to the kettle involves a kind of wading motion.

I could tell you that I thought of walking down to the one and only shop to get a newspaper, but it was too b***** cold. Really it’s arctic here. And yet sunny. Which somehow makes it worse. Last night the wind did its usual night-banshee thing, prowling around and tearing at the wooden fence-panels. It usually manages to demolish most of them over winter. In spring the fence-panel men come out in force, hammering and splicing; whistling gaily. Bonanza!

So, I found this prompt in a blog called The One Minute Writer, published on a rival platform which I suppose needs to be nameless – in the same way as the BBC maintains the fiction that its rival terrestrial station, ITV, is some kind of foul myth or rumour. It’s an old one – you have to trawl pretty determinedly to find an interesting one. Not like The Daily Post, where the odds of striking gold are about 50:50.

It’s vague, isn’t it? I mean, it would depend how many hundreds of years ago. Are we talking Neolithic, Medieval, Victorian? And are we talking man or woman? If we’re talking woman – well, it’s likely to be something to do with house-cleaning and child-rearing, isn’t it? Or stone-picking in some frozen field or other. Whether in a cave on a mountainside, a hovel in a cobbled street or a mansion in Berkshire. Same old, same old. Cleaning – or supervising the cleaning of others. Farm work, maybe. Babies. More babies. More still. Maybe a bit of embroidery and letter-writing. Or there’s the nunnery. So first, choose a time and a gender.

I used to think I’d like to have been a wandering minstrel, going from castle to castle and making up songs as I tramped. So, this would be Early Medieval (and male). I used to worry so about not-writing, in my teenage years, having learned that for much of time most people wouldn’t have been able to write, and that before William Caxton and the invention of the printing press, even if you had written something nobody but your close friends would have had sight of it – as a handwritten copy circulated amongst your friends. Oh no, I anguished – I could even worry hypothetically – whatever would I have done if I had been born in those days? How could I have borne to exist? But then I realised that the written word was only one form of story-telling – music and ballads and told-tales were another. I would have remembered the stories I made up as I trudged along high moorland pathways amidst gorse bushes, forded streams barefooted and slept in brambly ditches. My memory would have been sharpened and trained from infancy – everybody’s would.

And I would have liked the wandering – the open air, the lack of roots or ties. If I couldn’t be a minstrel perhaps I could be in a gypsy troupe, going from town to town to do – juggling and stuff – in the marketplace. Or, closer in time to the present day, a higgler. There is a short story by A E Coppard called The Higgler. Higgler is another version of the pedlar. It’s someone who travels around the countryside selling things door to door – household necessities, ribbons – anything he can find a market for – which he would carry in a back-pack or on a cart. In the story, a struggling higgler falls in love with Mary a girl he meets on his route. The girl’s mother offers her to him in marriage, together with a small fortune – but he wavers, becomes suspicious and loses both Mary and the money.

Now, bother all that. I’d just like the wandering around part. Seeing different places, being alone a lot of the time, living from day to day. That’s at the heart of it, maybe – not having to think beyond today – not having to plan. Having very little – no bills, no dwelling place, no ties, no responsibilities. Bit like that feeling you get in motorway service complexes – floating between lives, no history, no draggy old personality (that anyone knows about) – just existing for a while. The refuge of the roads.

Mr Toad – maybe I should have been Mr Toad from The Wind in the Willows, with his motor car and his beep, beep, beep….

Mr Toad



An emu in a tutu

I was never designed for work in the sense of having to go somewhere in the morning, having to be somewhere all day, having to be the someone everyone else was, having to do something I didn’t in the least want to be doing for hours. And hours. And hours. Then slouching home too tired to do anything else. I did it, of course. I had to. Not even the break most women take for child-rearing.

I don’t think I’m lazy. I don’t sit in front of the TV all day, watching one lot of drivel after another and pigging curly crisps from a cardboard tube. Actually, I got a couple of those tubes for my sister and brother-in-law when they came over from Canada. They’re so salty. How does anyone manage more than three of them without downing a glass of water? I don’t play Bingo on a phone app and I wouldn’t know where to start in one of those high-octane war-games. Most of the time when at home I am working, but after my own peculiar fashion; a little bit of this and a little bit of that. A bit of writing, a bit of feeding the cats, a bit more writing, a cup of coffee, a bit of tumble-drying, a bit of ironing, a bit more writing, a walk to the post box, a bit of reading, a sandwich and a yoghurt, a bit more writing, yanking a year’s worth of grass, mud and wiggly-woos out of the storm drain (this morning, yuk!) more writing, collecting ideas for writing, planning longer bits of writing; something-out-of-a-tin on toast and half a tin of stewed apple with a yoghurt on the top; feed the cats again, watch The News, more writing, more reading…

I work more effectively left to my own eccentric devices than I ever managed  whilst  corralled into an office with a massive stack of torn cardboard files full of legal stuff behind me, a word-processor and an ever-ringing phone in front. I run on inspiration rather than application. I can concentrate, ferociously and for long periods of time, but only on what interests me. Nothing else sticks.

So, when I was younger… well, ‘cool’ wasn’t a word then, except in connection with summer drinks and cotton blouses, but I did want to be a ballet dancer. This was after I felt I needed a horse in the back garden, where it would be quite happy. Also after my tentative and unsuccessful request for an acoustic guitar, to be paid for at 1/- a week from my pocket money.  The ballet-dancing ambition was down to Lorna Hill. Lorna Hill was an author of children’s books, mostly about ballet. I have since learned that she started writing the ballet books when her daughter Vicki (Shirley Victorine) left home to be a ballet student at Sadler’s Wells. Lorna missed her, and started writing stories about young ballerinas at Sadler’s Wells. She started with A Dream of Sadler’s Wells (1950) and just carried on at the rate of one a year: Veronica at the Wells (1951), Masquerade at the Wells (1952), No Castanets at the Wells (1953), Ella at the Wells (1954), Return to the Wells (1955), Rosanna Joins the Wells (1956) and so on. She carried on writing until ill-health forced her to give it up, dying in 1991.

I just hoovered these books up as a child. My parents and grandparents, seeing there was nothing much else that interested me, apart from books, all joined at once and handed their tickets to me wholesale. I think at the time you were allowed five tickets per person so I had in my sticky little seven-year-old hands … four times five… twenty tickets, plus my own. I’m not sure whether the grown-ups had fully thought this through since it gave me instant, unrestrained and unmonitored access to the adult side of the library. Once a week I would stagger the mile and a half to the library (mostly uphill) with my old library books, having read all day, sometimes, and part of the night, with the traditional torch under the covers. I remember I had a torch which could be adjusted to shine red, green or white, which added a certain something. A while later I would stagger home with more books, some of which were children’s, others distinctly not. I remember trying to puzzle out a book called The Venial Sin which had pictures of men and ladies doing funny things on or under silken sheets. I never did puzzle it out. The librarian gave me a dark look when I returned it.

In the children’s section, I simply headed for ‘H’. Even now, I can picture where ‘H’ shelving was, and even where the Lorna Hills were within that shelving. That also happens when I’m hunting for quotes inside books.  I can remember whether the bit I am searching for was on the left or the right-hand page, at the top or the bottom, whether there was white-space on the page, indicating the end of a paragraph. Recalling the page number would be more useful, but I have no memory for numbers.

So, I lived every moment of these little ballet books, and the triumphs and anguishes of their heroines. I pictured myself in a netty pink tutu doing arabesques and twirly-things all over the place; sitting on the studio floor darning the toes of my pink silk shoes the way ballet dancers must, winding those long pink ribbons around my long, pink legs and scraping my wild, pre-Raphaelite locks into an elegant chignon (whatever one of those was, it was always elegant), doggedly practising at the barre till my muscles cried out and my poor little ballerina toes were sore and bleeding…

The only problem was… well, there were a lot of problems but the most glaring was that I was tall, horribly tall, even as a child. With a six foot four father and a five foot seven mother, there is no escape from tallness. I was also somewhat… large boned. Not fat, you know, more Statuesque, more Junoesque. I was the sort of child that came in useful for fetching things down off the tops of high cupboards. I still come in useful for that. My mother was having problems with the changing of the clocks the other day. She remembered it was the day to do it but not how to do it, so of course I ended up doing it. She told me not to even bother with the kitchen clock as nobody could reach it. I reached up and hooked it off, without even stretching. This seemed to astonish, almost offend her. Yet how many years has she been looking at me? Dementia logic. I’ve shrunk so you’ve shrunk, at the same rate and to the same size. We have become one interconnected being.

At some point I discovered – allowed myself to discover – that a ballerina had to be under five foot seven, have a tiny smidgen of a waist and a tiny thigh measurement. Realistically, how was a male ballet dancer ever going to lift a great Emu like me? Tiny thighs have never been within my grasp. An elderly doctor once reassured me, when babies were failing to come along, that I would surely prove fertile because I possessed those Great Child-Bearing Thighs. Pervy, unnecessarily personal and, as it transpired, medically incorrect. Do thighs have any relevance to success in child-bearing anyway? Mostly, it would seem to involve lying down and screaming.

I asked for ballet lessons but, as in the case of the back-garden horse my request was declined. Piano lessons would have been a better choice, for a child like me, but we didn’t have a piano and my parents didn’t think I would stick at it, and they were probably right.  Someone later told me I had piano-player’s hands. Probably all those years of typing had given me those since, unlike the rest of me, my hands are flexible, steely and honed. That Vulcan Live Long And Prosper thingy? Not a problem. Not much of a problem. But all I could ever play on the piano was Chopsticks. No doubt I’ve even forgotten that now.


Things that stop you writing. Pamela Frankau came up with these lists in the 1960s:

‘the devils outside’

…bright sunshine, cricket, the Times crossword, a luncheon date…

‘the devils inside’

…sheer listless reluctance; pain; worry; the flat morning mood; a sudden lust for new clothes; deep melancholy; wild happiness; bad news; good news…

I remember a sudden lust for new clothes striking a chord with me when I first read her book Pen To Paper, but then I was fifteen and clothes, at fifteen, are everything. That need to shop, right now – is that just a female thing? Something to do with our gleaning and gathering instincts. Lust is the right word for it. Luckily, the lust for new clothes tends to wear off as you get older.

Sheer listless reluctance Yes, that’s the biggie. You simply don’t want to write. You’ve written enough for several lifetimes and what have you got to show for it? A blog. Sheer listless reluctance is really a combination of writers’ block and laziness. They say the only way out of hell is through it: and the only way out of sheer listless reluctance is to write, write, write. It doesn’t matter what you write when you are in this frame of mind as long as you do. Start with a nonsense poem or a shopping list. If that doesn’t work type pangrams over and over again till you get so bored you find yourself writing something else

  • The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over The Lazy Dog
  • Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs
  • We promptly judged antique ivory buckles for the next prize
  • Cozy lummox gives smart squid who asks for job pen

Pangrams are called pangrams because they include every letter of the alphabet. When learning to touch-type that Quick Brown Fox becomes an old friend.

Freewrite. Just write what comes into your head, and don’t stop to think. You are constantly talking to yourself whether you realise it or not, or rather one part of your mind is talking to all the other parts. Just tap in on that and don’t stop till you run out of steam. Usually, by the time you do, you will have come up with several topics for writing, or you will have overcome the listless reluctance thing sufficiently to continue with your epic novel.

Pain It depends what sort of pain. If it’s migraine or raging toothache give up all thought of writing. Lie down in a darkened room or make a dental appointment. If it’s susceptible to painkillers, take painkillers and write till they wear off. You may actually discover that writing is a natural pain-killer.

Worry The best cure for worry is writing, if you’re a writer. It’s not writing per se it’s any creative activity – painting, singing, dancing, basket-weaving – simply because creative activities are absorbing. I remember reading in a book about Zen that to calm the mind, one technique would be to inspect each worry carefully, then imagine oneself placing it gently in a black sack and tying the neck of the sack, then putting the sack to one side. You tell yourself, I can worry about the contents of that sack at any time I choose, but just for now… just for now I will not. And it works, sometimes. Writing works always.

The flat morning mood – depression, really. And the difficulty of actually getting started on something. The thing with mornings is the long list of stuff you feel absolutely obliged to work your way through. Fascinating stuff like washing up, loading the tumble-dryer, making the beds, ironing, filling the bird-feeder up with peanuts, reading all your emails. Evening seems a long way off and it’s so difficult to get down to writing. Writing is hard. It’s wearing. It sucks the energy out of you if you’re doing it right, so you keep putting it off. You really don’t want to have the energy sucked out of you this early in the day. The thing is to get on with the writing – at least make a start – because until you do you’re not going to be happy and you’re not going to be able to relax. You’ll be doing all those other things – ironing, bird-feeder-filling, email-reading with today’s undone writing in the back of your mind. Guilt. Frustration. Not-writing is an unnatural state for writers.

Deep melancholy – I’m not sure I agree with her about this. Sadness is one of the best sources of material. Gobble it up. Use it. However, shocking things like bereavement are best not written about for a while, mostly because what you write is unlikely to be any good. Writing uses two parts of your mind in tandem – the creative, emotional bit and the crafty, editing bit. You can’t write good stuff with the crafty bit turned off. You need them both. You need to digest sad and horrible stuff for a while. Wordsworth described it as emotion recollected in tranquillity.

Wild happinesspossibly worse than deep melancholy for stopping you writing. Almost impossible to write anything decent when first in love. Just enjoy it.

Bad news, good news – we’re back to the black sack thing again. Take a little while to think about whatever the news is. Take a deep breath. Freewrite.

As for the devils outside – the cricket, the bright sunshine, the Times crossword, the dinner date (does anyone have dinner dates anymore?). Make a plan. If you want to go to a cricket match, go, but get up early to write, or stay up late afterwards. If you are a Times crossword fan schedule in an hour in the evening after you have written, or cut out all the Times crosswords and save them in a manila folder for the weekend, or for your holidays. Imagine, lying on a beach in Spain with a manila folder full of aged crosswords and a large, sand-filled dictionary…

Probably the worst thing of all for writing is other people. Other people are a real pain and unless you have a very intimate friendship with them you will not be able to write. Fifty years of marriage would do it. By that time you will scarcely notice each other’s presence in the room and will have chatted about absolutely everything any two human beings could ever need to chat about. Frankau actually lists the sorts of people to avoid when writing a novel. Evasive action should be taken, she says:

The company of the devitaliser. That friend who takes from life rather than enhancing it, the mental blood-sucker, the strong marauding personality. The early-morning chatterer on the telephone. The disorganised chaos-bringer. The one who wants a long, serious talk.

To be avoided also, she says:

…the swaddle of the Sunday newspapers, the opinions of agitated atheists, the gin-and-tonic before lunch, the reading of novels or book reviews. The correct literary diet alternates the Gospels with Whodunits.

And you know, she might be right about that.

I would also add, from my own experience, physical tiredness. You do need to look after yourself, as best you can, and allow enough time for sleep. Dreams, and the thoughts you have in that half-asleep, half-awake state, are the best inspiration of all.

There’s also perfectionism. You can’t be perfect. Even if you are perfect, no one will notice. And if they do notice they’ll hate you for it. The thing with writing is to write gloriously badly in the first place, then look at what you’ve got and make it better. You will always be able to see how to make it better – it will come to you. And after that you will be able to see how to make it better still. It happens in layers, in stages. The thing is, no one is ever going to read the gloriously bad stuff you began with, because all that’s screwed up in little white balls on the study floor, or donated to Mr Dusty Bin on your computer, so you needn’t be inhibited by how bad it is.

Work – I have found throughout my life that paid work stops me writing. Any arrangement that means I have to be somewhere from nine to five and paying attention, and can’t go anywhere else, escape or daydream – and the writing goes out the window. But, money being necessary work too is necessary. And I have never solved this one. Work, the toad work:

  • Why should I let the toad work
  • Squat on my life?
  • Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
  • And drive the brute off?
  • Philip Larkin: Toads


Montaigne also wrote:

I hear some people apologise for their inability to express themselves, and pretend to have their heads full of good things which they cannot bring out through lack of eloquence. This is a delusion…these are shadows cast upon their mind by some half-shaped ideas which they cannot disentangle and clear up inwardly, and therefore are unable to express outwardly; they do not yet understand themselves.

Best keep your mouth firmly closed until you know what you are talking about, then. But it’s not always that easy.

I always seem to be three steps behind in conversation. Even if I have a bright idea, by the time I’ve found a gap everyone’s moved on and my solitary insight is greeted more often than not by an irritable silence. And then everyone starts talking at once, as if they may just have heard Tinkerbell tinkling – or was it a gnat? Writing is better for me. No need to keep up, no need to compete. Once I have written something down its flaws jump up at me from the page. I can then rewrite it and no one will know whether it took one draft to get it right, or fifteen.

Many, maybe all, writers write because they are damaged. Some deep wound in the centre of them, the psychic equivalent of our Desert Island’s hypothetical ravine, is in the process of growing its own bridges; patiently, laboriously, stitching itself back together with words. Papermice, I call them, and imagine them, way past the witching hour, dipping their little feet into poisoned ink and, in agony, dancing upon the paper. Papermice do not so much need readers as time, and to be left in peace.

And then there are the rest of us: confused, mediocre, neither craftsmen nor artists but unholy hybrids flip-flopping between wanting money and adulation and needing to express ourselves. We love words, but the bills needs paying. We would rather like to be published but just can’t quite bring ourselves to switch to soft porn, How To manuals and romances set on ranches in Texas.

By the way, if you haven’t yet read Stephen King’s On Writing there’s a lovely passage in which he describes a time when he and his wife were out with their baby daughter, who had an ear infection and was feverish. They knew what would cure it, liquid amoxycillin or The Pink Stuff, but at the time they had no money to buy it. By the time they got home the child was burning up against his chest. Stuck through the door of their apartment they found an envelope containing a cheque for $500 for a story he had written, which meant they were able to pay for a doctor’s visit, a bottle of The Pink Stuff and one decent meal.

It’s no use pretending that money isn’t important. Unless you are lucky enough to have private means or live on a desert island you must earn money, if not from your ‘art’ in its pure form then by prostituting and diluting it; or in some completely unrelated profession which means having little time or energy to spare. In an ideal society the Government would pay poets, writers, musicians and artists some kind of grant, but no point holding your breath. The idea of some glorious El Dorado to be attained through writing still haunts me at times. It’s hard to rid myself of the illusion that my scribbles are destined to be my salvation. I cling to this with some tenacity, having no other talents, bankable or otherwise, and no other inclinations either.

All my working life I’ve taken any job anyone was misguided enough give me and honestly did my best to live up to everyone’s expectations, if only because it was so humiliating when I couldn’t. But writing always tripped me up sooner or later. Either the job suppressed completely my ability to write, or it left me no time to write, or writing – having that sadly specialised kind of personality – interfered with my ability to do the work. Daydreaming/ wool-gathering/ creative visualisation – whatever you like to call it – doesn’t get you through a pile of word-processing or equip you to deal with a call from a stroppy client, and it positively disadvantages you when it comes to negotiating the white-water rapids of office politics.

Writing is possession – maybe demonic, maybe angelic – and when your angel or demon feels thwarted he either strikes you dumb or spills out of your mouth a stream of weird words, wild imagery and confabulation, neatly bypassing all those translation protocols it took you a lifetime to construct. Writing isn’t something you do, or even something you are, it’s something that is you. It’s a disability, in this particular version of reality, but there are other worlds. You already know your way around them, and in them you have wings.