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