Boggarts In My Back Garden

Ow, I have just been landed on by the three-legged cat, and when you have been landed on by a three-legged cat, you know it. He does like to push the keyboard back in, on its slidey-shelf, so I end up with access to the bottom two rows only.

I thought I would let you know about the writing. I have been very good, surprisingly, producing a rough version of one of my little flash fictions every day. Today I started on part II of my plan, which was to also second-edit one. It’s a system, you see. I have a stack of plastic trays and the printed out stories progress down the trays until they settle, sedimentishly, in REJ – rejected. Of course, if any were to stick at ACC, the tray above REJ, I would be extremely pleased.

I am planning to publish more stories on the blog, but have to start being disciplined about it. The aim of writing them was to try to get them published in internet flash fiction magazines, maybe even earn a cent or two. Research suggests it would only be a cent or two, too.

But when I first attempted to publish an e-book of – longer, older – short stories on Kindle I had problems. Amazon’s automated-bot-crawling-thing became convinced that I had filched my short stories from some other writer. They refused to publish the book and started emailing me, rather scarily, like I was a criminal.

I had to do quite a bit of panic-stricken emailing back before they/it accepted that ‘I’ was in fact ‘Me’ – ie the Elsewhere their had software had detected my stories in was Here. I’ve long since deleted that e-book anyway – approximately three and a half people bought it – but all the stories it contained are here. See dedicated Page at top of blog/menu for how to find them.

Anyway, my plan is to put up a new very-short-story every two weeks. That way I’ll still have the pleasure of sharing stories with you and getting your feedback. If I can continue to write one story a day there should be plenty to spare.

What else? That’s the trouble, nothing non-fictional ever seems to happen to me anymore. That’s the trouble with getting old, at least without money. The high spot – last night I had to pick up my down-the-road friend from the hairdressers in town. She likes to go to the training college, because it’s cheaper, but they are very, very slow – take aeons to complete a single hairdo to the satisfaction of their supervisors. Plus they only open on Wednesdays afternoons and evenings, finishing after the last bus has gone. So I have to wait for a text, jump in the car and drive for 25 minutes, at night, with all those headlights coming towards me. When I would normally be watching some rubbish film on Prime, or dozing.

I never did much like going out at night, especially in winter. I know it’s the same things and places exactly, only with less sunlight, but it doesn’t feel like that. The world seems altogether a different place when it’s dark. Things may be lurking in my garden when I come back. I am afraid to turn away from them to put my key in the lock, and so I fumble. Yes, readers, there are boggarts on my back lawn and they are creeping

I’d better be careful about that or I might end up like Mum. She was absolutely sure there were people, out there behind her drawn curtains, standing in the dark, invisible but watching. How terrifying a genuine psychosis must be. Note to self: remain sane.

Another elderly acquaintance phoned this morning after a long gap. She always looks kind of, well, you know, at death’s door. I hadn’t seen her over Christmas as expected, and for a horrible-creepy-man related reason I wasn’t able to phone her at home to check she was all right. The longer the silence went on the more dead I feared she must be. However, she phoned this morning and she’s not. Not that I actually asked her if she was. She isn’t too well, though.

And tomorrow – tomorrow I think it is lunch with above nocturnally-coiffed down-the-road friend, in the subterranean canteen of the local hospital. It’s a bit like eating in a fish tank. Unfortunately since I have gone gluten-free I am confined to cheese-baked-potato with whatever vegetables they happen to have. Nothing much else is safe. I now have to have cheese-baked-potatoes everywhere I go, whilst others are consuming heaped, delicious steaming great platefuls of pie, chips, pasta and so forth. I will soon begin to look like a baked potato.

To make it even more exciting, we might have to take a ticket and wait for several hours so that she can get her blood test. Note to self: take a book.

Writing on a Postage Stamp

Jane Austen pursued her unusual hobby discreetly, so as not to embarrass her family or attract censure but also, I would guess, so that she could observe, unobserved, the social rituals going on all around her and the characters who came to visit. Writing in secret – hiding tiny scribbled slips of paper under her blotter every time she heard the door creak – was her way of being herself. It was her way of being ferociously clever, when women were regarded as more of a – decoration.

So in theory one could write a blog post and make it interesting no matter how dull one’s life had actually become. I have this image of myself sitting in a tiny prison cell, creating the most amazing fantasy kingdom whilst day after day, year after year, nothing ever happened but the cell door opening and a plate of bread and cheese, maybe a mug of beer, being pushed through it by some unseen jailor. That would be the extreme.

My life was never particularly expansive, though I suppose it had its moments. Most of these were too ghastly, shameful or humiliating to want to write about. I have written about a lot of stuff here on this blog, and put out there for public consumption, many tiny episodes, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes raging angry, sometimes frankly pathetic, that I have not told a single friend or relative: never would have, and never will.

Recently, life has narrowed even more for me, though we’ve not quite sunk to the prison cell scenario.  Partly it’s because of getting older and no longer being in the best of health. Partly it’s lack of money, unemployability, far too many cats… and partly it’s my natural inclination. I incline towards the hermit. This necessary stay-at-home, inward-looking-ness has thrown up new challenges, blog-wise. Mainly, the problem is that I am not Jane Austen. Jane Austen was so very gifted, she could have got blood out of a stone.

I think I got on to Jane Austen because I was debating whether or not to tell you the story of the Mystery Beep, and thinking no, that is just too small and uninteresting and generally paltry a sequence of events to write about it, and then thinking But Jane Austen…

I will tell you the story of the Beep, but in a separate post. In the meantime I will disclose that a second-hand Russian textbook has just crashed through my letterbox. The postmen round here are lacking in delicacy. Anything at all, they believe, can be got through a letter box if you shove hard enough.

That’s the thing about being retired and having no money to go out or do anything – you end up having to invent unnecessary but faintly interesting things to do. ‘Projects’. I have three of them on the go at the moment.

One is turning every scrap of yarn, material etc into something just in case I need to swap items for tins of cat food, should cat food be rationed in the case of You Know What. I just have a feeling they aren’t going to ration with nineteen cats in mind. That would constitute a cattery, and I am not one. Officially. So I am making things that could be offered as a swap for either one, two, four or six tins of Whiskas – hippie stuff – knitted dishcloths and pet blankets, knotted hemp bracelets, origami cranes and anything else I can dream up. I will probably end up with a box of items nobody ever wanted, but hey – before that they were boxes of odd balls of wool, balls of string, patchwork scraps. What’s the difference?

Another is re-reading a lifetime’s collection of paperback books. I know I have been determined to do this ever since I began writing this blog, and have never got round to it. I did give quite a few bags away to charity, but now I have sorted what’s left – still a lot – into alphabetical order once more. Since I do not have enough bookshelves (the bottom shelves have to be kept empty so that the boy cats can’t pee at the books when I’m not looking) I have brought in some splintery old apple crates from the garage. Apple crates, when lined with strips cut from plastic cat-litter sacks, make quite good bookshelves. Luckily I’m tall, as they go right up to the ceiling.

The third project is learning languages. I know I will never have occasion to speak another language to another human being, but why should that matter? What I am interested in really is linguistics, and what I really want is to learn as many languages as possible to read and to a certain level, i.e. I do not need to become an expert; I don’t even need to pronounce them correctly, though I’ll try. I’m interested to know how languages work, and how they compare to one another, and to find out whether I can still learn. I imagine myself, during those long, cold winter days – not so far off now – bundled in duvets and shawls to economise on heating, striving to master the intricacies of foreign grammatical systems – and keeping my brain alive.

Today it was Russian – most of these books can be had for less than £1 second-hand on Amazon, plus postage. I sat down with my cup of tea and dipped into it. Some kind soul had annotated many of the pages in tiny, annoying pencil writing, but I suppose for £1 you can’t complain. After a short perusal I decided Russian was going right to the bottom of the languages ‘to do’ heap, even under Welsh. I did learn one word, though – in the Cyrillic alphabet it’s written something like Myxa and pronounced (well of course) moo-ha. It means ‘fly’. So next time one of them is buzzing around my living room I can tell it to Buzz off, you little moo-ha.

4: Imagine

Continued from 3: Send in the clowns

I was also saved by my imagination and, if you like, the weird alternative-brain thing itself. That was – and is – by far the strongest form of defence, less costly than human relationships, far more flexible/portable than a husband. I always had the ability to tune right out, and this happened automatically whenever I began to get bored or things got rough. When things got very rough indeed I used to practice Silent Singing, most often The Sun Has Got His Hat On. I had my own way of distributing my consciousness between several places at once. I disappeared into books and stories, daydreams and plans. Inside my head was something like the Holodeck on the Spaceship Enterprise – the entire range of alternate universes on demand – and I spent many aeons away on my holidays on distant planets.

Later I started writing poems and stories. I found out how I felt through the poems and learned how I worked and what I thought through the stories. Together they became my Voice. I didn’t fret greatly that little I wrote was ever likely to get published – that wasn’t why I wrote. Much later I came to understand that a poem written (or a song sung, a painting painted, a love loved, an experience experienced) is engraved on the fabric of the universe, and will never be lost. You may have forgotten all the words or lost the old envelope it was scribbled on, but the poem is still there: all is taken in by the All That Is, which is constantly Becoming, in us and through us.

My parents were pretty bad until I left home. Almost as soon as I did they became pretty good. They did what they could to support me through the trials of what passed for my ‘adult’ life, though I never ceased to bewilder and exasperate them. I relied heavily on them for company as Ex seemed to be drifting further and further away, and when I found myself divorced, as a middle-aged ‘teenager’, basically – I had to learn how to change a light bulb and get petrol – I was glad of their support. I think they loved me. If only they could have told me so when I was young enough for it to have made a difference.

I would say to parents: even if you don’t understand what’s ‘wrong’ with your child – even if there is no medical word for it yet – even if (he or) she seems uncomfortably different to you or anybody else you have ever met – even if she is neither what you wanted nor what you anticipated – try to accept and love – or at least appear to love – what you did get. It works both ways. Your child has absolutely no choice but accept and love you, even as you shout abuse and raise your hand to strike.

When you are many years dead, do you really want your now elderly child to remember in technicolour what it felt like when you slammed her head into a door, trumping any good memories – like the day you taught her to swim; those Stanley Holloway monologues that made her laugh; the communal singing in the car?

If one approach fails, try and think of another. Watch and listen to your new child, as you would a new and exotic pet: work out what she needs. If you can’t work that out, talk to other people and be willing to ask for help. Be kind. Be gentle. Be creative. Think about what you are doing.

The Antipreneur

I thought of this snazzy little title on the way to the vets, with Winnie. In fact, when approaching an awkward mini-roundabout. That beastly little roundabout is particularly good for popping blog post titles into one’s head, I’ve noticed. No wonder cars always seem to be having collisions there.

Money or the lack of it always crosses my mind (multiple times) on the way to the vets, with a cat. But today being the Sabbath it was a locum, and he mightily impressed me by not extracting money from me when he undoubtedly could have, since having nineteen cats (as he could see from his computer screen) tends to give the game away – that you will do anything for a sick or suffering moggie, even if it involves remortgaging or maxing out the plastic.

But he spent a long time making a gentle fuss of poor Winnie and listening to her alarming breathing, and then told me it was a difficult one. He said he asked himself, if this was his own cat, or a human being, would he put them through an anaesthetic, an x-ray, a battery of blood tests, to find out what was wrong. Long experience has equipped me with a mental calculator for veterinary investigations. You’re looking at hundreds, I thought. Hundreds and hundreds… in fact maybe a thousand… Simultaneously trying to recall the PIN for my credit card – the one I swore I would never again buy anything on.

There is some sort of process going on inside Winnie, he said, but without the investigations it is hard to guess. I can tell by the flecks in her eyes, he said, that she is maybe fourteen or fifteen years old (this is news to me, as she was a stray, but I am not surprised). Winnie is an old lady. As long as she is eating and drinking, and seems to be happy, I think it might be better just to watch her, and wait. Bring her back to me when the time is right.

And with that he restored my faith in human nature. I hope he won’t get into trouble for not selling anything this rainy sabbath. I seemed to be their only customer this morning, so his lack of financial killer instinct will be pretty obvious when they come to do the till at lunchtime. I hope poor Winnie’s “time” will not come for a while yet, but when it does I will know, because he also restored my confidence in myself, my own instincts.

As for Anti-preneur – I guess that is I what I must be. At intervals I research into ways of supplementing the meagre income; preferably very, very quickly; without a huge outlay for three years of evening classes in upholstery, or the purchase of a stack of books on website design. Apparently website design is now becoming a bit “niche” as an income-generator, since the technology for building one’s own website is nowadays available to all online. I throw out that hint in case any of you are also making long lists of How To Make Money.

Truth is, I just haven’t got the mindset. I need money but I am not interested in it. I need money but I am not terribly willing to do – or terribly capable of doing – any of the things that are necessary to get it. I found a very useful article in The Guardian – Fifty side businesses to set up from home.

What is a side business, I wonder. I suppose if you are making oodles in the City, a side business would be something you did in your back bedroom, after spending three hours commuting home on a tightly-packed train. I have never had a front business, let alone a side one.

I run through the list, listlessly, trying to convince myself that I could manage one, or any of them:

Antiques dealing – what do they think I am going to purchase the antiques with? (Sigh!) And would I know an antique if I saw one? (Sigh!)
Babysitting. No one would let a childless old baggage like me near their children. And I don’t even much like children. I would be like Nanny McPhee… without the magic.
Bed and Breakfast, it says. I don’t want another person under my roof – unless they are my sister, for a week, in January – and anyway, I would have to hoover, relentlessly. And what about the nineteen cats?
Biscuit-making – oven broken
Cake-making – ditto
Car boot sales (Sigh!)
Car cleaning/valeting (Sighhhh!)
Census distributor – not till 2022, and I have a feeling I somewhat failed to impress at that the time before last…
Computer repairer/trouble-shooter – if only I could, I could save myself hundreds of pounds in visits from Scary Computer Man…
Become a DJ – seriously?
Be a doula – OMG, no….

Every time I think about making money my subconscious, which utterly refuses to stick to the point in any situation, however dire – in fact the direr the situation the more it is tempted to stray from/misremember any conceivable point – reminds me, visually and facetiously, that I need only to purchase a Red Hat and walk up and down the High Street murmuring… whatever ladies in Red Hats are supposed to murmur… Hello sailor! Got a light, dearie? Maybe ladies in Red Hats did murmur that sort of thing in the days when there were plenty of sailors and everybody used to smoke. Maybe. I doubt if they wear Red Hats nowadays, and suspect that whatever they now murmur to passing gentlemen, it is  direct, and graphic.

Deceased Devon Aunt once informed me that if I bought a bottle of Devon Violets perfume I would smell like a Lady of The Brook (or, as her Deceased Brother – my Father – would more likely have put it – like a Whore’s Handbag). Perhaps I should look on Amazon to see if one can still purchase little bottles of Devon Violets perfume – or red hats for that matter – and if so set forth to supplement my pension in this time-honoured way.

If only I wasn’t so old. And if only I could bear the thought…

So I suppose I will just have to write the novel. But that will take years. And what sort of novel. And whatever sort of novel, nobody is likely to publish it. And…

(Sigh!)

I wish I could think something useful

I have had a moderately thought-free day today, Praise Be. I have been sat sitting – I was sat sitting there – a colloquial, northern British expression though why I’m suddenly using it I don’t know. I don’t know much today. I probably know even less than Missy (above) who is possibly the world’s least intelligent cat.

So, what have I been doing today? Well, mostly cutting out hexagons for patchwork. This is my kind of work, I have discovered. Stuff that you can do – industriously, obsessively, even – that leaves your brain absolutely free to think of what it wants to think of. Or to listen to the umpteenth repetition of Pink’s Beautiful Trauma on Heart. I’m not averse to a smidgeon of Pink but you can have too much of a good thing. As that male hairdresser said – the one who cut my hair very short and then donked me most painfully on the head four times with his extra-long phallic black hairdryer – Oh, Pink – she’s got a belting voice – and I could tell he actually couldn’t stand her, belting or not.

pink

Or perhaps he was just wishing he could be working on her hair rather than mine. More scope for his creativity.

(Sigh! This is one of those post you just keep writing in the hope it will eventually make sense…)

(So far it hasn’t.)

I was thinking about Stephen Hawking, who died recently. I was thinking several things, the oddest of which was that our one and only Guardian Angel just got up walked out the door – at the very moment when we could do with more than one Guardian Angel. His Guardian Angelness did not occur to me while he was alive. Three cheers for Stephen Hawking, who finally escaped his bone-bound island and is now floating free in the universe he imagined better than anyone else since Einstein.

Beyond this island bound
By a thin sea of flesh
And a bone coast,
The land lies out of sound
And the hills out of mind.
No birds or flying fish
Disturbs this island’s rest.

Dylan Thomas: Ears In The Turrets Hear

The other thing I was thinking about Stephen Hawking is this: that he had the best job in the world. One hour or so a day teaching, and the rest of the day being allowed to Think. In Peace! He had the sort of brain that made Thinking worthwhile, of course. He could concentrate on the nature of the universe for hours – for days, maybe – whereas my concentration span, even when it comes to laboriously cutting out paper hexagons (tongue clamped between teeth) and tacking tiny hexagonal bits of cloth to them, is a microsecond or two.

I was thinking how odd it was that it has taken me all this time to realise that the only sort of work I am capable of engaging in happily is precisely this sort – the sort I once despised. I remember once telling a tutor that I wanted to be a writer, and him kind of snorting (politely) and saying in that case I would be better advised to give up the worthless Sociology ‘A’ Level, the worthless Commercial French ‘A’ Level and his own worthless English Language & Literature ‘A’ Level, and go and get a job in a factory. And he was right. But I was a snob. I was an intellectual, right? It was one of those road-not-taken moments. One of many.

I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms…

Stephen Spender: I Think Continually

Post McEwan Stress Disorder

This picture is from tiny card my mother once sent me. The message inside is mundane:

Monday, 2pm

I received your letter. Went over to the garage. Explained about little red spanner [Skoda’s irritating ‘service due’ warning light].

They can deal with little red spanner ie: take it off so that it won’t be a nuisance any more.

I left the key with them. It will soon be dealt with.

Love, Mum XXX

It felt a bit creepy reading this so-ordinary and long-forgotten message from Mum’s earlier self, but it was nice to see her handwriting, and to see that all the full stops were once again in the right place, the ‘i’s all meticulously dotted and the ‘t’s all crossed. The style’s clumsy for her, though – ‘it’ must already have begun at that point, and I didn’t realise.

It was a long drawn out and horrible Flowers For Algernon process, for us both, first watching her handwriting decline and then her mind refusing to tell her what to write in letters to friends, and her desperate strategies to keep doing so: the sudden change to writing in pencil – I bought her a whole box of 2Bs and a desktop pencil-sharpener which neither of us could then fasten to the desk; the endless, obsessive process of rubbing out bits of sentences and trying again; the rewriting of entire letters; the asking me to check them before she posted them.

I have a little nightmare of the same thing happening to me one day – and not realising – and gibberish appearing in this blog, and either no one telling me (and who would want to be the one to do that?) or everyone just Unfollowing. Oh, God save us from an unknown future.

I found Mum’s butterfly card in one of my books. Being lazy and using everything from letters to bus tickets to torn-off pieces of cereal packet does have its upside. You never know what little treasure you might to come across when you get round to tidying your books. I also found a lot of bookmarks from a particular second-hand bookseller.

Every time you order a second-hand book from them, no matter if it only cost 99p, they include a nice cardboard bookmark with a design submitted by a reader. And they are excellent bookmarks (they must have many graphic artists among their readers) and also an excellent selling point. It works with me anyway: I always look down the list and see if I can get the book from them rather than any of the alternatives, out of sheer bookmark-greed.

I notice a preponderance of the black-and-white-one-with-the-many-skulls. I remember, in fact, them sending me three black-and-white skull bookmarks inside a single ancient paperback one time, and picturing some poor, bored school-leaver on work-experience in an office on an industrial estate, fishing for the umpteenth time into a plastic bin full of pretty bookmarks and flinging in whatever happened to come out. I wonder if they do swapsies?

And now, by the magic of technology and a lot of messing about with fancy filters I am able to use Mum’s little butterfly card in a post. Mum would have been horrified, not at the idea per se but at the prospect of me attempting to explain it to her. Her eyes would glaze over the minute I started on about my computer: Mum was very good at un-listening, as no doubt most Mums are.

Why am I going on about butterflies? Well, I was going to use this picture as an illustration for the next Books From My Bookcase item. This was going to be a debut collection of short stories called A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray (2004). The book leapt out at me because it is one of two physically beautiful books I possess, the other one being the hardback first edition of How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff – the one with the gorgeous red flowers. Hang on, lets try to find it:

how i live cover

The above doesn’t do it justice. Bits of it (the leaves) are all shiny and lit up – sorry, metallicised – can’t find it in the dictionary but sure it’s a real word – metallized just wont do! – and bits of it are left matt. And Tropical Butterflies is yellow and brown and kind of fusty-Victorian-looking, and inside there is a bonus – an extra sheet – what do you call that? – the front paper – with a glossy version of the same yellow cover, a delightful little shock when you open it.

Now, later on in life, I understand why I married an artist. I thought it was only an unhappy childhood and alternative brain-wiring we shared but it was also an eye for beauty. In another life, maybe, I shall be a  collector of objects d’art Maybe I can go back (since I doubt that ‘lives’ are in chronological order) to the 17th Century and be a man (makes life easier, always) and have a cabinet of curiosities full of wonderful and mysterious things that I can show off to callers. Or maybe I’ve already had that life.

Rats.

In any case, having found A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies I realised I had only in fact read a few little bits of it. The short stories look good, if a mite challenging. They certainly got good reviews:

“John Murray’s stories are a genuine cultural breakthrough… adventures of the mind, and rich in human feeling, true departures from any other known fiction.” Muriel Spark

I think I read a little bit of one and had uncomfortable flashbacks to Ian McEwan. I had a really bad experience with his macabre short story collection The Cement Garden (1978). Every one of those tales frightened the living daylights out of me. Never been the same since. Post McEwan Stress Disorder.

IMG_20170818_153722_kindlephoto-22387772.jpg

The past: a foreign country

This will almost certainly never happen – so don’t don’t hold your breath whatever you do – but I thought I might pen a fantastically successful ‘cozy’ (or ‘cosy’, if you’re English) detective series. This would solve all my financial worries in one swoop, in perpetuity, and be very good for my ego. However, I’m not much good at getting to the beginning of projects let alone the end, and this would be a very long project indeed.

But I am very good at preparing. I enjoy the preparing so much more than the doing. This is because doing – especially writing-type doing – is very hard work and that fierce concentration, that excitement, that passion – sucks the very life-blood out of you.

So, in ‘preparation’ I am reading a monster of a book by Dominic Sandbrook (in fact there are two books, this is the first) entitled Never Had It So Good: a history of Britain from Suez to the Beatles. My God, it’s a huge thing, I mean Bible-sized. You feel like you need a lectern.  My right thumb all but fell off with cramp after five minutes of reading.

That poster – You Never Had It So Good and the face of Prime Minister Harold MacMillan were part of my early teens. You couldn’t walk up Station Road without those hooded old eyes and those droopy old moustaches following your every move: MacMillan was the Big Brother of the early sixties.

But at that time I was just starting a new school, with all the terrors involved in that. Politics didn’t mean anything to me then and I had no idea that I was living through the seminal decade of the twentieth century. Whilst others were sitting around looking cool in coffee-bars or prancing round campsites in the West Country bedecked with flowers I was going up and down Station Road in my school uniform, burdened – yea, burdened – by hormones and a generalised sense of doom. I had no overview.

I would like to ‘write’ the sixties but the thing that worries me is the non-PC aspect. Can I really manage the awful, repugnant attitudes, the rampant racial prejudice, the ghastly belittling of women? Of course any writer worth their salt ought to be able to but it’s so very close to home. I was alive then. I didn’t know, but I was complicit.

We once had a temporary teacher of English. He was a young man – somewhat under thirty at any rate – and personable. We were a girls school full of frustrated teenage virgins (mostly) and you can imagine the electrical effect he had on us. Hysteria. We followed him everywhere, primping and giggling. But once in his lessons he threw a board-rubber – one of those great chunky wooden things – at a girl. It hit her on the forehead and she started to bleed. He was apologetic of course.

And once a Jehovah’s Witness girl stood up and confronted him. She was a timid girl, gingery, freckled and mostly silent – but he had just read out a couple of lines from T S Eliot’s Morning At The Window and it sparked something in her:

I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids

Sprouting despondently from area gates.

There is no such thing as the soul, sir, she said.

OK Susan, but let’s pretend there is such a thing as the soul, for the sake of the poem.

No sir, there is no such thing as the soul…

She was being courageously, terminally annoying. I’m not sure how I would have handled that situation as a teacher. What I think I would not have done even then was take her by the ear and drag her, tearful but unprotesting, to the headmistress’s office and dump her on the bench outside.

None of us thought a thing of it. He was our beloved, gorgeous English teacher. He was strong-jawed and handsome. His thick blonde hair was combed back in a kind of quiff. She was not popular, and he was a man.

In my new tome of a research book, I read an extract from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a famous novel of the sixties. I remember reading it at the time and thinking nothing of it. Arthur Seaton is sleeping with two married women, but tells himself:

If ever I get married… and have a wife that carries on like Brenda and Winnie carry on, I’ll give her the biggest pasting any woman ever had. I’d kill her. My wife’ll have to look after any kids I fill her with, keep the house spotless. And if she’s good at that I might let her go to the pictures ever now and again and take her for a drink on Saturday. But if I thought she was carrying on behind my back she’d be sent back to her mother with two black eyes before she knew what was happening.

Arthur Seaton is the hero of the novel.

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Our handsome, bequiffed English teacher left after a term. He had in fact been a good English teacher as far as English was concerned, introducing us to challenging and relatively modern poems like Dylan Thomas’s Poem in October which I would never have come across otherwise. He broadened our minds. He threw board-rubbers at us. He took us by the ear and dragged us.

He left to become a Black And White Minstrel on TV. My parents loved that programme and, forever after, every time it came on our black-and-white TV I would look out for him, although of course you couldn’t tell under the black-face makeup. Apparently he was a resting actor. You didn’t have to be qualified in those days as long as you had a degree. It never occurred to me that it was offensive for white people to black up. It never occurred to me, to be honest, that Minstrels were supposed to be black people. They were just Minstrels to me, as Gollywogs were just a kind of teddy-bear alternative. Not people.

Which is another story, and one that I don’t feel up to telling at the moment.

White plastic popper-beads and a red hat

I have noticed that my posts become increasingly like the white plastic popper bead necklace I had when I was a child, and which broke all over the floor during a game of spin-the-collection-plate at the Sunday School Christmas Party because some stupid boy (probably Peter Stelmazuk) yanked on them to see how they were held together. I get one thought, and that leads on to another, and that another and occasionally if I’m lucky the end thought joins back up to the first one.

I used to know a woman who spoke like I write. Unfortunately she lived opposite me on the new estate that Ex referred to scathingly as Brookside. She was one of those women who having discovered you stuck to you like a veritable limpet and wouldn’t stop talking. I used to get invited over to their house, which was hugely much bigger than mine, with a conservatory, a lovely (if bijou) garden with a water-feature, and those massive, expensive armchairs with electric controls that lift the back, the seat, the arms, the footrest and whatever other moving parts it has up and down so as to ensure your absolute comfort whilst consuming white wine or nibbling on canapés of an evening.

Her husband used to go upstairs to his study as soon as I arrived, either to construct model aeroplanes or to further his bid to become a local councillor so as to have speed bumps inserted into Brookside’s smooth new speed-bumpless circular road, which the local hooligans used as a racetrack, using the car park of the equally new and monstrously big Tesco store as their starting point. He was exhausted being married to this woman and, after only twenty minutes in her company, I was exhausted too. Unfortunately, I never got away with less than a whole evening.

She would talk non-stop, seamlessly segueing from one irrelevancy to another, whilst I tried desperately to keep all the threads together and understand the connection between them. I would watch her mouth moving and moving and moving, fascinated and horrified, wondering when – and how she was ever going to get to the point. Her conversation was like one of those fractal leaves, you know? Endlessly branching, branching and branching. And the thing was, you couldn’t tune out and daydream because every now and then she would stop and ask a question, but never about the branch of the fractal she was currently on, always about something several branches back. I couldn’t abide her, but abide her I did for several years. I felt sorry for her because she had no friends. I knew what it was like to be impossible and unlikeable and not understand why. I suspected she and I had an uncomfortable something in common, but at that time I didn’t know what.

She used to take me shopping in Canterbury. She would drag me round one department store after another, looking for a red hat or similar must-have object. She would never buy anything. In each store, instead of looking for the must-have object she would approach the first sales assistant she spotted on the ground floor and demand to know where the red hats were. She would fail to memorise the instructions and ask the poor woman – who was actually selling make up or perfume rather than hats – for it all to be repeated. Then she would drag me up and down escalators in search of red hats, because of course despite the repetitions of detailed instructions she had instantly forgotten where the red hats were.

Then we found the red hats, and one particular red hat she really loved. Then we would leave the shop in search of a cash machine because she had not got any cash out before going shopping. This would take some time. Then neither of us would be able to remember where the particular red hat was, so would spend the rest of the morning trying to relocate it. Then she would disappear into changing rooms and leave me standing in the middle of the store. Hours later, still standing there, I would wonder if she had simply gone home. I would ask shop assistants if they had happened to see her. None of them ever had.

I moved house but she came to visit me, turning up in her husband’s bright yellow sports car and skewing it across two of my new neighbours’ parking spaces. She was not a good driver though it was a good car. The best air-conditioning I had ever experienced, and it smelt of new leather and great expense. She also phoned, at great length. I had ‘caller display’ put on and took to not answering it when her number showed up. I felt bad about that.

Now, I remember where this was going. Sooner or later we will get on to the Youth Club, the out-of-tune piano and a single battered copy of The Midwich Cuckoos. And somewhere in the mix will be a queasy, beatific portrait of Jesus surrounded by unlikely children of all races, suffering them to come to him. And then there will be my newly-found Certificate of Baptism and my dear Godmother who is not, in fact, my godmother at all as it transpires.

I think it will have to be another post.

Maybe even two.

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Whatever gets you through the night…

I was going to call this post Loose Elastic (there used to be jokes, in the days when ladies’ undergarments were held up by perilously slim pieces of actual elastic, about a young lady called Lucy Lastic) but decided against. A bit frivolous for the subject matter, I decided.

Because these are a few passing thoughts about anxiety and depression. I don’t know about you but I usually seem to be suffering from one or another of these. I’m lucky in that although these two Nasssty Creatures walk alongside me more or less daily they rarely get unbearably Nasssty. I have witnessed real clinical depression: I know I’m lucky.

Of course they’re not really two separate Creatures but alternative and interchangeable manifestations of the same Creature and it occurs to me that both are the result of not being able to stay in the present moment. You could say that depression is the result of being pulled back into the past, and anxiety the result of being pushed into the future. It’s as if your poor mind is on a piece of elastic and being bounced first this way and then that.

When I am depressed it’s usually because I’m going over and over thing that happened in the past, thinking about people I once knew, people who died, people I said the wrong thing to, situations I handled badly; terrible, terrible mistakes I made. My imagination busies itself with ‘what ifs’. I resurrect the vanished and dead and hold long, sad conversations with them. I replay the dreadful bits of my past, trying to get them right second time round. I imagine lives where this or that wouldn’t have happened, in which I might have been happier.

If I’m anxious it’s usually because I am going over and over things that are scheduled to happen soon – it might be something simple, like a visit from the plumber or driving to an unfamiliar place – imagining all the things that might – no, are bound to – go wrong, hoping that if I rehearse them well enough I will be able to influence what happens, inoculate myself against an evil future. Stop The Bad Thing Happening.

Neither makes any difference. The past remains the past, the dead are still dead, the gone are still gone. The future remains unknown and uncontrollable. I am still right here, and still exactly as unhappy/afraid.

Meditation is supposed to be good for staying in the present moment, and I keep meaning to do that, when I can stop fretting for an hour or two. What I have found is that it helps at least to attempt to be mindful. Once you start to notice that you are maundering around in the past or fretting away in the future, you can take a deep breath and return yourself to the present moment. No use trying not to go there in the first place, just start noticing when you have.

I usually say something to myself, like: Well, you’ve done quite a bit of worrying about that, now concentrate on your driving/walking/washing up – or whatever. This is really the equivalent of the technique they teach you at meditation/relaxation classes: identify your worry and place it in an imaginary black sack; tie the sack up and place it to one side for the time being; you can come back and open it any time. Except you don’t really need the black sack. If you can just get as far as noticing, the worry tends to leap into the sack and tie itself up automatically.

I’ve also noticed I tend to get most anxious or depressed when I am doing nothing – lying in bed trying to sleep, for instance – or doing semi-automatic but uninteresting stuff like driving, walking or washing up. Ping! There goes the elastic and there I am, sloshing around in the past or tiptoeing around in the future. The answer seems to be to keep busy, but for preference at something interesting, that absorbs you. You know what your particular thing is, and when you are in the zone, don’t you? It’s when time flies without you noticing it, where you are filled with a kind of joy, an almost feverish excitement about the task in hand. Whatever it is, when you have completed it you are aware that you have achieved something, and that you have been, for a while, entirely and perfectly yourself.

Writing is mine, and reading used to be. I am now re-training myself to read – properly, deeply – that ‘getting lost in a book’ feeling that I used to get as a child. The internet is rewiring our brains, did you know that? We are in the process of becoming skimmers, clickers, extractors of key words and phrases. The only way to get reading back is to keep practising. After a while – maybe many weeks or even months – the ‘getting lost’ facility comes back. What you really need is a brain that can do both – skim for information, read for pleasure. Stories – either telling them or listening them – ideal. Stories distract you from that dreary self-absorption, that endless monologue.

I can imagine that for some people the key to at least a temporary ‘present momentness’ would be music (to sooth the savage breast, etcetera), for others it might be a complicated piece of knitting or the challenge of drawing a difficult subject or capturing a landscape. I can imagine it might be maths, or solving puzzles if you are that way inclined.

But is reading or writing really being present, or might it be the ultimate form of being elsewhere? Maybe I can’t bear to be here at all, even for a second; can only sustain life on this ghastly planet, in these terrifying times, by being as much as possible, second by second, elsewhere? What is a book but a yet another imaginary world, an alternative world, another place?

In which case, I’m tempted to say to hell with it! I’ll be elsewhere in whatever way happens to make me happiest, or at any rate least unhappy. I’ll be absent without leave. Bother the Buddha, I’m going to get through my compulsory sojourn on this doomed planet in any which way I can.

Whatever gets you through the night.

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The Kama Sutra Mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And why, exactly?

Memento Mori

My sister sent me an email, advising me that she had moved Mum into her new Home. So far so predictable but at the foot of the email was one of those little grey paperclip things and hidden behind the little grey paperclip thing a disconcerting photo, of my mother peacefully asleep in her new bed, in her new room, and my sister with her hand resting on Mum’s forehead being photographed by – whom? Godmother and I agreed, there was something spooky, even gruesome about it.

It’s not that I do not know what my mother looks like now, in her 87th year and suffering from dementia; how her face has thinned and yellowed and her smile has gone. I saw her only last weekend after all. I fed her a belated Christmas Dinner and wrote a post about it. It’s worse than that. It’s two things:

Firstly (my sister couldn’t have known this, but if she had it wouldn’t have stopped her) it reminded me so much of the painting on the cover of one of my old paperbacks of metaphysical poetry. It’s a mourning painting. Sir Thomas’s fine white hand beneath a frill of stiff white lace, rests on a skull. People are ranged around in their best-black-and-lace, looking mournful but resigned. The deceasing lady is propped up on many pillows, only her head and shoulders visible. And unfortunately, my sister had managed to mirror that exact pose in her smartphone snap.

Secondly, it reminded me of all those wildlife programmes where a vulture inspects the corpse of some recently slaughtered elephant or wildebeest – avidly, thoughtfully – as if debating whether a sprinkling of salt and pepper, or maybe a handful or two of chives might be a good idea.

The fact that associations like this are made my mind is shocking, even to me. Why do I – why even can I think such things? Couldn’t I switch off this poeticising, or in this case anti-poeticising, facility when appropriate? The answer is no. This sort of brain doesn’t switch off; there’s no editing what goes into it, no stopping it from ‘seeing’. And what it has seen can never subsequently be forgotten. It’s what makes people like me able to write. It’s what forces us to write, to exorcise what we cannot but see and know. It’s what makes living difficult.

Whilst on the subject of death (might as well get it all over in one post!) I am reminded of those roadside floral tributes, and my parents’ attitude towards them; also to funerals.

My mother in particular despised those bunches of flowers people nowadays tend to sticky-tape to lamp-posts or thread through the links of chain-link fences at the exact spot where a close relative had died. She hated how the flowers were renewed, month after month, year after year, “littering up the place”. What she really hated, I think, was the naked expression of grief. To my parents a death meant a cremation, as soon as possible. It meant a funeral service in a modern chapel with no embarrassing tears or screams of anguish, as characterless and forgettable as possible. After that, that was that, done with. The person, done with. Rarely mentioned again.

I like the flowers. I sometimes walk along the seafront passing all those memorial benches people have donated, and stop to read how Gerry loved to play the guitar or how Sid the taxi-driver is now driving the angels around in heaven, in a shiny white taxi. I love the bunches of flowers and imagine the relatives coming here, with a fresh bunch and a fresh card, and having a little chat with Gerry or Sid.

I like graveyards; when I worked in an office I used to eat my lunchtime sandwiches in one. On a sunny, summer’s day there is less to be afraid of in a graveyard than in the whole of the rest of the world. The dead enjoy your company. They appreciate a little chat every now and again. And did you know that you can talk to any dead person in any graveyard? They will always make themselves available even if what remains of their bodies is on the other side of the country.

I always found this sanitised modern death difficult. I longed for great black Victorian hearses, pulled by black horses and festooned in black lace. Brought up in the lowest possible church, and that most conformist of social groups the upper working class, my instincts are entirely Catholic and Gothic. I need those swinging censers, the trails of incense, the solemn faces, the cascades of tears, the wailing and the beating of breasts. I need the man with the black hat walking in front of the coffin with his mace and his black-crêpe streamers.

And I need a place to go to be with that person. I do understand the allure of the exact spot where someone died. I know that the lost one may still in a sense be there, exactly there.  Magical thinking, of course, but I know that where they went up they may, in a sense also, if earnestly implored, and if they choose, come down. Their ghost is anchored there. This is their own place, their little ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’ as that poem puts it.

Let us not deprive people of their magic, if magic is what they need to process the horror and the loss. Let’s not sanitise it all and cut out the ritual, if ritual is what people crave. My parents would have said – but the dead person isn’t there any longer – what’s the point of going to all that expense and – more importantly from an upper working class perspective – making all that unnecessary and embarrassing fuss and show – showing off like that?

But rituals are not intended for the dead, they are for the healing of the living.

Featured Image: Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his First Wife: John Slouch

Time for Plan B

Well, I promised myself I’d start writing short stories again and that’s what I’ve done – started writing one. Not, exactly, finished writing one. I think that might take another two posts.

Thing is, I know what the story’s about. I know how it’s going to turn out.

I just have to write the damn thing.

This reminds me of Ex. He was an artist and the paintings he did were large, in oils, and detailed. A ‘short’ painting might take six weeks, a longer one six months. I have no idea how we survived financially since it never occurred to me to ask and he wouldn’t have told me anyway. Maybe he was waiting tables or doing night shifts at Tesco when I wasn’t looking.

He used to say an awful lot of things – but one of the things he used to say while he was still bothering to say anything at all, was this – that he knew before he ever bought the brushes (a complete new set of brushes to every painting) exactly what the painting was going to look like when finished. The in-between bit – that six weeks or six months – was just a drag for him, like painting by numbers. He never wanted to be an artist. He wanted to fly aeroplanes in the RAF and shoot at other aeroplanes.

There is an element of that with my stories. I know what’s going to happen in them, I just wish I could farm the writing of them out to some willing drudge or other.

By the way, this is not going to be a story about a shoplifting dog although shoplifting – also South Wales and uncomfortable uniforms – do play a part in it.

TIME FOR PLAN B

(by me)

In the Pet Food aisle Gethyn slipped a finger inside the collar, trying to ease it away from his neck. At the start of his training he had been asked for his uniform size. He didn’t know his anything size. The last time he had had new clothes his Ma had bought them for him, and he’d forgotten how many years ago that might have been. Time disappears, rough-sleeping.

So they’d measured him, including his neck. ‘Stand still and don’t fidget, young man.’ He’d tried to stand still as she tightened the mustard-coloured tape-measure around his neck. Its edges were scratchy. So was the collar.

He hadn’t quite understood the need for the uniform. Surely if you were trying to catch shop-lifters you needed to be inconspicuous. Was anyone going to shop-lift in front of a man/boy in a uniform? They told him to begin with he would have Mainly Deterrent Value, but that once his probation was up and he’d put in a year or two he could be considered – considered – for an upgrade to plain clothes.

Gethyn fastened his hands behind his back as he’d been taught and pasted on the lofty, all-seeing, all-knowing expression he rehearsed in front of a mirror under the cruel strip-lighting of the long room above the High-Flier Fitness and Sauna Complex, Splott.

He’d learned many other things in that room – all the different ways shop-lifters attempted to shop-lift things and all the little ‘tells’ by means of which an experienced Loss Prevention Agent could catch them in the act such as an unseasonably sweaty brow or an excess of fiddling.

‘Lifters often attempt to disguise their intentions by excessive casualness…’ said Bob the Instructor and former plain-clothes officer in the Cardiff Heddlu.

‘…making a big show of tapping and fiddling and examining the article as if trying to decide whether to purchase it. A legitimate shopper, ironically – you know what ironically means, gentlemen? – wastes very little time inspecting, though behaviour patterns vary slightly between the sexes. A man tends to know what he wants. Inside the store he locates it, he grabs it and he sweeps it into his basket. Job done. A woman probably doesn’t know exactly. She is more just enjoying the shopping. But she won’t on the whole fiddle – no, she will stand at some distance, thinking. She might move up the aisle a bit and then move back, engaged in a feminine struggle to make up her mind. But she doesn’t want to look too eager – she will play it cool – and then she’ll grab it and sweep it into her basket.’

Gethyn had learned a lot of stuff like this during the course, and all paid for by Work for the Homeless. He was very lucky. He knew he was very lucky. He was a very, very lucky young man indeed and was being given a second chance. He’d quite enjoyed the studying, actually, and being forced to think again. He’d been really interested in the Psychology of Theft. He’d appreciated being indoors, out of the everlasting Cardiff rain. He’d really appreciated all the food, the burgers and the chips – mountains and mountains of chips – the mushy peas, the cups of hot steaming tea… Another reason why his collar was tormenting him now.

He’d even enjoyed the stationery they gave him – the black and blue Bic biros, the block of file-paper with pale blue, wide-ruled lines and four holes that magically coincided with the silver rings inside the royal blue plastic folder they’d also given him.

‘Keep all your stuff together, see,’ said Bob the Instructor. ‘Your written notes and all the hand-outs we shall be handing out to you.’ Gethyn had even liked the handouts. He appreciated things that were planned, sensible and in order, and not like his life had been for the last…few… years.

But now he was In Situ. Now he had been Deployed, and Deployment was a whole different kettle of fish.

And just as he was thinking that, about kettles of fish and so forth, he saw an old woman lift a can of dog-food off the shelf, bold as brass, and shove it down her coat.

(To be continued)

 

‘Write a short story every week.

It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row’

(Ray Bradbury)

(Not possible for Ray Bradbury, that is.)

When the bookmark stops moving

There were a lot of signs that Mum had veered off the path through the woods and was heading in the direction of fairyland, but we tended to ignore them. We put everything down to her deafness, to not wearing her hearing aids, to general cantankerousness, to elderly stubbornness, to a lifetime of unsociability. We did our best to keep her going, to cope with one disaster after the next. It couldn’t be that, not in our family.  But it was that. The D word.

The thing that brought it home to me was quite small, really. Mum stopped reading. She was no intellectual – not on the whole a literary reader – but she had read all her life. She once showed me an exercise book she had kept as a teenager, with neatly-ruled pencil columns, listing every book she read. Title, Author, Date Started, Date Completed. I still have one or two of her school prize books – Jane Eyre, Villette.

At one point I started reading Dickens, but in a random sort of way. Mum was inspired to read Dickens too but being Mum she had to get the complete set (identical, must be identical) and read them in chronological order from Pickwick Papers to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and keep a list. We often shared pointless projects like knitting blankets for charity, jigsaw puzzles or reading particular authors; it gave us something to talk about when really, apart from genetics, we didn’t share much else.

One day I noticed the bookmark in her latest ‘read’ hadn’t moved. It’s one of those things I have a kind of eye for – whether tiny things have changed since I last saw them. Even a few pages would have made a difference. She’d been busy, she said. Summer – out in the garden a lot – and she did find nowadays she read a few pages and fell asleep.

Next week the bookmark hadn’t moved. I noticed she had put an elastic band round the book as if afraid the pages would decide to unglue themselves and flutter off somewhere.

Next week the bookmark hadn’t moved. The book hadn’t moved. Mum didn’t seem to have moved much, either.

Anyway – what this is leading up to, when I can get there, is this. Over the past few years I have been reading less and less. I believed I was reading. I kept telling myself I was reading but what I was actually doing was sipping, a few lines here, a page or two there, perhaps. I was not finishing books. I kept losing interest, or starting another book, and then another. All over my house, books with bookmarks a few pages in, bookmarks that hadn’t moved. And then the writing dried up. Recently I have realised that the two are connected. You need to feed the writing with reading, the thinking that comes from reading, the connections between this bit of reading and that bit of reading.

In my defence, it has been an abysmal last few years. I’ve had a lot to worry about, financially, workwise and, of course, the greatest worry of all, Mum. Until you’ve been forced to ‘walk with someone on their dementia journey’ (cringe, cringe, cringe!) you don’t realise what it does to you. It takes your life over. It sucks all the energy out of you, and kills all the joy. As you battle to communicate, to comprehend, to follow them at least part of the way into fairyland, you get a bit demented with them. I mean, that’s the way it is. You can’t just cut the psychic connection you once had with them, particularly if it’s a parent. Instead you turn into a kind of wraith, shambling along behind them like Gollum with The Ring. My precious, My precious.

My bookmark – multiple bookmarks – had stopped moving too.  Something had to be done because – well, because it hangs over you, dementia does. Life’s never the same again. From that point on you watch yourself and you dread what you might notice. Every time you forget something. Every time you find the teabags in the fridge. Every time you can’t immediately call a name to mind. Is this it? Is that going to happen to me now?

So I started trying to read again, i.e. set aside the time for reading and actually finish a book, and it was more difficult even than I had imagined. I just couldn’t focus. I couldn’t concentrate even on stories that would once have absorbed me to the point where people would be waving their stupid hands in front of my face and asking me where I was. (I hate that, don’t you?)

The internet hasn’t exactly helped. Current thinking is that this access to instant information, the ability to click rapidly from one subject to the next, the constant distraction, is actually altering our neural pathways and leaving us with short little spans of attention. We are metamorphosing into something else. Internet Man/Woman.

In the end I had to take desperate measures. I started selecting books for teenagers, science fiction, fantasy – anything to kick-start my imagination and keep me absorbed and turning those pages. I suppose I am entering my second childhood, reading-wise and, fingers crossed, it seems to be working.

So this is a cautionary tale. Don’t let them creep up on you, the no time to read, too stressed to read, too tired to read, too sleepy to read, too poor to read, not worthy of reading monsters. Stay alert at all times and keep that bookmark moving.

Write what’s on your mind

Even after a year and a bit of blogging (and many more years before that of Writing Stuff) I still haven’t learned to relax and trust the process. There is still the occasional day when I wake up and think Aaargh – nothing to write about!!! This instantly translates itself, via black and white, catastrophic thinking into Aaargh – there will never be anything to write about again!!!

Sometimes it then progresses into Aaargh – there never was anything to write about, I was deluded, I only thought there was, all my life therefore I have been wasting hours and hours in writing stuff that was totally worthless and uninspired!!!

On really bad days this progresses into My life itself is worthless, I am worthless, nobody loves me, nobody ever loved me, what is the point of me? Sorry, sorry sorry…!!!

No doubt I am not alone in this.

Most of the time I can retrieve the situation by reminding myself of something Pamela Frankau, a long-dead and mostly-forgotten novelist, once wrote of inspiration:

The tanks take longer and longer to refill… I cannot believe that I shall write another book. I remind myself that I have written thirty. And although, at fifty-two, I have far more to say than when I was young, I seem to have far less to say it about. At this gloomy stage, I am certain there’s no new subject for a novel and that, even if there was, I wouldn’t find it.

Then, mysteriously, I am past that stage. I am awake and prowling. The tanks have refilled…

And that is how it is. There are gaps, sometimes uncomfortably long gaps. Then, like London buses, three ideas come along at once.

Pamela is also why even now I have to weed out superfluous commas, inevitably missing some. She caught me at an impressionable age and her writing style became mine for a while. I now feel that by and large experienced readers can be trusted to know when to pause, and breathe. Less is more.

Often I convince myself I can’t write because I’m busy worrying about something, ie there is no space left in my head for inspiration. Recently it has dawned on me that what I’m busy worrying about is exactly the thing to write about. You have to catch – even recognise – thoughts while they’re still raw and unprocessed. It’s kind of ring-fenced but you have to unfence it.

So, ever since Saturday morning, like the Bunyip, I have been sitting-on-a-hypothetical-log biting my fingernails over a sum of money accidentally transferred to the wrong people by my solicitors. In truth, there was no urgency. No need to imagine a whole chain-reaction of worst-case scenarios. It’s me. I’m OK at this sort of thing, and can override Panic Mode if only I can act at once to put it right. Unfortunately, offices being closed over the weekend I couldn’t make the necessary telephone call until Monday morning. I just had to wait. Me and waiting (waiting and I?) don’t mix and the result was no fingernails and two sleepless nights in a row.

Nowadays when I find myself awake at 3 in the morning I get up, make a cup of tea and turn on the TV. Distraction is the only thing that helps. Unfortunately I only have to set foot on the top stair and the cats start charging about, assuming they are going to be fed even if it is pitch black outside.

If you’ve never suffered from insomnia you may not know what rubbish there is on television in the middle of the night. I watched the News, but it was the same news it had been several hours before. No unexpected celebrity deaths, no military coups, no presidential debates happening as yet; the elephant, and something that looks like an armadillo only prettier, whose name I have temporarily forgotten, may begin with K – urgh, commas again – are still endangered species.

I watched and I watched and I watched, wondering why it was perfectly easy even for a too-tall lady to fall asleep on a too-small charity shop sofa during the day, yet in the middle of the night the sofa seemed to shrink, and develop very hard arms. I watched Australians being just as pretentious as Brits on their own version of Grand Designs, and then I watched a programme about what could be done surgically/prosthetically for men who had had their prostates removed and were having trouble

The last thing I remember was some horrible thing being inflated

At least I got a little sleep.

The Armageddon Suitcase

In the raspberry wallet file marked Desperate, I found this prompt: What would you pack in your suitcase if you could not go home again?

So what would one pack in one’s Armageddon suitcase? It seemed apposite, when on the News we have been watching Italian villagers, saved from their crushed medieval village after a massive earthquake, but with nothing to call their own. No memories, as they said – also, interestingly, no future. The earthquake, in their perception has stolen their whole lives, past and future.

My first thought was to pack the cats. I would take them in preference to any material possessions, even if they did need a supersize suitcase (with ventilation holes). And people do that, don’t they? You see them on the News shepherding their dogs into the back of the car as the forest fire licks the paint off the veranda; attempting to climb into wobbly boats with their beloved budgies in cages. They save their pets as they would save their children.

But children/pets aside. For material possessions, and if I could never come back…

Part of me thinks it would be as well to leave it all and just grab any cash and cards you happened to have lying about so you could buy new things, if you really needed them. We don’t need most of the objects we surround ourselves with anyway.  No doubt I would miss the 2,000 paperback books since they are, in a way, the story of my life, but rather than choose some I would leave them all and pack the e-reader.

Would I take any clothes? Sometimes I think it would be a relief to start one’s wardrobe again from scratch, to move to a strange town and just wear whatever raggle-taggle collection of garments its charity shops could provide.  I read a local newspaper article once, about an unemployed man who was awarded the princely sum of £20 in Emergency Fund benefit to buy himself new clothes after his only pair of jeans and only tee-shirt were stolen from his washing-line. The paper took up his cause with great enthusiasm and managed to get him a complete outfit from charity shops, including a serviceable pair of leather shoes. This was a long time ago, mind you: might have to settle for broken flip-flops now.

What would I miss the most? Or what would I need the most, in that big blue earthquake tent, crowded sports hall or dismal underground bunker with nuclear war being waged overhead? I think I would end up with a strange and impractical Armageddon suitcase-full:

The e-reader, because I couldn’t bring the books.

Well, maybe two print books – the King James Bible, because it would last forever and there could be no better time to read it (and no more beautiful version of the English language to read it in) – and a book of poems for comfort, and learning by heart. I’d probably go for The Rattle Bag (ed: Heaney & Hughes) or The Faber Book of Modern Verse (ed: Roberts).

I’d have to pack a vast supply of file-paper and pencils (and pencil sharpeners and…) because I’d need to record my adventures in all their horror and interestingness – and there probably won’t be an electricity supply for typing and whatnot. In which case the e-reader would have been a waste of space.

I would pack Nan’s bread-board, because it was Nan’s, and she’s gone now, and Grandad carved it for her. For a thing to have survived that long and then be just – left behind – it doesn’t seem right. And you never know when you might need a bread-board; similarly, her wedding ring. I’d leave my own behind, I think.

I would include the delicate china cup and saucer a friend once gave me. It’s white, red and black and has a design of stylised cats. There is not much use for a china cup and saucer but this one was designed and hand-made by an actual potter. She would have made others of the same general design, but not one exactly like it. Something unique, that much thought has gone into, deserves to go into the Armageddon suitcase.

I think I would bring the green glass cat I found one day at a boot fair, with Ex. At least, Ex was there somewhere – probably rifling through the second-hand railway books or buying battered LPs. It’s a strange, hybrid creature – a cat-that-looks-a-bit-like-a-dog – but the glass is so weighty, so green and so luxurious. It’s an object that’s cold in your hand, yet comforting. It’s just glass-for-glass’-sake and makes me think of Leonard Cohen’s Nancy, who wore green stockings and spent much time alone, gazing at the Late Late Show through a semi-precious stone.

I also recall that My Replacement rather coveted that cat to add to her extensive Green Glass Collection, and hinted as much when she visited my house one day, with Ex.

And didn’t get it!

Ha ha!

Anyway, I shall go on thinking, as I move around the house and examine all the items in it with new eyes. Would you go in the suitcase? Would you?

What would go into your suitcase?

(Photo: Sandra Cunningham)

Les Tricoteuses

Whenever things turn stressful I get the urge to knit. It doesn’t matter what – in fact the simpler the item the better. Mum and Nan were the same. Nan only seemed to stop knitting in order to peel potatoes or mop the lino, and Mum knitted so many blankets made of multi-coloured six inch squares that she ended up trying to give one away to Oxfam. But in spite of its being a particularly splendid one, and in spite of the fact that they had always advertised for blankets made of squares, Oxfam refused it. According to the woman in the shop there had been a change of policy – home-made blankets tended to be of non-standard size and didn’t stack economically in their transportation trucks. She didn’t even smile.

Mum went on knitting, year after year, stacking the useless things in a cupboard. She had given up all pretence of their being replacements for blankets that were wearing out. Woolly blankets never seem to wear out; they just stretch to twice their original length and get bobbly.

I knit in times of stress but I never end up wearing anything I knit – partly because I don’t like the look of it and partly because wool’s far too itchy. I make squares too, but tend to sew them into smaller blankets. The cats appreciate them more than Oxfam did. Every now and then I make one of those little tee-shaped stripy jumpers from the Oxfam pattern, for children in war-torn areas. Basically, you don’t need a pattern for those – you could just make them up.

Presumably knitting is a form of displacement activity. Those painting of Madame Guillotine during the French Revolution…those ladies sitting beneath with clay pipes clenched between rotten teeth, and clackety tricot needles, were maybe not so much heartless as deeply traumatised as the severed heads rolled one by one into the baskets.

knitting guillotine

Technically – she writes, as if she knew as much before she looked it up – displacement behaviour is a behaviour that appears odd/out of context. It usually happens when there is a conflict between excitement/agitation and frustration. A dog meets a high fence, say. He desperately wants to be on the other side of the fence but the fence is too high to jump. Naturally, then, he sits down and scratches his ear or bites the dog next to him. Displacement behaviour is often related to comforting activities, like grooming, scratching, drinking or eating. So, human beings scratch their heads when perplexed and a pair of fighting birds might stop and peck at the ground.

I suppose the classic would be rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Did anybody actually do that, I wonder? Was it in the film? I never saw the film. I suppose deckchair-rearranging would only be a displacement activity if you knew the ship had just hit an iceberg. If you were merely up on deck for a little stroll on a bracing afternoon and thought – those deckchairs would be so much better disposed thus – well that would make you a sad, and possibly an obsessive, person but not necessarily one engaged in displacement activity.

I also sharpen pencils; in times of great distress I have been known to sharpen whole boxes of blunt pencils, until my fingers are squashed into strange shapes at the ends, and black with graphite, and the sharpener’s running hot. Or I sit down and write a post for this blog, though it will rarely be about the thing that’s worrying me. That’s likely to come later: emotion recollected in tranquillity as Wordsworth put it. It’s a help to be absorbed in pushing words around for a couple of hours.

Ex was the only person I ever met who dealt with stress by keeping utterly still. Most of the time he would be rushing hither and thither, obsessed by what he was doing, frowning over his easel or his lathe, or his workbench – painting stuff or making stuff. At rare intervals, however, he would take what he referred to as a Lying Fallow Day. This seemed to mean slumping half on and half off of the living-room sofa, his long legs jack-knifed into an inverted V. There he would remain all day staring out of the window at the rose bushes and occasionally farting. It was as if he had deactivated himself.

squares

 

Should you, because you can?

I often start off thinking no, I couldn’t possibly write that…

Next thing I know, I’ve written it.

This post may be one of those.

Sometimes I have moments of enlightenment. It’s probably a myth, you know, that enlightenment happens all at once, a blinding flash in the dark, sunlight on the road to Damascus. It’s more a tantalising chink before the door creaks shut again, sometimes for millennia.

Last night it occurred to me, not for the first time, but every time I forget – which is another way in which the door creaks shut – that I may not even be here to write. Or rather, just because I can write doesn’t mean I should, or that I absolutely have to. Maybe I’m not meant to be doing it at all at this point.

I don’t mean this sort of writing – this blogging pastime – which to me is more like chatting on the telephone, or writing a longish letter to a friend.  I mean the sort that requires the participation of your entire being, that drains every drop from the glass, that scrapes the last baked-bean from the saucepan, that… well, you know.

It just reminded me. When I was younger I had a friend. He was more than a friend, in fact (and then considerably less, but that’s another story).  My friend had a guru, except that, being a Christian he referred to him as something else – my Mentor, my Guide – can’t exactly remember now. This Guide was revered among Christians of a certain hue – those who drawn to the paranormal, out-of-body and near-death-experiences. He wrote a whole series of books; I read one or two of them but found them a bit chewy. Perhaps I should have another go at them now.

We visited him together, just once. His house was quite a long way away, and so bare. I never saw a house so devoid of everything except its occupant. It was as if stuff no longer had any meaning for him. There was a piano, but it was locked. There was a big old table but no cloth, no books, nothing on it. Ladies brought him food – home-made cakes and such, my friend said, and he lived mostly on what people brought him. Food didn’t matter.

I can’t remember much more about that meeting, except that he looked at us both, very carefully, and for an uncomfortably long time, and told us we were old souls. I think I knew this already, as did my friend: I had known him since the earth was molten metal, since we were blades of grass side by side in some prehistoric meadow, since… but then people in love tend to reckon in geological time. How can there ever have been a time when we were not together? How can there ever come a time when we will be apart? And maybe they are right. Maybe we’re the deluded ones.

And I couldn’t help thinking, well, what else would you expect a guru to say? Just as you’d expect a fortune-teller to tell you that you would cross water and meet a tall, dark gentleman. A gypsy fortune-teller at a church fête once told me I’d have four children. That didn’t come to pass, in fact no children came to pass. But then she was the vicar’s wife in boot-polish and a fancy shawl. What would she know?

I asked about the locked piano. My friend told me that his Guide once played the piano. He had so loved to listen to a certain piece music that he could close his eyes and be transported by it onto another spiritual plane. But music had to be given up in order that he could become what he needed to become. It was the price he had had to pay. There is always a price to pay. It seemed very shabby to me then – all of it – the house with the empty table, the donated cakes, the locked piano, the absent gramophone, the being alone in the dark most of time, the occasional cup of tea, a visitor.

spider4.jpg

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I had a dream. I was on an upper level of a railway station, looking down at the scurrying figures in the concourse beneath. Between them and me was a plate-glass window so wide and so thick that there was no way they could ever hear me, even if I thumped on the glass. And they would never look up. They were fixed on their destinations, whereas I had no destination – or at least none that I knew of.

Writing was always a kind of thumping on the glass or – a later analogy – the weaving of an elaborate web. I couldn’t get into their world but maybe, just maybe, I could entice them into mine. With the benefit of hindsight and old (well, medium) age, I see this would never have worked. Had the spider’s web been encrusted with precious gems and its strands laced with the finest of nectars – had they crawled in in their little wingèd millions to worship me, the Great Writing Spider – it wouldn’t have worked. They would have been deceived, bewitched, enticed. They wouldn’t have come otherwise, wouldn’t have entered willingly. And that great windy nothingness at the centre of everything would still be there.

So what’s an old soul to do, apart from a bit of blogging now and again?

I think maybe nothing. I think just Be.

I think open a channel.

I think wait.

Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?

My English teacher introduced me to spider diagrams and I took to them like a duck to water. I could immediately see the point of them and used them for everything thereafter, including exams. Maybe it’s different now but in those days there were no spare sheets of paper allowed for ‘workings out’ – it was part of the test, to show how you reached your conclusions.

Thus, in maths exams, it was OK for your exam paper to be measled with tiny sums (in my case 2 x 6 x 9 x 15 = ? = ? = ?) as long as the real answer was apparent. You could draw rings round all those frantic sums or strike through them, but your sadly defective thought-processes would still be clear for the examiner to see.

Similarly with essays – you could do a spider diagram on the left hand side, strike it through, then write the essay proper on the right. In this case, the examiner would be mightily impressed by one’s complexity of thought and creative super-abundance – or so I hoped.

spider 1.jpg

And then I realised I didn’t need them. It was probably when I left school for a short-lived first job in the local library, where I was bored to tears writing out cardboard library tickets, failing to get the notices straight on the notice board, failing to look suitably busy when not and watching out of the staffroom window as young policemen giggled and hosed each other down instead of ploddingly washing their panda-cars at the back of the police-station. I was suffering from essay-withdrawal-symptoms, which must be quite a rarity among seventeen year-olds, and began to write even though I didn’t have to. A revolutionary concept. Can’t remember what I wrote, but I must have been desperate.

One day it just dawned on me that I didn’t need, and probably never had needed, the actual spider diagram because – and this is hard to explain – the inside of my head was a spider diagram. I just naturally thought sideways, and off in all directions. And there was more to it. It wasn’t just me thinking outwards from the centre (with a spider diagram you start with one ringed word in the centre) it was stuff careering inwards towards me, from all directions. This was scary, and still is. Once it starts doing that you are no longer in control. It’s creating you.

So, it sends you a bit barmy. With all that going on – stuff spider-ing out, stuff rushing in – something’s got to give. You can end up odd and vague.

And what made me think of this? Well, I have three dictionaries of quotations – it should be two, two of everything – maybe I’ll have to give one away… Anyway, I was reading one of my three dictionaries of quotations in the bath, as of course you do, and the words of author G K Chesterton’s telegram to his wife in London squelched up to me in the steam:

AM IN MARKET HARBOROUGH. WHERE OUGHT I TO BE?

Now, if you’re English – unless you live in Market Harborough – you’ll know why this is funny but probably won’t be able to explain it. Market Harborough is one of those unmemorable Midland towns – everybody’s sort of heard of it but nobody knows exactly where it is and nobody would set out to visit it on purpose. So if you’re there, you must be lost.

I myself have been to Market Harborough – I think. Also Corby and Kettering – I think. Ex used to live there, before me. Ex was nine years older than me so he had a whole other life, in the Midlands, which I’m afraid I failed to be sufficiently curious about. He used to run not one but two music clubs – one Folk and one Blues. He booked all the musicians, designed all the posters, played and sang. And he shared a stage with John Renbourn. We had every album John Renbourn had ever made, and played them evening after evening in front of a log fire, surrounded by cats, drinking cheap cider from the supermarket until, dizzy and half-asleep, we were temporarily able to talk to one another. Even now I can hear in my head every next track. I should have been fascinated, and I was, when I grew up. Something that didn’t happen until long after we had divorced, when I couldn’t go back and ask him about it.

renbourn

John Renbourn sketched by James Gurney

We went to visit his friend from this former life – a lugubrious Scotsman, witty in his own way, descended from one of the many Scotsmen who found their way south, following work to the Corby steelworks.  In the meantime he had married and produced two little girls in quick succession. We stayed one night at his mother’s house. I helped her dry the dishes. She had mislaid her teeth. They appeared under the last upturned cup. That night I dreamt of a lengthy funeral procession in that very house. They were coming through the walls.

We spent the rest of our stay in the Scotsman’s house on an estate. How gleefully they abandoned their horrid/delightful offspring to their new ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’. I remember these chubby little girls and the speed with which they charged up and down the passageway, the hardness and painfulness of those little skulls as they collided every time with one’s shins. They were sleeping with their parents so that we could have their bedroom; two very tall, childless and increasingly stressed visitors on two very small and badly-sprung mattresses, with thin red hospital blankets to cover them. I remember the little dears crying out in their flat Midlands accents as, all day and seemingly all night, they ran up and down that passageway: Mooomy, Mooomy!

I haven’t thought of those girls until now. Their mother was to die in her thirties, their father a decade or so after. John Renbourn, too, is dead. How strange life is. How connected.

How unconnected.

Wild Witch of the East

This is how I feel today:

fork2

ie: not like writing. However, as novelist Anne Tyler famously said: “If I waited till I felt like writing, I’d never write at all”. Writing’s like going for a walk – if you’re basically lazy and apathetic you never want to do it – but you feel a whole lot better when you have.

So, I thought I might explain all these witches. You may have noticed my little icon/gravatar thingy, which is a picture of a blue stuffed witch. I found her on Morguefile, along with the one in the red shawl and the one in the white blouse, on broomsticks. I’m guessing, from the tartan woolly socks a-dangle in the background that they must have been in some Ye Olde Crafty Gifte Shoppe deep in the highlands of Scotland, but who knows.

I felt I needed a disguise, really. I don’t like me in photos, especially now when the Me looking back in the mirror no longer looks anything like the Me looking out through my eyes. And I quite liked the symbolism. I’ve always thought of fiction, poetry especially, as a kind of wizardry – spell-casting.

When I was young I was pretty average to look at – I mean, not Elephant Woman or anything – but I was horribly tall, thanks to my 6’ 4” father, which denied me the invisibility I longed for. “Head in the clouds,” my father used to say, “in more ways than one.” On my first day at infants’ school they put me in a class with seven year-olds. It was only when the teacher asked me to read something off the board and I couldn’t oblige that they realised there had been an administrative error. I was relegated, in disgrace, or so I felt, to the babies’ class. By which time the babies had made instant friends with one another and regarded me as some sort of incoming weirdo-freak.

My immediate ancestors, according to the family tree, were nothing out of the ordinary – no marauding Barons or slyly philandering Dukes, just servant girls, washer-women, carpenters, gardeners and clerks. We were kind of rural, I suppose, and kind of poor, and we didn’t move about much just sort of stayed where we were, or moved a few villages away, to breed even more of us. The Vikings invaded us – well, kept on and on and on invading us – and a lot of us have Viking blood. I always suspected Vikings in my gene-pool, somewhere. I’d have made an excellent Viking.

In Viking times I would probably have been thought of as heroic – in strength and proportion, if not in valour, and might have found myself a good husband. I can’t help remembering a tale of a beauty contest at a ceilidh in the Hebrides, where a woman was considered utterly ravishing – synonymous with excellent breeding stock – if massive enough to run with a heifer under either arm.

I was never attractive to the opposite sex in a general way – never got a Valentine’s card, for instance; never got whistled at by builders; had to chase pretty hard for the few dates I actually got – the first one turned out to have been a dare – and by the time I got them I didn’t really want them. Circular logic, you see – the only man worth pursuing is the one who can never be caught.

But I did seem to be a hit with a few specialist segments of the population – chivalrous, lusty old men; frail, dependent old ladies; children with learning difficulties (I taught a class on teaching practice and was a big hit there, though heckled and pelted with elastic bands and screwed up balls of paper in other classes); terminal bores in pubs; the least popular three girls in any class; people everyone else laughs at behind their backs and strangers with scary psychological disturbances in need of someone to talk to.

I’ve also always seemed to attract what I now understand – didn’t at the time, since they hadn’t been invented – were spectrum or Asperger’s men; and an entire universe of stray and lonely cats, which homed in on me like heat-seeking missiles. So I married one of the former and became a serial adopter of the latter. Sensible, really.

Anyway, these witches. I actually had a story in mind about the two witches – the couple with the broomsticks, not my blue ‘gravatar’ witch, and how they came to be banished to a highland souvenir shop in the first place. But I see I have run out of space as usual, so that will have to wait for another post.

Ah, that feels better. Maybe I’ll go for that walk.

By hook or by crook

I never expected Aunt Mildred to get the Plague.

(Ignore that for the time being.)

The hook in the first paragraph of a novel has got to be the hook of all hooks – it’s got to be intriguing; it’s got to hit you there, in the centre of curiosity (somewhere between throat and midriff); it’s got to set a time-bomb fizzing in your head. In short, a Captain Hook-sized hook.

Someone browsing in a bookshop, or doing the “Look Inside” thing on Amazon –  may if you’re lucky peruse your first line, and if you’re very lucky, your first paragraph.

No point in putting wonderful hooks at the end of each chapter, starting each new chapter with a bang and all that stuff they tell you in How to Write and Become Famous and Loved by Everybody treatises if your novel starts with a view Milton Keynes on a Saturday afternoon or features a Victorian kitchen maid (a character of no importance to the plot in any case) rambling on about the best way to peel potatoes, or some lengthy description of the eighteenth century Cornish countryside.

There are many splendid first lines to novels:

I met him in the street called Straight. (Mary Stewart: The Gabriel Hounds – hook, masterful (mistressful?) – book, not so good but worth reading all the same, to pay tribute to the hook.)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (Rebecca: Daphne duMaurier)

Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick: Herman Melville).

Question:

If you could have written the opening to any novel, what would it be?  Or to put it another way, what would you die happy, having written?

The opening to Pride and Prejudice?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

1984 by George Orwell?

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

Mine would be the first paragraph of Dickens Bleak House:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

This, plus the famous and labyrinthine ‘fog’ metaphor that follows it. Note, a hook doesn’t have to a one-liner; it can go on for as long as you can sustain it, but bear these two points in mind:

  1. Readers nowadays have less time for reading they did in Victorian times, and a vast choice of reading matter. When Dickens was writing there was no internet, no social media, no television. People were hungry for entertainment and had been brought up to concentrate for long periods of time. Internet use, so the theory goes, is resulting in an ever-shortening attention span.
  2. Dickens was a mighty, a powerful writer – a genius. Until you’re sure that you are in his league best to err on the side of caution and get that massive hook well and truly hooked into ’em, if not in the first line, in the first short paragraph.

The same principle applies to blog posts, although on this micro-scale you can overdo it. You might get away with starting one post ‘Third World War Declared’ or ‘I never expected Aunt Mildred to get the Plague’ but if you keep it up you’ll annoy people. Unless of course your Aunt Mildred really did get the Plague.

The problem is, your post then has to live up to it’s introduction – and nobody’s capable of writing a Third World War or Aunt Mildred post every single time. Most posts are more modest – conversations, really – ideas, points of view, helpful hints, funny stories, sad stories, random thoughts as to the Meaning of Life. You can’t start every one of them with a whizz, bang, wallop.

I’m not too happy with the beginning of this post, for example. I mean the real one, not Auntie Mildred. It has the virtue of being brief, and the Captain Hook image is quite a whizz-bang one – but it could be better. Maybe you can tell me how it could have been better. Noticing and analysing the ‘hooks’ of other bloggers – or their absence – is an excellent way to learn. What was it about those few lines that persuaded you to click and read the rest? What was it that made you gloss over the one before it?

Think of it as a tweet-sized shop window. Or a Tweet Shop Window…

tenacious