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IMG_0295When it comes to Christmas trees, there is only one thing worse than buying, bringing home, putting up and decorating the thing on your own, and that is doing it with someone else.  If I want to avoid curses and family breakdown, I do it myself.  I’ve therefore developed an almost foolproof method of installing a tree, in such a fashion that it stays where it’s put and is kept watered if not fed.

A bucket of potting compost.  It has to be that, not soil, or you risk bringing worms into the house, and I don’t think I can cope with that.  Bad enough Mr Sparks singing his song at the front door and when it’s opened attempting to bring his struggling captive into the house to kill and eat.  (He’s a cat, not a homicidal lodger.)

So, a bucket, a sheet of black plastic, another bucket with the compost in it, a square of cardboard and the tree.  Sit empty bucket on cardboard.  Put tree in, and hold onto it while you use a trowel to fill the empty bucket with compost from the full one.  (This sounds easier than it is, unless you have extraordinarily long arms.) Pack it down.  Fill bucket as full as you can.  Wiggle tree.  Stand back.  Realise tree leaning drunkenly to the left.  Do a bit of repacking of compost with tree as straight as possible.  Stand back, admire, realise tree now tilting to right.  More repacking, damping down.  Finally, tree almost upright.  Leave it like that.  Fed up anyway.  Pour water into bucket very carefully as a bit of fed-up carelessness at this point results in water all over living-room floor.

Question: why are Christmas lights now all made on a sort of loop so that you can more easily wind them round yourself than the tree?

This is of course advice that will come much too late for any sensible person as the Sensible Person bought an artificial tree twenty years ago and just pops it up on its integral stand at the touch of a button. And anyway, did it three weeks ago.  I on the other hand, attempt to recreate the magic of Christmas every year as a combination of Little Women, Pickwick Papers and Lucy and Tom’s Christmas by Shirley Hughes.  One of my favourite books of all time.  Or at any rate, I did, but this year has found me still buying presents just before Christmas Eve with no food prepared or made.  I think I did so much cake-making for daughter’s wedding in October I’ve lost the will for it, so for the first time for thirty years – more – I’ve not made a Christmas cake.  Nor has the sky fallen in.  It’s usually me who ends up eating it for weeks after New Year anyway.

Somehow I’m finding it hard to think the same way about Christmas.  The world, as Wordsworth observed, is too much with us, and we can’t ignore the events of this year – tragic and comic but mainly tragic – that have been beyond belief, had no reason or sense to them, and demonstrate that wicked, cruel, intolerant and conscienceless people are not dying out.  Unfortunately.   So we cultivate our little garden, put up our Christmas trees, try not to fall out with our loved ones, and keep warm.  What else is possible?

When my mother thought something outrageous or ridiculous, she would say, ‘Well, that’s the giddy limit.’  Maybe this year we reached the giddy limit.  I’m lucky, it’s not my precipice we hover over, though with a quick twist of fortune, it so easily might be.  Walking next-door-dog the other day, I came across, at the end of a cul-de-sac, a little house with a sign outside painted neatly ‘The Limit’. I wondered why they didn’t just call it ‘The Giddy Limit’ and be done with it.  Then we crowded together outside a kindly old woman – or gentleman – would appear at the front door and say, yes, you’ve reached it, turn back now.

No turning back though – just onwards, into 2015 and through the undergrowth beyond The Giddy Limit.

Spirit of Adventure Meets our Publisher of the Year Award

Spirit of Adventure Meets our Publisher of the Year Award

The world is full of absurdity.  When I read about the leaves being removed by hand from trees outside the Palace of Westminster I was reminded of the unfortunate soldiers repainting roses that were the ‘wrong’ colour in the Queen’s garden.  Alice wonders why on earth they’re doing such a thing.  In their case, it was in terror of the Queen who was inclined to order beheadings for the most minor infringement.  Sometimes we seem to be living in Alice’s Wonderland or – more often these days – Lilliput.  The big-enders and little-enders of Swift’s imagined world are no more ludicrous than some 21st century terrorist groups and religious sects.

I felt a bit absurd myself this week.  Along with other alumni I was invited to speak about my career and offer advice to today’s Aberdeen University students about their next steps after graduation.  Given the disaster my career has been – at any rate for about the first twenty years – I felt I was at least qualified to tell them what not to do.  The students were conscious of time pressing, of parents urging them to think about jobs, make decisions soon. The reflection was good for me though, even if I wasn’t able to provide a model for Success in Life.  I didn’t have anything resembling a career until my mid-forties; I never earned a lot of money; I ran two jobs for far too long – day job and Sandstone work – and I started a new career at the point where most people are giving up altogether and looking out the gardening tools or golf clubs.

It’s as if I’m trying to cram a lifetime of work and fun into much too short a time.  I’ve missed so much – don’t want to miss another thing.  I did miss something important this week, though, by keeping my appointment in Aberdeen.  My fellow directors were in Edinburgh at the Saltire Awards, and were able to receive the Saltire Society Publisher of the Year award for 2014, for Sandstone Press. I was in my cousin’s kitchen, glued to Twitter, waiting for the announcement.  When the envelope was opened and the winner declared, she was as excited as I was and gave me a big hug, cheering along with me.

I didn’t sleep much that night, but Linda’s two kittens kept me company, peaceful at the end of my bed, getting up now and again to remind me I was their new Best Friend, then dozing off again, paws entwined.

Next day, off to the wonderful new Duncan Rice Library to speak to students, then visits to those of the generation beyond me who are still here, and still keen to hear my news. They’re doing pretty well, but life in your nineties is not easy.  The days are long sometimes; maybe one day mine will be too. At the moment, they seem all too short, crammed with things I must do, the things I long to do still getting edged out.

Time.  They’re picking the leaves off one by one because they say it takes less time than sweeping them up.  Let’s ignore the obvious nonsense of this for a moment and pretend it’s true.  What would you rather do – climb a tree and denude the poor thing of its last golden shreds of autumn, or wait and swoosh dry leaves together on a crisp frosty day, gathering up great armfuls for leaf-mould two years’ hence, or a sweet smelling bonfire today?  What has time got to do with it?  The notion persists, of course, that time is money.  The minute you let go of that idea, you’re free.

And yet, and yet….  Marvell was right.  The wingèd chariot is hurrying near… One thing’s sure – whatever our age – Time is never on our side.

IMG_0256An important realisation came to me at one o’clock in the morning as I lay awake and wondered whether it was worth getting up and heating a mug of milk to help me get back to sleep.  Several things militated against this course of action:

  1.  The cat would want to come out of the kitchen and follow me back to bed
  2. I was warm and comfortable and might just fall sleep anyway, if I had the patience to wait
  3. The very thought of drinking the hot milk made me feel queasy
  4. Where was my hot-milk-mug anyway? In the cupboard or the dish-washer?

That was when I had my revelation: other people have matching mugs.

You open their cupboard door and reach up and – there they are: white or cream or patterned, all the same size and shape and the same type of china.

What I have is a whole shelf of assorted mugs: mostly bone china but some thicker and more utilitarian. There are three matching (in blue, green and brown) from Achins Bookshop in Lochinver but I never use these myself because R prefers his tea and coffee in them, to the extent that I fish them out of the dishwasher and wash them by hand if they’ve already been used. I don’t even feel comfortable giving one of them to a visitor (not that he would mind).

Of the rest: there are mugs I use only for my hot water in the morning and last thing at night; there are the large mugs for soup, and the red patterned one with the strawberry inside that I use for my morning coffee.  I did have a navy and white spotted one for when I’m wearing blue jeans but it got broken so I’m making a big effort to use the same one whatever I’m wearing.

Good grief.  My mugs don’t match each other, but they do have to match me.  I could no more have used the navy and white mug when I was wearing black jeans than fly in the air.  Well, I’d quite like to fly in the air, who wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t want to use the wrong mug. When (occasionally…) R makes tea for me, I have to specify which mug I want it in. He usually gets it wrong anyway, and I have been known to get up and pour the tea into the right mug.

Matching mugs would be much simpler, obviously.  The only way to achieve this is to throw out all the mugs I have already and start again.  But there are two huge objections:

  1. I hate waste
  2. I am fond of these mugs and I LIKE having different ones for different drinks

In old age, living alone after my mother’s death, my father laughed at himself for liking to do things in the same way every morning, the same mug for breakfast, the dishes put back in the cupboard in the same order.  I’m not over ninety, so what excuse do I have?

Actually, I assumed everyone was the same until, some years ago, I watched my sister hanging out her washing and discovered the world is divided into those who care about which pegs they use and those who say ‘What are you talking about?’

Washing Day

I do it this way:
orderly, everything in rows
each sheet, skirt, pair of socks
given a suitable pair of pegs.
The clothes billow graceful and gay
towels together, shirts clasping hands,
all the underwear flapping neatly
on the line that’s out of sight of the street.
I stand back to watch them fly
and turn indoors content.

This is not how my sister
hangs out washing:
dumps the load on concrete, basketless
grabs each item as it comes to hand
rams it on the line with grubby pegs
left there, in rain or shine
since last washing day;
clumps the socks together
one peg only for sweatshirts, jeans,
when she runs out, half way along.
She goes indoors, not thinking
about washing at all.

And yet, look at us – sisters
one family, one flesh, alike,
sprung from the same source.
We must have something in common.

The trouble is, I’ve gone too far, and it’s taking me ages to hang out washing now.  Not only do I have to match the pegs to each other, but I also like to have them match the clothes they’re attached to.  That’s the trouble with these new-fangled coloured plastic pegs.  I’m thinking of going back to plain wooden ones for absolutely everything.

The local charity shop is going to do well out of me when I get over myself and give them all these mugs and pegs.

Still, there is hope.  When my niece asked me if I wanted the newly washed spoons put back in the drawer under the unused ones (work it out….) my heart beat a little faster as I recognised a kindred spirit.  I am not alone!

Working at home has many advantages even if you don’t include the opportunity to bring the washing in when it starts to rain. It has disadvantages too – you‘re there to answer the doorbell during the day.  It doesn’t often ring here, as I’m in the country, but the other day I opened the door to a handsome young man (good start…) who invited me to a Mission meeting (less good follow up) and asked me if I was troubled by what was happening in the world today. 

Today it rang twice.  Busy editing at my computer, concentrating hard on Track Changes.  Ding Dong.

By the time I’m in the hall and can see the outline of the people on the doorstep through the opaque glass panel in the inner door, and am wishing I’d pretended to be out, it’s too late.  They can see me too, my wavering silhouette. 

Two elderly ladies, clutching a bunch of leaflets. There are always two, one who speaks and another who stands behind her smiling tentatively, in the manner of someone who has been ordered to keep out of it unless things turn nasty.  The first stepped forward, not just into the covered arch of the external porch, but inside, right up to me.  Too close, but if I moved back an inch, I knew she’d follow, so I stood my ground. She started with the weather, what a beautiful morning blah blah, then said, ‘You’ve probably got your own religion, I’m aware people have been going to church in this area since long before I was born.’  To this idiocy, there is really no reply, and anyway, she didn’t stop to permit one.  After a bit, I managed to break in to say, thank you for calling, but I work at home and have a very busy morning, so…..’You will read our leaflet, won’t you?’ she asked, or perhaps threatened.  ‘I’ll look at it,’ I said, prevaricating.  More remarks about the sunshine and my lovely garden (it’s not, very weedy and the grass wants cutting…) then she stepped even closer and said how nice to meet me and her name was Jennifer, what was mine?

Finally, they went, and I ran upstairs to my interrupted work. 

Twenty minutes later, the bell rang again.  Well, I thought it can’t be them at any rate.  But it was.  Not the two women, but a young couple, man and woman, both capable of speech this time, and smiling and telling me what a lovely day it was.  ‘Goodness,’ I said, ‘you’re the second lot I’ve had this morning.’  Much laughter, apologies, more stuff about the weather and the garden, then they too departed. 

I got away with only one leaflet, which is something I suppose.  On the back it asks ‘Which of these big questions concerns you most?’  You can guess what they are: What is the meaning of Life? Is God to blame for our suffering? What happens when we die?  It is not possible to answer any of these questions in an evidence-based manner, so I’m not going to try.  Anyway, I’m pondering another of Life’s Big Questions. 

How is it that nobody has good manners any more?  It seems to me the height of impertinence to enter someone else’s house uninvited and ask them about their religious beliefs. I’m planning my revenge right now.  Imagine.

‘Good morning, what a lovely day, it’s wonderful to see the sunshine, isn’t it?  Now, I’m sure you have your own sex life, but I wonder if you’ve really thought about why we have sex?’ (Flourish of leaflet) ‘I’d like you to read this little booklet all about how to have satisfactory carnal knowledge of other people….’

If they’re not turning up at the door, these intrusive people, they’re on the ‘phone.  ‘We’d like you to answer forty-five questions about insulation….’  ‘We’re in your area and we can offer a free personal visit to discuss double glazing…’  Still, not quite as alarming as the voicemail left on a friend’s phone the other day: ‘This is the FBI, and we have a warrant for your arrest.  You will receive this in the next few days.’  Good grief, I thought the FBI, like the proselytes, turned up at your door in twos, but unlike them, wearing homburgs, dispensing with chat about the weather and simply walking in to search the house. Now they ring you up first!  I feel they’re onto a loser though, so this is someone whose last major political activism was being a member of the local Community Council about twenty-five years ago.

So. That’s one major life question I want answered. 

The other is, where are all the black cats coming from?  I had one already, then Mr S appeared about three years ago and rapidly made himself a comfortable billet.  Then there was Archie, who had a perfectly good home on the other side of the village, but chose to stay longer and longer at my neighbour’s house until he’d succeeded in spending a whole afternoon luxuriating on her bed.  His owners took him away several times, but he kept reappearing.  He’s gone now, so I assume they’ve chained him to the house.

Then, this morning, another one.  Dancing about in my back garden, playing with a mouse.  I could see the poor creature escape then get caught again, over and over.  Unable to stand it, I went out to effect a rescue.  The cat took one look at me and bolted under the rhododendron bushes.  Then, as if he realised he’d forgotten something, he dashed out, raced across the grass scooping up the unfortunate mouse on the way and disappeared in the opposite direction.

It’s no good, I can’t keep my mind on the Meaning of Life when there’s so much going on. 

Wedding cake made.  Next time, a photo of the hat. 

 IMG_0175

I wrote this on September 10th 1997, just before another referendum, when we had two votes.  This time, one answer will do.  It’s hard for writers not to tinker with old pieces of work when they come across them again, but this time, I’m not tempted.  

Yes Yes

A wee country
not big enough for power
the folk few and scattered
the land divided
North and South
Protestant Catholic
Highland Lowland
the dense, disliked
too cocky by half
Central Belt

From Benn Abbhain
I saw Ben Nevis
From Squrr Dearg
the outer isles
Scotland visible
on a clear day.
A wee country, yes,
empty perhaps
all the folk indoors
preparing to govern
this difficult land.

Books for the Minister

Every writer is asked ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ Probably visual artists, and for all I know, musicians, are also asked this.  Writers’ answers are unsatisfactory for readers, since what people really want is to understand how art begins.  Where it comes from is less important than how you begin, what you do to turn a memory, a dream, a conversation, into fiction.

I asked the question myself the other night, at the Kilmorack Gallery’s new exhibition of Eight Sculptors and their Drawingshttp://www.kilmorackgallery.co.uk/ This, we may surmise, is how sculptors begin: with sketches in ink or charcoal, using scraps of cartridge or huge sheets of that thin woody paper that’s fit only for rough drawing.  What did we call it in the art class?  Another word that’s gone missing lately.  (What happens to all the words and names I keep forgetting?  They must be floating around in space somewhere, waiting for me to catch and bring them back to earth. One day the wind will change and they’ll be gone, whooshed away, leaving me with a diminished vocabulary and an unhealthy dependence on the Thesaurus.)

Where was I?  Giraffes.

People familiar with Helen Denerley’s giraffes on Leith Walk in Edinburgh will know she fashions creatures from scrap metal as large as those giraffes and as small as robins. Part of the Kilmorack exhibition showed her drawings for a life-sized cow, with measurements scribbled alongside.   She was at the preview, so I asked her, ‘How do you begin?’  ‘With the head,’ she said.

I wish it was as easy with novels.  Start with the head.  For a long time you don’t know where the head is, or indeed what it is.  So you begin with a scene in a café, the shattering of a pane of glass, a drive through the dark by someone who’s afraid of the thing they’re speeding towards.

The drawings of fine sculptors, like Helen Denerley or Gerald Laing, both featured in the exhibition, are works of art in themselves: you would pay good money for a bit of a cow drawn by one, or a pair of disembodied legs by the other.  The massy solidity of Laing’s bronzes bears no relation, it seems at first, to the delicacy of those airy sketches.  And yet they are parts of the same whole, the body of work.

It’s only when authors are famous (and often dead) that anyone pays for their early drafts, the scribbled pages.  Now, with everything written straight onto the screen, few authors have those messy pages, or indeed early drafts.  Perhaps it will become harder to spot where the story begins, or how.

It doesn’t matter: only the artist can really know how a rough sketch of a woman’s body leads to the intimacy of the heavy bronze nude, her head bowed, smooth and beautiful and mysterious with her secrets.  Only the writer knows how the overheard exchange of words, the view from the window, the bang of the car door, becomes the poem, the short story, the unwinding novel with its complex structure and cast of characters. In the end, only the finished work matters, and how good it is.

I meant to write about how things begin, but find myself once again at the end: who looks at the sculpture, stroking an admiring hand over it, feeling its curve and density; who picks up the book and reads and loses herself in the other world?

It seems that Chris Grayling’s mean-spirited act in withholding literature and other breath-of-life ordinary things from prisoners has not been forgotten.  So this week I’m joining the Howard League’s campaign and sending some books to the Minister with a letter asking him to forward them to prison libraries.  I still think about Castington where I once taught, so at least one of the books I send will be directed there.   http://www.howardleague.org/booktograyling/

I do wonder though if Christ Grayling now has an office that looks like the back of a second-hand bookshop, with toppling piles of books lining the walls, because he can’t be bothered sending them on, even via his team of secretaries and underlings.  So there they are, encroaching slowly, so that one day he’ll trip over a pile and go flying. Sitting on the floor nursing his broken ankle, waiting for help to come, he’ll notice a book lying open and something in it will catch his attention.  It’s late at night and everyone else has gone home or is arguing pointlessly in the Chamber (do they still have all night sittings?) so for some time he is on his own, with nothing to do but read.

I suppose it’s quite unlikely anyone will have sent Donne’s poems for a prison library, but if they have, he might find himself reading these words, and pondering.  Well, I hope he ponders anyway, even if it’s Harry Potter or Dr Who he’s reading about.

No man is an island

Entire of itself……

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

Mr G, you are involved in mankind.  Which brings me neatly back to the beginning: the satisfaction of art, whether it’s literature, music, painting, sculpture…. The satisfaction it gives us is that sense of being involved in mankind, relieved that we’re not on our own.  We withhold that from others at our peril.

The next blog will be much, much less earnest and contain no messages for Ministers.  It might be about hats.

 When you were a child, over tired and overwrought by the end of the day, your mother probably said, Bed’s the Best Place for You. I’ve come to realise how right my mother was in this as in so much else.  Bed is wonderful when you’re weary, a place to lean back, open your book and try to stay awake for five or six pages at least.  It’s not just the quiet and the reading, it’s the way you feel so welcome.  When did your bed last say ‘Don’t come in here!’?  Only, in my case, when I’ve stripped it in the morning and then completely forgotten to put any clean linen on.  Even with the battle of the duvet cover, I can soon put that right.

Bed is the safe place, the private place we can be alone and ourselves.  Even those of us who share our beds most or all of the time, have spells of being there on our own, to spread out and wriggle toes in the wide space at the bottom, seeking out the hot water bottle or in summer a cool patch.  Here on the bedside cabinet a lamp, a glass of water, spectacles, paper hankies and clock, and on the floor a pile of books: read, unread, probably never going to be read, or left there since Christmas.

Perfect: cat on the rug at the bottom, or banished to the kitchen, depending how how strict you are these days, the curtains drawn, the lamp on, radio there in case of insomnia, warm as toast, or with one burning patch where the hot water bottle has migrated, but at any rate, done for the day.  Peace.

There’s nowhere else such a fine and private place – except as Marvell pointed out, the grave, but we’re not quite ready for that, and not only because none do there embrace.  Now, when we send an email, spell out a text, tweet our thirty two followers or update our status on Facebook, and especially when we pick up the phone, we’re no longer alone.  It’s not private.  Nothing is.  Some of this is entirely our own fault.  We want 1.5m followers, three thousand FB friends, someone to email us back, a full inbox to prove how busy we are, how much we’re needed.

Some of it, though, is the fault of the government, and those who work for it, or who have so much influence they get their own way.  Perhaps soon we’ll have to hide round corners like Winston Smith and find the one tiny place where there’s no possible interference with the signal that takes my voice to yours, my message read only by the person intended to receive it. Simon Jenkins in his Comment piece for the Guardian yesterday wrote a satirical piece in Swiftian vein about the next steps the spymasters will take to see everything we do, as well as read and hear everything we tell.

There’s an opportunity here for code makers.  We need Enigma in reverse, GCHQ for the general public, so that we can keep our secrets.  Most of them, frankly, are hardly worth the government bothering with.  Whichever unfortunate is spying on me (as no doubt they are after my recent tweeting-out of links quite blatantly from the afore-mentioned Guardian and in no friendly spirit towards HMG) will have gleaned the following: the dress I ordered has arrived; my daughter is pleased about that; R was reminded to buy the fish, and if the spies are comprehensive enough they’ll have discovered from a later phone call that Munro’s had sold out of herring by three o’clock and we might have kedgeree instead.

Ok, right, I know they’re not really bothered with all that and will discard the hours and hours of trivia our lives are made up of, but don’t tell me they won’t get distracted.  Hang on, one spy will say (Oh, are they not actually spies?  What then?) ‘I need to find out if she sent him to Tesco instead.  There’s a dangerous tendency in the Highlands to buy from smaller shops instead of the Government-approved ones.’  They’ll be haring down many dead ends as far as the planning and plotting of terrorism is concerned, thus missing what’s really going on.  Just as, demented by the hundred and sixty emails that have appeared since we went away for the weekend in a rash burst of pleasure-seeking, we miss the important ones and spend ages looking at cartoons of cute cats and trawling through Amazon best sellers.

Hey, nothing wrong with Amazon, anyway, I have now decided since they put my fist two novels in their summer sale.  I’ve moved up from one millionth place to something like fifty two thousandth….. I’m almost a best seller!

I’ve got side-tracked here.  Which is just my point.  If we try to respond to everything, we’ll never concentrate on what’s important.

 

 

Christine de Luca, new Edinburgh Makar, and me - in a very special wee bookshop.

Christine de Luca, new Edinburgh Makar, and me – in a very special wee bookshop.

 

 

 

For years I set the alarm for 6.20am, giving me ten minutes to wrestle myself from sleep before I had to rise at half past.  I heard the thump of the boiler coming on in the kitchen, tried to catch the atmosphere of the fading dream, always more vivid in the morning, then pushed the covers off and got up.  Now I was into the day, and had to think about work.

I don’t have to set the alarm now and the work is very different.  Yet when I’m not working I feel guilty, and when I am working, I don’t think I’m doing enough.  That’s the trouble with growing up in the north-east of Scotland, you’re stuck with the work ethic, handed down (in my case) through generations of farmers, blacksmiths, innkeepers and other rural folk who had no time to sit about during the day and would have thought you a lazy so-and-so if you did. Hard work never killed anybody, my mother told me, and though of course she was wrong – it often has – I didn’t dare to say so.  That was ‘answering back’, a mere shade away from disrespect.  Life was meant to be useful, and what is more useful than work?

I love work.  A day spent busy and active, a day where you can look back and say ‘I did that, and that and that… ‘ is a good day.

The trouble is, we’re losing the distinction between a good day well spent, and keeping going all the time, blurring the lines between home and work, family and work, leisure and work.  I don’t mind the blurring, I want an integrated life that isn’t parcelled up into separate boxes.  As for the idea of work-life balance – work is life, and if it’s not, what on earth is it? Not an out of body experience, that’s for sure.

What we’ve lost is the dreaming space.

We work, we have holidays, we take care of our houses and gardens and the necessary stuff about paying bills and remembering people’s birthdays.  If we don’t spend our weekends dog walking, climbing hills, going to the gym, dance classes, football matches, etc. etc. it means we’re spending them getting in and out of our cars ferrying children to dance classes, tennis, swimming…. etc. etc.

Now that we have our wee devices, the blank spaces where we wait for the dentist, the doctor, the train, the plane, are all filled up too.  Everywhere people are poking at their phones, frowning at messages, or holding them close, talking, talking, keeping themselves from being alone.  If it’s not texting or email it’s Facebook or Twitter.  It’s as if we’re not real unless we’ve told someone else where we are and what we’re doing, as if we can’t exist in an empty space, in silence.

I’m a big fan of silence, which makes me quite an annoying person to be with if you want to listen to music or watch the TV ads with the sound turned up.  (Why would you?)

Last weekend, on a short weekend break with family, blissfully well looked after in a very good hotel, we parted at 5 and agreed to meet for drinks again at 6.30.  I lay on my bed in the pretty bedroom, put a cushion under my knees to rest my book on, and piled the pillows up behind me.  Suddenly it struck me that there was absolutely nothing I had to do.  No emails to answer, no editing, no discussion needed, no dinner to make or garden to weed.  I didn’t even have to read the book.

What I felt was a relief so dizzyingly unfamiliar it was like the first fizz of alcohol on an empty stomach, rare enough (on both counts!) to be strange and yet exhilarating.

I lay back and closed my eyes.  Nothing.

Slowly into the blank space came wandering the characters I’m just beginning to write about and who might be in a new novel one day.  All I have are fragments, sketchy beginnings of chapters that don’t yet fit together.  And I remembered all over again that if we don’t allow ourselves dreaming space, empty time, nothing original will be created.

Put the smartphone down, turn off the radio, sit quite still, sit in silence.

No, wait.  It won’t be nothing for long.Mr Sparks knows how to do it

I’m living in the past.

I’ve been dividing my reading (not reading for Sandstone Press, a different matter) between revisits to Barbara Pym and my new exploration of the Quirke novels by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville). Barbara Pym wrote several of her novels in the fifties and early sixties; Quirk inhabits 1950s Dublin.  What different worlds they are – Pym’s is full of Excellent Women, replete with curates, vicars’ wives, anthropologists, typists, antique dealers and elderly widows and spinsters who do not seem to have to earn their living.  They go to conventions (sometimes), bring and buy sales and jumble sales (often) and tea parties (daily). Single women have lunch in small depressing cafés (baked beans on toast, toad in the hole) or when meeting gentlemen, in Lyons Corner Houses or very occasionally in pubs where they make the mistake of heroically trying to drink beer when they are much more at home with a small sherry. I recognise that world and have to some extent inhabited corners of it.

Quirke lives in a fog bound, dark and dubious city, peopled by the untrustworthy, the wicked and the drunk.  He struggles with temptation, but not for long; he attempts to bring terrible wrongs to light, but inevitably fails to get anything done about them.  Happiness is fleeting; contentment unknown.

They have this in common, these two worlds – people have to make do with less than they want.   Barbara Pym’s women want love, fulfilment, a world that’s brighter and more satisfactory than the one they inhabit.  They make less of it; they are used to disappointment.  There is at least no evil of the kind Quirke encounters.

They have something else in common: there are servants.  Even if it’s only old Maggie, struggling through with the meat and potatoes for Quirke and Malachy, widowers both, there is someone to wait, someone to answer the door.  In Pym’s novels there are maids, cooks and even gardeners, and everyone has a Daily Woman.

My house has bells in every room, no longer working, unfortunately, or perhaps not, since there is no-one to ring for except me, and I wouldn’t want to encourage anyone else to do that.  Even in this house, not grand at all, there must once have been a maid, someone to trot from kitchen to living room or bedroom (?) and say, ‘You rang, Madam?’ or perhaps just to appear and stand breathing heavily in the doorway, making you feel guilty.

There’s a questionnaire in one of the weekend newspapers (Ok, the Guardian) regularly interviewing allegedly famous people (many of whom I’ve not heard of) and one of the questions is ‘What one thing would most improve the quality of your life?’  No argument there.

I want a maid, indeed a housekeeper, who will tidy up, do the shopping (after of course discussing the day’s menu with me), hang out washing, take it in, iron it and put it away in the right places, answer the door, remember to phone the sweep, the plumber, the piano tuner, the vet… oh, and take the cat to the vet, a trauma I’m not prepared to undergo again.  I also need a daily woman.  I did once have a cleaner but she was terribly expensive and used to bring her mother in sometimes to help her, a woman I had never set eyes on.  Anyway, that arrangement came to an end along with my nice Local Authority salary some time ago.

I also need a gardener.  I love my garden but it’s getting away from me, I feel defeated before I even begin the weeding.  Who invented chickweed?  Curses on them.  What I need is Mr McDonald, an elderly curmudgeon, who will work away every day, slowly but methodically, the heavy work done under his orders by the Gardener’s Boy.  Obviously, I need the Boy too.  At the end of the week, I’d hand Mr McDonald two and sixpence and the Boy a shilling, and they’d go away perfectly content.

This is where it all falls down – when the money comes into it.  I can’t afford the Boy or the Daily Woman, never mind the rest.  So bring on the time machine and I’ll head back into the past, where ladies like me didn’t actually have to have a job, let alone a career, and there was always someone to do the ‘work of the house’ and be jolly grateful for the chance.  I could arrange the flowers so cleverly grown by Mr McDonald (though I’d have to pick them after he’d gone) and go to tea parties and – well, we’re heading down the road of the poor woman I read about in a short story once (Katherine Mansfield maybe?) the highlight of whose Sunday was to wash the puff from her powder compact.  Now there’s something you never hear of anyone doing these days.

There is of course a terrible risk that the time machine, unreliable as these infernal inventions always turn out to be, instead of shipping me into a Barbara Pym or Agatha Christie novel, would toss me onto a greasy pavement in Dublin in 1956, leaving me stranded in the fog, with only a faint hope that Detective Inspector Hackett will eventually come and sort things out.

I’m off out to the garden, to do battle with chickweed and earth up the tatties.  Perhaps I’ll stick with the 21st century for now.

 

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