The Writer’s Circle #17 – New Beginnings

It was towards the end of Elizabeth Walton’s first session at The Circle, having reached the decision that she was going to return, that she realised she would also actually have to start to write… 

…Having downsized from the large detached home she had shared with her husband, to the two-bed apartment in which she had rattled around since his death, she reviewed her options.  They were minimal.  The second bedroom – a little larger than a box room, but only if you used a smaller box – was the obvious choice for her ‘writing room’.  She bought a desk, actually a junk shop kitchen table, and a swivel chair from Argos, which she returned as soon as she realised that she was expected to put it together herself.  In any case, she had by then discovered that she was perfectly comfortable on the slightly more stable of the two dining chairs that had unexpectedly turned up with the table.  She bought cushions, she bought pads of lined paper, reams of printing paper, pens of many hues and a pencil sharpener shaped like a hedgehog (although, strangely, no pencils) which she carefully arranged around her laptop in what she imagined was a writerly manner, and she stared at the screen.  Many days later she was still staring at the screen.

It would seem that her claim to write Family Saga may have been particularly ill-judged.  It had popped into her mind in a moment of Deidre-induced stress and she had not anticipated the hurricane that was to blow in behind those two little words.  She had not, for instance, foreseen the possibility that she would be expected to provide some evidence of her toils at the wordy rock-face – especially not out aloud – nor that she would find the Family Saga novels which she had subsequently picked up as ‘research’ material from the charity shop so overwhelmingly boring.  And long.  No book should be so long.  Before she got half way through, she found that not only was she struggling to remember who, but also how, what, when and why.  Mostly why.  She had toyed with giving up and simply not returning to The Circle, but it represented a new page for her; an empty new page that she was determined to fill.  She considered confessing all to the other members and the idea was very attractive – until she thought of Deidre’s pinched face and she realised that, like a dog, she could never allow Deidre to sense weakness.

She began at first to jot down snatches of conversation both overheard and imagined.  She outlined half a dozen semi-plausible plots before, as she became increasingly familiar with her adopted genre, she found a way of crocheting them all together into the multi-hued bedspread she needed.  She began to see a path from beginning to end and characters began to draw themselves around her.  She filled pages with character descriptions; sat up into the early hours drawing up family trees that overlapped and bound themselves together like Velcro; wrote down a thousand forenames and prowled a dozen graveyards in the search for surnames.  She began to feel that she might be ready to write something that she could read to The Circle.  It did not need to be a beginning, it did not need to have a beginning; just a couple of thousand words that would demonstrate an ability to write at anything above chimpanzee/Olivetti level.  She felt perfectly confident that she could do that.  Well…

What she actually discovered was that a brain buzzing with ideas was simply not what was required for writing.  She had too many ideas: they bounced off the walls, they tripped over one another, wandered off into cul-de-sacs, seduced the vicar.  Each evening she sat down with a neatly assembled cast and watched on helplessly as it collapsed into anarchy before her like an amateur soufflé – full of all of the right ingredients, short of all the required air.  Panic, never deeply buried since the loss of her husband, rose up like porridge in a microwave, threatening to overwhelm the air of calm that she had so intently cultivated.  She returned to the circle, her seventh visit, determined to confess all before riding away, Shane-like, into the sunset.  Oh, if only she’d said that she wrote westerns…

…It was the evening of Phil’s big idea.  They had all drawn genres: Phil had drawn ‘Play’, Billy had drawn ‘Detective’, Penny had drawn ‘Family Saga’ and Elizabeth had drawn ‘Humour’.  Beyond that she could not recall.  In her brain, a number of little cogs had ceased to whirr.  Comedy!  What on earth did she know about comedy?  Well, if she was honest, probably pretty much as much as she knew about Family Saga.  She also knew that it had a much shorter word count.  But she was a widow, for goodness sake!  A relatively recent widow.  What did she have to laugh about?

It was later, much later that evening, in the sleepless darkness that preceded the dawn, that she found herself staring at the wall of her bedroom, taut and confused as the Cinemascopic clarity of her past few months played out on the screen at the back of her mind.  She expected gloom, probably she wanted gloom, but what she got was world-class ineptitude: a woman so ill-equipped for the solitary life that she had fabricated a life as an author in order to find company.  She felt tears begin to well in her eyes, but when, eventually they fell, they did so not in pain but in joy: the joy of seeing herself for what she was – as she was sure others must see her – and not hating herself for it.  The joy of seeing each faltering step she had taken, of witnessing each calamitous event and realising that, in the very midst of it all she had remained standing: like a floral patterned lighthouse in a broiling storm of inconsequential travails, shining the very same light that would illuminate her way – like the Lady of the Lamp, only with a smartphone – and she couldn’t help but smile at the fool she had allowed herself to become.  She saw the world – the world of now – in a new light: like the blinding moment of stepping out into the real world from a cinema matinee, and she realised that she did have something to tell the group about.  It might not be ‘Family Saga’ and it almost certainly would not be ‘Comedy’, but she thought that it might just make them smile and, for now, that was all that she wanted…

‘The Writer’s Circle’ began here with ‘Penny’s Poem’.
The most recent tale from the Circle, ‘The Lure of Summer’ is here.

The Running Man on Reasons Why Not

I have not been on a single run in the past week.  I have my reasons (or, as I will henceforth refer to them ‘justifications’*) for this malaise.  They are not entirely of my own making…

We need a new carpet for the lounge.  It is possible to see the migrating woodlice through the current one.  My wife has decided that if we are to have a new carpet fitted we should re-decorate before it arrives – ‘Just a lick of paint’ – and has accordingly allowed me ten days (including work days) to get this done before the fitters arrive.  The lounge, I should point out, is three rooms knocked into one and is consequently the kind of shape that you only otherwise see when you are very bad at Tetris.  So far, after a day spent disconnecting TV’s and Hi-Fi’s, and shifting furniture (Why does nothing have castors any more?) I have painted the ceilings and my wife has commenced the glossing.  I have looked at the damaged plaster work that was formerly hidden behind furniture and which I now feel obliged to repair.  I have also investigated a dip in the floor which turns out to be a small collapse where the cavity wall formerly sat between the old house and the old extension.  A builder friend came and channelled out, filled with concrete and left in good order as per, and now I have to learn to apply the leveller between the two surfaces.  I have found my trowel, which was covered in the rock-hard evidence of its last use, and have spent several hours cleaning it off.  I have also spent a number of long, dark hours discovering that I cannot plaster.  Furthermore, I have discovered that I cannot adequately clean trowels, as my newly plastered patches all have deep ravines running across them where the more intransigent lumps of dried-on concrete lingered.  I will repair them just as soon as I have managed to hammer the concrete from my spatula.

I have also spotted a number of small stains on the walls (mostly chocolate and wine if I’m honest) that need to be removed before the new paint is applied, as I know that otherwise they will leach through in seconds.  I have discovered that Sugar Soap is my weapon of choice here.  It does not work, but it is very cheap and every bit as effective as all the expensive preparations that also do not work.  I have removed all door furniture, as requested, with the minimum of injury, and have subsequently spent a forlorn hour staring at all the new electrical sockets and switches that my wife has purchased.  I have added the emergency services to my speed-dial and alerted the National Grid to expect unusual activity within the next few days.  I wouldn’t want them thinking that ET had come back to pick up his bike.  I have taken the batteries out of the smoke alarm.

This evening, having previously moved the TV away from the walls to a position that makes its survival at best ‘of concern’, I agreed to reconnect all the wires so that my wife did not have to stare at the blank screen all evening, pretending to be me after my laptop has updated unexpectedly.  So many wires, so few sockets.  I have absolutely no idea what all these devices do.  I think we are probably hard-wired into Beijing.  Anyway, after a mere few hours, she can now watch TV again, although it does somehow appear that Derek Trotter now speaks in Urdu and Rodney has had a very heavy weight placed upon his head.  Also, according to the guide, she is watching Countryfile.  The remote control flushes the toilet.

Tomorrow I will begin to paint the walls and, given my propensity towards spillage, I must agree that this is best done before the carpet arrives.  I will carefully edge each wall with a single confident stroke that resembles the coastline of Croatia before attempting to apply the paint with a roller that does not appear to be quite the same size as the cage it (almost) fits upon; marvelling at my own ability to produce the kind of striped effect only otherwise witnessed on the lawns at Buckingham Palace and the capacity of formerly flat plaster to assume the rather disturbing silhouette of Dolly Parton behind a net curtain.  It will probably dry out and, if it doesn’t, will provide the perfect position for the photo of our wedding day, which could only benefit from the altered viewing angle.

Following my day spent on the ceilings, my back is currently experiencing the kind of rigor normally associated with the guest stars on ‘Silent Witness’ and I have a twitch in my leg like a pulsar.  Never mind, the human spirit is a wonderful thing and almost as accommodating as the Scotch variety, of which I am about to partake (to safe levels obviously**) in order to treat my cold – should I ever get one.

Anyway, that is the reason I haven’t been running so far this week – and I almost certainly can’t go out tomorrow as it is forecast to rain… a bit… maybe…

*see also ‘excuses’
**I have a theory that if I weighed twice as much as I do, I could safely drink double the amount.  I have taken the batteries out of the scales.

My running diary began with ‘Couch to 5k’ here.
My last actual running thoughts were chronicled here in ‘The Running Man on Extending’.

Zoo #33 – Camel

When taking high tea with a camel,
Be careful, you shouldn’t upset
This most anti-social of mammals –
You wouldn’t want one as a pet.

His manners are frankly appalling,
His personal hygiene is low
And if he should sit at your table
There is something you really should know.

When asking ‘Do you take sugar?’
– And, surprisingly, some camels do –
You should always take care not to snigger
When querying ‘One lump of two?’

Like everybody else that has ever been on holiday to Egypt or Tunisia, I have ridden camels.  They are smelly, uncooperative, uncomfortable and unevenly tempered – it is like riding a history teacher.  Only 6% of the world’s camels have two humps (Bactrian – including the critically endangered Wild Bactrian) whilst the remaining 94% have only one (Dromedary) – balanced, presumably, by a chip on the shoulder.  The camel’s hump (or humps) does (or do) not contain water (they carry that in a recyclable bottle in their backpack) but actually contain fat that metabolises very rapidly into water when the animal is unable to drink (think fat-free mayonnaise).  A camel’s faeces is so dry that the Bedouins are able to burn it without further drying – although it still, presumably, smells of burning shit and almost certainly explains the lack of appetite for toasted marshmallows in Bedouin culture.  A camel’s eyes and nostrils are designed to keep out wind-borne sand and its thick coat keeps it cool (much like a Parka in the 90’s).  Its feet are especially designed to stop the heavy beast sinking into shifting sands and its toes are uniquely shaped to give teenage boys something to titter about.  They mate whilst sitting down – something we have all attempted to do at the back of the cinema back in the day.  Evolution has turned the camel into one of the most incredible, biologically adapted creatures in the natural world – but they remain deeply unpleasant and they still smell of old socks…

Making It All Up

So, this is the moment when somebody (Hello Ian) asks you ‘How do you think of all this stuff?’ and you stop to consider it and realise that you don’t.  Think of it, that is.  Actual thinking implies method.  If you thought of it, it would be more logical, it would be more ‘real, it would be altogether morewell, just more.  This is the moment when you realise that you don’t actually think of it at all, it is just there in your head; not so much hammering on the door to be released as slowly oozing through the gaps in the frame.  This is the moment when you try to force yourself to consider where it all really does come from and why you can never seem to stop it.

I seldom have trouble writing, although I do often have great difficulty in starting.  Think of the final heave before the bandwagon crests the hill and begins its self-propelled plummet to the bottom.  Think trying to start a Skoda in the winter.  Once I have started, it (whatever ‘it’ is) just goes on its own merry way whilst I scurry behind, clinging to its coattails as tightly as a prospective MP to a popularist dream.  Occasionally the original idea is the ending, and I can work backwards without using three different names for the same character, but mostly it is the beginning or the middle and I have to grope my way along with absolutely no idea of where it is all going to end until I actually get there.  I am the car-boot Sat-Nav of the literary world.  Even when I write a short story, I seldom know how it is all going to end.  I’m rubbish at keeping secrets: if I knew where everything was heading I would, like an inept Ali Bongo*, let the cat out of the bag far too soon.  Much better that it takes me by surprise too.  Plots develop along the way, like mould on last week’s trifle, and endings just sort of plop into place when there’s nothing more to say.

I wrote a novel once based entirely on a one hundred word synopsis scribbled on the inside of a packet of dried peas.  The ending changed with every page I wrote.  New characters appeared and changed my opinions of those I already had.  An off-the-cuff comment made in a non-essential snatch of off-piste conversation – of which there were many – would lead me down an unmarked cinder-path into a situation that I had not anticipated and from which there was no easy return.  When it was finished and I hawked it around, I found that like the Rum-Baba at a Methodist finger buffet, whilst everybody loved it, no-one would actually touch it.  I can’t say that I blame them.  When asked by one publisher for a short synopsis of the plot I was at a loss, so I sent them a typewritten transcript of my pea packet notes which, by then, showed not even the slightest resemblance to what had ended up on the page.  It may as well have been written in Sanskrit for all the information it offered: it was about as edifying as a Dublin taxi driver; like being sent into the Hampton Court Maze with a street map of Fishguard.

It bothered me for a while, I thought that it mattered.  I tried to address it and found myself writing a succession of what amounted to some kind of stamp collector’s guide to life, with all the sparkling wit of a verruca treatment.  I realised that any ‘talent’ I may possess is not actually impaired by my meandering dives into the inconsequential because, quite frankly, that is all that there is.  I don’t actually make it up at all.  It is always there, waiting to be let out.

So, now you know…

*Actually a very adept magician

The Writer’s Circle #16 – The Lure of Summer

Jane Herbert (horror) was the second member of the Circle to face her peers having made an attempt to write in the genre drawn, at Phil’s suggestion, from the pool of those written by every other member.  Romance could not have been more alien to her and she had the added pressure of Deidre analysing her every word but, like Phil who had preceded her, although she found the exercise challenging she also found it rewarding and, as the attention of the group turned towards her, she felt ready to read them what she had written…

“…Frost prickled on the grass, turning each separate blade into a sparkling dagger and fringing the bursting leaves of the overhanging yew trees with a lattice-work of shining, icy lace.  The morning sun reflected and glittered out from every surface, although it yet provided little warmth to the air.  Sparrows fought over the squirming bounty unearthed in newly-turned soil: the desperate comedy of survival cast along the long, long morning shadows; the only other sound the cellophane crackle of bouquet wrappings.

Desmond Demona (Des to his friends, of which there were precious few) sat on the stone-flagged floor in an isolated pool of sunlit warmth, his back against the honeyed limestone of the church tower wall, eyes closed, the black plastic cup gently steaming the scent of stewed milky tea into the air, warming his soil-stained fingers, soothing his senses, calming his soul.  He had the smell of the earth in his nostrils, he could still feel the weathered grain of the spade handle against the skin of his palms.  He was happy in his work, but he took his breaks very seriously – almost religiously.  His timing was meticulous and steady.  In rain or shine, summer heat or winter chill, swaddled in multi-layered clothing or stripped to the waist, his routine remained unvaried: thirty minutes digging followed by ten minutes rest until the job was done.

The job was digging graves and Desmond took great pride in it.  The symmetry of his excavations was revered throughout the diocese.  Even when the unexpected was encountered, in the form of old church outbuildings, clay pipes or illicitly interred beloved pets, he found a way to ensure that the box nestled level, precisely six feet below the sod.

Sometimes he was bothered by the taunts of the local kids as they went to school.  He started his day early, tailored his routine to be as far away from them as possible, but he couldn’t avoid those who chose to loiter around the graveyard during holidays.  He kept his head down and he dug and when they started to pelt him, as they occasionally did, he was always at the bottom of a hole and unable to get out quickly enough to challenge them, so he simply collected the rubbish in a bag (he liked a clean grave) with a view to rubbing their noses in it if ever he caught them.  He never did.  He knew he never would, but the promise of revenge fortified him none-the-less.

The vicar was good to Desmond, managing to find him jobs even when no-one was dying: cutting grass, cleaning headstones, tidying decaying tributes and flowers.  Occasionally he was asked to carry out some menial tasks inside the building; varnishing pews, Hoovering prayer cushions, dusting the surfaces that the vicar could not reach without standing on a chair.  Desmond always did his best – occasionally bringing his own chair from home as it was a little higher than the vicar’s and more stable – but he did not feel suited to ‘inside work’.  He liked to dig.  It was what he was good at.  He liked to feel the sun on his back.  He liked to sit in the shade of the giant yew in the summer as he napped away his thirty minute mid-day break.  For six precious weeks from late May to early July, the sun crested the tower and beat down on his little spot.  Those were his favourite weeks of the year and, although they were still some months away, he sensed them coming in the air and he looked forward to the time when he could rid himself of the cloying cold of the grave by basking in the heat of the noon-time sun.  He loved to feel the heat prickling on his darkening skin, adding definition to a body toned to perfection by a life spent digging.

At least, it was pretty close to perfection as far as the vicar was concerned.  She had been here for five years now and, if anything, she looked forward to the summer months with greater anticipation than Desmond himself.  She had tried to talk to him so many times, to draw him into conversation, but all he ever wanted to hear from her was where to dig and, if there really was no digging to do, he would hold her with his doleful eyes until she found him some tasks, preferably outside, with which to pass his day.  There were times when she had to find him jobs to do around the church itself – when people were just not dying or when the bloody kids just wouldn’t leave him alone – but she could tell that he was not happy there.  She devoted every moment she could at such times in attempting to draw some conversation from him, but she always knew that, for both their sakes, she would very soon have to find him work outside in the fresh air, where he felt able to remove his shirt – where she was able to surreptitiously observe him doing so.

But today, she watched him through the frost speckled windows of the vestry as he screwed the cup back on top of his flask and rose, fully-clothed to his feet.  He moved, she thought, like a cat.  What went on inside his head?  She realised that the paraphernalia of vicarhood hung around her like an invisible cage.  Few men ever think about vicars as suitable girl-friend material but then, truth be told, few vicars ever think about a withdrawn gravedigger as being the man to lead them up the aisle, and she was almost certain that even fewer ever see themselves quite so vividly breaking so many commandments simultaneously.  Slowly she raised the cassock above her knees and sighed contentedly as the heat of the tiny electric heater slowly caressed her legs.  For her, the summer just couldn’t come soon enough…”

The Writer’s Circle started with ‘Penny’s Poem’, here.
Last week’s Writer’s Circle ‘The Mud, the Blood and the Beer’ is here.

The Running Man on Extending

Our back garden as viewed from my office window.  Note our own extension in the bottom left, the clothes dryer that would have had to have been moved if my wife knew that I was taking the photo, and the pink shell sandpit that the kids carefully emptied out onto the patio during their last visit.

As I run around the village these days I find that almost every other house is clad in scaffolding.  The whole place looks like a series of giant Meccano sets, constructed and curated by a strutting illustrated man clad in denim overalls talking like he’s permanently attached to an invisible megaphone, somehow managing to laugh and snarl at the same time.  Half the world is extending whilst the other half is winter frog-like – in a state of stasis, like a jelly fish in the freezer.  Unmodified homes are betrayed by their lack of gunmetal grey windows and buff-coloured rendering; naked housebrick standing out like the uncouth uncle at a family gathering: the man in the green checked shirt, blue striped suit and purple nylon wig.   It can only be a matter of time until the children are warned to keep away.

I am a creature of habit and my running routes seldom vary, so I see these changes taking place.  I witness the houses evolve in my own cataractal time-lapse eye and although it is very rare to lope past a finished job thinking that it shouldn’t have been done at all, I could obviously point you at one or two that look like they’ve had a shed velcroed onto the side of the kitchen.  I never dreamt that this volume of builders even existed – the breaker’s yards by now must be completely devoid of all decrepit white vans.  Where will they all go when the lockdown finishes and people no longer want to re-sculpt the homes in which they have been trapped?  Does Brigadoon require knocking through?  Most of the houses – presumably no longer homes – are put up for sale the moment the work stops.  There must be a psychological explanation for this, but I’m buggered if I can find it – unless people find that they just cannot live without dust and noise, Absolute 90’s on the radio, a Portaloo on the front lawn and tea stains on every conceivable surface.  The houses, when finished, look great – except that they all have the forlorn appearance of ‘property for sale’ hanging, shroud-like over them.  I picture a kind of merry-go-round of upsizing and downsizing in progress with the clockwise half of the local population constantly tripping over the anti-clockwise balance.

Such homes that are not having internal walls removed and external walls skimmed are having the gardens done.  Landscape gardeners have proliferated like Cane Toads in the Australian Outback.  No garden is finished until it has been designed on a computer.  ‘Hard Landscaping’ is the horticultural mode: remove as much green as possible and cover it with shingle, bricks and the kind of wooden structures that, around here, will succumb to woodworm before the autumn.  Monty Don must be spinning in his cold-frame.  The garden has become an ersatz house extension and the flowers have paid the price.  My lawns are not great, but they are two of very few left in the village.  Most of the green oases that pepper the streets now are of the ‘astro’ variety – lawns that are swept rather than cut – but do at least add a varied palette of green shades to the surroundings that would never be seen in nature. 

I am no gardener, but I know that gardens are important, both for nature and for human well-being.  Each spring I watch the green shoots begin to forge their way through my own small patch of winter-wizened soil and debate long and hard over which to leave and which to dig up, in the certain knowledge that I will get it wrong.  Each summer I spend one of the two balmy evenings we are apt to get per year, sitting out amongst the flowers, cradling something warming in a glass.  Each autumn I chop it all down and ram it into the compost bin, whence it forms a foul-smelling brown slime that I have to sluice away in the summer.  This is the circle of life and I am sad to see it broken by grey slate and plastic lawns.  My run is becoming more monochrome by the day as the town is moved into the country – a vista of white van and black Range Rover – and my glimpses of nature (outside of strategically placed dog-turds in bio-degradable bags) rarer. 

Oh well, I’m sure that when the summer comes it will all look better.  Who knows, I might just have an extension built to watch it from…

In England we can now have up to six people, or two households, meeting in the garden.  Guests can even use the toilet!  (I must tell next-door’s cats.)  Accordingly, this week’s running diary is brought to you courtesy of a very elderly gazebo and a newly purchased patio heater.

This whole running shenanigans started here with ‘Couch to 5k’.
Last week’s Running Man ‘…on Setting Off’ is here.
You can find the next Running Man ‘…on Reasons Why Not’ here.

Zoo # 32 – Madoqua Kirkii*

Thompson had snapped up the last gazelle,
Melville had bagged him a whale.
Attenborough had almost half of a zoo,
Steve Irvine had all of a snail.

John Cleese got a furry young lemur,
Doc Salmon, herself, got a germ.
There are hundreds of folk got a beetle,
The Beatles, themselves got a worm

Nomenclature becomes daily harder –
A wasp was the option for Muse –
But when Kirk had accepted his Dik-Dik
There can’t have been much left to choose.

I’m always intrigued about the business of having things named after you.  First it was animals, then insects, then bacteria and parasites.  Why?  I guess it was ok in the past, when you got an antelope or a whale, but now everybody seems to get an invertebrate of some kind.  I never even dreamt that there were so many types of wasp** (although I will dream about the little buggers now).    Nobody cares about the name of something that has just stung them: they care about squashing the blighter.  And let’s face it, nobody wants a disease named after them.  Just ask Mr & Mrs Covid from number 19. 
Now it is planets and stars and I start to understand.  Sooner or later, we are going to discover life out there and the odds are, I suppose, about 50/50 who is going to be hunting whom.  If they turn out to be the hunters, I guess it must offer some kind of protection to be able to say, ‘Did you know, by the way, that your planet is named after me?  Yes, honestly, I am Derek…’

*Kirk’s Dik-Dik (Madoqua Kirkii)

**I do like the fact that Greta Garbo has a solitary wasp named after her.

A Confederacy of Poets in the Gewgaws (The Plan)

Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

‘Poetry is indispensable – if only I knew what for.’  Jean Cocteau.

It’s funny how readily random instances, like Saturday evening Hen Parties, can collide.  Synchronicity mixes ingredients, throwing them together like a prospective Masterchef contestant, with equally unpredictable results: 49% tastes great, but looks awful; 49% looks great, but tastes awful; 1% both looks and tastes great but is served by a chef having at least one finger swathed in bright blue plaster and encased within a vinyl glove, and 1% consists solely of sliced finger and blood.  It would be almost two years ago, and certainly recalled only by those of you of very long memory and very forgiving nature, in an occasional thread of poetry (The Haphazardly Poetical) that I wrote a poem called ‘An Appreciation of Poetry’ (reproduced below) in the realisation that I had none.  Or very little, anyway.  Outside of Wilfred Owen, Emily Dickinson and John Betjeman – all of whom I love – I have never fared well with any poetry outside of the scattergun genius that was Spike Milligan.  It has always felt like a bit of a hole in my soul: something I really should attempt to fill, but frankly can never be bothered. 

Yesterday I was reading a piece written by Alan Bennett about the poet Philip Larkin, with whom – like sashimi – I am totally unacquainted.  Alan Bennett is a great fan (of the poet, not the raw meat – although I would not presume to pontificate on his attitude towards uncooked protein): such a great fan that he is happy to cast aside Larkin’s overt racism and misogyny as an irrelevance.  I realise that this has the potential to close many doors on me, but I am unable to do so.  I cannot admire one aspect of a person whilst I despise another*.  Most people must, I suspect, have some redeeming features, but are they sufficient to actually redeem them?  How saintly would Chris Evans need to be in order to make up for the fact that he is still Chris Evans**?  The point is that despite his private opinions, what Larkin wrote for publication – exposed only what he felt would be acceptable to those who knew him only through his work: he laid bare his soul, but only the part of it he wanted the reader to admire***.  I think to some degree we all hide – or at best disguise – pieces of ourselves that we fear others will find distasteful: I, myself, will never be seen in public without socks.  Most writers will accept that they will be hated by some, but will not be happy to find that the haters hold the majority view, especially when all they have ever done is to read a first draft to their mother.  Nobody – except for Mick Hucknall – wants to be Mick Hucknall.  Everybody wants to be loved: perhaps viewed as fragile but plucky; best of all to be understood as misunderstood

The third little thread of my crocheted blanket of fate was accrued yesterday when I stumbled onto a little hard-sleeved collection of poetry anthologies by (in alphabetical order) W. H. Auden, John Betjeman, T. S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and W. B. Yeats, at the back of a shelf filled with photographs, mugs, microscope, grey felt hat, knitted chimp, shells, fossils, and an empty Marmite jar.  Why these particular six scribes had been assembled I do not know, but my hastily constructed plan is to read them all.  Not all at once of course, that would be plain foolhardy, but I will as time goes by, let you know how I have progressed in reading them one at a time, although if I’m honest, this entire enterprise may result in nothing more than a short-course monthly footnote e.g. ‘Didn’t get on with Plath’.  Certainly it would be as well not to expect an informed critique from me – that will not happen – the ramblings of an ill-informed oaf will not shine any light upon the works of literary giants, perhaps far more upon how wrong an ill-educated old fart can be.  Just be assured, I will do it and I will let you know each time I finish a collected nosegay.  You may learn about my heart-felt reactions to the collections, or, far more likely, what I was eating whilst I read them.  I will consume the poetry, but what will subsequently emerge is anybody’s guess.  Auden will be first.  Wish me luck – as I do you…

*Not, I now realise, completely true.  Spike Milligan himself had, by all accounts, a very questionable attitude to the women in his life (albeit one I was unaware of until relatively recently).  I would love to tell you that this knowledge will lessen my opinion of his work, but it will not.  Reading his books was, after all, the first thing my wife ever banned me from doing in bed – laughter, apparently is not conducive to sleep.  Eating crisps dipped in Marmite – should you be curious – was the second.

**I refer here to the British Radio and TV personality Chris Evans, and not Captain America – whom I certainly would not choose to annoy.  If you are at all familiar with the former, you will get the joke.  If you are not familiar with the former, I can only point out that if you were, you would.

***‘The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth.’  Jean Cocteau (who was, himself, a poet, so Lord knows what he actually meant.)

An Appreciation of Poetry

The gilded art of polished phrase
That punctuated schoolboy days
Where words of love and joy and rage
Lay lifeless on each dog-eared page.

Majestic lines so flatly read
Drummed into every schoolboy head
And arch displays of erudition
Locked in brains by repetition.

Where verses raised in cool élan
Are lost to empty rhyme and scan,
Forget the words, but keep instead
The rhythm sounding in your head.

Observe the faithful paradigm
The rumty-tum of metred rhyme
That void of all emotion drips
Unthinkingly from idle lips.

And then recall a line or two
Of the poem writ by you-know-who
That told a tale of daffodils
And wand’ring over lonely hills.

Who said we should Stop All the Clocks?
And what on earth are Jabberwocks?
Why do I smile when I stumble upon
A Subaltern’s love for J. Hunter Dunn?

‘Come [something] bombs and fall on Slough’
(I must recall that word somehow)
And memorise a verse from Pope
Now… who had feathers – was it Hope?

Chorus:     Though I know the lines and it sounds absurd
All I ever learned was a string of words.
My mind is full of couplets I can only half recall,
Which maybe makes them monoplets – if they’re anything at all.

© McQueen 2019.

P.S. ‘Hope’ (by Emily Dickinson) ‘is the thing with feathers’.

The Writer’s Circle #15 – The Mud, the Blood and the Beer

Penelope (Penny) Farthing had been named by her father just a matter of weeks before he walked out of the family home, never to return.  He wasn’t missing, just gone – at least that’s what her mother always said.  His absence was seldom discussed and Penny had never really felt the desire to try to find the man who had given her her name.  Whenever anybody spoke of meeting him, she always thought of ‘A Boy Named Sue’* and how unsuited she was to kicking and gouging in the mud, the blood and the beer.  Also, she always suspected that her mother knew much more than she was prepared to tell.  Penny felt, instinctively, that she had been involved in some way with his disappearance – maybe she had killed him – but she had never dared to ask.  It was her mother’s claim that she had been too timid to object when her father had registered her name, but Penny had serious doubts: her mother was many things, but never timid.

Why her father should play such a trick on his own child – a child he had never really got to know, a child he was planning to leave – Penny could never quite understand.  Certainly her mother’s late-night, post-sherry taunts that “Nobody expected you to still be single at your age,” led her to believe that her role in the whole elaborate prank was far greater than she wanted her daughter to know.  If Penny retained any desire at all to meet her father, it was so she could ask him that one thing.  “Did the old witch know what you were doing?  Was she a part of it?”  She would never be able to do so now.  The only thing that bound her to him – outside of DNA – was her mother, she held all the clues and she was no longer able to focus long enough to remember anything that she did not choose to.  An almost selective form of dementia – so typical of the bloody woman to retain all of her defences whilst rationality abandoned her.  To lose the facility to recall her own daughter’s face, but not the contempt in which she held it, it took a certain kind of mother.  It is not an easy thing, to feel nothing for your own mother, not good for your soul, but it was all Penny had left since she had spat compassion back at her.

Everyone at The Circle had noticed the change in Penny over the last few weeks.  She was just that little bit more assertive, more spiky somehow; still the little mouse, but more inclined to nip if cornered.  The unexpected appearance and subsequent disappearance of Charlie had preyed on her mind.  His failure to return, to explain, had somehow brought her father to mind with a presence that she had not felt in many years.  She would not in any way compare Charlie with her father; Charlie was a good man, she had missed him while he had been away and his return had kindled some kind of hope inside her, but both he and her father had disappeared from her life and the disappearance of the man she missed had, once again, made her curious about the man she did not.  What if he had been a good man?  She had only her mother’s word that he had not.  What if it wasn’t him that had given her that hated name at all?  Again she had only the unreliable word of the hollow woman that she visited daily, religiously, in the home.  She cursed herself for not doubting her sooner, for not pressing her for answers whilst she still had them, but she had trusted her mother, just like she had trusted Charlie when he said he was coming back, that he was getting better, and she didn’t fully understand herself, why she felt it such betrayal.  Except…  Charlie was a member of The Circle, a good man, whom she felt had, in some indefinable way had let her down.  The Circle was the closest thing that she had to a family now and, like a family, nobody else ever seemed to notice if you weren’t at your best.  Nobody noticed if you were just that inch or two out of your depth…

The consoling arm on Penny’s shoulder took her by surprise.  She opened her mouth to speak but, as hot tears swelled unheralded into her eyes, Terry put a finger to concerned lips and silently handed her a tissue.  “Wipe your eyes,” he whispered, “and as long as you don’t tell, neither shall I.”  He winked.  “After all, where would The Circle be without a little feud to keep it going?”  Penny took the tissue and smiled weakly at Terry as he retreated slowly, back to his customary place on the periphery.  “That,” thought Penny “is the problem with families: you never quite know where you are with them…”

*‘A Boy Named Sue’ by Johnny Cash

The Writer’s Circle stories started her with ‘Penny’s Poem’ here.
The previous Writer’s Circle story ‘Funeral Songs’ is here.

The Running Man on Setting Off

I was very pin-toed as a child and my mother was told that it was very unlikely that I would ever walk properly, let alone run.  (They were wrong, of course.  I realise that you know I wouldn’t have mentioned it otherwise.)  I do have a slightly unusual gait to my walk – picture a slightly camp giraffe on ice – but, although not quickly, I do run and I have played sport all of my life, even if most of my ‘upright’ time is spent in a stance that can best described as ‘a teeter’.  (I caught sight of myself in a mirror once whilst playing squash and it reminded me of ‘modern ballet’ – the kind of dance that is accompanied by music that exists only in the notes that never quite made it into formal notation; where you witness a move and wonder whether it could possibly have been intentional.  The image was so shocking that I paused for a second and wound up with a bruise the size of a fried egg on my forehead.)  At any speed above ‘dawdle’ I always give the impression of a man on a tightrope.

Since I began to run, a year ago, I have never done so without wearing supports on both knees.  It is likely that my pin-toes are to blame for the weakness in my knees, although I always blame a lifetime of playing sport, because it sounds so much more glamorous.  In fact I have a distinct memory of inadvertently attempting to fly as a child, across a space where a stone staircase should have been and crash-landing on my knees, leading to what the doctor described as ‘water on the knees’, which he treated with crepe bandages wound so tightly that my feet turned blue and my eyes bulged in my head like balloons in a microwave.  Whatever the cause, my knees operate on a basis of more or less permanent ache which, against all expectations, is lessened by running.  Early on in ‘my running journey’ I was troubled by hip pain, but I learned some stretching exercises and now the only time I get pain in my hips is after a couple of days without running.  It is my body’s way of telling me to get my arse into gear.

The start is always the hardest.  If I get up in the night – ‘if’?  who do I think I am kidding? – my stagger along the landing is a joy to behold as neither hips nor knees are prepared to bend without a substantial period of notice.  The imperative to reach the bathroom combined with the intransigence of my joints means that the midnight walk is more of a controlled fall forward.  In fact, that is the only way that I can set off on a run.  I slowly tip forward until I reach a point where the gyroscope in my head (obviously sub-standard since fitting) tells me that either I start to move my feet or ditch on my snitch.  The state of the paths around here means that either result is equally plausible.  In my head I am a cool runner, but in the eyes of the world I am an old man fighting a futile battle against gravity; I am a pin-toed Rowan Atkinson attempting to catch a crowded train as it pulls out of the station.  In reality, of course, the train has long-since left and I’ve no chance of ever getting back on board.  Just as well really, it would almost certainly be heading for the wrong station…

As always, I would refer you to the start of this running around business in ‘Couch to 5k’, here.
Should you want to know what happened last week, you can join me running ‘…on a Bicycle’, here.

N.B. At the end of a recent Running Man, I included a little footnote about my coloured pen ‘editing’ process which drew a little comment.  I think I should clarify that this is not some kind of ‘professional’ methodical process, but a desolate routine that almost invariably follows the same pattern:
1. Write piece in pen on paper.
2. Transpose onto computer and print.
3. Read through and despair.
4. Take red pen and add jokes.
5. Read through and despair.
6. Take green pen and attempt to make some sense of it.
7. Read through and despair.
8. Take black pen and correct grammar, syntax and opinion.
9. Read through and despair.
10. Feed into shredder and revert to original.

So now you know…

My running diary started with ‘Couch to 5k’ here.
Last week’s little tarradiddle ‘The Running Man on a Bicycle’ is here.
Next week’s run out ‘The Running Man on Extending’ is here.