The Writer’s Circle #18 – As It Is

Frankie stood before the Circle assuming the general demeanour of a schoolteacher in charge of morning assembly, a smile (as always) tracing his lips.  He held a very small piece of paper – suspiciously like a beer mat – with a small number of felt-pen bullet points scribbled across it, fading and merging together into something that could possibly keep a psychiatrist happy for months.  It was his turn in Phil’s little game.  Autobiography.  If only he had a story to tell…

“Memories.  Strange things, memories: eccentric things.  Like a film you half-remember – never having made it to the end.  A sense of deja vu in eveything you do.  As memories increase, so they diminish; gaining clarity, but losing detail, except for those you choose to cherish.  Selective things, are memories: recalling good that wasn’t there, forgetting bad unless it was comic.  Past lives becoming clichéd anecdote.  Six billion people becoming Frank Skinner.

Recent memories, now they should be easy.  Easy to remember.  Easy to recall in sharp, focussed detail.  Edited, like the news, in full colour flashbacks.  Accurate, like a page from The Sun.  But they’re not.  Why do we have such a problem with today, when yesterday seems so easy?  Why do we stand at the toilet door, flies undone, wondering why we came in here, what’s this doing in my hand?  Why should this be when you can remember exactly what you were doing fifteen years ago – same thing, probably.

Old memories, really old memories, seem frighteningly clear.  At once graphic and vague.  Dream-like in a way.  A few sparse facts, reality in there somewhere, couched in hope and marshmallow.  Could-have-been’s, would-have-been’s, should-have-beens becoming history.  Becoming solid fact.  The foundation stones of your current-self conjured from the air and built into a maze, with no way in and no way out.  Just dead-ends and U-bends.

Some claim to remember their birth.  The whole trauma.  The terror, the cold, the pressure and the relief.  Remember the smack on the arse that welcomed them into the world and the pat on the back that heralded departure.

For most of us, life is a scattering of random, unfocussed voices and images.  Sentences plucked hap-hazardly from a book and reassembled to form some pattern of a life.  A certain toy; an early potty triumph; the smell of an elderly aunt forcing a kiss.  Of laughing, of sitting, of standing and walking.  Of setting fire to Uncle Bill’s trousers.  Such memories are clear and private.  You.  Your memories, all your own.  Tiny rivulets, running alone, down a crowded window-pane, separate and unmolested, bur heading, none-the-less, inexorably towards the pool of life on the caravan window-sill.

So, how do you even start to decide what to put into an autobiography?  How do you determine which memories are real and which are ‘received’: instances you only ‘think’ that you remember because you’ve heard them discussed so often.  ‘Remember the time that you…?’ until eventually you do.  Even if you didn’t.  Memory is a mirrorball and wherever it is viewed from its reflection is different – particularly if it’s at four a.m. in an Ibiza nightclub.  It is a goal in a football game: for some it is a work of genius; for some a bit of a fluke; for many it is unjust and for others it never happened.  Some see the clarity of every move, whilst others see nothing beyond the centre circle because of the fourteen pints of pre-kick-off lager that are buzzing across the frontal cortex and casting the kind of fog that stops aircraft taking off.

Obviously there are things that you know you remember: school reports, test certificates, marriage certificates, birth certificates, scars and unrequited loves that never fade, but there are also so many things that you know that you don’t remember… possibly.  Ask anyone to tell you a story of a time you have spent together.  If they begin with ‘Do you remember when…?’ then you won’t remember.  If you have to look it up in the local paper, then it really doesn’t count.  If you have kept a diary for the whole of your life, then an autobiography is a viable option, but otherwise, you are relying on a threadbare memory and the embroidered recollections of others.  The camera may never lie, but it seldom tells the absolute truth.  Look at your passport photo: the customs officials will be immediately alerted if you do not look deranged.  If you are looking for the truth, then read a biography, preferably written long enough after the events to mean that there can be no other ‘first hand’ recollections of events, suggesting not only that your account is wrong, but just possibly stolen straight from David Niven*. 

Nobody writes an autobiography in order to be hated.  Autobiographies may tell unpleasant stories, but they will never leave the author in a bad light.  “OK, I mugged the old lady, but you have to remember that there was no love to be found at home.  We came from a one TV house.  Every day was a battle between one of our five-a-day and a Sherbert Fountain.  The old bag had a smart phone that she couldn’t use and all I had was a pay-as-you-go Nokia: she deserved everything she got…”

I’ve never kept a diary.  I don’t think that I’ve got a story to tell.  If I wrote an autobiography it would be 90% fiction – so, in that way, no different to any other autobiography – my life as I would have liked it to be: high on redemption, but light on historical accuracy, like ‘Braveheart’, but without the tartan.  But not now.  In a few years maybe, when I am much closer to death: when I can hint at the possibility of senility rather than egotism.  For now, I’ll keep my memories to myself – and I’ll let you have them only when I’ve properly made them up… So, gin anyone…?”

*David Niven wrote two wonderful autobiographies ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’ and ‘Bring on the Empty Horses’ both of which were ripping yarns of the highest order, but were notoriously filled with many misappropriated recollections and apocryphal tales – like a chat with grandad, but without the rum.

The Writer’s Circle started with ‘Penny’s Poem’, here.
Last week’s episode ‘New Beginnings’ is here.

The Running Man on the Running Man

I have still not returned to running.  I will soon, but currently sloth-life pulls too hard on me.  Somehow, since the Lockdown has started to ease and I have returned to employment, my current two days per week appear to leave me less free time than my previous five.  I have neither time nor energy to press the clutch far enough to allow me to get my arse into gear.  In order to address my problems, or at least understand them, I decided that a ‘Why I am not running’ list was in order:

  1. I am a lazy git.  OK, I’ll get this out of the way first.  It is, after all, the ‘Big One’.  I try very hard not to be lazy – well, as hard as being very lazy allows – but God knows it is tempting: it’s blowing a gale outside, scything down with icy rain, turning just dark enough for me to stumble through a heap of freshly deposited horse doo-doo and wind up on my arse on somebody’s front lawn, but just think how much better I will feel if I just get out and do it.  Mind you, just think how much better I will feel if I simply stay exactly where I am, with Columbo on the telly, a giant-squirrel sized bag of dry-roasted peanuts in one hand and a tumbler full of Scotland’s finest in the other.  Also warm and dry.  I may be lazy, but I am not entirely stupid.  If I concentrate hard enough, I can imagine the aches and pains.  Pour a gallon of water over myself and block my airways with a furry doorstop and no-one need ever know that I have not actually ventured outside of the house.
  2. I am not entirely stupid*.  I realise that, at my age, it is imperative that I get exercise.  I just wish that it wasn’t all quite so tiring.  I realise that looking as godawful as I do mid-run is good for the soul.  I realise that thirty minutes a day is not too much to ask of me.  Thirty minutes to exercise heart and limbs, to clear my mind and to put my life into some kind of perspective before diving under the shower and wishing that I had remembered to put the head back on it after clearing the limescale from the tiny little nozzle bits.  Then I think ice cream and coffee, and the world no longer seems so monochrome…
  3. I have many reasons to keep myself well, but…  I am the King of ‘but’.  Everything makes perfect sense, ‘but’…  I know exactly what I need to do ‘but’…  I am also prince of ‘if’ and archduke of ‘except’.  If ever there was a Nobel Prize for dithering, my ‘if only’ would be a shoe-in for the big one.
  4. My age.  The balancing act that inhabits the space between what will enable me to and what will prevent me from reaching my next birthday: another doughnut might just kill me, but if you stand between me and it, death may still occur, although it won’t be mine.  Each action requires balance between its capacity to point me either towards, or away from, death.  A life without risk may not actually be any longer, but it will certainly feel it.  Think of anything you love (I don’t know why I decided to allow free-choice there, as we are all, in fact, thinking of chocolate and wine) and consider the choice: you can live ninety years with it, or ninety one without it.  Maybe if you continue to run, you could push your sinful lifespan up to ninety one as well, but if you don’t, you will be able to fit in so much more chocolate.  How much time is a small pleasure worth?  Put a Mars Bar in the fridge overnight and then eat it carefully layer by layer.  Now tell me that wasn’t worth losing a couple of days for.
  5. My aching limbs.  Even I have started to struggle with this justification for indolence as everything now aches just as much, if not more, when I do not run, although somehow, if I haven’t run then I can’t help but feel that I am not to blame for it: my knees feel as though they have been bent along a plane in which they were never intended to operate, but I haven’t been running, therefore it is not my fault – I can live with that.
  6. D.I.Y.  The jobs I have to do.  The jobs that running prevents me from doing.  ‘No, I haven’t finished the painting, but I have put several centimetres between myself and death.’  ‘No, I haven’t stopped that socket from fusing out the whole neighbourhood each time you attempt to make coffee, but on the other hand, my caffeine intake is well down.’  ‘Yes, I do realise that it is only a thirty minute run and it really shouldn’t absorb half of the day, but just think of how much more healthy I will be for a couple of hours.’  ‘Fix the shelf?  Tomorrow maybe – I’m knackered.’
  7. Lassitude.  A wonderful word that I learned some fifty years ago through the wonderful ‘The Ascent of the Rum-Doodle’** and which has fizzed about whichever part of my brain is responsible for improbable excuses ever since.  I will never admit to being a lazy git***, but suffering from lassitude, I can’t do anything about that, now can I?

In reality, like an errant monk evicted from the monastery on the grounds of uneven tonsure and the failure to adequately decorate the first letter of every diary entry, I will emerge into the real world next week, blinking in the unaccustomed glare of sunshine on May frost and, DIY tasks left firmly behind me – whilst I ponder how I am going to afford somebody to come in and put it all right – I will without doubt, almost certainly, probably, possibly start to run again and you will be able to look forward to settling down to five hundred finely-honed words on ill-fitting trainers or the advisability of supportive undergarments with loose-fitting shorts – unless, of course, you have something – anything – more invigorating to do…

*I am
*‘The Ascent of the Rum Doodle’ by W.E.Bowman.  If you have never read it, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
***Of course I will, and did at the start of this piece – denying it is just too much like hard work.

The running diary started here with ‘Couch to 5k’.
Last week’s Running Man, ‘…on Reasons Why Not’ is here.

Zoo #34 – Llama

If you see a nervous llama
Try your best not to alarm her
You will find she’ll stay much calmer
If you prove you wouldn’t harm her.

The easiest thing that you can do
Is stick your elbows down with glue.
Hop along upon one leg,
Block your nose up with a peg.

If you feel she’s still not right
Paint your toes and fingers white.
Lay a penguin on your belly
Stand all night in a bowl of jelly.

Should you find she’s still upset
You could wear your trousers wet;
Fill your shoes with frozen peas,
Lay a fish across your knees.

If, by now, she hasn’t cheered
Buy yourself a plastic beard,
Pretend to be a garden gnome,
Then pack her bags and send her home.

You know what it’s like: you know exactly where you’re going and, confident of your ability to arrive at the predicted destination, you take your eye off the ball for just a second and end up down quite a different alley.  This came about because last week, whilst writing about a camel, I happened to notice that a hybrid camel/llama existed and it was called a Cama.  (Although, if zoologists had any soul, it would surely have been a Calmer.)  Anyway, the point it, this could only occur in the zoo: a helping hand was surely required.  For a start, the llama comes from South America whilst the camel does not.  Also the size difference between the male camel (in this instance) and the female llama would seem to provide what I can only describe as an insurmountable problem for the two amorous beasties.  I can see little prospect of this union occurring naturally without severe damage occurring to at least one of them.  (We can all guess which one – even more so if the resulting Cama was to take after his/her father in the birth-weight department.)  “Oh yes, young ‘miss you-know-best llama’ would be regretting the additional gin and lime then, wouldn’t she?  It’s one thing enjoying a night out, but quite another when you find yourself waking up beside an entirely different species…”  (“Why grandma, what a big mouth you have – also a very small brain.”) Anyway, this was supposed to be about a llama but, inadvertently became about a cama and, for no better reason than it sounded like it should be less agitated, it found itself here…

The First Poet in the Gewgaws

Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

Two weeks ago (in ‘A Confederacy of Poets in the Gewgaws’ – here) I threatened to do this.  Well now I’ve done it…

It came as no great surprise – certainly to me – that W.H. Auden and I did not get on.  I approached the slim anthology with all due reverence and read slowly and carefully, at times using my finger to trace the words in the hope that, like my six year old grandson, it would help me make sense of it all.  It did not.

I started with the foreword, written by John Fuller, of whom I knew nothing other than what is written on the jacket.  (I have since discovered that he is himself, a published poet and founder of a publishing house that was responsible for publishing some of Auden’s work.  If he was a politician, he would have to lie to some committee or another to explain it.)  He clearly loves Auden, but if I’m honest, it is unsurprising as they seem to have much in common: I found his introduction almost as impenetrable as the poetry that followed it.  I know very little about Auden and most of what I do know, probably wrong.  I believe that he was born in Britain and that he travelled to Spain in support of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War, but he did not immerse himself in the unpleasantness quite as fully as his compatriot George Orwell, returning to the UK after seven weeks (six of them spent some distance away from the unpleasantness) before moving to the US, where he remained at a comfortable arm’s length throughout the Second World War.  I am sure that he led a rich and colourful life, but that is the extent of my knowledge and I deliberately refrained from learning more, hoping that the poetry itself would tell me all that I needed to know.  Well then…

As I always do with poetry, I read each poem twice: once to let the words in, once to let the meaning follow.  On this occasion, the latter seldom occurred.  The poems veer wildly between incomprehensible and infantile, with just a little bit of banal thrown in for good measure: Then I pulled on the hairy breeches / Smelling of peat from skua-breeding Harris / Caught round the waist with a calf-leather belt*.  On occasions I was struck by Auden’s use of words – particularly words with which I am unfamiliar – and tried to understand why he used them, particularly as, more often than not, they seemed to clunk into place like a discordant voice in the Kremlin.  Mostly they disrupted whatever ‘flow’ I could muster and I couldn’t help but think that they had not been used because they were apposite, but just because he knew them: See how clever I am, I bet you’ve had to look that word up.  I would love to share some examples with you, but as I did not have the foresight to mark them during my first two readings and had no desire to spend precious time researching them, I would have to go searching for them again and, to be honest, I would probably sooner chew my own socks.  I was most struck by this overt show of ‘cleverness’** in England to me is My Own Language which chugs along quite nicely, if unmemorably, rhyming and for the most part scanning quite nicely, until German words, then phrases and eventually whole sentences begin to arrive on the hidden whim of a crowbar and it all falls to pieces, toppling down on a cry of ‘But see how clever I am.’  Too late for me I’m afraid.  I was bored on the first reading and irritated before the second.

Mostly, even when I have little or no idea of what the greater intellect is banging on about, I can enjoy the flow of the words.  Not with Auden, unfortunately.  I found that the deliberately (I presume) jarring nature of some of his lines – random words dropped into a line like hand-grenades – completely off-putting, particularly when allayed with a couplet that could have been written by a two year old cat and a rhyming dictionary.  An example of an unsurpassed versatility?  It appears to me, more like a man desperate to prove that he can get away with just about anything.  Many of his poems appeared to be cut-outs (Bowie used this method to great effect with many of his lyrics) which is a great way of writing, but Auden seemed to miss one vital point – it is still intended to make some kind of sense, or at least to paint some kind of picture when it’s done.  To me, these poems – particularly the prose-poem ‘Argument, part iii’ (I have no idea what happened to parts i and ii and, frankly, I’m not at all sure that I care) would have been best served by being left alone in the first place.  Wherever it came from, it didn’t deserve it. 

One thing that did strike me quite forcibly about some of Auden’s work is that it reads just as well if you do so from bottom to top.  Try it with his poem ‘August 1968’.  It is remarkable; it makes just as much sense backwards.  If that was deliberate***, I take it all back.  The man was some kind of genius.

I was always aware of the fact that I was reading an anthology which carried with it the possibility that I was missing out on the ‘good stuff’ – this one contains none of his ‘long poems’ thankfully – and that, therefore, I was not getting the full picture, but if this was Auden’s ‘Match of the Day’, I certainly had no desire to watch the full game.  Maybe I do him a grave injustice.   Will I read more to find out?  Almost certainly not: I am sixty-two years of age and the world is full of chocolate, wine and peanuts…

*Getting Dressed – which is about getting dressed.  I have searched for a deeper meaning but to no avail.  If it exists, it must be down one of the lead mines that he apparently loved so much. I looked up Skua hoping for some insight.  It is a seabird renowned for its prolific production of guano.
**Definitely not intelligence.
***It wasn’t

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’.
Next week’s little Running Man jaunt ‘…on the Running Man’ is here.

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.