Tuesday, December 30, 2008

All Clawed Out (or begin as you mean to go on)

I have just had a rather hideous experience with a lobster. The only good thing about it is that it has given me the way in to putting up another post for to tell the truth I was sitting here facing the blank screen, as one does, and wondering what to tell you. That I have pigged out on chocolate, turkey, stuffing (home-made) and more chocolate, and acquired a brand new spare tyre, isn’t exactly cutting edge is it, dear reader? And cutting edge you deserve to have and shall have when I tell you about the lobster. Mr. Signs, may the grace of heaven shine upon his head, took it upon himself to venture into a branch of Lidl’s and, upon seeing frozen lobster going at a fiver a beast, purchased three of them for us and Son to get our teeth into post Christmas – just in case we got bored or something (I’m assuming here, for the workings of Mr. Signs’s mind and his not inconsiderable intelligence is a mystery to me when married with supermarket shopping). It took all day to defrost the poor bastards and we were pretty hungry by the time they had been boiled in the fish kettle. This only took five minutes as they were already cooked. I made my special pretend home-made mayonnaise (Hellmans, English mustard and loads of olive oil) and then we got to work with kitchen scissors, nut crackers and corn-on-the-cob holders. It was heavy work and lobster juice sprayed all over our clothes. The lobster kept staring at me while I tried to chew on the tough white insides I had prized from its shell and at the sight of all the coloured stuff and grey mush inside its head I gave up. Cat of Signs became completely feral and wouldn’t be shooed away from climbing on the table and getting stuck in. It was all so visceral and I feel like becoming a vegetarian. I’m just glad we didn’t save it up as a special treat for our Visitor who is due to arrive the day after tomorrow.

But now that I’ve begun with food I may as well continue. Here is a pome what I wrote a few Christmasses ago. Bear in mind that the narrator is a “supposed self”, so not me, though give me time and it may be. And it’s a bloke (don’t know why, it just is).

The twelve days

On the first day I’ll kill the bird,
wring its neck, pluck the feathers,
take the gizzards out and boil them up,
chop the liver, give it to the cats,
and the lucky heart – I’ll eat that
just in case.

On the second day I’ll stuff the bird
with sausage and mashed up chestnuts,
shove it under the skin of the breast.

On the third day I’ll cook the bird
with all the trimmings – bacon strips
and baby sausages, roast potatoes,
Brussels, peas and carrots, giblet gravy,
pull a cracker, wear the hat
to please myself.

On the fourth day I’ll have it cold
in slices with ham, tomato, salad cream.
Like it or lump it.

On the fifth day I’ll have it chopped
and thrown into a sauce of curry powder,
flour, tomato paste and water. I like it
the English way.

On the sixth day I’ll have it frittered
with the resurrected greens, fetch the
old spuds, pepper and salt, watch it
bubble and squeak.

On the seventh day I’ll give the old bird a rest.

On the eighth day I’ll have it sandwiched,
wrapped in foil, by the banks of a canal,
watch the boats and barges, see if I
can spot a water rat, I like
my own company.

On the ninth day I’ll boil the carcass,
let it simmer till the old house reeks of it,
a tribute to the bird who gave it up for me,
whose life I took if we’re to call a spade a spade,
which I like to do.

On the tenth day I’ll make the soup,
trim the leeks, cut them lengthways,
wash out all the grit, scrape the carrots,
peel the parsnips, finely shave the strings
from sticks of celery, chop the lot and
boil it in bird broth, eat it with hunks of
bread and salty butter.

On the eleventh day, the bird gone,
I’ll get the pudding, slice it up
and fry it with a scrap of bacon, feel it
stick to my sides, a bit of insulation
against the cold.

On the twelfth day I’ll get my gun.
Begin as you
mean to go on.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Comes

I still believe in him.
and the star proves it.
Happy Christmas to everyone.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Icemaiden Cometh

I would like to say that I am looking forward to Christmas and not planning to top myself. Just thought that needed spelling out in case anyone got the wrong end of the stick after my last post. Desolation angel is only one of my personas. Personae. I don’t know who I am most of the time so no reason why you should.

I would also like to say that Mr. Signs and I have spent a ghastly day at the Croydon IKEA. Of course they never have the exact (or even approximate) thing that you really want: settee covers no longer available because settee in question is no longer made; lamps are still from the planet Zob, in fact I think that they are all extra terrestrials cleverly disguised as lamps and I fully expected The Doctor (Christmas Day, oh yesss!) to come charging through the IKEAn maze hotly pursued by an office chair. That was on the list too, but we couldn’t find one that felt comfortable and they were expensive. Mr. Signs lost his mobile phone while trying out various mattresses (this was the main purpose of the expedition, to replace the broken one on son’s bed). We found it handed in at customer services, but not before we had scurried around the place like headless chickens looking for it. We had our usual consolation prize meal of meatballs and chips with lingonberries and beige gravy and I stocked up on more of the same to put in the freezer so we can play IKEA back in Signs Cottage. The gravy comes in packets, one mixes it with water and cream and it is weirdly delicious if one doesn’t look at the small print and find out what is in it.

And I would also like to say that I am looking forward to a visit from The Icemaiden herself who is due to arrive chez Signs on the first day of next year – not long to wait now, yippee! We will of course have a very interesting time of it when trying to communicate because, as everyone should know by now she actually speaks by making strange, unintelligible (to the uninitiated) seal sounds, and she uses a special instant translation facility when coming to talk to us on Blogger, but we have an empathetic connection and can always wave our arms around so all will be well. I will be asking her to bring some proper Finnish snow and a real, live penguin – hoping this won’t cause problems at customs.

But first we have Christmas and a steady trickle of relatives, half-relatives, ex-step siblings and sundry others to cater for in the postage stamp of a kitchen with two tables pushed together and the collapsible garden chairs brought in so we can all sit and get stuffed. Stuffing I have not yet made, nor the bread pudding, nor anything else other than a few sorry-looking spelt (sugar-free) mince pies and some gingerbread mixture that went wrong (but I got some nice ready-made heart-shaped things at IKEA to hang on the tree). No, everything has to be got ready tomorrow – tree, marathon shop at supermarket, getting crib set, lights and other paraphernalia down from the loft. Not to mention taking son’s friend to the airport so he can get back to the States for Christmas Eve. And the bed linen must be changed so daughter can sleep on fresh sheets (also new from IKEA). And the place is a mess. But Son of Signs has asked if he can cook the dinner on Christmas day and I have said yes please. And the angels and elemental beings will (have to) come and sort everything else out.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


A friend brought the image to me after a trip to the British Museum. It is early Bronze Age, from the Cyclades, about 26,000–24,000 BC, used (perhaps) as part of a ritual, before accompanying the owner to the grave.

I have been considering her. The arms are folded across the abdomen. There is a triangular space to mark where the genitals should be. Her feet point down but her breasts are neat and pert. Her facial features are blank, apart from a prominent and straight nose.

It is as though she has been stripped of the faculty of sight and speech, but the nose tells us that this is the representation of a human face. Human and yet not. It is everywoman and no woman. I come back to the breasts, which seem to be the most alive things on her, and one is different from the other, they are not in symmetrical relationship, and they have nipples – soft, pert, significant nipples that a baby might close its mouth on, or a lover might kiss or cover with his hand. The arms cover what one might call the heart chakra.

Apart from the breasts, everything has been laid to rest, stripped of its distinctiveness. It is of course distinctive. It is what I might have expected to hold in my hand after death, a magical spirit doll that would speak for me with her blank, unperishable marble-pristine silence.

In the absence of us, there is rock, stone and crystal, what we cut from the earth when all else falls into it, becomes ashes and dust.

I have nothing but a crystal heart to hold for my father’s once-living presence. I have a grey heart made of stone, a circle cut to make a candle-holder, a Christmas gift for my mother. We are all lost.

We live in a condition of perpetual lostness – features and distinguishing marks fall away or change so as to make us unrecognisable, our names also worn away, made undecipherable.

I have recently thought (a fleeting moment of illumination) that the life in me is more important than I am, more substantially me than the outer husk of body, or even personality and character; that the life in me is perpetually found, evolving, in process.

When I die I would prefer to go empty-handed.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

No, Honestly

Son of Signs is home again, and so it feels as though Christmas is coming soon. I have not set foot inside a shopping mall and barely dipped my toe inside a supermarket, being lucky to live in a village that has proper shops, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick-maker, not to mention a Tesco Express and a Co-op. Blessed.

I have been bestowed this
and been tagged by dear Kahless to write “ten honest things” about myself. My first thought was that I could pass it straight on to Cat of Signs, but she is a little preoccupied what with Son coming home, and the business of jumping in and out of his red suitcase with the air of a creature who is testing out a hypothesis of some kind. I never enquire too closely, it’s best that way. So ten honest things, and I’m assuming you don’t want to know about my favourite colour or what brand of washing powder I use. You want the nitty gritty:

I used to steal things at school just to see if I could.
I have never had casual sex.
My first best friend was called Jane and she was a bad girl - I wanted to be like her but the closest I got was stealing things.
I used to want to be a social worker, but no college would have me.
Just as well.
I recently spotted an ex-lover in a short film on someone’s blog.
John Osborne said that cold-heartedness disarmed him. I feel the same.
I appreciate nice people. I think nice is underrated.
Last year I did the Lightning Process because of M.E. It didn’t work.
I can’t think of anything else that I would like to identify - oh yes: my middle name is Susan.

But lovely Cusp has sent me a gift. It is a pouch full of magic, talismanic things, a Happiness Kit, and I will have a use for all of them.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Cat of Signs

I think she is also me, a me/she, but she has no fur and I never see her lick herself to wash. When she eats I feel it in my stomach as a purr, particularly if it is a dish of vanilla ice cream, of which we are particularly fond. To witness small lumps of it move from the china dish to her mouth by means of a silver spoon is exquisite delight. And sometimes it is then I think I love her without reserve; and sometimes I think we are simply the same creature. She leaves the dish for me to lick clean.

She spends even more time lying on the bed than I do. I have noticed. The other one gets up while it is still dark and leaves the house but she stays sleeping, sometimes lifting her head to say something to me. She says, hello baby or hey, and sometimes she says oh or no. I come close to her face and sniff. It is almost my own body but a little sweeter if she has had a bath and covered herself with lavender oil. Sometimes she gets up in the middle of the night (the other one never does). She walks from room to room, restless for water, or I feel a need to pee and so she goes to have a pee and I put my head around the door which she always leaves open, and I watch her. And sometimes we don’t sleep. I keep her company on the night watch for a while, but I would rather be sleeping so mostly I carry on doing that while she goes on being awake and rummaging in the shoe box where she keeps all her white pills.

I help her with her work. The work I like best is when she stands by her wooden board with a knife in her hand and begins to chop carrots to put in a stew, or when she rubs yellow oil all over the smooth skin of a chicken before it roasts golden in the oven and fills our house with its rich body perfume that makes me think of birds. And I like the work where she writes words into a big book with a metal spiral down the spine. I jump onto the table and walk across the page, bring my bottom close to her face so she knows I am with her. But mostly she has been lying in the bed, which I like, but just sometimes it makes me lonely and then it is the same as when I am all by myself in the house for a very long time with her and him gone from me and just the feeling of some part of me missing. I like it when she opens her eyes.

One of my best times is when he points the black thing with buttons at the moving picture box and we sit watching men running around a field while someone kicks a ball, and she sits in the little room across the landing by the word box, tapping her fingers on letter buttons saying, can you turn the volume down when there is too much cheering from the crowd of people in the picture box.

I like it when they plant a tree in the sitting room and put candles and small shiny things on it, and underneath the tree there is a tiny house with just one room that is filled with animals, a woman dressed in blue, a man in brown and a baby lying in some straw. On top of the house, at the front, there is someone with wings blowing a trumpet and she is fixed to it with an elastic band.

Elastic bands are one of my favourite things. I also like pieces of wire, pom poms and balls of wool but you can’t chase them as much as elastic bands.

I can’t think of anything else to say, so she can stop tapping now. There is a piece of fish lying in the kitchen and I am thinking about it. Interested.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


I am lagging behind a bit – with everything really. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, reader, so I know where I’m heading. If intentions had been converted into effective action I could have (in random order):

spruced up the old house and had everything ship-shape in time for the “festive season” – but who needs a clean and tidy house to eat cake and Lebkuchen is what you are saying to yourselves, right?

written the first draft of a novel. Is it my fault that the characters started to behave like teenagers who had been press-ganged into having Sunday tea at auntie Mildred’s and then buggered off the moment I turned my head?

ordered all my Christmas presents online and wrapped them. Bah humbug. No-one apart from the immediate Signs family members is getting anything this year – well perhaps a beeswax candle or a jar of bramble jelly. But the Signs children (aged 23 and 21) still believe in Father Christmas and expect filled stockings.

severed any remaining dangerous or toxic liaisons. Life is complicated. Life goes on.

dealt with at least one of the issues that caused me to commit a considerable amount of time and money to seeing Shrink. See above.

carried on writing my dream journal (Shrink would like this) – but by the time I wake up I’ve mostly forgotten them.

gone to the dentist. Don’t even want to think about that.

persuaded the mater to accept my Babette’s Feast of a Christmas dinner, thereby resolving all our difficulties past and present. As if.

cut my toe nails.

Ok, the last is achievable. In fact I think I’ll deal with that one right now. I’m a pro-active son-of-a-gun when I have a mind to be.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


It was my niece’s birthday today and I ate cake. It was a Fullers walnut cake (original recipe) and looked like this.

The inside is subtle and substantial, familiar and surprising. The icing is crisp and melts in the mouth. One slice was not enough. And then I came home and ate some of the butter stollen someone had given me. Cake is like that – once you have it you want more.

I have been cutting out sugar, wheat and refined carbohydrates recently because it is in the long run much better for me. But tell that to the packets of chocolate lebkuchen stacking up in the kitchen.

Tomorrow there are people coming for tea and I made an orange an almond cake which looks like this.

It is wheat-free and low on sugar (if you cheat by using half sucralose).

I think about cake more than most people realise.

Friday, December 5, 2008

le Shabbat

Friday night is the beginning of le weekend. As I no longer go out to do Proper Work le weekend shouldn’t really feel different to any other time, especially as there are no school-age children at home now. But for some reason it does feel different, and it isn’t just that Mr. Signs usually comes home half an hour early on a Friday and it has nothing to do with what is on telly. I think I must be feeling the out-breath of millions of people relaxing into the idea of a free space, time to put the feet up or to dance, paint pictures, go to the flicks, bingo, pub. I light the candles, and it feels different to lighting the candles on other week days – but I never grew up observing Shabbat so it can’t be that (unless it is my ancient ancestors pulling at some hitherto unacknowledged part of me). Whatever it is, though, that creates the Friday night feeling, I like it.

I also like winter nights. Meeting with some workshopping folks today, a couple of people were talking about wonderful benefits of having a light box for those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. I have always felt that I am much more likely to have S.A.D. in the summer months. It is as though an inner light that is switched on in the dark months is flicked off again when the days are lighter. Particular bad are the summer months when the sky is overcast, for then one has neither light nor darkness.

Er – I seem to have begun talking about the weather. Goodness, is that the time? I have a pressing appointment with – oh yes, Newsnight Review! I knew there was something or other particular to a Friday night.

Shabbat Shalom, peeps.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


So where is home? Because wherever I am I want to get back there. An awful joke comes to mind:

I’m homesick.
What do you mean? This is your home!
I know, and I’m sick of it.
(boom boom)

And Osip Mandelstam, of whom Marina Tsvetayeva once wrote that wherever he was, from that place he always wanted to go home.

I carry the word itself like a talisman but I do not think it can be geographically located. Earlier this year when visiting Berlin, I went back to the village where I lived as a young child for nearly three years. I had not been there since I was six but I remembered it well enough to find my way to the house, the lake, the places where sweetshop and kindergarten once were. Of course there were changes, but not as many as one might have supposed given the length of time that has passed. This was the place, here was the ground beneath my feet, the dusty overlay of sand-like substance that I had almost forgotten. But the place itself was not what I carried, what lived in me for all the years since I left, and the reason it lived in me was not because it was happy and secure, for it was neither of those things: my mother was, I think, very depressed, unreconciled to events from her own childhood, her acting career on hold, probably missing the quasi-bohemian life in London and childcare really was not her thing, so local girls were employed to do the job.

After the German kindergarten I went to a school for children of the British military that lived in the area (my dad was actually an actor with the Berliner Ensemble but that didn’t matter). I can’t quite remember how I learned to read, but I know I was doing it before I properly learned at school and I read in both languages. The real substance of my life was in the imagination. This doesn’t mean that I was always dreaming up some story or other as an alternative to real life. I developed a kind of double vision: there was the mundane world with its catalogue of daily trials, seasonal festivals and occasional treats and there was the magical world of the life that lay just beneath the surface, and in this dimension the natural world was powerfully present. What breathed in midwinter from the snow, the evergreen, the candle-lit procession of us children singing lantern songs at Martinmas was the same presence that hovered over the star-money child in the Grimm’s fairy tale and there was a perpetual unfolding of untold riches which I can identify retrospectively – for the child who was me was too deeply occupied with living inside the story to construct a narrative. So my return to the village revealed no more than the outer husk. It was like dropping a stone into what one thinks is a deep well, but all that comes back is an unresonating clunk because the well is elsewhere – here, actually.

My parents both left their country of birth as refugees – my father came with his family but my mother never saw her father again because he died in a concentration camp. So there could never be a home-coming for her. And neither would England, or anywhere be home either. She still speaks about the English as though we are not that, and it’s true that we are not. But we are not anything else either. The word homeless has resonance for me and is in itself a kind of home My father said that home was wherever he hung his hat.

Enough for today I think.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Up the Smoke

Tired after London and it was a slog getting back with a cold half hour wait at East Croydon for the train home. I bought something resembling a pasty from a kiosk – the first white flour product I have eaten for months and months. Then when I got home I polished off the remains of a pizza Mr. Signs had eaten for his supper. No apparent ill effects, but I don’t intend making a habit of it as I have given up white flour products and sugar for the rest of my life. Apart from when I am in the desert of an East Croydon station platform and hungry. And Christmas, perhaps, but I have bought some sugar-free mince to make pies with (spelt, wholemeal).

Lovely and uplifting as it was to see the daughter and co performing (in a cavernous space underneath London Bridge station), and to catch up with my good writing friend whose book is to be published next year, going to the Smoke is always a bit of a shock to the system. I keep forgetting that this is now, and expecting to step off the train into a London that existed when I was (for some reason) in my twenties. It was my city then, I knew it better than the back of my hand and couldn’t have imagined that I would ever have wanted to live anywhere else. Now it feels alien, there are too many people everywhere and, quite simply, it is no longer my home.

I could go on and say something about roots and belonging and the diaspora condition of never really feeling oneself to be properly at home anywhere – but it is nearly midnight and if I go beyond that this post will turn into a pumpkin and it will be tomorrow with me stuck in yesterday. Not that it matters, but I'm inspired to have a bash at putting up a daily post. So, with minutes to spare, this is it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

seeing the lights

It’s advent and so Christmas is beginning. Unlike almost everyone else I know (I’m different, I am), I really like Christmas. It was the one time when things felt properly convivial and harmonious chez nous when I was a child and, like many other diaspora refugee folk, we did the whole thing with tree, baby Jesus in the manger close by and recordings of German carols sent by my grandma from Hannover. And we had the double celebration of traditional German Christmas Eve followed by the English one the next day – double the presents and conviviality, all good as far as I was concerned, and I still feel the same even though one is obviously energy-challenged and yes, the commercialisation etc. But there’s something at the heart of this winter festival that feels necessary and restorative. My mother’s partner is virulently anti-Christmas and she has finally capitulated and pretends she never really liked it, but she was the one who gave me my early Christmasses and I know the truth of it.

So anyway, I try not to moan overmuch when people put the flashing lights and galloping reindeer in their front windows, though it’s getting bad when even an unmade country road like mine is livid with one vulgar display after another and each year it gets worse. It’s a festival of light in darkness after all and each to their own. But yesterday Mr. Signs came in and asked if I’d seen the house over the road. “It looks like a police station,” he said. Today I saw what he meant. There are nasty blue lights all across one side of the house - you feel as though a siren might go off at any moment and it won’t be proclaiming peace and goodwill. If the darkness is banished too efficiently how can the candle properly shine?

I’m going to London tomorrow to see the daughter in a dress rehearsal of this. She will be a-singing and performing, being decently paid to do it, and I am delighted. She is one of those who works hard for every single break that comes her way.

Monday, December 1, 2008


A fellow blogger of my acquaintance has set herself the task of putting up a post a day. It is day two and she is already cursing – this is good, shows the zen is kicking in because hey, when the resistance manifests you know what you’re up against. I should be so lucky. Wait, what am I saying? Well first off I have never been much bothered by having nothing to say and could fill up screens and screens of words all about the saying of it – the nothing, I mean. But my courage fails me. Here, I think, my blog friend has the edge. For before you can even say John Cage I have taken the nothing by the scruff of the neck and turned it into something – in other words, reader, I chicken out: I wriggle, I contort, I think about what’s for breakfast tomorrow and there is no zen master to come and tap my spine, or whatever it is that they do, to bring me back to the nothing that my monkey mind is busy trying not to address.

But on the other hand there is always Shrink. My words fall into his cavernous etheric space and as far as I’m concerned this is as good as a hefty dose of zen for we are brought back to the nothing more times than I would care to count. And in the nothing there is always the something which is deeply and unutterably mysterious, or it is deeply and mysteriously unutterable, or it is the dog’s bollocks, but we have to go on because we are committed to the Process.

And sometimes one lacks a little in the Commitment department.

I thank you.

Monday, November 24, 2008

- and pigs might fly

I have an ongoing ambivalence about how or to what extent I blog about M.E. On the one hand I want to speak the truth, or at least my truth; it is important both for my sake and the sake of anyone who might be looking here whose life has been affected by M.E.; and in any case every aspect of my life is affected by it so to pretend otherwise would be like not mentioning the elephant in the room. But on the other hand it would not interest me to write a blog that tells each detail of how it is in my daily life. It may, actually, be an absorbing thing both to write and to read, but I wouldn’t have the heart for it, preferring often to “tell all the truth but tell it slant”. If an image can speak for me then I am satisfied, and what I leave out is probably as eloquent as what I might actually say.

Despite everything, though, I find myself challenged. I have resisted, as many do, allowing the illness to define – to become what I am, even though there is so much I have been obliged to give up because of it (for it does seek me with a great and purposeful passion and intent). I have said that it may hold sway in my life but it is not what I am. A certain Process I engaged with last year encouraged us to think in terms of “doing” M.E. rather than feeling it was something laid upon us. This is obviously, in theory, an empowering idea and I can’t argue with those who have taken up their beds and walked, but though I gave it my best shot the process didn’t work for me. I am still taken, however, with the idea that M.E. is something I am “doing” – in the sense that I am trying and, in some respects, succeeding in living a life that is fulfilling and creative in spite of, and in the context of, an illness that is, as I say in my profile, against all things creative.

Yes, it is the very devil. I have just spent the best part of this month fighting a losing battle trying to push it away so that I could get on with a writing (extended prose) project because something in me refuses to accept that this (M.E.) is what I now “do”. But I can’t help remembering what Quentin Crisp once said:
“It’s no good running a pig farm badly for 30 years while saying, ‘Really, I was meant to be a ballet dancer.’ By then, pigs will be your style.”
In other words, we might extrapolate, you are what you most consistently do. But is that true? Because, folks, right now I am not properly doing much of anything – well, unless you count seeing Shrink (who is in my bad books at the moment, but more of this anon). And though it’s not what one might call fun, I don’t feel any less connected than ever I was. I still hear voices. Think the fir trees are speaking to me. Am probably going bonkers. Which might not be good for prose but is ok for poetry.

Back to the drawing board, I reckon.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Despite being born to a mother who once ran around a street where none of the children had any shoes, I suppose I am what people would call middle class. I have never got the hang of it, though admittedly I haven’t ever put in much effort. The lower sort are easy and you don’t actually have to do much at all as long as there is a degree of respectability attached to your situation in life; respectability and a sort of predictability, something measurable in terms of the kind of things one would expect to possess and have achieved en route from birth to grave, these forming the basis of a collective lower middle way of existence – the shared experience, if one can call it that.

Upper middle is essentially the same, but the houses are bigger, the stakes higher and there is usually more money, inherited or earned, often both. There are circles of friends. Not just friends, but circles of them, and to have a wide circle of friends is something to be aspired to. These friends, one assumes, are in some way linked, connected. Or there is a connection. Would the checkout worker living in a council flat with her asbo kids be part of that circle? Unlikely, though she is by no means disallowed. But she doesn’t count in the same way as the wide Circle does.

There is, or should be, a network which you are part of, with which you actively engage. Networking is something you need to be good at doing. If you are not, you should have the knack of being popular because then you will most likely be in the right place at the right time.

I think it is too late for me, I will never get the hang of it. In any case, I’m much the same as I used to be in the playground. The good girls were too good for me, the bright ones were too clever and I was not adventurous enough to go with the bad ones. So I hopped around on the margins – much as I do now - and mostly (but not exclusively) hang out with other marginalistes, as well as bouncing the ball around on my own, which doesn't look like fun but is. Especially if you are no good at games.

I am still supposed to be in the wardrobe but I have not been well. Nothing new there obviously, but what I mean is I have not been well enough to write very much, or at least not the thing I was hoping would grow into a novel. I was emailed by someone who asked if I would like to be a featured M.E. (CFS) blogger on a site that focuses on health matters. Although it was nice that someone approached me because he liked my writing, my heart sinks a little at the thought of being so firmly identified with my Condition. I wondered whether to change my profile, but I’m not going to do that. Happy to note, though, that the label Writing tops the M.E. one. Just.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


In the forest I found a holly tree
and thought of you

studded with red berries so early
a cold winter is coming

I wondered if you knew
anything at all as you lay

dying in your cot all seventeen
months of you a bruising

whatever nailed you to life
gave up the ghost

I found also a bed of bracken
piled on a makeshift manger

too late and far from you
but these I bring for you

the holly berry and the manger
pray for us

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Living in Narnia

I went there with my sister. In the holidays we had long weeks with nothing to do but whatever we could find to amuse ourselves with. Eva, the Norwegian au pair who took care of us, had a serious boyfriend she was in love with which meant that she was always in a good mood but also not particularly present; so we could do more or less what we liked, and sometimes she would forget about lunch or supper. We didn’t mind. My sister was nearly six years younger than me and I was used to looking after her, as she was used to relying on me for the next thing, the next game to play or place to be.

I made Narnia in the space above the built-in wardrobe in our bedroom. To access it we needed the wooden stepladder. Once inside, the space was generous enough for the two of us to sit comfortably with our sandwiches, biscuits and fruit, or whatever I could find that would most closely resemble the tea that Mr. Tumnus the fawn made for Lucy that first time she stumbled through the wardrobe into Narnia and perpetual winter. Really there should have been a boiled egg but that would have been too difficult. There should also have been an iced cake with a cherry on the top. I improvised. The cake was made of plasticine. It was old and all the colours had bled into each other long ago so the cake was a kind of sludge brown with streaks of pink and turquoise through it. I found a red marble that served as the cherry. The walls of the above-wardrobe space were covered with our drawings of the Narnian forest, Mr. Tumnus’s sitting room and Aslan the lion, true King of Narnia. We had to keep the doors open a little so as not to sit in darkness, and the green and yellow daylight, the sound of Eva vacuuming the flat as she sang along to pop tunes on Radio Luxembourg, slightly broke up our perfect Narnian winter. We needed a candle so I rummaged around in the sitting room cupboard where my mother kept the Christmas things. My grandmother sent beeswax candles from Germany; they had a mellow, even light and gave off a scent of honey. I stuck the candle to a saucer and we closed the doors to the outside world, even though Lucy would have said that it is a very silly thing to shut oneself into a wardrobe.
“You’re very clever,” said my little sister. A selection of stuffed animals were with us, pressed against the wall and corners. Benjamin, the largest bear, was Aslan and Alfie the monkey was Mr. Tumnus. We ate our sandwiches which I had cut into triangles. On each triangle I had put a small decorative flourish with Heinz tomato ketchup or Daddies brown sauce. There was a small bowl full of raising and peanuts. “You’re a good cooker,” said my sister munching a sandwich. I read an excerpt from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – the part where all four children had found their way to Narnia and are in the house of the beavers.

Eva absent-mindedly put the stepladder away and called out to see where we were. My sister was about to push open the door and call back but I shook my head and whispered, “let’s hide.” So we did, just like the Pevensey children had, and Eva thought we must have gone off to the playground. And when we jumped down, back into the ordinary world, no-one had really noticed our absence. Just like in the book.

Which is a long way of saying that I’m going to be retreating for a month or so – maybe not into Narnia but, you know – the place where story comes from. And I’ll be closing the door, but not completely –

Be seeing you.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

lost in the forest

So the clocks have gone back and the slipping into darkness time has begun. I would like to say something about this that I haven’t said before but the lit candle expresses it. Each year, it seems, the image – the metaphor – becomes more powerful, increasingly necessary. Things need to be quiet, some inner light ignited, found or revealed in order to meet all the darkness, which keeps on coming. On the other hand, one could deal with it effectively by partying hard. At present I choose the first way, or it chooses me and I acquiesce.

I went to Ros Barber’s book launch on Thursday. She read from her new anthology, Material – a fine collection, and she always delivers, speaks her work so well. The launch was at the top of a pub in Brighton and I was driven there by ex-student who is soon to be herself launched as new author. We stayed to buy the book, hear the reading, greet a few people, but when the word Party was mentioned she turned to me and said, “I’m ready to go when you are” – and I was, so off we went.

Last week’s writing plan was scuppered by the ‘electricity’ mentioned in previous post. I would like to get stuck in again because I have a sense of where I might be heading with something – a longer-than-usual project with characters, a beginning, middle and end (though not necessarily in that order) and I want to feel grounded in it before the run up to Christmas when everything gets busy. I want to feel in the middle of something rather than on the edge. Clearly a long walk into the forest is in order. I got lost once – found myself walking along paths that I thought would lead me out and home but none of them did, the sky was getting dark and then my mobile phone battery ran out. But it was ok because just then some kids ran past and I loped off in the direction they were headed and back to familiar ground, which saved me from having to put into practice the David Whyte poem that tells you what to do when you are lost in the forest:

Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here
and you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
must ask permission to know it and be known.
The Forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
if you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a branch does is lost on you,
then you are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
where you are. You must let it find you.

Now being a contrary type of sign-reader, I have always had to suppress the beginnings of a sneer at this, whenever it has been presented to me by a well-intentioned person as some kind of meaningful signpost on the meandering and sometimes obscured path that we may call life. For I do not easily suffer verse that comes with the deep prophetic boom of all-knowingness.

And things have come to a pretty pass, reader, when I dredge the words up from the recesses of my consciousness and think that perhaps yes, he may have something there. I may need to take a deep breath and have another look, damn and blast. But this is just between you and me, ok? Don’t want people thinking I’m going soft.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

the body electric

There is nothing to do when this comes but wait. Sometimes it goes in a day or two, others it hangs around for several weeks. I remember it as being one of the first symptoms in the early days, before I had even properly identified the thing that was M.E. My limbs begin to twitch and then all of me fills up with something that feels like electricity. I had an old analogue watch once and woke up one afternoon after a heavy and disturbed sleep to find the hands whizzing around just over a spot on my wrist where the muscles were going twitch-mad. I told Mr. Signs about it. He nodded cautiously, as one would. Then it happened again when he was with me. Blimey, he said. Yes. Since then I have discovered that this is not uncommon in people with dodgy immune systems and I have been given all manner of Good Advice, but the only thing that helps is a certain concoction of homoeopathic drops – and resting and waiting.

But I had to go out today for a short while because of this -

Some measure of restoration for soul, if not for body. I am at home in the forest.

(Does anyone know why the photos won't enlarge when I put them on blog? I've tried everything without success)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

how things are on sunday

I woke up at the ridiculously early hour of six o'clock, took some Noctura homoeopathic pills to try and get back to sleep, but it was no good, I was awake and zinging, feeling for one brief moment as though I might leap up, go for a run, clean the house and write up a storm. It's a powerful feeling, but I'm not fooled. At least it wasn't three in the morning, as it has been for the last fortnight or so. I got up, greeted the cat, fed her and unlocked the cat flap. I ate a kiwi fruit, had a bath, covered myself with Haushka rose oil, found Mr. Signs awake so discoursed upon matters arising and then fell back to sleep while he went into the village to get newspapers and milk. Was woken again at eleven by my niece who can use her mobile free of charge at weekends and likes to make use of this.

I cooked a sunday lunch for us - roast lamb and green vegetables, followed by plum crumble which we had with neighbours over the road because one of them had a birthday. Now Mr. Signs is vacuuming the house with the new lightweight Electrolux thing (I also washed up after the meal so don't be thinking I haven't done my bit ok?), I have just taken some pills to stop muscle pains from gathering (it's Sunday, I need the break) and am about to put up a couple of photos from my new Nikon digital camera. Here goes:

This is a typical Signs kitchen table scene, click to enlarge if you wish to appreciate the finer details. You will see the remains of some of the plum crumble in the bowl my neighbour was eating from. She has just gone next door to look at some paintings that Mr. Signs has been doing at his art classes. Next to the bowl is the book we gave to her husband for his birthday: Hammer and Tickle by Ben Lewis, which is a history of communism told through communist jokes - for example:

Q: What is the difference between life in the time of Jesus and life under Stalin?

A: Well, in those days one man suffered for us all, but today we all suffer for one man.

On the white kitchen towel you will see a collection of odd-looking (mainly black) things. The yellow bag in the background is full of them. They are salt liquorice - called Salmiakki in Finland, and they were sent in a parcel to me by a certain lovely person. The yellow bag was much fuller a few days ago than it is now because if you like this sort of thing you just want to keep on eating it.

And now. I am sure there are many useful things I could/should be doing. In fact one of the conversations we had today was all about the many useful things that needed to be done around here to make life at Signs Cottage even more far out than it already is. Like getting a skip and going through every single thing in the loft so as to make room for new stuff (house clutter) that will one day have to be thrown into a skip or given away. Something to think about for next year perhaps. And then of course there is The Writing. Always that. But from long experience I know that it's best to begin that in the morning and now it is almost dark outside, the sky a deep lilac blue, and I just want to go on doing nothing in particular; watching the birds fly south; thinking about the pot of mint tea I will make any moment now; feeling that all manner of things will be well.

(except that for some reason the second photo won't enlarge - I'm still learning about what to do)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

the trouble with being born (2)

He rented a bungalow near Watford for next to nothing because it was run down and the landlady liked him. There was a collapsible brown sofa in the living room. It was frayed at the edges and bald on the seats. When I stayed the night he put an old army rug on the sofa and I lay wrapped in the blue caul of a thin sleeping bag looking out of a big expanse of window into trees that were lit either by moonlight or the single Narnian lamp that stood sentry in the garden, where the landlady’s chickens were. At new year we watched Old Grey Whistle Test with whispering Bob Harris, drank Hirondelle and smoked whatever there was to smoke. He cooked steak and kidney stew by boiling it up in water with a bayleaf and adding Bisto gravy powder when the meat had softened. We had it with mash and tinned marrowfat peas. The bright green liquid from the peas bled into the potato and merged with the brown Bisto sauce. A bit of white pepper, he said. I like a bit of pepper with stew. It was delicious. Afterwards we had tea with milk that was made up from dried milk powder. Saves faffing about and it’s cheaper, he said.

He had two cats – one called Monty and the other called Nancy Boy. Monty only had three legs and Nancy Boy had no tail. He couldn’t remember where they had come from, they were just there when he rented the house. He was kind to them in a rough sort of way, made sure they were fed and called to them when they came in from outside: hey Monty, Nancy Boy – how you doing, lads – alright?

There was a girl he was seeing on and off. I never met her but one day I saw her stockings hanging up to dry on the bathroom rail. Sex, he said, was very good for you, but having a screw was no big deal and people made too much of a song and a dance about it. When he turned cool on her she rang him up crying and threatening to kill herself. So I went round with a bottle of aspirin, he said. She went berserk. I asked what he would have done if she’d killed herself. Nah, he said. The ones that wanna do it just go ahead and get on with it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

things not to do

Went to visit the mater today. She and I have been on a roll recently, something I put down to her having gone just a tiny bit fuzzy around the edges – not that she’s letting up on the aerobics/pilates regime or anything, and she isn’t losing the plot so that anyone would actually notice. But she has definitely been showing signs of enjoying my company and we’ve had a couple of conversations where she has revealed things I hadn’t known, such as the fact that as a young child in Germany, before she was shipped over here on Kindertransport, she used to make up poetry. We were tootling along in the car after apple strudel in a local tea room when she began spouting some of it and you could have knocked me down with a feather because it was quite lovely. I have asked her to write it down for me. There is so much darkness and damage in our history, I would like to gather a few of the other elements to set alongside: there was a boy she fell in love with at school. She wrote him a love letter. Yes, but even this sweetness comes with its opposite because her teacher found the love letter in her desk (it was a secret) and read it out to the class, pointing out the spelling mistakes. My mother was pleased when the Nazis (but what did she know?) removed the teacher from the school for not being rigorous enough about national socialist indoctrination.

I looked in at her house today to say hello to an old family friend who was having lunch there. He has known me since I was born and is, I suppose, the nearest I have to anyone who feels remotely like father since mine died. In contrast to the greeting I usually receive from mother’s partner, who doesn’t suffer her offspring gladly or (given the choice) at all, old family friend rose shakily to his unsteady feet with a full sun-in-the-eyes smile and embraced me. While he enjoyed the rest of his roast bird followed by a cheese course with quince jelly, he asked me about my children, how they were and what they were doing. Then he looked up from the piece of stilton he had just speared with his knife, adjusted his spectacles and said, and what about you? What are you doing? He is a doctor, one of those it doesn’t pay to discuss M.E. with. If I were a patient of his he would be hell-bent on discovering what was really wrong with me. I can’t actually remember how I managed to cobble some kind of answer together. The mater seems to think I’m still teaching, even though I told her about my “sabbatical.” I could have said something about writing poems and stuff, but you know.

Actually, I am looking to cut down and do even less. This is, paradoxically, so that I can do more, or at least be more efficient with small amounts of energy. I’ll keep you informed obviously. Meanwhile, I’m singing:

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

back atcha

I am changeable as the wind, why is that? Reader, do not believe anything I say. Or rather, believe it to be true (perhaps) for the moment, but tomorrow is another day. Recently I thought I might be getting a bit better, stronger, and I said so. Why can’t I learn to keep my mouth shut when this happens – be like the people who vow never to openly name the thing they prize most for fear of attracting the evil eye? But there it is, I am caught by the moment and fall for it. Today is different and I am back, and having to tread carefully. It’s ok, I know this terrain. I loved the walks I was having, took too many perhaps and now I go softly, pad pad, so as not to awaken the tiger.

I’ve heard the good news of two friends having their novels accepted by publishers: The first is a friend from my Hackney days – we were in a writing group together and had our stories published in an anthology. We are close friends, have touched on each other's lives in all kinds of ways, but the rock of our friendship is The Writing. I put capitals because that’s what I hear when we refer to it; when we speak on the phone or sit with coffee and the cigarettes we are supposed to have given up and say, so shall we talk about The Writing? I remember when she decided to write this book; how she went to another country to find the bones and flesh of the story whose essence was already gathering in her, and the email that came one day saying she had found what she was looking for and had begun the work. Somehow there was never any doubt that the book would be written and published.

The second was a student in one of the night classes I taught five years ago. I remember how when she came we were all crammed into a small room next to a language class that was clearly audible through the thin walls and how as soon as she read from her notebook I could hear that she was already a writer, a wordsmith in the making. She has just been offered a three-book deal by a big publisher. This too was something I envisaged happening, though it is still a shock of surprise when the dream becomes real.

Everyone has their own path and the thing is to keep going along it. It feels like a great calamity when one is prevented from doing that because of health or something else getting in the way. But on the other hand, that is perhaps the nature of the journey, an aspect of the path. So how can one refuse to walk it? I walk it - pad pad.

Cusp has kindly given me an award. I am taking it as something bestowed rather than earned.

And speaking of which: I would like to award this to someone who I feel is deserving of this, as well as others, for her courage, kindness and persistence in adversity; namely the creator of the award. Cusp? Yes, you. On yer sidebar!

Friday, October 3, 2008

the trouble with being born

One day he said, I’m going to show you what it’s like to be born. Please do, I thought, show me what that might be like, and I will steel myself for the surprise, whatever it might be. But he began smoking hash, the strong stuff, then Ecstasy took him, the substance. Oh, he said, it was so good, I had such a good time. And I knew he would never show me, that being born was, for him, too dark and heavy, without the possibilities given to the never-quite-born of taking flight. So he excarnated. Et excarnatus est, courtesy of Ecstasy. He became unmade, fragmented, splintered into particles of light that were ground into dust and blown away. Then there was nothing but echo, the same old words repeated. Or perhaps he was really showing me, as he promised he would, what it might be like. For we are born, one way or another, from this one or that, into this place or that and there may be white silk coverlets, there may be broken glass or a manger full of hay. And sometimes there may be no life at all to be born into, but you fall at once into the arms of death. So many ways to be born.

I think of him now, living in his damp underground rooms like a mole, coming out in the small hours to walk along a stony beach littered with broken bottles, finding a public telephone to dial my number, his voice like a thin wind blowing through reeds: yeah right, yeah good, see you before too long, take care.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Black Stuff

It’s called salt liquorice and you love it or hate it. Mostly it seems to come from Sweden or Finland, but these are from Holland and Son recently discovered them in a traditional sweetshop nearby so he bought some for me. The shopkeeper wondered aloud how anyone could actually eat the stuff. It is salty but also sweet, and the combination of this and the liquorice is indescribably good, if that is the sort of thing you like. It is yin and yang, expansion and contraction, the fusion of opposites, good for this season.

I think I might have had a few too many of them, though. Or perhaps it is something else, a darkness pulling at my muscles, the echo of a song I would rather not hear. Free association can lead you to strange thoughts – sometimes they are signposts that you think for one split moment you recognise, or you almost might if you could only remember how to read the language. Sometimes I think I need poetry because I need something to place against the darkness. I think of some lines of Death Fugue by Paul Celan:
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon in the morning we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents

Thursday, September 25, 2008

All Change

This is the life – literally: writing, workshopping and shrinking. I have carried on walking since building up a bit of muscle at the Edinburgh Festival and try to do half an hour of this at least three times a week, though sometimes it isn’t possible. I have been waiting for the crunch to come in the form of relapse plus usual symptoms but so far I have kept going. This is all relative, obviously. Sometimes I feel like the drunk who tries to prove he is sober by walking a straight line from A to B. I wobble and I fall on my face unless I keep focussed on the next task, and even then progress is not steady. But I am, it has to be said, better, and I think I have hit on the reason why, which has nothing to do with treatments or processes that try and teach you to positively think yourself better. It is simply that I am a woman of a certain age and suddenly I don’t have to deal with the monthly hormonal fluctuations. For many women this is significant. For me, it is potentially huge: even before M.E. it was found that my immune system was behaving oddly and that I was (in my first pregnancy) actually allergic to the hormones my body produced. Since then, the switch from one hormonal state to another would often be accompanied by a feeling of electricity in the body, and this always heralded the onset of another nasty relapse.

I am keeping my fingers crossed and can only say hallelujah to the end of one stage of life and the beginning of another, hormonally stable one. I am trying not to think about it too much for fear of crashing again, but still. I feel oddly as though I’m about to step back, or sideways, into a younger state of being, a great load sloughed off my back.

Tomorrow is a workshopping afternoon with three writing friends I usually meet with in Lewes. This time we will meet at Signs Cottage and have cake – stage one of my birthday (though cake at any time is a good thing). On Saturday there will be as many women as can fit around two tables wedged together in my kitchen for lunch – and another cake, made by a friend to whom I gave the recipe and now she probably makes it better than I can because she is a born cake-maker. It’s a Claudia Roden one, made with oranges, ground almonds and eggs, no flour, so you can eat it any time and feel you are doing something healthy, and it is lovely. Sunday, stage three, the Signs family will go to Brighton for oysters and a meet-up with sister, brother-in-law and niece.

Everything changes. In blog world too. I miss some of the blogging people I used to see round and about more often and remember how I once thought that blogging was time out, not real life, but people come and go, one has a sense of presence, connection, things happen (or not), it feels just like life. And we keep moving on, eating cake.

Orange and Almond Cake

2 large oranges
6 eggs
250 g (8 oz) ground almonds
250 g (8 oz) caster sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
Butter and flour, for cake tin

Wash and boil the oranges (unpeeled) in a little water for nearly 2 hours (or 1⁄2 hour in a pressure cooker). Let them cool, then cut them open and remove the pips. Turn the oranges into a pulp by rubbing them through a sieve or by putting them in an electric blender.
Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Add all the other ingredients, mix thoroughly and pour into a buttered and floured cake tin with a removable base if possible. Bake in a preheated moderately hot oven (190C/375F/Mark 5) for about 1 hour. If it is still very wet, leave it in the oven for a little longer. Cool in the tin before turning out.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Couch Potato

In case you’re interested, it seems that I have three different types of Personality Disorder, namely: Paranoid, Schizotypal and Narcissistic. I did the test here, so it’s an established Fact, but my score only added up to “moderate” so I am pissed off: can’t even get top marks in a sodding personality disorder test, wouldn’t you know - the story of my life, which began with my daffodil only getting second prize when I was at primary school (I may forgive but I do not forget).

I am going to discuss this with Shrink, obviously. We will have what he increasingly refers to as one of our “tussles”, where I try to engage him in some kind of a debate that is commonly known as dialogue and he does not get drawn, makes gnomic utterances or says something deliberately provoking. He is trying to get me onto the Couch, which you might think is fair enough for a psychoanalytic shrink, but it’s just not natural, is it, semi-reclining while you talk to someone who is sitting just inches away from the back of your head. I’ve said that I’ll do it after my birthday (this weekend – send flowers, chocolates, gift tokens etc.), a kind of graduation ritual, and doubtless this will be playing in my head and I might even sing it out loud.

I sent some poems off to one of the big poetry magazines and got told that although it was thanks but no thanks, they enjoyed my work and please would I send more in the spring. What, for their personal enjoyment? Perhaps if I can get myself fully Paranoid, Schizotypal or Narcissistic my life might begin to take a real direction and hit the bull’s eye – so to speak. Couch may be a significant first step. I’ll keep you informed.

Meanwhile, why not take the PD test yourselves – let me know the results. I promise I won’t be jealous if your score is higher.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Other Life

(blame the resonance of mince, lentils and black bean casserole)

There is no mobile phone.
You miss the train and trust
he will wait for you.

There is no supermarket.
You buy a meat pie from the corner shop
and a tin of Batchelor peas.

There is no video recorder.
You watch Planet of the Apes
on a black and white portable

and make your own entertainment:
marjuana grown from seed in terracotta pots;
you play marbles, and lose them.

You picture him in Euston Road,
head bowed against the hard rain.
It is so cold.

There is nothing but the Incredible
String Band singing, this moment is different
from any before it.
These moments -

you will hold them in your palm,
string them together like beads,
hang the beads around your neck:

each train the last train;
each bead the last bead;
each minute the last minute.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How to Live Well (with Value Mince)

What would we do without mince? Vegetarians please note, I know all about lentils and tofu. I spoke to my son yesterday as he shopped in an Oxford supermarket. Our talk was all about the hundred different things you could do with a packet of Tesco ‘value’ mince. In the end it came down to a jar of Lloyd Grossman Bolognese sauce. Don’t tell me about the fat content, everyone knows that a proper Spag Bol just doesn’t come together with extra lean mince. And everyone knows that making your own sauce is best, but he had to cobble together something quickly and in cases like this, at £1.76 a jar, Lloyd is your man. I also spoke to my daughter while she shopped in a London supermarket. She is doing what she can, trying to make ends meet, but with rocketing prices and high rents I don’t know how people do it any more. When I was my daughter’s age things were easier. Even people on the dole could eat, pay the rent and have a bit over to spare – I knew plenty that lived for years like this. Some people called them scroungers, but most I knew worked hard – at creative projects, community or voluntary work, and those that didn’t still lived a life that was in some indefinable way edifying because it wasn’t centred on money-making, even if too much time was spent smoking the marijuana you grew in your back garden or window box.

But perhaps I’m looking with rose-tinted spectacles, especially as I was not one of those – having a student husband and later a spendthrift no-good substance-abusing boyfriend to support. Silly me. I should have dropped out, tuned in and written The Novel while the going was good – there’s no way anyone could do that now without wealthy patrons.

But some things never change: Spag Bol was the first dish I ever learned to make and I think it might have been my daughter’s too (though she made the sumptuous Delia Smith version with chicken livers). We had it with salad and red wine and the living was, if not exactly easy, kind of good. I reckon it still works, even with ‘value’ mince,

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Signs and Blunders

It isn’t good to fall asleep after one in the morning and wake up shortly after four. It gets worse when you take your second herbal sedative and it has no effect, dawn comes as dawn always does and it’s too late for the last-resort 2mg valium. I think Fleur Adcock does a good job of nailing the condition in her poem Things:

There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse
and worse.

In my particular case, though, it isn’t just the worse things that come stalking in but the stupid trivial things and the whole catalogue of mundane tasks that need to be addressed at some point. True, the vegetable rack in the kitchen has been falling apart for a long time and we should get a new one – but fretting about this and similar at five a.m.? I should talk about this with Shrink, obviously, but he is one of the Things I fret about. Our relationship is going through a testing time, a bit like that of a newly married couple when the honeymoon is over and the bickering begins. Well never mind, I’m sure this is all very auspicious and we’ll carry on slugging it out until the day I shake hands with him Woody Allen-style and agree to call it a draw.

Meanwhile, it may or may not be the end of the world, but everyone keep calm. Something is happening underground – a collision of protons that will “usher in a new era of physics”. People are worried that the planet is going to be destroyed in the process, but no-one has actually gone around waving banners or chaining themselves to railings and the end is very probably not nigh. We carry on, folks – thinking about property prices, the effects of climate change, remembering to bring used polythene bags with us to the supermarket, putting plastic milk bottles in the special tray at the top of the wheelie bin and taking the daily vitamin pill at breakfast. We carry on having birthdays and saving the gift-wrapping paper for future use.

If there is no Big Bang, that doesn't necessarily mean there is nothing to worry about - the end might come like a slow fertilisation and a period of waiting while the thing that is to happen forms itself before hatching out. But as far as I’m concerned it’s not over till the fat lady sings and Signs and Wonders appear in the sky, and I do not count the fact of relentless rain and miserable skies as either a Sign or a Wonder. It is either global warming or just one of those things; it scuppered the holiday plans of anyone hoping for a sunny break in Cornwall and it ruined a number of homes but we go on. I think, all things considered, I am glad about this.

When it does come, the last breath, the bang, the end of all the cycles of birth and rebirth and the beginning of nothing or a fall into destruction, I would like to have the opportunity to say goodbye – not just to the sky, forest, lakes and all the people that watch, run, swim and breathe, but to the particulars: polythene bags; a metal key ring shaped like a dolphin; a withered carrot in the blue vegetable rack that has been coming apart so the trays keep falling on each other; the bird that flew against my friend’s window one day and left on the pane of glass a shadow: the impression of its face.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

"close bosom-friend of the maturing sun"

When I told autumn to hurry up I didn’t mean endless rain. Ok? Only I’m feeling a bit responsible for this energetic downpouring that is predicted to go on for the rest of the week – ridiculous, I know. As though St. Peter, or whoever it is up there that organises these things would be listening in to what I’m thinking, or reading my blog and even if he were, why would he be vindictive about it? She wants autumn? I’ll give her autumn – let the skies open! Never mind season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, I can’t even reach the end of the garden for apples and blackberries without serious rain gear. Also, I wanted to continue the daily walking I’m doing at the moment while I’m having an up spell, feeling a bit stronger.

I have often suspected that I am possessed of magical powers for even as I speak the rain is lessening, the sky becoming brighter. I mustn’t mention this to Shrink for obvious reasons, but if it turns out that the day is fine after all then clearly you will have me to thank for it – wherever you may be in the world.

In my last life I was Zeus.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

y cumen in

Summer is almost over. I know this because Real Life is beginning to kick in: daughter is back from Edinburgh and now has the grizzly (gristly?) task of finding some means of earning a living that isn’t a) too mind-numbingly ghastly to consider b) working behind a bar for tuppence an hour and c) immoral or illegal – while continuing to put heart into the work she wants to be doing; apples are falling from our tree with unseemly haste and Mr. Signs is making apple and damson jelly; every day we have blackberries; I am filled with equal amounts of anxiety and optimism; making resolutions. And today I did my first poetry workshopping of the season. True, we sat under a canopy of leaves while the sun beat down, it was hot and I wore my summer white clothes for protection, but still I say it is almost over and autumn will be here soon – the sooner the better, far as I’m concerned, let’s have a real one with a bit of bite to it.

And I begin again. Me and the small house and the cat. I live, for periods, hermetically. This is a word I picked up recently from a piece by Jeanette Winterson. It comforted me; to know that someone else lives like this for periods, and this person is a writer I like; that it is possible to be alone, sealed off from society, and still live creatively; because I am by nature social, sociable, but I have M.E. so in order to live in a way that is meaningful I have also to choose solitude.

I remember a nun from a special order, a solitary who lived by herself in a caravan, speaking of how intensely connected she felt to the world as she lived this way. It is true that living a busy life, constantly in the company of others can be strangely disconnecting. One may belong, in a sense, without Belonging. But the solitary way sometimes needs courage, especially for those to whom it doesn’t come naturally. On the other hand, it becomes also a habit, a different kind to the one a nun clothes herself in when she makes her vows, though there may be similarities.

I meet with writers. We share our work and in this way connect at a deep level. But we are, must be, each of us apart – really alone if we are to do this thing.

It will begin soon, autumn. Meanwhile there are berries, birthdays, an orange and almond cake; intimate others.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Heavens, where have I been? I mean a week in Edinburgh, yes, and then a poetry week back on home ground in Sussex, but where have I been? Not in my usual place, that’s for sure – a little bit out of the body; and it was great, folks! And me usually so sparing with exclamation marks! Taxis in Edinburgh are cheap compared to down South (£4 a trip, I mean to say) but on the whole I managed with all the walking this year, mostly drug-free. Mr. Signs and I were situated in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh old town, right beneath the castle. Last year we struggled to get beyond the haggis, chips and pies but this year we found all kinds of places, including one that served heavenly oysters and a ‘surf and turf’ combination of perfect steak plus pot of mussels cooked in cream and wine. Sorry to bang on about food before culture, but the importance of such to the general wellbeing and disposition of Signs cannot be overstated, especially as I have been doing (my version of) a Stone Age-type diet that seems to be, if not strengthening, a little less enervating than other kinds, and you can do lots of calories without doing extra weight (they ate crème brulee in Stone Age times, right?). I couldn’t keep that up in poetry week as I ate at the college where it was based – healthy vegetarian, with all the grains and pulses that go with it, but my body registered the difference strengthwise; back on home ground, too, the clay soil does tend to exert a gravitational pull – I should live on granite really, it suits me best.

But anyway, culture: I have been doing it, people – I almost said so you don’t have to but of course everyone has to or we will all go to the dogs. Sometimes one suffers, and it wouldn’t be Edinburgh Festival without a turkey or two, or something really dire. Last year it came in the form of a folk concert and this year it was a one-man show, full of sound and fury that signified nothing that I ccould identify, with a guy who looked as though he had taken one too many acid trips in his mis-spent youth and was therefore, despite all the sound, not quite or even remotely in the body from whence it came. And to boot, the show was in an underground vault of a place that absolutely reeked of mould and made the insides of my nostrils prickle, so I had to make an exit before the end, leaving Mr. Signs and a friend to make the best of it while I sat in a bar wishing that I were still a smoker. Absolutely everyone, it seemed, was smoking, even those of a certain age who should know better. I know better and wish I did not. Still, there was coffee and taiblet (they also ate fudge in Stone Age times, I believe).

The good things were many. We saw Jerry Sadowitz again – not as thrilling an experience as last year, but still worth doing, even if only for the quality insults; the comedian Stuart Lee – fabulous and I’ll see him again if I get the chance; a Mighty Boosh-style comedy group from Melbourne called Simply Fancy – so delightful that one forgets to complain about the airless room they performed in (despite relentless rain outside, many of the smaller venues were stiflingly hot); a Russian folk group called Koleso that we only went to see because one of the women caught the eye of Mr. Signs as she waved a flyer and her cleavage at him, and at first I thought it was going to be another turkey because of all the red lipstick and promise of “Russian heartbeat”, but it was thrilling, and we bought the CD afterwards; extraordinary flamenco dancing and singing – the real, unadorned thing; a foot-stomping Blues Brothers cover show suggested by my friend’s daughter. Just some of the things that come to mind.

But the highlight for me was seeing the performances of the Signs children. True, I’m their mother. Had I not been, I don’t think I’d have gone to see a show like Strippers & Gentlemen, and though the words “physical theatre” and “multi-media” had prepared me for the idea that this was something out of my usual experience, I had no real idea what I would find. We went twice, each time in the company of different friends. It was an astonishing production. The review from Three Weeks called the show “something great” and said “through dance, mime and spot-on dialogue the faultless cast explore ideas of contemporary sexuality, self-respect and morality. Set to a thumping high-octane soundtrack, this perfectly intense promenade performance will have you questioning your own ideals from the word go. Impeccably directed, involving and revealing, this must be one of the secret gems of this year's Fringe.” It had some other sparkling reviews, and a couple that were not quite so enthusiastic, including one by Lyn Gardner in the Guardian who didn’t, to my mind, really get it – but still, three stars in the Guardian for a show devised by people fresh out of drama school is not to be sniffed at. For me, hand on heart, it would have been a highlight whether my daughter had been involved or not. The co-director did wonderful things with sound, lighting and film and at moments I felt as though the experience was like walking into a poem where everything becomes, as it were, illuminated from within. Of course everyone’s experience of a work of art is different. Mine was that it was (in the words of my friend) poignant and beautiful.

We had to leave Edinburgh the day before son’s jazz a cappella group were due to perform because of my poetry week; but we were treated to a special preview performance in the living room of the flat they all shared and it was glorious; not just the music, the arrangements, the fact of all this fabulous sound coming from twelve voices, but the sheer work and discipline, the energy and enthusiasm that went into everything. They performed to full houses most days.

The arts: what would life be like without? I don’t ever want to find out. And so, as my lovely departed Dad might have said at the end of a long letter, here’s hoping that this finds you as it leaves me – in the pink.

More on poetry and stuff anon.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Signs En Route

Yesterday I went for a walk on the forest with my ancient friend. At the age of eighty seven and three quarters, she is not as near ninety as I thought. She has a face that is more carved on than WH Auden’s and is a tiny hobbit of a woman, with a dicky heart and a ridiculous amount of energy. Mr. Signs picked her up from Gatwick airport where she had just arrived from a holiday in Siberia, with a German friend in tow. They were holed up for a couple of nights in Irkutsk en route to St. Petersburg and hadn’t had baths for weeks because there was no hot water in any of the taps. They were high in spirits and in strong body odours, and lovely company as we padded over the beautiful forest terrain with the heather all coming in the meadows and the sun looking down through the trees. She makes eighty seven and three quarters look like a breeze, being almost weightless and of a sunny and tranquil disposition. She is the closest thing I’ve got to a fairy godmother and I reckon she could get me to the ball without a wand, a pumpkin or a coach-and-four. An old refugee, she was with my mother in internment camp in the Isle of Man, those days when the Brits were locking up all the Jewish forriners in case they were spies or in cahoots with Madalf Heatlump. She never married but spent her life looking after special needs children in Camphill communities.

After a lunch of red lentil and vegetable soup, the black Russian bread she brought with her, cream cheese and radishes, I was flat out, literally, on the bed; but agitated by the thought of all I needed and wanted to get done before going away, and immediately on my return. My lilac jacket came back from the dry cleaners clearly untouched (they just hadn’t bothered or forgot to do it) and this threw me into a spin – it just seemed horribly inauspicious that simple thing like that couldn’t be sorted, and I so wanted something for being bright and gay (original meaning) in Edinburgh, where my daughter’s play, Strippers and Gentlemen, has been awarded five stars by the Festival newspaper, Three Weeks and been called “One of the secret gems of this year’s Fringe.” Imminently expecting something to appear in the Guardian, who have been to review it – but one never knows. On account of having to be back for the poetry week, I'll be missing son's gig with his band of jazz singers, as they don't start until the 17th. Will try and catch them in rehearsal.

Well I may be gone some time, folks, but hopefully the blog’s loss will be the notebook’s gain. I gotta write more pomes and, well – I just gotta write more. Sick of competition judges who do not seem to recognise my towering genius, I’ve started to send things out to poetry magazines, beginning with The Rialto. Apparently they take forever to get back, but hey – I got all the time in the world.

This time tomorrow I’ll be on the train reading Nasim Marie Jafry’s novel, The State of Me, which is not just good – it’s M.E. brain-friendly.

Keep rockin, people.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Summer Shorts

Summer can be difficult. First of all there is the heat – this year there hasn’t been much, but the few days we had last week threw me into a condition where I thought I was on the brink of Serious Relapse. If the heat goes on then I do tend to adapt after a while, but clear and crisp is what suits me best.

Also difficult is that summer is a time when things happen – good things, like the Edinburgh Festival, and children of Signs doing stuff in the fringe; and hot on the heels of this, the poetry week that I have been coordinating and organising. This year I will not be tutoring - just being there, involved, giving a reading of poems, will be enough.

There is a list of practical things that need to be addressed before the weekend. Son is moving all his stuff to the new Oxford residence for the final year. Someone nearly ninety years old is coming to stay a night. She likes things to be clean and tidy. Perhaps I should put everything, including myself, into a black bin bag.

I am remembering some graffiti I once saw chalked onto the wall of an old, disused hut on some deserted northern beach:


Friday, August 1, 2008

The Key of the Kingdom

Today I saw a collection of keys set out on a friend’s kitchen table. The one that caught my eye was a tiny grey key attached by a ring to a small padlock with metal clasps on the sky-blue body of it. The metal clasps were designed so that they held the blue like lips. It reminded me of the key and padlock that used to belong to the lock diary I had as a child.

I wanted to be like Anne Frank with her imaginary friend, Kitty. But the lock diary was a heavy, plastic, embossed brick of a thing from Woolworths and each day was sectioned off, a small space, because it was a five-year diary. So the things I wrote were small and unelaborated.

I went to Primrose Hill today.
Deirdre came and we had cake.

Deirdre was the masseuse who came to give my mother treatments. Her husband was a political prisoner in South Africa. After the massage treatment she would sit on our living room floor which had under-floor electric heating and eat cake and talk. She always stayed a long time. She said her life was hard, she had two daughters and didn’t know when she would see her husband again. She was fat and cheerful as she spoke but she said she just had to take each day at a time and that was how it was to live with a broken heart. I didn’t put any of that in my diary – there wouldn’t have been room, and even if there had been, would I have set it down? I wanted to be passionate and upbeat like Anne Frank. Even when she was railing against the unfairness of the adults and saying how it was to live hidden away in an attic for so long, she had a voice that sang in full-throated relish of life and all its particulars. A five-year diary with a small space for each day would have been no use to her at all. It allowed no room for the particulars or for reflection.

If I’d had the kind of writing book that existed in my imagination, what might I have written? The key to the kingdom of the articulated inner life was not yet forged. The small diary key did not, in any case, really provide a safe and secret place. It was held shut with a thick band the same colour as the cover. At my boarding school some girls nearly cut it so as to look inside – the temptation to look into secret places is strong. And anyone could have bought an identical diary from Woolworths and used the key to look inside. This happened to a girl I knew, and so her mother found out that she had let a boy put his hand inside her knickers.

I lost the key to my diary and had in any case abandoned it. It lived for a while in the loft of my mother’s flat and then I don’t know what happened to it. Perhaps it still exists somewhere with the words that were written into it:

I went to Primrose Hill today.
Deirdre came and we had cake.
Daddy sent me a postcard.
I have got a new red beret.

Monday, July 28, 2008

meanwhile, back at the ranch -

So now that Last Minute are out of the game, Son will be able to go to Edinburgh with jazz a cappella group and do his stuff there. Actually, he was determined to do this anyway, even if Last Minute had got through the next few rounds, but there would have been difficulties. I am worried about Daughter who fainted during rehearsals yesterday. She has taken on a demanding project, both directing and performing something she has written, and the dance element is very strenuous. She is ok now, but is clearly overdoing it and advice to take it easy and slow down just isn’t realistic. I say it anyway. The first performance is on Wednesday, after which things should ease up a little (yeah, right).

Here at Signs Cottage I am doing battle with my old friend M.E., engaged in mortal combat, clasped in its deadly embrace. I am trying to think of new, fresh ways to describe it. Passionate lover came to mind, but brought up the old Stalker image, and we have been there. Something from the Song of Solomon comes to me:

Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.

Yes, the strength and persistence of the fellow is overwhelming, he loves me ferociously, and grand passion, as we know, does have something of the religious about it. Even if the love is unrequited, one cannot help but stand back in awe, and there are moments when the inclination to submit is overwhelming. Submit in one’s soul, I mean, for one can’t help but give in at a physical level. I have more or less given up on the idea that one can think or Process one’s way out of this, but have to accept that occasionally this works well in the sense of giving the temporary illusion that things are “on track” and better, and these moments I do not despise. The problem with treading the path of Shrinkhood, the psyochoanalytic real deal, is that the aim is to come home to oneself – touch base. It has occurred to me that I must be mad to do this and really, between that and M.E. it does sometimes feel as though the rest of me might just go up in a puff of smoke. The pilgrim’s path was ever thus. I think I should have a medal for this, or at least a badge.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Last Minute

I had a phone call a couple of days ago from the bastard apartment agency in Edinburgh who gave us the wrong (77 steps up) apartment last year when we went to the Festival. Perhaps I was being stupid to think that it might be ok this time round: they did eventually, after some heated negotiation, offer compensation in the form of a reduction in price when we booked another apartment for this year. It was where I needed to be, in the centre of things so I could come and go with relative ease. They went one better this time round and, with two weeks to go, told us that some “corporate” people had decided they needed the apartment and we could have alternative accommodation somewhere at the other end of town, or almost out of it. We’ve taken our money back and, amazingly (through the Scottish Tourist Board), found somewhere else – nicer and half the price, without the sleazy “luxury” element that is supposed to be what we all want, in fact when we booked in January we couldn’t actually find anything that didn’t look as though it was hijacked from the set of Startrek, but with polished wooden floors. I used to like wooden floors, but I am beginning to associate them with “luxury” apartments. So all is well, except that we never did get our compensation from the agency, and they are carrying on their nasty business as usual because no-one has the time or energy to do anything about it.

Daughter of Signs is up there already with thirteen others, creating the space in which they are going to perform what I think will be an extraordinary show which she has written, is co-directing and performing in. I can’t wait to see it.

Son is in France on a small tour with a youth orchestra, playing cello. But he will be on the telly tomorrow in Last Choir Standing. His group is called Last Minute (he's the one accompanying the soloist on "If I ain't got you"), and they’ll be singing two songs. Son is the second soloist in “It’s My Life”. Can’t tell you if they got through or not because that would be telling. But I can reveal that spending a day in the BBC studio was – how can I describe it? After we had all (hundreds of us) been security checked, colour-coded with wristbands and herded into the foyer to wait, it felt like an airport lounge when the plane has been delayed. Then when we were finally got into the studio itself it felt like a kids party that went on and on but you weren’t allowed to go to the loo when you wanted and the only sustenance was a two-bar Kitkat and a small carton of orange juice. And there was some kind of all-purpose entertainer/comedian there to get us all in the mood for the hooting and clapping that we had to do. Not meaning to sound like a miserable git, but it was very hard work. On the other hand, it was lovely to see the boy do his stuff and lovely to see the singers who gave the whole thing their best shot. The studio looks very glitzy on the screen, but it’s all very sweetly makeshift and a bit wobbly.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Houseguest from Oz

I am saying this in a whisper while he is asleep: Ms Pants’s hybrid owly cat Creature, Barney, has arrived at my house and is causing mayhem. I thought she was joking when she said he’d be arriving at Gatwick today heading for my house, and even if she wasn’t he would surely be held in detention for flouting quarantine regulations. But it seems he got through by pretending to be someone’s stuffed toy. I had to pay the very irate minicab driver who complained that Barney had made a mess of the newly upholstered back seat as he polished off the remnants of a smoked salmon and crab terrine he had filched from the aeroplane while the steward’s back was turned. In the few hours he has been here he has managed to down the best part of a bottle of premium quality Polonaise vodka that Mr. Signs was saving for sex-on-the-beach cocktails and more than half a bag of frozen IKEA meatballs and the rest of the lingonberry preserves. When I asked how long he was thinking of staying here he just shrugged and said Pants had bought him a one-way ticket.

The cat is upstairs underneath our bed and refuses to come out until we give her assurance that Barney is off the premises. If all else fails we will have to coax him into the garden studio and lock him in while we think of what to do. I’m considering reporting him to the authorities as an illegal asylum seeker, but I don’t think they would buy it as Pants actually got him out of the UK illegally, and he speaks perfect English – when he wants to, that is. He is something of a poseur and slips into this faux gangsta-style drawl at the drop of a hat, but clearly he doesn’t have the vocabulary. Seeing a packet of blue Rizla on the kitchen table (from when my daughter was here, she smokes roll-ups), he asked if he could score a couple of “straights.” Who has been teaching him this stuff? Obviously I have my suspicions.

Meanwhile, Daughter of Signs is heading north to Edinburgh, where she will be until end of August a-putting on and performing in her show. I got a text from her today saying that the bad news was she had missed the train (which meant shelling out £40 more to catch a later one), and she managed to do this in spite of having been at the station an hour early. But the good news was that she had bought some notebooks and had begun writing a novel. There is something so quintessentially Daughter of Signs about this that I cannot help but smile – even though this is bound to leave her rather short of money.

I think I can hear Barney waking up, or perhaps he is talking in his sleep. It sounded like “Budweiser.” I don’t know what I’m going to tell Mr. Signs when he gets home.