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.