Monday, March 30, 2009

easing the spring

I have slept for twelve hours solid, which feels like money in the bank, and we have moved into spring, which feels like release. It has been an accursedly hard winter, M.E.-wise and I am looking forward to a “good spell”. Never mind if I don’t get it, the looking forward feels good enough, and today – well, right at this moment, I am feeling ok.

We have recently bought two things. One is useless and the other is ugly. The useless thing is very good-looking and the ugly thing is very useful. The Signs household does not make hasty or unnecessary acquisitions, not so much because we couldn’t afford to (I mean we live modestly though not exactly on a shoestring) but mainly because we seriously cannot be bothered, I don’t have the strength for it and Mr. Signs doesn’t have the time, and it’s fine because we have more or less what we need; apart from a decent vegetable rack that has space for vegetables and doesn’t keep falling apart, but such a thing no longer seems to exist, it doesn’t materially affect our lives at a deep level and my intermittent bursts of “oh fuck, the sodding vegetable rack has collapsed again” is just part of the rhythm of life here.

The laptop tray thing seemed a perfect solution to days when I need to spend more time in bed than out but would like to do some word work – it is adjustable, has space for the mouse and is a lovely bit of wood, nicely finished and pleasing to the eye. The problem is that it has been treated with some kind of varnish or polyurethane stuff that makes me feel ill after five minutes. After ten minutes my mouth goes dry and my head begins to bang and after fifteen minutes I feel like throwing up. We have left it to air in the garden shed but it is still too toxic for me to go near. A completely desirable thing that says touch me not. We have tried ringing the manufacturers to see if it can be exchanged for an untreated one but they don’t return our calls. We also acquired an anglepoise-style lamp because the trusty white one that has been with us ever since I can remember has finally given up the ghost. The replacement, from Argos (costing less than £10), is made of grey plastic and a deeply unattractive metal they call silver but it looks like a wet day in January and makes your heart sink just to look at it. It works, though – does the job. So here it is likely to stay because the alternative is shopping around.

Our cherry tree has been cut down to allow our neighbour’s vegetable patch the light it needs. I took some of the blossoming branches and put them in a vase. I have never before put my face to the blossoms and really taken in the scent of them. It was as though they were singing the swan song, giving up the ghost of themselves. It reminded me of when I tasted the fruit, when I had the chance, before the deer got there first. A sense of something offered, sacrificed, essence of cherry tree, a communication (it felt so personal) that touched me to the core. I am grateful.

Friday, March 27, 2009

a bit of gold

You know how one gets these snippets of memory; and how if you keep looking at the snippet it will sometimes open up to things that you had quite forgotten; and then there is the question of how much is memory and how much the past re-imagined: I was thinking about a gold wristwatch I have that used to belong to my grandmother, and suddenly I pictured it on her arm. She wore it every day when my sister and I went on holiday to Italy with her.

We were staying in a hotel just across the road from a beach. We could see the beach from our bedroom window – a long strip of yellow and the blue sea, just like a child’s drawing. My grandmother said that the sand was nicer in Rimini, paler and not so coarse, but it was good for building sandcastles, which we did every day while my grandmother read back copies of Prediction magazine (it still exists, I just checked), underneath a large umbrella, dressed in her cream-coloured suit. She never took her clothes off no matter how hot it was. Every now and then she looked up to see what we were doing and smiled. I wondered why she never wanted to sit in the sun and get brown – getting brown was one of the reasons to go on holiday, when you went home from abroad people would admire your tan. My sister and I put our forearms together to see who was more brown. My grandmother said she was brown too and took off her gold watch to show the white mark underneath.
“Look how white it is,” she said.
“Now take your ring off,” I said. She moved it around on her finger but it didn’t slide off easily.
“I never take my ring off, so it doesn’t want to leave my finger now.”

A man with brown hair and a deep tan watched as we decorated a sand turret with shells and poured drops of wet sand over it to give a rippled effect.
“You have made a beautiful castle there,” he said. He had a German accent, but it was different from my grandmother’s, not so pronounced.
“We’ve been practising,” I said. “This is the best one so far.” He nodded.
“Yes, practice is always a way of doing things better.”
He asked me how old I was and where I came from in England. I told him that I lived in London. He knew the place where I lived because it was near Belsize Park, where he had friends – refugees from Nazi Germany.
“My grandmother was a refugee,” I said. “She lived in Belsize Park too, but now she lives in Hannover.” The man looked over to where my grandmother sat. She was looking at him and he nodded a respectful acknowledgement, bowing his head slightly. She nodded in return and went back to reading her magazine.
“I knew you were a Jewish girl as soon as I saw you,” he said. I told him that my grandfather had died in a concentration camp. He turned his head away and nodded.
At supper my grandmother asked what we had been talking about. She didn’t look pleased when I said about my looking Jewish.

The next day he was there again, still at a distance from my grandmother.
“Are you going to swim in the sea?” I asked. He said no, he preferred to swim in the evening when it was cooler. He had two books by his deckchair, but I never saw him reading them. He liked to look around. He enjoyed talking to me.
“You look just like a girl I once knew,” he said. The girl had had dark hair and eyes, like me, and a lovely smile, an expressive face. He had known her, he said, when he was in a concentration camp. He had come out of the camp alive, but the girl had grown ill and died. My grandmother and he exchanged nods again. I went to her and asked why she didn’t come and talk to him. I sometimes thought it was lonely for her, just sitting on the beach every day with her magazines. But neither she nor the man, whose first name I can’t remember, seemed to expect anything more from each other than an occasional nod. The man told me that his surname was Goldberg, and he was happy to have a beautiful name which meant gold mountain. We spent many afternoons talking together while my sister carried on making sandcastles and my grandmother read her copies of Prediction He told me he believed in reincarnation and wondered if I might have been the girl he had spoken of, in my previous life.

One day I looked up and saw her moving the gold ring around, and suddenly it came off her finger. I went over to look at the white mark, but her hand looked poor and naked without the ring. I took the ring and held it in my palm, trying to feel the weight of it.
“Be careful,” said my grandmother. Then three things happened: from the corner of my eye I saw the man get up from his deckchair and walk to the sea, a black dog ran past and brushed against my leg and I, looking up, lost my balance slightly. The hand that held the ring tilted and the ring fell into the sand.
“What have you done?” said my grandmother.
“It’s ok,” I said, getting onto my knees in the sand, “it’s just here.” But it wasn’t here or anywhere. I scrabbled in the dry sand, but the more I did that, the more lost the ring became.

I can’t be sure how the story ends because I don’t remember anything else about the ring (was it found or lost forever?), and I don’t remember ever seeing the man whose name was Goldberg again. I can’t even be sure that the business with the ring in the sand was exactly as I think I remember it. But there are things I recently discovered about my grandmother’s time during the war, when her husband was in the camp: secrets. The ring could well be a metaphor – rings so often are.

The half-remembered past reflects the lived present. I begin to imagine.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

pyjama reflections

There is someone with a pneumatic drill in the vicinity. I live in an exceptionally (relatively speaking) quiet spot and it feels as though some alien, and not the friendly kind, has landed and is letting me know of its intentions, which are all about – well, invasion. If I ignore it perhaps it will go away.

So, lets talk about Mother’s Day. Sweet Daughter came with a card that said lovely things, later we went for meal out, and Son sent me a musical e-card and a recording of him with his barbershop band crooning a love song. I don’t care how much the miserable gits bang on about all this being an invention of the card industry, we need our small and large festivals, our special days, and I’m for them – yes, even pancake day – the more the better, I say; both pancakes and festivals. Mother’s Day can be a bit of a loaded one, of course, if you have had a conflicted or downright bad relationship with the mater, but even I managed a card with a photo of a large-eyed rabbit on it and a bunch of daffodils from my garden. She is getting better at taking these tokens of daughterly affection but did immediately point me in the direction of the sumptuous basket of flowers and big expensive-looking card my sister had sent. How nice, I said. She doesn’t actually find it that easy to receive gifts from me, but neither does it sit well if I don’t give. The classic occasion was the time when I had been instructed several times, and in no uncertain terms, not to bring anything at all for a birthday bash she was having in London – no card, present – nothing, and especially not the cake I had planned to make because she didn’t, repeat didn’t, want that or anything else and was that understood? Well the upshot was that I was the only one who arrived empty-handed. My sister made a speech and then there were murmurings to the effect that it was a shame no-one had thought to bring a cake. The mater looked at me, suitably stricken, and got, basically, what she wanted. So you could say it all worked out a treat.

But what am I doing sitting here in my red, white and tinsel pyjamas that are becoming almost as much as an established part of my sartorial repertoire as my purple trousers? I should be getting dressed and ready to go to a certain shrink-artiste in Brighton, getting stuff in the post, shopping for salad and spring onions, writing the next bit of my woman-on-the-edge-with-a-shrink-and-cigarette-habit thing. I think I will carry on sitting here a while – not do anything, and see what happens. The drilling has stopped. Silence.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


The nothing goes on. Not that the nothing isn’t full of something or, indeed, many a thing, but it isn’t particularly anything that is pressing to be set down here in blogworld; and not that I don’t have the impulse to share, at any rate, something in this space which has been an interesting and congenial outhouse where I have spent time for over two years. Nor do I just want to disappear or shut up shop without so much as a by your leave because when that happens it leaves a strange feeling in the ether, as I have experienced. There was a blogger I used to follow who did that – one minute he was there and the next he and all his words had ceased to exist. It was just as if the Ministry of Truth from Orwell’s 1984 had done a wipe-out job. It was of course his right to do as he wished, it being his blog, and I’m not saying it was the wrong thing, but it did leave me with thoughts about how we all touch in on each other in blogworld, not to mention the people who just look in regularly, including those who just look and never comment. Even without those, what about the angels, who are looking over my shoulder as I tap these words and read every single blog post that anyone puts up (there is no need to argue with this, I just know that’s how it is). One has surely, out of courtesy, to consider them. Which leads me to the question of whether a tree actually exists if there is no-one there to see it – no witness? Don’t tell me about cats and dinosaurs. Do our words exist if no-one ever reads them? Bring in the angels and archangels – thank you, Gabriel, Michael, Uriel and Raphael, I hope to be putting up something worthy of your good attentions in the fullness of time.
Meanwhile I should be bashing out other things also. I will be giving a poetry reading in June, I haven’t done that since last year and without a substantial number of new things I tend to feel a bit naked.

I have been a bit bed-bound off and on. But. The good Mr. Signs has acquired for me one of those adjustable lap-table things so that I can carry on entertaining the archangels from bed if necessary. It even has space on the side for a mouse. If I wanted to take up permanent residence in bed I could use it for reading and eating off as well. I don’t, though. I want to be up and out in the world, this will not come as any kind of surprise. NMJ has been keeping us up to date with the depressing outcome of the judicial review of the NICE ME/CFS guidelines. I won’t go into it all here, but for those who are interested do please check out her blog and the links thereon. I say this in a whisper: we are your litmus paper – your singing canaries. Time may be coming when everyone will need to listen out - especially when the singing stops.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Hello Peeps – I am not sure that I have anything much to say at the moment. I will need to think whether this is qualitatively different from having nothing to say (and will resist doing a John Cage reprise). I am reading, reflecting, re-drafting poems and thinking deep thoughts about geopathic stress, earth acupuncturists and the streams that run underneath us, in a literal and metaphorical sense. As this conceivably touches on something I am working on right now I obviously have nothing more to say about it. It is wonderful how many ways there are of saying nothing. John Cage knew about this, of course.

Since beginning this blog, I have put up 240 posts, counting this one. With an average of about 500 words a post that makes about 120,000 words – enough for a blockbuster. This either means something or absolutely nothing at all, but it makes you think. Be seeing you.

Friday, March 6, 2009

I had a good morning. I can say this because it is the first one in a long while that I have woken up not feeling as though I have just come round from a general anaesthetic. It was a broken night, to be sure (there is always one or the other) but I woke up as people do, slipping smoothly into the day, and the person who looked back at me from the mirror was just me rather than the bewildered extra-terrestrial I have been accustomed to seeing recently. This is particularly auspicious as I am spending the weekend with Ms North who is coming to Signs Cottage for a creativity and inspiration fest à deux. Last year we had it at her gaff, most beautifully situated in the far north of Scotland, right on the beach. Since then, she has written a novel and has been knocking it into shape with the help of a literary (Scottish Arts Council, bless them) mentor.

My new weekly helper has been to vacuum the carpets, clean the kitchen floor and change bedding. I continue to be hugely grateful for people who do this kind of work and do it well, as she does. Everything feels clearer, more possible, when the house has been cleaned. There is someone (an ex-student who now has young children) working on her various writing tasks in the garden studio and this also feels good and auspicious because I no longer use it as much as I did and I have the sense that it suffers from lack of company.

I have to go to Sainsbury’s. When we run out of washing up liquid I know it is time, but I put it off as long as I can, just getting what I need from the village. In any case, we need food, coffee, chocolate. My muscles are hurting. I am not listening. I am telling myself that all manner of things will be well.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


The other day I was sitting here wondering if there was anything interesting at all I could say about headaches – my headaches, that is. Almost immediately I decided that no, there wasn’t, because the moment I think about it all that comes to mind is a litany of well-worn images, and the few that are less well-worn are still not interesting. It is the kind of thing that a creative writing teacher (who hadn’t bothered to prepare a decent lesson) might throw at you, though: your headache is a teapot – just what kind of a teapot is it and what is your relationship to it? Write for ten minutes and remember to go for particulars rather than abstraction.

My teapot is made of clay, it is dense and gray and has never been fired so it absorbs everything, and no-one would want the tea in any case because it would taste of clay. It is a completely useless teapot. It is huge and ugly (sorry, I can’t be more particular), it takes up a great deal of space and demands to have pride of place on the kitchen table so that everything else has to fit itself around the useless and ugly teapot. It will not be discarded or ignored. Try chucking it out and you will find it has mysteriously beamed itself back onto the table, it never breaks or turns into a prince/ss no matter how often you throw it at the wall.

Actually that was only about three minutes but I ran out of things to say, and anyway I had a headache. Happy to report that it has gone now and taken the teapot with it. It is a homeing teapot, so I am almost resigned to the fact that I will doubtless be seeing the wretched thing again.

I have been reading (yes) a novel by Janet Frame – “towards another summer”. It was published posthumously but was written in the 1960s, is autobiographical, as so much of her writing was, and I love it as I love almost everything she wrote. I think that for Janet Frame, writing was the only possible way she had of being alive, and she would have carried on doing it even without a single word of it being published. That kind of writing is worlds away from the writing which sets out to tell a story with a clear and particular point to it, and some kind of planned dramatic focus. The focus is always here and now, whether in the here and now of memory or present moment, each lived particular a revelation of self and of what it means to be alive here, now, then, in the world; everything a wonder, as well as a conundrum, problematic, especially other people; every part of them eloquent – the strange flecks in an eye as much as the words that might be spoken, her response, her attention so complete, nothing held back. No wonder she fell back on solitude and her small desk with its Olivetti typewriter and neatly-ordered pens and pencils which had been sharpened into fine points; when even the cracks in a paving stone spoke and everything, even the consistency of a biscuit in the mouth, has a language, and everything speaks to you. No wonder they locked her up, and would have lobotomised her if it hadn’t been for the slim volume of hers (The Lagoon) that had just won a literary prize. When she said that her writing saved her she meant it literally. She looked on everything with a wide and open eye. No wonder she required the confinement of a small room and asked only to be allowed to carry on conversing with herself in the way that such writers do.

And I can read the lady, my cognitively-impaired brain notwithstanding. Her words are food wherein I find nothing I cannot digest - I can take her whole and complete. Thank you, Janet.