Monday, August 30, 2010


Damnation and all, but it is Bank Holiday Monday and we have been cleaning out the shed - meaning, of course, the garden studio out back, but I always liked the word shed. It used to be my space and I still have all my old files in there relating to classes I taught, all my spiral notebooks, ancient files full of writings and copies of Mslexia Magazine. I have not used shed as a work space for a while because it just proved simpler to stay in the main body of Signs Cottage, especially when weather was inclement. Then it became the perfect place for Mr. Signs when he began working from home three days a week. Now it has revealed itself as the perfect place for him to begin his therapy practice. All in all it has been, and will continue to be, a good shed. But throwing out old papers of various kinds is unsettling. There is no more room in the loft, though, and at the end of the month we and the young Signses will be tackling this as well. Apart from some of their childhood art works and soft toys, I have no idea what is up there and I am sure it is full of ghosts.

Brighton tomorrow, with new notebooks and Papermate Flexigrip pens.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Awake again in the small hours, on a whim I reached into the cupboard of my bedside cabinet and found my journal from 2005. I have been in the habit for a number of years of keeping a fairly perfunctory daily record, but on the Christmas before this particular year I had been given a hefty slab of a thing called The Sacred Journey - subtitle: Daily Journal For Your Soul. It was given as a thank you gift by a student and I appreciated the gesture. But the journal begins and ends with the assumption that lists of gratitudes and affirmations are the order of the day. I entered into the spirit of the thing somewhat half-heartedly - I don't really need reminding of what I'm grateful for and what with one thing and another, the fact that I have kept on keeping on is enough of an affirmation of some kind of faith in life's essential goodness. On re-reading, what stares back at me is the sheer determination of the person who wrote the journal entries. I was teaching classes then and was involved in a number of projects that asked for focus, engagement and creative input, intensely grieving my dad who had died the year before, running the home and fretting about the daughter who had not long left it. I was, by anyone's standards, desperately ill and pretending not to be. There was sabre-rattling fall-out from the dysfunctional wing of extended family. In place of affirmations I began to jot down supper menus for the week to come (dear old spag bol and sausages with coleslaw and baked pots, I kind of miss you). Under monthly/weekly resolutions I put things like "write three poems" and recorded the titles of poems that got writ. I had teeth pulled. I got flu just in time to scupper plans for a writing retreat on a Scottish island. Just ordinary stuff but I don't know - truly I don't - how I managed it. Life now seems stupidly serene in comparison. But some things don't change. Under Gratitudes at the beginning of that year I mentioned Mr. Signs - his constancy, tenderness and brown eyes; my children - for everything they are, have been, will be; true friends; my beloved father.

I would put those same things again now. And life is easier - though I have had to give up things I would rather not, I am grateful. But I would like to sleep through the night on a regular basis. Thanking you, Universe, in anticipation, and lying awake counting one's enemies is often much more effective than counting sheep or blessings. Just saying.

Monday, August 23, 2010

not the last days

I barely had three hours sleep last night so am probably not to be held responsible for whatever might incontinently pour out of my fingers - as the actress said to the bishop. Or as the demented bishop might have said to the actress.

We went to IKEA again the other day - not saying that this accounts for lack of sleep, but just saying. It almost smelled like home though, so clearly something (apart from delinquent immune system) must be malfunctioning. We pushed the leaky boat out and bought the most expensive version of the Poang chair and footstool - with sheepskin cover - which is a clear statement, on my part at any rate, of a plan to couch-potato in extreme comfort when in the Brighton flat. To work, to work, autumn is rushing towards us like an ardent lover. Oh, Autumn! (as daughter, who prefers the summer, poignantly said on her Facebook page last year). Ask of me what you will, and I promise to deliver, but if I don't never blame me. This is one of the reasons why I need the new furniture - so I can Poang-potato after sustained endeavour in the field of words. In the last couple of days I have bashed out over five thousand words - well, copied them out from notebook, so they took longer than that to write. I am not sure where it is going and (almost) don't care any more what becomes of the writing, so long as the writing is happening and just one of the stories that press on me to be written are set down, for if it is not then I don't know how I will account for myself at the everlasting gates when St. Peter, with his great black ledger book, comes to do the reckoning. Not that I plan to be meeting St. Peter any time soon. I feel sure that life has more flotsam to chuck in my direction before that happens.

I am writing a story with a protagonist who is as little like me as it is possible to be, and whenever I write it I feel I am playing truant from the story I was writing last year in NaNo before I was clobbered with Swine flu. This probably helps me to keep writing it because I can trick myself into thinking that it's nothing very important, just something I'm doing for now. I need tricks like this because the thought of beginning another big thing and leaving it unfinished might make me lose heart, and if I do that then it really is all over and you may as well tell St. Peter to open the book.

What did you do in your last days on earth?

I reclined on my Poang chair and watched the boxed set of In Treatment.

And did this enrich the lives of any one of your fellow brethren?

It certainly passed the time agreeably for me - and that's not nothing!


(It's suddenly gone very quiet. St. Peter - are you there?)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

I blew a thousand pounds in just over half an hour yesterday. Eight hundred went on blood tests and the rest on consultation with specialist. Thank you BUPA health insurance, but there wasn't enough over for ultrasound so thanking you in anticipation, National Health Service . Even though I haven't got the results of anything yet, I am feeling cheerful about it all. The PBC wants attention - ursodeoxycholic acid - and specialist wants me to have a liver biopsy. We'll see about that. I'm going to Berlin next month to the wedding of an ex-stepbrother (it's complicated) and will take the opportunity to see a specialist with an alternative approach. As everybody knows, Germany is the place for all things Liver, and I look forward to going back to my old stomping ground and getting the low down. I have a sense that all manner of things will be well, manageable and to some extent treatable.

And also, it's nearly autumn - my time, my season, I can feel its breath in the air though we are still in summer.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


So the Word Verification Leprechauns will be happy because I've reinstated it on account of Mr. and Mrs. Sp*m coming back (posing as "anonymous" but they can't fool me).

There's no accounting for tastes, though. Perhaps you actually like the stuff.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"aflame upon the wall"

You may, if you have felt so inclined, have noticed that from time to time a meandering comment thread evolves that has almost nothing to do with the post and everything to do with digression. One day when archivists and scholars minutely study this blog (oh yes they will!) in order to illuminate the esoteric and exoteric meanings that lie behind and within the words here writ they will find these threads and the co-wizards and partners in sublime bollocks who helped to spin them.

On one such thread - we had gone past the magical number of one hundred, when good things have inexplicably come my way - I felt moved to spread the goodness around and give a poetic/literary task. I have done this before with astonishingly good results (you can find the 'e' fairy tale here). The task was to write a ghazal, with the repeating word of 'signs'. I have published the result below. It is the clear winner - for firstly it was the only one submitted and secondly it is rather fabulous. I can't help that much of it sounds like a hommage to moi - it belongs to the form and you'll just have to take it as part and parcel of the artistic endeavour.

The tradition in a ghazal is for the poet to add a kind of signature at the end, giving a clue as to the authorship. So obviously you won't need me to tell you who it is.

Night after night, we long for you, we Read the Signs
Though darkness gather round, yet still, we Read the Signs

In life’s dread passage, cripples we, and lonely
Where’s comfort, company, love, hope? We need the Signs

The comments flowed like hundred years of solitude
You were forewarned! Now poets be! Decreed the Signs

The words aflame upon the wall, yet we were blind
We never realised these were indeed the signs

Now, eyes burnt out, we grope our way, we fall, we cry
our warning-call – too late! – Take heed - the Signs!

Nothing for it – to love’s great work we set, forlorn
Pray, just be auspicious, in your name! We plead the Signs

Deaf, blind and mute, we flail, inconsolable, we wail
The sought-for word escapes us – don’t recede, the signs!

We longed to be your first and best, oh pray, forgive us
This most unsightly pride, this selfish greed, The Signs

Where there is ever poetry, there you are.
No publisher will in his life impede The Signs.

We’ll stand in the sidelines and we’ll coo and clap,
As after Carol Ann, you shall succeed, The Signs.

Ah, ploughman, to be a field, ripe, nourishing and fruitful,
In our blank mind, you have thus sown The Seed, The Signs

And in our nightly prayers, the rosary falls from our hands
For in our minds, we hold but you: The Bead, The Signs

As Clarissa P, the Abbess, A*** *R, and Legion,
We thank you for the nourishment, the mead, the signs.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

- and he is walking

I am in the classroom, writing with my fountain pen in the grey London County Council notebooks. I dip the pen in the ink well that nestles in the hole in my desk. When it runs dry Miss Routledge fills it again. You have to be good at writing to be given a fountain pen, some people still use pencils because their handwriting is not neat enough or their spelling is bad. Writing and spelling are my best things and arithmetic is my worst. Chandra sits beside me, she is my desk partner and she hasn't yet been given a fountain pen.

We made friends when I told her that I liked curry and rice. Shyly she told me that she and her sister ate curry and rice at home every day because her family was from Pakistan. She invited me to her house for tea. We ate rice with dall and a sauce with chicken wings that was so hot it made my tongue feel bitter and burned but I ate it anyway and said it was nice. Then her sister gave me a piece of something hard and white that tasted of old boiled milk, Chandra said it was a sweet. She lived in a basement flat where the electric lights were always on because there was hardly any light from the outside, and the electric heater was on, three bars of it, even in summer because it was cold in the basement and Chandra said her mother and older sisters felt cold all the time in England.

Chandra is writing in her notebook with a pencil, her fingers pressing on the stub as she concentrates. The paper has flecks of brown and shiny yellow. Miss Routledge says that paper is made of trees. I can see pieces of the tree in Chandra's notebook. I can see the words she has written: Humpty Dumpty is walking and he is going to see the wite rabit and he is walking and he is going to the play grond and he is walking.When Chandra came to my house I read her some of Alice in Wonderland, the part where the White Rabbit makes a flustered appearance, saying oh my paws and whiskers.
Rabbits don't wear gloves, said Chandra.
It's just a story, I said.
But rabbits can't wear gloves, said Chandra, because they haven't got fingers.
So I stopped reading and we went to the playground.

Humpty Dumpty is going to the swing and he is going to the bech and he is going to the party and he is walking.

In the summer holidays Chandra and her sisters went to Southend for a day and that was their summer holiday.
It isn't a holiday if you only go for a day, I said.
It was a holiday, she said, we went on the beach and we had ice cream.
I decide to copy everything that Chandra writes. I want to know what it is like being Chandra.

Humpty Dumpty is walking and he is going to the shop and he is walking and he is going to the play grond and he is walking.
I whisper, you already wrote that he is going to the playground. Chandra looks at me and smiles. Then she shrugs and carries on writing.
Humpty Dumpty is going to the bech and he is walking.
Chandra furrows her brow when she writes, she gives it all her concentration. Humpty Dumpty is walking, she writes. I begin to notice a pattern - an activity, or a particular destination, followed by the repetition of Humpty Dumpty walking. He doesn't seem ever to arrive at the beach, the playground, the rendezvous with the white rabbit, he is in a state of perpetual motion, walking always intending somewhere or other. The walking, though, is the thing, and we come back to it, Chandra and I, as I faithfully copy her words, mesmerised by the seeming purposelessness of Humpty Dumpty's walk, stirred to some extent by his persistence in always finding some new destination. I picture his large egg shape, eyes open and hopeful, his short legs with tartan trousers moving quickly, arms out at his sides.
Miss Routlege is standing behind me, looking over my shoulder.

What is this rubbish you are writing, she says? What do you think you are doing?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Harmonics

My dad was in a barbershop quartet called The Harmonics in the 1950s. I think they were probably inspired by The Ink Spots. My dad usually sang the bass line and all four members took turns in arranging the songs and sometimes wrote their own.

It makes me happy that his grandson took the name for the band he is playing with in Edinburgh this year. And his grandfather-in-heaven must surely be looking in with pride and pleasure, listening in to the lovely arrangements, the voices, the sheer talent.

We won't make Edinburgh this year, but there is to be an informal performance in Oxford on Friday and we'll be going to that.

Would you like to hear them? Go here and you will be able to. Son did the arrangement for Moon Dance and sings the tune on it.


In honour of this, I've banished the Word Verification Leprechauns as they have been a pain recently. This may need to be temporary if Mr. and Mrs. s p a m come calling. We'll see.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

into white

I seem to have gone down with a touch of blog-stiffness recently. You know the thing - when you come to the screen to do the usual and the fingers, the psyche, the mechanism that kicks in and gets the words down puts up resistance and won't move. I might hazard a few guesses about why this is, but nothing conclusive offers itself. A similar resistance is also showing itself in comments sections, so I haven't been saying much of late even though I have been looking in on y'all. Normal service will doubtless resume. A degree of doubt, though, is probably a good thing.

Today is rain and snow-white sky, a wind moving the very top of the hazelnut tree, and I say it is lovely. Blue sky and sun generally lift the spirits of those living in Blighty, but they ask so much of one. They ask that you don't let any of it slip away useless and they ask you to be exuberantly joyful. A white sky and rain you can lose yourself in - or perhaps it is the other way round. You lose yourself in blue sky and find yourself again under the modest cloak of the white, which does not mind if you do nothing in particular with it or beneath it.

Dear reader, how are you today? A question for you to wander into, or around. Under what kind of sky do you find yourself?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

view from the balcony

It is like being on holiday but without any of the stress that Hadley Freeman experienced this year. Reassuring to read this because I just thought it was me getting old, but she is a chit of a girl and now knows something it takes others a lifetime to learn: going on holiday is a bad idea. Lucy Mangan, another Guardian chit, found this out even earlier. I have becoming almost phobic about airports - not flying, just the airport experience. With our Brighton place we'll never have to go anywhere ever again. All we need to do is pack a small case, climb into the car and drive for about three quarters of an hour. Hey presto - holiday. The gulls ullulate our arrival and call intermittently, possibly for others' delight also and not just ours.

I pushed the boat out, so to speak, taking this photograph from our bit of balcony. What I mean is I have come to terms with the idea that photography will probably never be something I do well, temporarily given up trying to understand how to use my digital camera and snapped this with the mobile. That lovely blue wall at the end there is the sea, obviously. It gives me great pleasure just to know it is there at the end of the road - several roads, actually. I would also have liked to take a photograph of the high windows, how it is to look out of them, capture the feeling of space here. But the essence of the place won't easily be captured, at least not by me. This photo does not begin to give a real impression.

Tomorrow is Brighton Pride. I will be here, but not there.