Wednesday, September 29, 2010

back story

I swear by the hairs on the chinny chin chin of the howling wolf that prowls on Edge, the gods have got it in for me again. There is a literary fest hereabouts on the weekend, and I'm involved, and guess what? I've done, I mean really done, my back in. This has never happened to me before. I have had verucas, ingrowing toenail, toothache, conjunctivitis, measles, mumps, chicken pox, allergies, not to mention an impressive little collection of autoimmune diseases - but never a bad back! So not having much experience of it, when something goes ping slightly to the left of the base of my spine as I bend down to pick something up I think ouch, that feels weird, and when it carries on feeling weird and hurting a bit I think, oh what a nuisance, and carry on sweeping the kitchen floor. Spine grumbles and moans at me over the weekend and I notice I'm holding myself strangely because it's hard to bend and by Monday night (my birthday, dammit) there is no ignoring it.

Back I go to ice packs, aspirin, codeine, lying flat, fretting about whether I'll be sufficiently upright by the weekend. Or I don't know what.


Friday, September 24, 2010


Equinox winds and the first sighting of a proper turning - my next-but-one neighbour's giant ash tree going red. This tree has been the cause of some dispute between neighbours on either side of him because it blocks light from their gardens. Ash tree neighbour is a not man of many words but has made it clear that he won't cut it down. I am not affected but have sympathy for all parties. Last year we took down a fruiting cherry tree because it took light from neighbour's vegetable patch, and that was hard enough. To take down an ash tree of that size when you have lived with it for most of your life would be hard indeed, especially if you are a man of few words whose wife has left you and you are trying to hang on to the rhythm of life as you have always known it. From my window I see gnome-like creatures standing underneath the branches by a clump of bracken. They are actually Bill and Ben (the Flowerpot Men), with a representation of Little Weed in the middle. There is an absence of colour to them and their faces have a ghostly pallor.

A day of shivering, scooting out in the rain to get duvets from the launderette and so back to bed with Breath by Tim Winton, recommended by Ms Pants ages ago, it's as good as she said it would be and I am getting heady fixes of vicarious thrills. Joining a reading group turned out to be one of my better try-outs (unlike swimming, which flopped). Brain is getting the message that it can keep doing this. One has to keep testing the boundaries of what is possible.

Even so, I shiver, I ache. I sleep for an hour and feel worse. I get into the bath, which some people describe as Japanese because of its dimensions, being more of a tub that you can sit in with water coming up to your neck. It's there because the bathroom at Signs Cottage is so small but I like it more than conventional baths. Immersed in hot water, I still can't get warm. Equinox winds and the season's turning: I love autumn, but always forget how changing from one season to another takes it out of me. And last night I went to a poetry reading in Lewes which was good, but as soon as I arrived I knew I would need propping up with coffee, which I had plentifully with apple cake, but still I came home and slept like a stone.

A supper of fish and chips in town, followed by a trip to a strangely gutted Sainsbury's for coffee, cleaning materials and bin bags for the weekend ahead when the Signs children are coming to help excavate the loft and celebrate my birthday. Two episodes of Mad Men - our new boxed set thing, which I'm sure I wouldn't be enjoying as much as I do if I hadn't partly reacquired the novel-reading faculty. And then toast and marmite and two tubes of Mentos, fruit and mint. I am eating strangely at the moment, sometimes having Rich Tea biscuits in place of proper food, but seem none the worse for it and have unaccountably lost the pounds I put on in Berlin.

Daughter has promised a sea-food risotto tomorrow. I think Son is making sticky toffee pudding. Lovely.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Your liver looks lovely, she said, and smiled at the screen as though looking at a picture that gave her real pleasure. It's all smooth, no sign at all of cirrhosis.
I said, oh good, so do you think that means I don't need to have a biopsy? Her face at once became serious. Oh, I really wouldn't like to say that, she said, if the specialist has recommended a biopsy then you should have it. The biopsy is the gold standard. I pictured a tiny golden medal, like the one I was given when I passed a ski-ing test.

Strange that this relatively small procedure should worry me. I don't like to think of the needle going in, taking a piece of my liver, however tiny. Most people just feel a bit of pain for a few days after, but some feel as though they have been kicked in the stomach by a horse - someone told me that once and it is one of those things one stores away for future reference.

And then I came home to my notebook lying on the kitchen table and wrote:

The trees want sea change:
leaves on the apple tree, the fruit,
bruised and useless on the lawn,
something shrivelled and wasted

I can't identify. The season
wants turning, this much is clear.
Once fallen, we thirst for winter.

By the sea, gulls have disappeared,
the silence shifts and forms
into a listening ear, a question mark.

Everything turns to bone.

Indeed? Because there I was adding small and steady pieces to the prose thing I have been attending to, then I open the door a fraction to a bit of verse and this is what happens. Nothing to do with me, obviously. Ha.

I am bone-tired today, as though a piece of me had already gone.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

yo ho ho, an' it's that time o' year again!

Ahoy there, ye rum-swillin' rapscallions! No need fer this brave beauty to tell ye that it be International Talk Like A Pirate Day - time fer all landlocked lubbers to shiver the timbers o' the ol' poxy lingo an get on down to Cap'n Hooker's party. 'Cept there en't no liquor on account o' me new grog-free existence. Time was when I could've drunk any one o' ye under the table, arrr, many's the time I've Amstelled, Beujolaised and caroused into the night, crushed ten men's skulls between me thighs while singin' yo ho ho an' a bottle o' rum. Those were the days, me hearties! But what I always says is as there's more ‘n one way o' havin' a good time, and be assured that if a good time's to be had, I'll be havin' it, one way or t'other, with a hogshead o’ peppermint tea.

Drivelswiggers an’ landlubbers all be feelin’ a chill in the air an’ it be that time o’ year when I be goin’ to the binnacle and takin’ out me old purple shell suit trousers which be shipshape as the day I first got ‘em from Barnardo’s charity shop, arrr, an’ served me well this many a year. I stuck me prow in Primark t’other day thinkin’ to snaffle meself somethin’ cheap an’ cheerful for the season. Saved me doubloons an’ shipped out again smartish on seein’ nothin’ that could hold a candle to me purples.

Shiver me timbers, it’s gettin’ late, if I don’t get some shut-eye I’ll be nothin’ but shark-bait - an’ anyways I’m almost out o’ pirattical words. Peckers up, me ol’ salts, an’ a yo ho ho from Cap’n Signs’ Jollyboat to y’all!

an' a massive P.S. - if you want to read the best Pirate poem ever go here - ah gwaaan, I insist - 'tis Katy Evans Bush's (aka Baroque in Hackney) Pirate Prufrock. Fabulous.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Mach's Gut

The final wedding party was in a place that was once a farm collective in the old GDR and is now occupied by artists, writers, musicians and biodynamic gardeners. We had a couple of nights in the East Side Hotel, hard by the old wall that separated east Berlin from west, you could see it from a porthole beneath the window in our room.

There was a pre-nuptial party, a coach ride to the registry office in Köpenick followed by a two-hour river journey with champagne and canapes. It was the wedding of my ex-stepbrother, there were people I had not met for many years. The elephant in the proceedings was ex-stepfather who has for many years, King Lear-like, cut himself off from everyone he ever knew. His absence was a palpable presence. He had many children, many liaisons, some also connected to my mother's early life in the Free German Youth. It is complicated, but when you are in the middle of proceedings it somehow isn't. My e-s-b wanted a celebration that brought the disparate pieces of his life together. We were, for the duration, a patchwork community, brought together by this event to be (for a space) all of a piece. This is what celebrations can be very good for.

I also had an appointment with anthroposophical doctor who knows about PBC. He has basically endorsed what the specialist over here said, so off I go on the new regime with medications - sans alcohol or anything with paracetamol, so obvious that it's barely worth mentioning; except that doctors over here tended to equivocate and shrug when I asked about these. Will need to find other, possibly more fun things to give me a break from muscle pains.

The appointment was in Kladow, where I lived for nearly three years as a child. I experienced a kind of symmetry to this. The language and sense of place live strongly in me, though the actual and imaginary sometimes merge, and who is to say that the imaginary is less true. I always pictured a pine forest at the back of my house where the small window of my bedroom was and where, for a time, I used to fear that witches might fly through. In reality there are just a few trees, similar to the kind found here on English Edge. In fact the whole area is not dissimilar and it is as though in coming here I found an English version of the German village, though I was not consciously looking for that. I learned to read in both languages, I read early and intensely so the stories became a part of the environment. The years were not happy or easy ones. My father was an actor with a distinguished theatre company in east Berlin but things were not turning out the way he had hoped and though the wall was not yet in place, the east/west division loomed. Each day he would go from the west, where we lived, to work in the east. My sister was born in the British military hospital. My mother went to parties in town but was, I think, depressed. She had not (nor would she ever) come to terms with her father's death in Buchenwald.

By the shores of the lake, where the steamer takes tourists on excursions, Mr. Signs and I stopped by a kiosk for coffee and streuselkuchen. In Germany, wherever you go there is sure to be food of some kind. A customer who was clearly a regular said goodbye to the melancholy kiosk man: Tchus, Jurgen - mach's gut! Go well; literally, make it good. In the Berliner accent it sounded like mach's yut. I remember this, the softening of the letter g. I can still speak like a Berliner if I need to, my accent almost perfect. But anyone who knows can hear that there is something not quite right, I don't have the words, the language is broken, I am not from there. But in a sense I also am. We are such stuff as memories are made of.

Monday, September 6, 2010

From Brighton notebook:

Woke with lines from Canticle of Francis of Assissi:

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sisters Moon and Stars;
In the heavens you have made them bright
And precious and fair.

Awake with gratitude for particulars. I put my hand on the fabric of the brown sofa, it holds me in the best possible way; birch wood table and chairs, clean white walls, a slow wind moving the curtains: the coloured leaves, someone's design and conception, printed on the linen. People have given their work for these things. Some may have given it with satisfaction, others are just putting in the hours because they need to make a living and this is what they do - assemble the sofa, the bed, pack the curtains, mix the paint to the correct colour of cloud-white. All praise. I am grateful for all of it. There are people alive at this moment who have no idea how much their work has given to me and to the people who come and stay.

And mother-in-law is here, the ceramic things she made, the chair and table she chose. The flat she lived in at the end of her life, before she went into residential care, did not have the grace of this one, I was never happy about it. You could just about see the sea, obliquely, from the balcony, but the inside had a strange, flat personality. One didn't feel one was anywhere. Somewhere to live before you die. But it had no soul. An angel of some kind or another took up residence there, an invisible lodger, a young man, who talked to her about God and Jesus, and she an atheist all her adult life. But she seemed to like him, and she was concerned and insulted on his behalf because he was in chains. They put the chains on him. We never discovered who They were. The Authorities. She wondered openly why it was necessary for him to be kept like that. She seemed, though, to like having him around.

Back on Edge, and going to Germany today - a wedding, a medical appointment, staying in a hotel hard by the old wall, and in an artist's colony.