Sunday, February 28, 2010


I don't know how this happened. The crunch was a tiny piece of bone in an IKEA meatball on Wednesday evening when we went to look at sinks and sofabeds. IKEA is exhausting, just as all large stores are exhausting, something to do with the lighting and formaldehyde, or chemicals in the furnishings, I have stopped trying to work it out, and mostly try not to go to these places. The meatballs and lingonberry sauce, have always been our consolation prize. Bleached out on a lime-green sofa, staring into a rectangular oblong of porcelain (but how does the water run out?), it was ok because in a minute we would go and have meatballs with lingonberry and chips. The bone fragment shouldn't have been there, it was a one-off, but fate arranged it so that we would come up against each other when I was wavering and vulnerable - about the whole business of eating meat, I mean. I have found myself wanting it less and less, choosing the vegetarian option when we went out, sensing an unfamiliar squeamishness in myself when looking at a tray of skinned chicken thighs and latterly (before Jonathan Safran Foer exploded into the scene) questioning whether I felt ok about eating animals at all. I used to. I began not to. I don't know why. It's not as though anything much has changed, and for many years (apart from IKEA meatballs and the occasional hamburger) I've bought responsibly-sourced, organic meat.

It was the piece of bone. It made me think of death, I felt like death. I remembered being five years old and how meatballs used to smell of snot and smoke. I thought about the mangledness of the once-living animal, the fact of it. A shudder was engendered, it is still there and I am not eating meat or wanting to.

I wonder if this will last. I hope so.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

rhythm of life

I spent a considerable part of the day throwing things out: books I will give to a charity shop, paper to the recycling. However much I throw away, there always seems to be more - stuff that I don't need or use, no-one else would want it, but it seems wasteful to just throw out. I am trying to simplify in every way possible, and bring some kind of stability to my days, an underlying rhythm that will support what I need to do. Difficult with M.E., which behaves predictably only in the sense that it will almost certainly scupper long-term plans.
When I was growing up I envied children who had predictable lives. When I was thirteen I came home from boarding school and went to a crammer in Hammersmith. Things were chaotic at home, I never had breakfast, ate sweets and chocolate bars in the few minutes between lessons, scuttling from one room to the next, then nothing very much until supper.

In the underground, I would try to choose the same carriage every day, judging the distance along the platform from the tunnel. This was so that I would see two girls that always got on a couple of stations after mine. They were dressed in school uniform and went to St. Paul's School for Girls. Their conversation was trivial (by whose standards I was judging this I can't think): to do with last night's homework, what they ate for supper or breakfast and how the new stocking tights already had a small ladder at the side. I found it mesmerising, though, and listened as if caught in a trance, knowing that on a Tuesday they had French, so there would be talk about that and possibly a recitation of some irregular verb. On Wednesday there was Latin and on Friday there was chemistry. On Friday there was the additional spice of some possible revelation about what they were doing at the weekend. There would be nothing more interesting than a teatime visit to or from an aunt, a trip to the shoe shop with mother to buy some new school shoes and, of course, more homework. The more ordinary and mundane the detail the greater my satisfaction in hearing about it.

I pictured the bedroom of the larger girl, who always sat down with a comfortable plump before arranging and patting her skirt. I imagined that she would have a soft, fluffy candlewick bedspread, cream or pastel pink, that matched her slippers and dressing gown; one of those ceramic hedgehog night lights, perhaps, left over from childhood; everything very neat. As the train came out into the open and drew near to our destination she always, at exactly the same point, drew a dark beret from her school bag and began the business of arranging it on her head. It had to lie flat at the back and be slightly raised at the front, never just pulled on. She would be patting and adjusting for a good five minutes before it was just as it should be. Her friend always came with beret already in place. The patting and adjusting was more, I sensed, that just putting the beret on for the purposes of adhering to school regulations (what troubles lay in store for those caught beret or tie-less), but was a way of becoming the person she needed to be in order to go through the day as she needed to. It was like putting on armour before the battle, checking the point of the sword, buckling up.I did not want her life, that was for sure. But sometimes I wanted to feel what I though it must be like to be her - to have no thought for the next day other than the completely predictable - just to know what that might be like.

The rockanroll life goes on.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Work in Progress

Life, what? You decide to go along one path and then something presents itself which indicates that it would be better to go back the way you came and choose another. Obviously the New Black Dress look is not a good idea if it is going to hurt peoples' eyes to look at it, or make it impossible to read. So for the moment it's back to white. But I have a cunning plan, which may require that I consult with a certain bloggiste of my acquaintance who has a starry night background, but the text itself is black on white. But if it involves doing something complicated I might not bother.

The Writing is not going straightforwardly. As if it would. Leaving a novel-in-progress for any length of time is never a good idea, it can lose warmth, grow cold and die on you, I've had it happen before. You have to keep feeding it with your attention and your words and I haven't been doing this, sustained effort of that kind being scuppered by long aftermath post-swine flu, and then another 24-hour thing. Also, the new flat-by-the-sea, a lovely thing, but requiring much attention before it can be habitable. Stuff. I am gathering some bits and pieces of poetry and a couple of stories for the sending off, but there are too many unfinished scraps lying around or lost in the hard disc disaster of last year.

I come back to it all, though - the big story, the little stories, the scraps. And to the blogging. And (did I mention this?) Shrink. Yes, he and I are an item again, for the time being. I think there is probably a persistent streak in me. My colours may change, but I remain

yours faithfully,

Reading the Signs

Monday, February 22, 2010

The New Black

The background has, as you can see, gone dark here.* I felt like a change and was thinking about a poet whose study, the place where she did her writing, was a windowless room in the basement where the only source of light was from the computer screen. I would perhaps find that difficult, but see that it can lend you a kind of tunnel-vision state which is conducive to creative work. Whenever I am fully engaged in something the focus is like this. Even when sitting at the kitchen table with a notebook, there are moments, if all is going well, when everything around me goes dark and I feel as though I am inside the language. I experience this more often with a notebook than when writing straight onto a computer screen. This may in part be because if I am in front of a screen for any length of time I am affected by the - what do you call them - emissions, or something, especially with a laptop. A pity, because I do like the notion of screen as magical doorway into otherspace. But notebook is good too, the soft brown Moleskine cahiers with densely-textured creamy paper or larger A4 hardback.

There is also a simplicity about black - the little black dress that I never actually owned, but I can understand its appeal, the core of simplicity which you can build on. Here every possible moment, which is to say the moments that I am able to "do" anything, is taken up with the stuff of daily life and the getting together of our soon-to-be new place by the sea. A whole day can be spent getting handles for kitchen units. I didn't know. Signs Cottage is, by ordinary standards, unmodernised. I have only just realised this. So in every possible way, there is the urge to simplify, to have what is necessary, beneficial - essential. Working on it.

*nice for a day or two, but too hard on the eyes.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Night-Side

I like winter. I like cold. I like night. But this year the winter feels too hard and I am not sure why - it isn't the snow. Sometimes the winter feels like a long night, and the nights are already so long when one doesn't sleep properly. The longest night I ever had was when I was five and went to have my tonsils out. After the operation I was sick. The nurse was angry. My throat ached and we had to eat ice cream. There was a bitter medicine to take, it made one of the other children cry, but afterwards we were given glucose. When my father came for me I thought I had stayed for one night but he said I'd been there a week. No-one visited, you didn't visit children in hospital then, it was thought less upsetting for everyone. Anyway, I was used to being left with strange people. If I was there a week, it was always night. When you are ill a long time, it feels as though you are living in the night. Floyd Skloot wrote a book called The Night-Side - he got the title from Susan Sontag, who wrote "Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship." There are weeks, months, years, waiting for the day which never comes. Times when you behave as though it does come, you talk about the weather, what is coming into leaf and bud in the garden and forest, lemonade on the patio drinking in the blue sky and light. But soon you are tipped back into night and it is as though the day was a brief space in some parallel existence that occasionally opens for short, intense moments. In the night, you keep telling yourself that the day will come, and you wait for that because if you told yourself that this is how it will be for ever you would lose hope. And you can't do that.

I am reading The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson. I will echo Ursula le Guin's review: it is the most beautiful and satisfying novel I have read for a very long time. The words come into me and find no resistance. I have need of this language.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

- and when it rains I think of you

I can't be absolutely sure of this, but I think my very first valentine card probably came from my father. When I was at boarding school he sent me one with a thick, embossed heart on it, signed it "love, Daddy" and drew a heart made out of kisses. He and my mother had been separated for some years and he was about to marry someone else, a woman only thirteen years older than I was. So this gesture, these tokens, were particularly good things, and I did love him dearly. But even I could see that it might have been more to my credit, in the eyes of my peers, had the card been from some anonymous admirer, albeit I was only eleven years old. In the classroom, valentines were left under the lids of the wooden desks, or ostentatiously lying on the top. I had two: one from a boy in the class who was sweet on me (he put his initials in the corner so I would know) and one from the class teacher, a dotty, good-hearted woman who had an eye out for anyone who might possibly be left out, and I was clearly a possible candidate. She drew it herself and composed a verse where each line had a letter from my name. This was a Steiner school, remember. Friends wrote in each others' autograph books, things like:

An elephant never forgets, they say,
And neither do I on St. Valentine's Day.

Enemies (or sophisticated kids who knew how to spar and banter) left anonymous scraps saying:

Roses are red, violets are blue,
And when it rains I think of you:
Drip! Drip! Drip!

Thankfully, I did not receive anything like this, but the words etched themselves into my consciousness and I later used it in a story I wrote. The thought of anyone actually receiving a message like this was, at the time, too much for me to fully digest - someone coming to their desk hoping for words that suggested, however obliquely, at love, friendship, some good quality in oneself revealed, celebrated, and finding instead: Drip! Drip! Drip!

Here on the edge, every restaurant, inn, pub and, actually, anywhere that sells anything, is screaming at us to remember Valentine's Day, just as they will be screaming about Mother's Day, Father's Day, not to mention the ancient festivals that still figure, somehow, in our calendars. We will be reminded to buy cards, chocolates, flowers, wine, treats. Of course anyone with sense and sensibility knows it for what it is. But even so, it is possible to reclaim something - to have our special days and small festivals. I did, as it happens, get a card for Mr. Signs, an image of two birds on a telephone line (they looked like the blue tits that come and lodge in our bird house every spring), and I left this with a bowl of fruit salad for him to find in the morning before he went to Shrink-school. He drew a red heart on an orange background with chalk pastels and wrote a verse about difficult choices (bathroom taps, kitchen tiles) versus easy ones (being with me). It kind of works, you'll just have to take my word for it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Light Flight

We went to Brighton today, later than intended because I was only up and ready after mid-day. The light here on the edge of the forest was soft and benign, though there was a sharpness in the air, it is still winter. I dressed in my elephant-motif quilted coat, wore pashmina and knitted gloves. The business that took us to Brighton is our new place: a one-bedroom, large-windowed, beautiful flat not far from the sea, which is to serve as the Signs pied-a-terre and possible workspace for Mr. Signs and me. It has needed a lot doing, is not yet ready, but the walls have all been plastered and the living room painted a colour that is almost white, but with a gentleness in the hue. Every time I see the place I feel happy, and lucky. We walked along the sea front, and the clear light from sea and sky - the light! So different from forest light, it went right into me, spirits rose effortlessly to meet it. We had late lunch in an old Edwardian sea food restaurant, ate oysters on ice with lemon wedges and tabasco sauce. The sun began to go down, Mr. Signs missed the match between Arsenal and Chelsea, but Arsenal (his team) lost anyway, we listened to snatches of it on the radio driving home.

Yesterday, a poetry group meeting in Lewes, a new beginning in a room above a pub. Someone said, the buds are beginning to appear, and I know she was talking about real buds out in nature, but somehow I took it personally, as a kind of positive diagnostic assessment of the inner aspect of things.

In the coming week, things are needing, wanting my attention. I wish for strength and vitality, beyond wildest dreams (used to dream I could fly, we all have those). If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride or, in some versions of the rhyme, they would fly. Let them be horses then. I'll ride, fly.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Random Insult

I don't usually pay much attention to anything Kathryn Flett says in her weekly Observer Column. Leafing through the Sunday magazine has become a bit of a habit, one that I should probably lose in order to save precious brain space for for more nourishing fare. She is one of those who had an illness (she believes was M.E.) that laid her low for three years, recovered from it and
now says:

"Though it manifests physically, I strongly believe there is a psychological component to ME – a point of view that will entirely fail to endear me to the soi-disant community of ME sufferers which occasionally seems slightly more interested in trying to persuade the still-largely-uninterested medical profession to take it seriously than in, say, trying to get sufferers to take more responsibility for their own individual recoveries, by any means necessary."

She clearly anticipates some kind of response from the "soi-disant community", and perhaps that is the whole point of putting out something like this - it will upset people and presumably get a bit of attention coming her way. It isn't called Yuppie Flu these days, and the illness is now taken much more seriously by the medical profession. The recent news of Lynn Gilderdale, who had severe M.E. for many years, has highlighted (for those who were unaware) what the reality of what this illness can be. But we are still, apparently, up for grabs and it's still ok to disrespect people with M.E.
For Kathryn Flett's information:

Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (which is not the same as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) is a neurological disease which has been recognised by the World Health Organisation since 1969 as a distinct neurological disorder, characterised by damage to the central nervous system. Even where some recovery is manifest, it is a lifelong disability where relapse is always possible. Check out the Hummingbirds Foundation for M.E. for more information, and then consider whether an apology might be appropriate.

Of all the people I have known with this disease, I have not encountered a single one who has not done everything in their power to bring about recovery. Persuading the medical profession to take M.E. seriously is just one of the things we do, and many of us also see this as a duty that is laid on us - so that others in the future do not suffer as we have done.