Tuesday, February 28, 2012


It is that time of year: Lent, and the almost beginning of Spring. The birds are singing more but from my perch in the Signs Cottage study, I don't see very much happening and something seems to be not quite right in the garden. It is the absence of apple tree, which fell down last year, having covered itself in a swansong of blossom and final burst of fruit before giving up the ghost. My eye still looks for it and comes up against the hollow-eyed falling-down shed at the bottom of the garden, and the tall fir tree in the garden opposite. Everything changes. This blog changes: first white, then black, now grey; and my posts are becoming less frequent. No apologies. It is very cringe-making when people apologise for not having blogged - as though one has been sitting up twiddling thumbs waiting for them to come back while they were away having a life. The blog itself, though, begins to feel like a friend that one has not been in touch with for a while. The longer one leaves it, the more difficult it becomes to re-establish contact until finally, I imagine, the relationship begins to pale and then becomes an erstwhile rather than a current one.

On Shrove Tuesday I decided to give up the internet for Lent. Then on Ash Wednesday I decided not to because a) it isn't as though I have a terrible internet habit that is interfering with the rest of my life and b) giving things up suddenly felt like a bad idea as health issues mean that I have enough restrictions in my life. My best Lent resolutions have in any case been to do with taking things on. One year I resolved to write a poem each day. I didn't keep the resolution, but many more poems were written during the period than if I hadn't made it. This year I will be writing in the notebook every day.

March will be full of good things in the way of daughter's plays being put on at various places in London (she is one of this year's Royal Court young writers), and also a musical directed by son. So there will be trips back and forth to the Smoke. If health and strength are gold coins, I will need to get a stash of them.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Stories and Lies

I have been reading John Burnside, who recently won the T.S.Eliot for his extraordinary Black Cat Bone. This and Hunt in the Forest have taken up residence by my bedside and I have also been reading his memoirs. I am interested in the narrative he constructs from his life. In a sense, all narratives about ourselves are stories. John Burnside's father was, he discovered after the father's death, a foundling - left on someone's doorstep and passed from place to place, an unwanted burden in hard times. So his father told lies, told this story and that, about who he was, where he came from and the identity of his parents. Any story was better than the fact of having been abandoned on a doorstep without even a label around his neck.

The stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are, where we come from, are perhaps a kind of lie, even for those of us who were not left cold on a doorstep. They have to be lies, partly because all stories are lies, and most of us need to place ourselves within the context of a narrative that makes sense. But there is something else: Jeanette Winterson's autobiographical Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was, in a sense, a lie about her childhood and her mother. The story she wrote was not as bleak and dark as what really happened. She wrote a story she could live with. But even in her recent memoir, which tells her story as it really was, I find myself asking questions about her father and why he failed to protect her. He comes across as an essentially good person and probably was - but my guess is that the narrative JW has constructed requires this because at the very end of his life she was close to him and there was reparation - a kind of healing. She is still telling the only story she is prepared to live with.

The narrator of her novel The Passion says: "Trust me, I'm telling you stories."

I tell (myself) many stories about where I come from, pinpoint landmarks on the road that led me to where I am now. In terms of location, there were many as we were so often on the move, from England to Germany and back again, from one place to another, frequent change of schools. What strikes me now is that there is nowhere I look back on to say: this is where I come from; these are my people and this my language. There is no 'we' because I did not belong to a group, and family life was fragmented. In my working-class primary school my accent and manners were strange. I did not realise I had a German accent. In schools where middle-class children went, my accent and manners were strange. I had picked up a cockney accent and still carried a trace of the German. I met the boy who would be my first husband when I was sixteen. He came from somewhere - a tenement in Glasgow and a community. Where he came from was written into everything he did and said. I married him and picked up a trace of his accent.

This is the story I would have to lie about - what the narrative would need to cover: that I spent my childhood among strangers and came from no particular place. I lived in books and other people's stories. This is not so unusual, especially for an introverty child who is an early reader. I can draw a map of my childhood, say where I have been, in this book or that story, from Peter Rabbit through Narnia, Wind on the Moon and Mallory Towers to the diaries of Anne Frank. But this is the only map I can make and it is not enough for a satisfying narrative. I construct others, therefore - put together versions that feel coherent and reveal an aspect of what I feel to be true; of lived experience. If a story no longer serves its purpose, I make another one.

Trust me, I'm telling you stories.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Work in Progress

I was buzzing last night. It often happens before sleep, or the not-sleep time in the small hours. There are moments of near-blinding lucidity when I am able to name something, nail it to a great canvas of words that wait only for my attention, to be arranged into something meaningful. Next day, I think, next day I will do it, catch whatever it is. You can do this quite well if you make a habit of writing things down immediately on waking, straight from sleep. You can't do it quite so well or even at all when you are M.E.-compromised, as I mostly am and have been. This is why I was buzzing last night. It is the wretched creative creature, banging on the window frame wanting to be let in, like Cathy's ghost in Wuthering Heights. We are bewitched, bothered and bewildered, Heathcliff and I. But at least he is able to rampage across the moors in all weathers.

Sometimes I repeat words to myself last thing, hoping that by doing so I will catch the idea in the morning. I woke up today mouthing, "a work in progress." Last night these words had been pregnant with meaning. Today I have drawn a blank. What is this Work in Progress? There are several, but this time I have a feeling that the creative hooligan was not referring to one of my unfinished writing projects. I think it was referring to my life with M.E. It is a work in progress. Clearly there were things I thought I had to say about this. But what? I know I have to live with this damn thing, I continue to try and find ways of getting myself better, usually fall flat on my face but, you know, "Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul" etc. I have no choice but to be heroic. We all are. Just because we are many does not make our individual journies any less heroic. I have said this kind of thing before, surely.

Perhaps there is something else I have to realise about this particular work in progress. It is, after all, the only work that is always, at all times, available to me. I think we are coming perilously close to the business of noticing dust motes in the fingers of light that point through wooden (IKEA) slats and I have done this (and do this) almost to perfection. They spin like ballerinas dancing on points, is what I wrote in my last Dust Mote poem, which was really not half bad.

I am half sick of dust motes, said the Lady of Shalott.