Seven for a secret never to be told

The rules of the Lucky Seven Meme say that one is supposed to go to page 7 or 77 of one’s current manuscript (naturally, one has half a dozen to choose from. Remember the Flanders and Swann Greensleeves routine: ‘if you’re writing a musical, which I’m sure practically all of you are …’); go to line 7; and then post on your blog the next seven lines or sentences. I’m still new to this blogging thingy, but I wanted to play too. To this end you will find below seven sentences from my longest manuscript (based very loosely on Alice in Wonderland, as you may recall from The origins of the filthy comma), from page 7 (chapter 1) and from page 77 (towards the end of chapter 10).  I promise you that this makes a lot more sense with the intervening seventy pages. I also recommend Seymour’s post on the same subject.

Page 7:

However, it has since been proved to ALICE (mostly by the behaviour of BORING SUSAN, of which more later) that this cannot be the case. FATHER clearly thinks otherwise as well and has never missed a week. FATHER has a stack of dictionaries, thesauri and other crosswording equipment on the windowseat behind his chair in the other room. Protruding from his shirt pocket is his Special Crosswording Pen (an important burgundy colour) and he’s writing his article for the parish magazine with a scratchy pencil onto lined yellow paper. FATHER has written everything in this fashion since reading somewhere that John Steinbeck drafted all of his novels in scratchy pencil onto lined yellow paper. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that my father reads or admires or resembles John Steinbeck in any way, however: he does not. MOTHER clatters back into the kitchen, thrusting the tuna-encrusted plate into the sink; FATHER, HUGH and ALICE have all finished eating while MOTHER communed with the village strays and MOTHER piles the crockery up into a greasy stack while FATHER inks an answer into the crossword with great care, muttering under his breath that this puts a ‘w’ in a very awkward place.

Page 77:

We walked to church. I recognised Frank and a woman I took to be his mother. Kate was at the organ, her feet moving placidly under her, calming the beast. There were several old people, who may have known Mother, or who may have been killing time before time returned the favour. There was a vicar at the front with absolutely no chin, who rushed up to us to say how sorry he was that our Mother had ‘passed over’, as if she had been launched into the sky. Afterwards, we went outside to see her lowered into her hole. The coffin was small (I pictured her crammed into it, her arms tight at her sides and her shoulders hunched around her ears like a vulture). Mary clutched my hand. 

‘Have you been eating all the big nuts again?’

I have a small orange book with ‘Single Cash’ printed on the outside, presumably sold by the Post Office or similar for the purposes of keeping one’s accounts. My parents bought this book in the 1970s and used it to record guests to their house, who liked what, who drank what, what they ate and how successful it was. They devised a star-based system, *** denoting ‘excellent’, ** for ‘good’, * for ‘boring’ and a terse horizontal line to indicate ‘don’t do it again’. Most of the handwriting belongs to my mother, but occasionally my father has added a note in his characteristically tiny hand, so that one can get a sense of them as a couple as well as the occasion they describe.[1] For example, on May 5th, 1978 the guests were Denis and Jan and my parents served a menu so redolent of the time that the date is superfluous: vichyssoise, onion and paté quiche, three-cheese quiche and salad, followed by banana and ginger mousse. My mother comments underneath as follows:

Jan ate very little [and] didn’t drink much. Jan does not like banana or ginger (or us!). Denis does. Not a successful evening.

My father has added at a later date, “nor, indeed, was the return match, 15.7.78”). I wonder if it is telling that the banana and ginger mousse is the only item on the menu to receive three stars? This evening was two years before I was born, so I have no idea who Denis and Jan were or how my parents knew them (although I note that they are not invited again, except when the group is very much larger). They sound rather like the sort of couple described by Basil Boothroyd in the opening pages of Lets Stay Married, who appear stable and sane with no more than the usual trivial irritations and discontents, and who then suddenly divorce in a blaze of acrimony and are never seen again, except from a distance with their new and horrible partners.

If you are married, or divorced, or contemplating either state, allow me to suggest that you purchase a copy of this excellent book without delay. We got our copy from a charity shop for a pound, and it bears the tender inscription ‘To Alan, lots of love from Wendy, Christmas 1967’. The book was first published in 1967, so I think the devoted and wise Wendy may have even purchased it new, and it opens with a chapter pondering firstly how it is that the couple in the book (Mr. and Mrs. A) have managed to stay joined together when all around them are being put asunder[2], and secondly the etiquette of managing the severed halves of such couples when they form new partnerships. I would provide a short summary of the rest of the book, which Mr A. begins on page 18, but he never reaches the end of the paragraph (‘I seem to have lost the thread of this bit, having been sent out in the middle of it to put a bucket over the rhubarb’). The rest of the book continues in a similar vein: the content is somewhat fractured with the two spouses talking at cross-purposes more often than not, my favourite example of which is as follows:

‘I see Fred’s divorcing that what’s-her-name,’ I shall be saying to my own wife of surprisingly long standing – ‘you know, we had them here that evening we never showed the movies. What was her name?’
   ‘He called her Pooh-Pooh.’
   ‘No, he didn’t. He called her Chunkyboots. She called him Pooh-Pooh.’
   ‘Have you been eating all the big nuts again?’
   ‘Apparently she had this habit of cracking her knuckles in the pictures. Shake the tin. They come to the top.’
   ‘Oh, yes. There’s a recipe here for something called Rabbit Basket. You scoop out the inside of a small brown loaf.’
   ‘She didn’t defend it. But she claimed that Fred used to whistle while she was telling him her dreams, so they gave her the custody of the furniture. Why brown?’
   ‘It says here you can clean suede shoes with tallow and breadcrumbs.’
   ‘You could use the scoopings out of the loaf.’
   ‘What loaf?’

Lets Stay Married was another of our bath-time reads (see To wield a lordly loofah), and one of our most successful choices[3], along with Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About.[4] Highlights include a not-quite-argument in chapter one over a closely- and ineptly-fought game of scrabble in which Mr. A is so disconcerted by his wife’s casual revelation that she bumped into Freda Whackstraw at the hairdresser earlier that day that he puts down the word SCONGE[5] and muses that ‘[i]f the house caught fire it would be nice’; a chapter entitled ‘How Much Are The Tranquilisers?’; and Mr. A’s quite brilliant defence of a spectacularly unsuccessful shopping trip on which he has failed to buy the correct window mop and picked up a beef pie when Mrs. A had ordered chicken:

Some men, I know, would regard my attitude as weak, contemptible and a betrayal of our great sex. I’d like to make the point, just for the record, that I’m as capable as the next man of breaking a window mop over my wife’s head. A pie too, if pushed. All I say is, what have you got at the end of it all? No mop, no pie, no wife.

The pièce de resistance, however, is the index. I am training to become an indexer at the moment and the greatest pitfall to overcome must surely be the temptation to try to be funny at the wrong moment. A short extract only must suffice for the whole, and so I give you edited highlights of the entries beginning with the letter ‘c’:

Carriage lamps, wife’s earrings likened to, p. 39
Coconut, recommended demeanour when sawing, p.31
Colour-blindness, cross-allegations of, p. 44
Commercials, new saucepans in, p. 129
Convict, squirrel mistaken for, p. 30
Cooking, hazards of electric, p. 69
Cucumber, return of faulty, p. 63

I venture to suggest that there are few marriages (or indeed indexes) that could survive either partner being packed off to a recalcitrant greengrocer with a cucumber that has failed to live up to expectations.

[1] 21st Dec 1978: Mother comments that Father “enjoyed himself”; Father responds by writing “Hic!” underneath in shaky pencil.

[2] This happens for a variety of reasons. Take Julie and Haunch Benison, who (in Mrs. A’s view) break up because ‘he used to dry his rugger shorts stretched on the legs of the ironing board, and when she tried to collapse it they somehow messed up the mechanism and it sat down at one end like a cow and laddered her stockings’; or Viv and Vic Cripps further down the same page, whose divorce revolves around Viv swatting a wasp with Vic’s cummerbund.

[3] My only quibble is Mrs. A’s tolerance for domestic violence on page 105: ‘my advice to a girl who wants to save her marriage is wear long sleeves for a week, or dark glasses if an eye is affected.’ Literacystrumpet does not condone this view; see Punch Drunk for my thoughts on this thorny subject).

[4] Like Bleak House, this tested our funny voices to the limit, containing as it does a German, a Welshman, an Irishman and a Scotsman, a man of indeterminate Asian origin who talks like an advert (‘Hi, guy! 24/7, yeah? Nazim here!’) and a couple of mysterious Chinese characters who (mercifully) don’t have much direct speech.

[5] ‘Sconge’ isn’t a word, you say? I think you will find it in free usage in the Literacystrumpet/Garden Naturalist household, along with the eternally useful phrase ‘were you raised in a bag?’, also from Lets Stay Married.

To wield a lordly loofah

The title for this post is from ‘In The Bath’ by Flanders and Swann. Towards the end, they suggest that they can ‘see the one salvation of the poor old human race/In the bath, in the bath!/Let the nations of the world all come together face to face/In the bath, in the bath!’, a splendid idea that I have no doubt will become mandatory for the United Nations should Garden Naturalist ever come to power.

My husband’s favourite things, in no particular order, are as follows: his bed, his garden, potato-based foodstuffs, tea, nudity, books and his bath. For the entire duration of our relationship (some thirteen years at the time of writing), we have indulged in an activity that neatly encapsulates the last four items on this list: reading aloud at bath-time.

The Literacystrumpet/Garden Naturalist household laughs in the face of hosepipe bans, abandoned power showers and brushing one’s teeth dry. We have two water-butts, which even after a dry winter are both full, Garden Naturalist having rigged up a terribly clever arrangement linking them to each other and to the downpipe using a length of plastic hose he found in a skip. We also conserve water (although this is not our primary motivation, dear readers) by sharing the bath. This fact seems to cause other people to raise their eyebrows, so I suppose it must be slightly kinky.[1] I promise you, however, that as well as saving water, sharing a bath is not only highly entertaining, but with the addition of reading matter, educational. Our current bath-time book, for example, is The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu. In its favour I can say that it rattles along, packing plot into the pages as a goose-botherer might pack food into a slow-moving bird; we are a hundred pages in, and already several gruesome and ingenious murders are behind us (including one involving a giant poisonous centipede, a horrid thing which is killed with a golf club), along with a bizarre Lynchean dream sequence. Do not be deceived, however: this is a very, very bad book. For one thing, it is breezily racist  (“we yet were cut off, were in the hands of Far Easterns, to some extent in the power of members of that most inscrutably mysterious race: the Chinese!”). The Asian characters are invariably described as “little”, “yellow” and “impassive”, with the obvious exception of Dr. Fu-Manchu himself, who for some reason defies racial stereotype sufficiently to have bright green eyes. Many of Fu-Manchu’s minions are “little brown men” of various kinds, referred to as thugs, dacoits or lascars and they are all primitively dressed in loincloths or similar, despite living in London all the year round. Another major fault is Arthur Sarsfield Ward’s[2] inability to calm himself when describing his diabolical villain. His muse, already palpitating, turns quite hysterical whenever it is in the presence of the devilish doctor:

Of him it has been fitly said that he had a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan. Something serpentine, hypnotic, was in his very presence … chained to the wall, two medieval captives, living mockeries of our boasted modern security, we crouched before Dr. Fu-Manchu … never turning away the reptilian gaze of those eyes which must haunt my dreams for ever. They possessed a viridescence which hitherto I had only supposed possible in the eye of the cat … I can speak of them no more!

Ward is an old-fashioned writer. He is not keen on characterisation except of the blandest and most obvious sort, and descriptions are breathless, cliché-ridden affairs. He does not shy away from statements in which style rides roughshod over meaning in the interests of maintaining something approaching dramatic tension.[3] Our narrator, chronicler and occasional pronouncer of the blindingly obvious is the sub-Dr. Watson, Dr. Petrie, brought in without so much as a by-your-leave to assist the cardboard cut-out colonial that is our other hero, Mr. Nayland Smith. The reader learns all he needs to (and, indeed, all he is going to) from Ward’s initial description:

a tall, lean man, with his square-cut, clean-shaven face sun-baked to the hue of coffee … I had thought him in Burma!

Ward riffs on this occasionally as the story progresses, telling us in moments of heightened excitement that Smith “tugged the lobe of his left ear”, “paled beneath his tan”, or that “his square jaw grew truculently prominent”, whatever that means. Ward is also a bit of a dunce when melodrama really has him by the throat, exclaiming at one point that “Smith struck a match and re-lighted his pipe. His eyes were literally on fire!” (one is reminded of Tom Lehrer in The Masochism Tango: ‘my heart is in my hand. Eugh.’). Ward is also old-fashioned in the sense that he doesn’t understand (or see the point of) women. We can see ample evidence of this in the clergyman’s daughter Greba Eltham, who obligingly faints twice after seeing Dr. Fu-Manchu’s inexplicably green eyes in the early evening. Then, “becoming charmingly confidential, as a woman often will with a tactful doctor”, she tells Dr. Petrie she has seen a mysterious creature climbing over the walls of the building.[4] “Do you know anything with a long thin body?” she asks guilelessly:

For a moment I offered no reply, studying the girl’s pretty face, her eager, blue-grey eyes widely opened and fixed upon mine. She was not of the neurotic type, with her clear complexion and sunkissed neck; her arms, healthily toned by exposure to country airs were rounded and firm, and she had the agile shape of a young Diana, with none of the anaemic languor which breeds morbid dreams.

Greba aside, the only female character of note is the other cliché of this sort of rip-roaring nonsense: the exotic and/or treacherous beauty. This provides the reader with another joy inherent in the reading of any such adventure books, the unintentional double entendre. The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu is littered with these[5] and never more so than when the excitingly diacritical Kâramanèh is wafting about in her trademark “gossamer silk” nighties and “barbaric ornaments”, clasping Dr. Petrie by the lapels, quivering with passion of various sorts and panting important bits of plot into his ear. After a conversation of no more than a few pages, she falls wildly in love with him; Dr. Petrie, like the stiffly-upper-lipped pillar of the British Empire that we know him to be, does his best to resist (this proves to be “harder than I could have dreamt of”, fnar fnar). Enslaved to Dr. Fu-Manchu by means that have not yet become apparent, she refuses to leave him of her own free will, but instead begs Dr. Petrie for a quick bit of S&M while they wait for the fiend to commit his next murder (‘“… carry me off” – she clutched me nervously – “so that I cannot escape, beat me if you like … my lips will be sealed no longer.”’). For the aid of baffled readers, Nayland Smith offers the following explanation for this misogynist twaddle:

“You don’t know the Oriental mind as I do … if you would only seize her by the hair, drag her to some cellar, hurl her down, stand over her with a whip, she would tell you everything she knows … and she would adore you for your savagery, deeming you forceful and strong!”

Ah. I see.

Reading aloud is becoming a lost art, and yet it offers so much: a chance to read books at a leisurely pace (rather than devouring them in a few hours, as is my habit); a shared activity that can be tragic, hilarious or thought-provoking depending on the book of choice; and numerous opportunities to practice one’s funny voices. The longest book we have ever tackled in this fashion is Bleak House, which totally exhausted our stock of comedy accents and took nearly six months to read. I also have a cherished memory of our friend Toy Soldier reading aloud to the assembled guests at last year’s Applefest party (see Eve’s Pudding) from Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul (the passage about hunting elk in the forests). For his encore, he chose a book at random, which turned out to be In the Springtime of the Year, probably the most depressing book in the house, in that it is about a woman whose husband dies by being hit on the head with a tree in the first few pages and who then develops a deep and meaningful attachment to a donkey. The most unlikely books can lend themselves to reading aloud. Obviously the adventure genre has much to offer here (Treasure Island, A High Wind in Jamaica and North to Adventure! were all hits; Robinson Crusoe a surprisingly boring miss), but I also recommend gentle Englishness in the form of P.G. Wodehouse, E.F. Benson, Barbara Pym and Saki, and/or books with potentially lurid subject matter (we particularly enjoyed Consuming Passions and The Debt to Pleasure). The acid test of any book is this: turn to page 56 and read the second paragraph aloud (you may read more if this turns out to be a passage of dialogue or if the paragraph consists of merely one or two words, as is so often the case). This exercise is the only way to distinguish between something you will tire of by page twelve, and something you will look forward to wresting from your partner. Here is the relevant paragraph from page 56 of The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu:

“Oh! I don’t quite know what I do mean, Dr. Petrie. What does it all mean? Vernon has been explaining to me that some awful Chinaman is seeking the like of Mr. Nayland Smith. But if the same man wants to kill my father, why has he not done so?”

Why indeed? Tune in tonight.

[1] I can’t see why. One is prepared to enter into any number of other activities that involve one’s partner being in the nip, after all.

[2] Naturally, the absurd moniker ‘Sax Rohmer’ under which the Fu-Manchu books were written is a pen-name.

[3] Consider, for example, the following baffling sentence, clearly attempting to mimic Conan Doyle in its use of the word ‘singularly’: “Weymouth entered, big and florid, and in some respects singularly like his brother, in others as singularly unlike”. I’ve read this four times now and I still have no idea what it means.

[4] It turns out to be no such thing, Ward having played his Weird Animal Accomplice card earlier in the book with the aforementioned giant centipede.

[5] “Beside me, Nayland Smith was straining and twisting. I think his object was to touch Kâramanèh, in the hope of arousing her with his foot.” At this point in the narrative, Smith and Dr. Petrie are strapped to a boat that is on the point of sinking into the murky waters of the Thames. It’s the middle of the night and Dr. Fu-Manchu has just leapt overboard, clasping a staunch London policeman in one hand and a hypodermic needle of unknown provenance in the other. In other words, it is neither the time nor the place.

The pillar and the beam

The title of this post comes from ‘My Friend’ by the sublime Bill Callahan. I’m pretty sure this song is about a horse, but that need not concern us here.

Two of the most important relationships in my life took a turn for the worse in recent times, and so I’ve been thinking about relationships a lot, as I always do when they go squiffy. Perhaps I over-think (or perhaps other people under-think? That must be it). Here’s what I want to share: my thoughts on the word ‘relationship’ and what I think it means.

It was most unfortunate for one of the people in question (let’s call her Metallic Trainers) that the other person (Hates Commas) behaved very much better in terms of responding to this crisis. A mistake that I have seen people make again and again is putting time and energy into the wrong relationships. I’m sure that my (many, many) readers can easily name friends, relatives and assorted acquaintances who have poured themselves out for the sake of people and relationships that were emphatically Not Worth It.[1] I suggest that these same people often expend good energy after bad in pursuit of relationships that do not merit so much attention and time, while at the same time leaving themselves too spent to put time and energy into other relationships that would merit it: relationships with people who would respond in kind, rewarding that effort and love tenfold. Hates Commas and I will always be friends. This is not because we love each other (although we do), but because we work hard at our friendship. It matters to both of us, so if we fall out over something, we fix it. We apologise heartily; we try to understand how it went awry in the first place; we agree to make changes so that this never happens again; and we do our best to pick up where we left off, chastened, changed and profoundly grateful to still be in each other’s lives. This process of working at a relationship is what holds it together. It is like the layer of jam in a Victoria sponge, if you will.[2] Without the jam, this is just some food on top of some other food. In other words, if you don’t work at your friendships, they cease to be friendships. They are merely some conversations that you have had and some things that you have done and some things that you used to feel with or about people you know (and will presumably cease to know the moment that some actual effort is required).

Metallic Trainers and I will probably never communicate again in a meaningful way. This is not because we don’t care about each other (although obviously we care a lot less than Hates Commas and I, or we wouldn’t be where we are). It is because we disagree fundamentally about what constitutes a relationship. I think a relationship is something that you work at constantly, over months and years (and decades, if you are so blessed). People will say this about (and even attempt to apply this to) marriage, but I think it should apply to all important relationships. Metallic Trainers appears to think that a relationship is something you fiddle with now and again in an idle moment; something you pick up and turn over in the light, as you might do with an ugly ornament of a size and shape that perhaps makes it difficult to be sure exactly what it is supposed to be. When you have finished examining it, you replace it on the metaphorical mantelpiece and remove it from your mind until the next time you happen to be at a loose end in that room[3], and you wander off.

I also think a relationship has to be mutually satisfying. It must give back some of what you put in, even though (and I think this is the key) you should always give more than you expect to get back. Maybe you take turns in putting more into it at different stages of your life and health, and maybe it doesn’t always feel equal, but taking the lifespan of the relationship as a whole, it must be sustaining for this to be a worthwhile use of your time and energy. This is particularly true when you consider that you can only give a finite amount of time and energy. Unless you are a bottomless well of love and patience (and only the divine can claim to be such), you must neglect some people and invest in others. So it really and truly matters where you direct your feelings, and how you decide to express them.

It is an oft-repeated truism that you shouldn’t love something that cannot love you back[4]. This is a principle that only makes sense to me when applied to other people. Loving someone that cannot love you back in the way that you want them to is a waste of love, and it is kinder to both of you to simply sigh, shake hands and go your separate ways. In the case of myself and Metallic Trainers, the sponge is dry: jam-less and pointless. It used to be a cake, but a pale, inedible sham of a cake. It used to positively drip with jam, but all the Goddamn jam came from my store cupboard. What jam remains is precious to me, and therefore I am trying to make my peace with the idea that Metallic Trainers and I have nothing to say to each other. This makes me sad, but it should also, eventually, make me free.

[1] Softly, now. Do this in your inside voice, particularly if you’re at work.

[2] The sponge represents what Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young describe as ‘what we’ve said and done and felt about each other’. You can listen to a version with all the words, or I also found this rather wonderful piece of banjo-ified nonsense. I also think the mutual acceptance and support that I expect from a real, rich friendship is neatly summed up in the same song by the repeated lines ‘I am yours/You are mine/You are what you are’.

[3] To overstretch the metaphor, in my conception of what the word ‘relationship’ means, the ornament would be something that you carried around with you (in the pocket of your figurative dressing-gown, perhaps), turning it over with your hand as a constant source of comfort and support in times of trouble. You wouldn’t care a jot for its ugliness or obscurity, and would search for ways to make it better, tenderly and painstakingly repairing it if one of its baffling limbs broke off, and always knowing where it was and why it was important.

[4] What nonsense. Why should I not, for example, have affection for a building or a book or an instrument? They cannot love me back, but I don’t need them to. See also Charles Simic’s rather wonderful poem ‘Things Need Me’, which I think expresses a touching affection for objects.