The day after New Year’s Day

The Swedish diplomat and writer Dag Hammarskjöld is famous for the manner and timing of his death. In 1961, Hammarskjöld became the only UN Secretary-General to be killed in office, on his way to negotiate a ceasefire in what was then Northern Rhodesia. He was also a diarist, and his only published book (Vägmärken, usually translated as Markings) is constructed from diary entries, from the volumes that he kept from the age of twenty right up until his death. He wrote the following line, a version of which was used by Dr. Rowan Williams as the title of a book:

For all that has been, thank you. For all that is to come, Yes!

Garden Naturalist and I spent the afternoon of the day after New Year’s Day pruning our dead tree. The dead tree is about sixty feet from the house, and at first glance does not appear to be dead, because it acts like a frame for a monstrous rambling rose and a clematis montana. Both have grown to massive proportions and when they bloom, the entire collaboration is a temple of pink and white flowers that can be seen from the other side of the valley. Nevertheless, the tree is most definitely dead, and has been for some time. We agreed that the time had finally come to chop down as much of it as possible before it either fell down or took over the garden completely (recall the Royal Rambler in Noggin the Nog, which I believe consumed an entire house). We cut off as many branches as we could reach, resulting in an enormous pile of wood; another enormous pile of spiky rose-twigs; and a third and most enormous pile of dead clematis. We both worked hard, bleeding in a dozen places from shallow cuts and nicks, at opposite ends of the garden: Garden Naturalist up a ladder with loppers, I by the house with a selection of saws, hacking the largest pieces into useful lengths to go on the fire.

The story I wish to tell here is as follows. A few minutes after we came into the house, laden with logs and twigs and flushed with the cold, we had a telephone call that resulted in us spending the remains of the day in a car and then a hospital, and then, after witnessing a mercifully brief but very courageous struggle with death, a car and a strange bed. Secondly, three weeks earlier, we had finally made the decision to end our marriage. It is testament to how much we still care for each other that we were capable of handling the intervening weeks; Christmas Day; New Year’s Day; and then, on the day I am talking about here, a large and symbolically irritating task of repetitive physical labour. Married readers will know that, in the darker moments, a marriage can feel like little more than that. Then, the tense, twilit drive; the hospital; and the aftermath of all that it brought, supporting and holding each other the whole time. I had been thinking about endings and beginnings and decisions and difficult choices for a few days (as per my introspective teenaged self: ‘I might be forgiven for beginning with several observations regarding the past year’. See He had his thingy in my ear at the time). I made a new and shiny resolution to be a more committed friend (to Garden Naturalist, of course, but to everyone else as well) and felt terribly brave and optimistic, as one does when everything one intends to change is safely inside one’s own head. The lesson for me here, which is what I want to share, is this: love can be changed, lost and found again, and still be love. People can change, leave us and not return, and yet still be people that we love and miss. Of course neither the love nor the person is the same, but we should not need them to be. What I am talking about here, therefore, is not New Year’s Day, but the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that: the days on which one has to follow through. For all that has been, thank you. For all that is to come, yes. Yes. A thousand times, yes.

‘He had his thingy in my ear at the time’

Disaster! Volumes 4 and 5 of my teenage diaries have gone so mouldy that they have become unreadable and have had to go in the recycling. I know I said volume 4 was a corker (see The dog expects me to make a full recovery): the Lord giveth, and He taketh away. I was such a prolific writer at this point in my life that this only deprives us of a period of approximately six months. Worse than this, however, apart from volume six and the most recent volume (which covers a period of nearly four years), every remaining volume has turned blue and furry (covering 1994-6. From 1996 to 2009, I stopped keeping a diary altogether, on the grounds that I simply didn’t have the time). If volumes two and three are anything to go by, neither my lack of diary from 1996 onwards nor the demise of the intervening volumes has deprived the world of anything too wonderful in terms of writing. Let us comfort each other with volume six, then, which covers October 31st 1993-February 6th 1994.

Obviously, my productivity has taken a sharp dip in the intervening twenty years or so, particularly when one considers the enormous quantity of letters that I used to churn out as well (of which more in subsequent posts)[1]. The urge to record every tiny event, and to produce writing that is notable for its quantity rather than its quality, continues (January 16th 1994: ‘Sorry to have ended in the middle of a sentence, but I have got so much on my hands. There is so much to write, but I can’t really write now’). Even better, a month later I am undermining even this central theme; for example, see February 6th 1994: ‘I have a million and one things to write’; top of the next page: ‘I can’t think of anything else to say, except that there is a disco on Friday. I probably won’t go’. Judging by volume six, the fact that I can now comfortably fill a notebook over the course of four years is partly because of the strains and responsibilities of adult life, which leave very little time for introspection and the recording of pointless tapir-related dreams (see The dog expects me to make a full recovery); but also partly because I have become less self-obsessed. Consider the following musings from November 12th 1993:

I have the most terrible cough. Which reminds me [how, I wonder?] that I have decided not to swear so much, and to be a nicer person generally. I am fed up with myself. As Bruce Springsteen says, I want to change my clothes, my hair (and) my face[2]. I have started wearing my hair up and now that I am almost of child-bearing age [I have no idea what I meant here since I was thirteen years old when I wrote this rubbish], I should stop behaving so immaturely and pull myself together.

I was in an even more priggish and pensive mood on New Year’s Eve, when, with no party to go to, I contented myself with a bizarre summary of 1993, opening with the solemn caveat that ‘I might be forgiven for beginning with several observations regarding the past year. I feel very serious.’

Other trends of note in volume six are my need to be very clear where I am when writing (December 1st1993: ‘am writing this before orchestra: my weekly comment on a Wednesday’); my peculiar brand of non-sequitur (January 22nd 1994: ‘we are working in small groups. I am with Jenny and Sarah, but that’s not the point’); and my very teenage embarrassment at anything and everything that my parents might do or say (December 29th 1993: ‘while I was having my hair cut, Mum took Dad [horror of horrors] to buy me some new bras’). I have also, to my enormous disappointment, become an inveterate gossip. Here we are on January 21st 1994:

Can you believe it? I am incredulous[3]. Sara got off with[4] DUKE VANCE (urgh!) EIGHT TIMES at some disco in Camelford while Daniel Murray sat watching (urgh urgh!). Sara told him (Daniel not Duke) not to tell anyone, so of course he told Jonathan who told Ollie who told EVERYONE (although of course Sara had already told me and I got to say ‘I ALREADY KNOW, TWATFACE’ in a dismissive fashion when he tried to tell me). This was not easy, however, because I am still SO SHOCKED. I am literally open-mouthed with astonishment (much like Sara and Duke, I suppose. URGH).’

What of my enormous proto-crush on Peter Richardson, I hear you cry (see The dog expects me to make a full recovery)? There are, of course, a depressingly large number of pages devoted to this, mostly on the ‘why-oh-why doesn’t he fancy me?’ theme, with the occasion glowing variation on ‘PR talked to me today! It was terribly exciting!’ to spice things up. The only diary entries that have any bearing on actual events, however, are as follows:

January 22nd 1994: My ear has been very sore and I have been taking ear drops for two weeks.

January 24th: Went to see Dr. G today who said I should have my ear syringed. Sounds painful.

January 27th: Today and yesterday I saw the school nurse two days in a row for painkillers and she rang up the surgery and got me an appointment tomorrow with a different doctor (she made a face when I mentioned Dr. G. I will have to miss Music but I don’t care as I can’t hear anything anyhow and my ear really hurts).

January 28th: Went to the doctor today. IT WAS AMAZING. The nurse said, ‘Dr. Richardson will see you now’, and I thought, ‘How lovely. That’s the same last name as PR. I hope he is gentle and nice.’ Then Dr. R came out and it was PETER’S BLOODY DAD (he’s a GP, it turns out[5]). He doesn’t look very much like PR, though (he looks like PR’s brother Doug. PR looks like his mother). PR’s mother is called Rosemary – Dr. R mentioned this in passing while he was looking into my horrible ear so it sounded really loud and booming. ‘Do you know my son Doug?’ he said eventually once he’d asked me all the usual tedious questions about my favourite subject at school and how much my ear hurt on a scale of one to ten (I said ‘seven point five’). ‘Yes,’ I said, trying to sound all casual. ‘But not very well. He’s a bit older than me.’ ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Do you know my son Peter, then?’ I wanted to nod, but he had his thingy in my ear at the time so I said ‘Yes, I do.’ ‘Ah,’ he said, and wrote something on his pad (hopefully about my ear). ‘We’re in the same set for French’, I said helpfully. ‘Ah!’ he said, this time more loudly (or maybe he did something to my ear so it sounded louder?). ‘How splendid.’ Then he gave me some ear drops, which have actually helped and I can almost hear everything again, hurray for me.

January 29th: Today I got to say to PR in the corridor, ‘I met your Dad yesterday. He fixed my ear. He seemed very nice,’ and he said ‘I didn’t know he was your doctor’ and I said ‘he’s not, but he fixed my ear anyhow and I can hear stuff again’, which wasn’t super-sexy but was at least an improvement on ‘Hi, Peter’. Perhaps this is the start of us actually talking.[6]

[1] There was so much correspondence, in fact, that I sometimes used to carry letters with me in case I had a spare moment at school: January 5th 1994: ‘In English today, Mr. Kloska [favourite English teacher, and probably one of the reasons I went on to read English at university] was ill, so we had the pig-in-a-wig (Mr. Kent). Then Mr. Chapman supervised us for the second period and I asked him if I could spend the time writing to S as I had finished all my work. He said that was fine provided he could check the spelling and grammar before I put it in the envelope (I had brought a pre-addressed envelope just in case, which he thought terribly funny)’.

[2]Dancing In The Dark’, of course, which also contains the deathless and oft-ear-wormed line ‘I’m sick of sitting around here trying to write this book’. Amen to that.

[3] Another word that I could spell and use in a written sentence, but not pronounce with any confidence.

[4] I don’t think we even knew ourselves what we meant by this ridiculous euphemism. What did she get off, exactly? The Necking Bus?

[5] Thanks for clearing that up, thirteen-year-old Literacystrumpet. We couldn’t have worked that out otherwise.

[6] It wasn’t.

‘The dog expects me to make a full recovery’

I never finished Middlemarch.[1] I was required to study it in my final year at university, and failed to make it past page two hundred: it became a question of whether my brain was going to turn into soup and drip out of my ears, or whether I was going to put the book down. The memory of sitting on my bed trying to digest this enormous slab of nothing, while out of the corner of my eye I could see a shelf of tantalising, brightly-coloured books (books with characters that didn’t make me want to poke my own eyes out just for something to do) came back to me this week. I am ashamed to say that the horrible writing that prompted this was my own.

Regular readers will recall that I am continuing to trawl through my teenage diaries, and have just finished reading volumes two (July 1992-May 1993) and three (May-August 1993). Volume two has proved to be considerably less entertaining than volume one; indeed, I struggled to find anything of any interest in it at all. It started promisingly enough, with my trademark comments on a holiday, consisting only of i. the number of times I have vomited on the trip home; and ii. some kind of encounter with a domestic animal (August 1st 1992: ‘Home at last. Wasn’t sick, hurray for me. Saw a Pharaoh hound in a layby’). It all goes downhill very swiftly, however, degenerating into nothing more than unedifying comments on how I am getting on at school (‘74% in the French test today. This is slightly better than last time’) and the rollercoaster ride of a truly pathetic crush that I had on a boy called Peter Richardson, who played the drums and spoke to me a handful of times during the four years we were at school together. These entries are so trite and sloppy that one example must stand for all: ‘Saw PR in the corridor outside English today. This made the whole day worthwhile, even though he called me ‘Jenny’ and didn’t come to wind band after school this week. He is so adorable!’

What happened to the sarcastic, slightly grumpy girl of volume one with her lists of how many curlews she saw on the way to school and her precocious vocabulary? Volume two is all very dreary, with endless mooning about Peter Richardson and his ‘strong, drum-playing hands’ (I kid you not) broken up with apparently endless and often highly detailed accounts of my dreams, none of which are interesting enough to record here (January 5th 1993: ‘Last night I dreamt I was being attacked by a tapir’. Recording the rest of the dream takes a full two pages, at the end of which I muse, ‘what does it all mean?’). I appear to be growing up in a vacuum: the rest of the family barely feature, and the only indication that I was living in the countryside comes from entries name-checking farmyard creatures (January 7th 1993: ‘Joe’s Grandpa has broken his arm. Dad says he had a fight with a cow’), and my feelings about any additional animals that my parents felt the need to purchase (February 2nd 1993: ‘Today the sheep arrived. They are enormous. Dad says the one that leads is going to be called MacDuff, but he is not a pretty chicken. I expect Father has been trying to give up coffee again’). The only thing that gives any real hint of my developing character is the following description of an attempt that my brother and I made to sleep outside:

August 12th 1992: Spent yesterday in tent. Put it up without any help. Got into sleeping bags. Then realised from looking up at the way the seams lay that the flysheet was on backwards, so had to get up, take it off and put it on again. Got back into sleeping bags. Then it started to rain and it turned out we had missed out the thingies that separate the flysheet from the rest of the tent and it leaked all over both of us. Took flysheet off; put separators in; put flysheet back on for the third time. Just as we got back into our sleeping-bags, Mum and the dog arrived to see if we wanted to give up and come inside (we did, but said we didn’t because, you know).

Several entries start with exclamations, such as ‘Honestly!’ or ‘As if!’; others begin with terse, unexplained statements like ‘Not speaking to Chantelle. Not after the way she behaved today’.[2] The vast majority, however, are simply dull from start to finish: ‘The day started amicably enough. We have got our results from our Maths tests and the Science test on microelectronics. I got the highest mark in my class of bozos and tossers. Also finished second in the long jump today’. Snore. Overall, I am bitterly disappointed by (specifically) my lack of ability to put a tent up correctly at the first attempt and my lack of pragmatism when offered a warm bed for the night; and (generally) the terrible deterioration in how interesting what I wrote was.

However, all is not lost, gentle reader. There are two things from which to draw comfort. One, I got over it (volume four is a corker). And two, volume three contains the following gem, which just goes to show even the most tedious reading matter can contain something of worth:

June 1st 1993: We spent the day playing Consequences with S and E. We tried the usual stories for a while, but decided letters might be fun. I was going to copy them all out, but that would use too much paper [clearly I was saving the pages for a breathless account of my next utterly pointless dream, in which no doubt I was expecting to be menaced by a sinister dugong]. So instead I have cobbled all the best bits into a single letter, as follows:

‘To my beloved father,

‘I am writing to myself as I have no-one sensible to talk to. As a result, I have mislaid my last letter. Before I get started on my main topic, how are you? I hope you are well, because I’m not. I have been ill with the plague. Fortunately, the doctor says that all he needs is someone to let the dog out in the morning. The dog expects me to make a full recovery.

‘I want to write to you and apologise for the fact that whenever I write to you, it is always a letter of apology. Cook is still very upset. I have tried to apologise to her for my bout of indecency at your party last Saturday, but she just cries and makes endless vats of awful stew. I am sorry to have embarrassed you and I hope you have forgotten all about it (until just now when you started reading my letter, which perhaps you should stop reading and certainly not reply to). Despite disgracing myself, it was a wonderful evening and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. However, I do not know how you have been feeling. Life is made slightly awkward by this matter and I fear your reply.

‘Yesterday we went rowing in the rain. It was brill-o, but a pity about the rain. Aunt Madge came along and brought gifts for all of us (she’s such a kind woman). Anyway, we gave her tea and were just sitting and talking when the doorbell rang. You just won’t believe who it was: Bruce from the house next door. He wanted me to go to the bathroom during the concert and was very distracting. Douglas is also getting very restless, as he has nowhere to store his cigars.

‘I feel that I should mention that I am writing to you from a spot of quicksand I have fallen into, and the paper keeps getting out of bed. I tripped yesterday and have broken my ear off. I am seriously inconvenienced without and wondered if you could mail me another?

‘To close, I suppose I should ask whether you wife is well? Mine is not. She’s sick in bed at long last, and we’re all wondering when she’s going to hop off. Anyhow, I will just say that I enclose a bomb, so do be careful.

Your puzzled friend’

[1] It’s Casaubominable.

[2] ‘Nobody wants to hear about Vanessa / and the terrible thing Vanessa has done to me.’