‘Dearer than eye-sight’

 

Right now, I’m supposed to be starting an MA in crime fiction.[1] I say ‘supposed to be’ because we’ve had to spend my MA Savings Pot on the Hound (see Dog Days and Nothing but a Hound Dog), who has been an unwilling participant in a very slow and unnecessarily realistic folk production of King Lear. I offer an account of his recent medical issues as a partial explanation for both my lack of MA-starting and the fact that I haven’t posted anything on the blog since the general election.

I am terribly squeamish about bad things happening to my eyes, and the eyes of those I love. The scene in Quantum of Solace where the guy has his eyes poked out just before his neck is broken was (just about) short enough that the wave of nausea wasn’t enough to make me actually throw up; the subsequent neck-breaking was an act of mercy for both him and me. When I was a student, I skipped the Dept. trip to see Oedipus Rex because I thought there was a good chance I’d reintroduce everyone to my lunch, if not prompted by the sight of eyeless Oedipus itself then certainly by anticipation of the same. Any production of King Lear (other than the one going on in the Oval Office right now, of course, which doesn’t induce nausea so much as despair)[2] forces me to remind myself that it’s not real; it says something for the power of the suspension of disbelief that this is necessary. Recently, I was proofreading a thesis about ‘in yer face’ theatre, a nihilistic modern genre that includes graphic depictions of sex and violence. Most of the seminal (fnar fnar) works were, unsurprisingly, written in the 1990s, and the thesis included a long and detailed analysis of, among other things, at least one character being blinded: his eyes are literally sucked out of his head by another character. You’d think a vacuum cleaner would be a useful capitalist symbol to reach for here, but no: he uses his mouth, like those Greek fishermen that bite octopodes in the brain.[3] I’m a professional, so I read it and marked it up, including correcting the horrible word ‘enucleation’, which is the technical medical term for removing an eye.[4] Having marked it up, I then had to go and have a little lie down and think about something (anything) else.

Knowing somehow that he would be enacting my greatest fear (apart from sharks, but fuck sharks for now. No doubt they’ll get their turn, the toothy bastards), the Hound developed a bulgy eye. It wasn’t clear for several weeks what the problem was, but in the meantime he got bulgier and bulgier, until his eye was right outside the skull, held in by nothing more than two very stretched eyelids and hope. Remember Delacroix’s death in The Green Mile when he goes into the electric chair and his eyes pop out of his head on strings? It was like that, but as if the botched execution happened to Mr. Jingles (i.e. someone who didn’t in any way deserve it), in slow motion and without the burning smell. At one point, under the impression that our numerous trips to the vet were for some other purpose, the Hound put his paw on my knee and simply held his blind, swollen eye out to me, as if to say, I mean, look at this thing. It’s fucked. DO SOMETHING.

July 1st
‘This dog’s eye is possessed. Please send £2 a month.’

He must have been in terrible pain, and according to the vet, likely to have been suffering from nasal and auditory hallucinations from the pressure on his brain and his sinuses; certainly he spent a lot of time barking, apparently at Pain itself. After exhaustive testing and a load of dental work (his teeth were also popping out of his head. Rats leaving a sinking ship), it emerged that he had some form of tumour in what is called the ‘cone’ i.e. the space immediately behind the eyeball. The eyeball has a number of blood vessels strung off the back of it, rather like one of those 1970s plant-pot-holder thingies people used to hang in their stairwells. The blood vessels form a cone; at the point of the cone they meet the optic nerve, which then joins the optic nerve from the other eye in a y-shape, and off we all go to the brain. It was, therefore, impossible to remove the tumour without also removing his right eye: the two things were simply too deeply bound up in each other.

The Hound’s tumour was not the potato-shaped blob one might imagine, but a gnarly, sprawling, many-limbed affair. Moreover, it was growing so fast that his good eye (the left) was starting to turn inwards as the optic nerve reached the limits of its flexibility. Having removed both tumour and eye, the vet described the tumour as ‘crunchy’ and noted that at least three (but probably seven) of the twelve teeth the Hound had lost in the preceding weeks had become loose because the tumour had grown down into the top of his gums and literally pushed them out by the roots, from the inside. It had then inserted a tentacle into each hole to allow it to go on growing: during the enucleation operation, each tendril had to be physically manipulated back up into the skull before the whole tumour could be removed from the Hound’s skull, through his eye socket. When my (amazing, patient) parents-in-law and I went to collect him, the Hound was noticeably lighter than the previous day. ‘He’s lost weight’, I commented to the veterinary nurse. ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘He’s lost about 500g [8% of his body weight, dear reader]. That’s partly because he’s missed several meals so we can operate, partly because he threw up his dinner, and partly because the tumour weighed nearly 300g.’ The vet confirmed this, saying that if he had scrunched the nasty thing into a ball, it would have been nearly the size of a satsuma i.e. only slightly smaller than the Hound’s entire brain. ‘It was so astonishing when I finally got it out that I was going to take a photograph and email it to you. Then I realised it would give you nightmares,’ the vet observed. He’s not wrong.

Peco (or Pequod, as I sometimes call him now that he looks even more like a pirate) has bounced back from the whole ordeal magnificently. He only walks into things now and again, and has become comically bad at judging distances; like all dogs, having fallen down or tripped over nothing, he immediately behaves as if no such thing just happened and cheerfully goes on with whatever he was doing. He is also asks for cuddles far more readily. This includes being picked up and (very slowly, so that he doesn’t get dizzy) waltzed around the room, ideally to I Only Have Eye(s) For You, by the end of which he has usually dozed off. One of the vets we took him to advised us to have him put down ‘because he won’t have much of a life with one eye’, clearly not understanding how completely spoilt this dog is (also, the Hound had just bitten him savagely on the hand). The Hound sleeps in our bed, washes in our bath (which he adores, especially if you spray the shower-head right into his tiny face) and sits on our sofa. He goes on holiday with us; we pick up his poo; and I spend more time with him than with any other living creature. This evening, his dinner was giblets fried in butter, following by all the stringy bits of the roast chicken too good for the stock, all of which he ate at great speed and with little grunts of satisfaction. He is one-eyed, velvety and very contented. We could not love him more.


[1] It’s this one (the only such MA in the country). I know, right? The most (academic kind of) fun ever. Fun With Essays, if you will.

[2] I’m not even joking. Did you know Trump literally makes his aides go around the room and say something nice about him before they start meetings? Come, which of you shall we say doth love us most?

[3] Octopuses would be fine: octopus is a Greek word extracted into English and thus is both English and Greek in some sense. We can, therefore, form the plural according to either language, but personally I think English plurals on Greek words are ugly, and thus prefer ‘octopodes’. ‘Octopi’ is just a piece of pseudo-learned nonsense and should not be used in any circumstances: it’s a Latin plural that assumes ‘octopus’ must be a Latin word because octo is common to both languages. Here’s a nice lady from Mirriam-Webster to back me up.

[4] My customer had, rather touchingly, spelt it ‘enucleartion’, which I feel out to be the term for removing an extraneous eye that one only has from being exposed to large amounts of radiation, like the many-eyed fish in Springfield.

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Bing-bong!

The general election reminds me of the one and only time I have been door-stepped by a political representative. I have touched on this briefly before (see Brexit, pursued by a bear), but here it is again in all its glorious detail. The candidate was from the British National Party, and looked every inch of it: sweaty, middle-aged, red-faced. He had been squeezed into a cheap suit and then partially lynched with an offensive tie, before staggering into my front garden where I was pruning a hedge, and demanding I listen to his views on immigration. Predictably, and while casually holding a nice sharp pair of shears, I told him to fuck off back to where he came from. Nearly ten years later, this still fills me with a lovely warm feeling of a job well done. I also I find myself wondering why this heart-warming experience has been an isolated one. Unlike our (awful, recently departed)[1] neighbour, I always answer the doorbell when it rings. Bing-bong! It’s a parcel! Bing-bong! It’s the LRB! Bing-bong! It’s our horrible neighbour collecting a parcel I’ve taken for her because she doesn’t answer the fucking doorbell! She takes it from me without thanks and the Hound growls at her deep in his throat. Usually I tell him off for growling at people and warn them that he’s snappy at the moment because his teeth are hurting, but frankly she can take her chances. She doesn’t answer the doorbell because she’s disconnected it, on the grounds that ‘it makes the dogs bark.’ After three years of listening to the damn things bark at literally anything at all times of the day and night, I wonder if she’s considered making the barking stop by simply hitting them with a frying pan for a bit? Another option would be to leave them alone with our Tiny Hound in a locked room for an hour: they’re twice his size and there are two of them, but a. he would have the element of surprise, and b. he knows how much I hate those dogs. He also knows that if he were to kill them, he’d be allowed to shit on the carpet twice a day for the rest of his life, and I’d clear it up cheerfully, saying, ‘yeah, but you killed those dogs that lived next door! Remember when you borked them to death, ripped their ears off and then partially buried them? Who’s a good dog? Who’s a good dog?’ This may explain, then, why the woman next door doesn’t get door-stepped (‘wait. Why doesn’t this doorbell go bing-bong?’ <silence>), but what about me? I’ve been eligible to vote for twenty years, work from home almost every day and have never voted for either of the two main parties. Why haven’t I been door-stepped more often?

The first and most obvious theory is that I have spent the majority of my life living in safe seats. At the time of my encounter with the Person from Get The Fuck Out of my Garden, I lived in a safe Conservative seat. Indeed, I have lived in several safe Conservative seats, including those represented by Michael Heseltine, John Major and disgraced former defence secretary Dr. Liam Fox MP.[2] Currently, we live in yet another safe Conservative seat: at the 2015 election, the sitting MP won by a margin of over 14,000 votes, and the candidate in second place represented UKIP (and got over 10,000 votes).[3] Brilliantly, the website of my MP still reads ‘the next general election will be in May 2020’; he’s spelt his own name wrong on another page; and the page on which one is encouraged to contact him to raise issues (‘Your listening MP’) includes an enormous picture of his own ear. And, really, why the hell not? He now has a majority of 16,000 votes! He can do exactly what he likes, including not bothering to doorstep anyone at all; and the other parties know they would do better to concentrate their efforts in other, more closely-fought seats.

My second theory is that it may be genetic in some way. My mother loathed being door-stepped by anyone, and Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular. She once tipped a bucket of water over some people who knocked on the door to ask her if she’d thought about the fate of her immortal soul at all. I was nine or ten years old, off school with a tummy bug, and she had just finished clearing up a load of vomit (i.e. it wasn’t very clean water). Perhaps her reputation has somehow attached itself to me and I am on some kind of list of People Who Should Not Be Bothered?

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My third theory relates to the Hound. Even for a Jack Russel, he is very small (around eighteen inches from nose to tail), but now that he’s recovered from recent surgery on his teeth[4] his bark is really quite something. He sounds really very much larger than he actually is. He also sounds considerably more aggressive: his bark says ‘I’LL BITE YER FACE ORF!’, but last night while we watched the election coverage, he fell asleep contentedly on my chest and only woke up when Giant Bear and I high-fived each other over the first few results from the north-east. Perhaps potential door-steppers (here comes the door-stepper!) hear him barking his Big Boy Bark and go to ring the bell of the horrible woman next door instead. Good luck with that, Potential Door-Stepper. She probably won’t answer the door, and if she does, you’ll have to actually talk to her.

I found it fascinating how little Brexit was discussed meaningfully during this campaign. Fox-hunting was suddenly a live issue again for no reason whatever, but it seems that Brexit is just an embarrassing thing that we’re all sick to death of, eyeing it doubtfully much as one might consider a painful, distasteful but necessary operation that one had foolishly brought upon oneself: the removal of an enormous but ill-considered tattoo, for example, or the amputation of a gangrenous limb, although of course it is Britain that will be chopped off and discarded. I’m still furious that the referendum went the way it did, and on reflection I think it’s perfectly OK to be furious with people who voted Leave: some of them at least were, objectively, stupid.[5] Some of them at least were taken in by the lies that were told, and there is no way of telling who was and wasn’t persuaded by that misinformation; as I’ve written before (see Brexit, pursued by a bear), it’s very hard to know why we think what we think or why we vote the way we do, but this nonsense must have had some kind of effect. The slim margin of victory is also bonkers: we recently asked the members of our choir is they wanted to tweak the concert dress, and *all* the things we considered to be binding in the Sub-Committee Of Telling Grown-Up Women How to Dress (I was the mole on the inside) had to have at least a two-thirds majority. In other words, we’re going to leave the EU based on a margin that wouldn’t be sufficient to enact change in your average golf club. More mortifying to me (and more relevant to my argument here) is the cynical way the Leave campaign was run. Clearly they didn’t expect to win; clearly they didn’t expect people (or at least, not enough people to change the result) to believe the nonsense they were spouting, which then allowed them to go on spouting it with clear consciences; and clearly they have no idea whatever how to handle the absurd situation we find ourselves in.

Most astonishing of all is that, of all people, Theresa May failed to learn from David Cameron’s fatal mistake, which is that you should never take the electorate for granted. You don’t know how they’re going to vote, but if you think you do, why are you asking them? What do you think voting is? She also failed to learn the following from the Leave campaign’s mistakes (and there were plenty, even if we leave aside the whole winning-when-we-didn’t-really-want-to thing): make a fucking plan. It might not go the way you think it will. We know that she seems to have spontaneously lost her judgement because a. here we are, after all; and b. let us not forget that one of her first acts as Prime Minister was to make Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary, a role he is so breathtakingly unqualified for that it almost defies belief. It’s in the same category as Tony Blair becoming a peace envoy to the Middle East, which I still think must be satire.[6] What next? George W. Bush writing a book[7] received by critics as a cogent and thoughtful comment on our times? Putin releasing a range of vegan ready-meals?

These, and other such mad things, have left me tired and cynical. Therefore, my fourth and final theory for my lack of door-stepping is this: everyone over the age of thirty is tired. What I mean by that is that we’re tired of talking about politics (and hearing about it on the radio, in the pub, at work and on the TV), but also that we’re just tired. We’re too tired to ring doorbells (bing-bong! ‘Fuck off!’), and we’re too tired to answer them (bing-bong! ‘Fuck off!’). Yes, people could throw themselves into campaigning in my constituency in the hope of removing Ear Photography Guy, but it’s just too much effort, not very well spent. I teach at a university and so am well aware how brilliant young people are, but it’s worth saying that young people are particularly brilliant in three specific ways: (i) they don’t like being talked down to; (ii) they don’t read tabloids; and (iii) they aren’t knackered yet. They still have the energy to get excited about the possibility of change; to ring and answer doorbells; to have someone tell them to fuck off and not mind too much (the BNP guy really minded). I listened to an interview with someone from the University of Kent yesterday, in which she explained how student volunteers had knocked on doors in the run-up to the election asking students if they were registered to vote (and helping them to register if they weren’t), along with a hundred other things that helped get the vote out. That seat (Canterbury) is now a Labour seat, for the first time in a hundred years, with a winning margin of 187 votes. Young people did that.

In the last few days of the election campaign, I wondered if any of the opposition parties might consider posting huge pictures of Theresa May looking disappointed and chastened (possibly standing forlornly in a field of wheat, possibly not), with the simple caption ‘imagine her face’. Gentle reader, she’s making that face right now. She’s dreading the sound of her doorbell (I doubt the doorbell at 10 Downing Street goes bing-bong, but indulge me). Young people did that, too. Bravo.

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[1] Departed from the house, I mean, rather than departed this mortal plane, which I guess will have to do.

[2] I refer to him this way as per this brilliant article by Jonn Eledge in The New Statesman, and as per my own rules about never, ever letting powerful people off the hook (see Punch drunk).

[3] This time around, the UKIP guy finished a poor third with about 2,000 or so, and the candidate in second place represented Labour, who received around 16,000 votes. Silver linings?

[4] Sedating our tiny Hound (see Dog Days and Nothing but a Hound Dog) for his operation took twenty minutes. He’s so scared of vets that he climbed onto my shoulder, jumped off the bench four times, hid behind me, up my skirt and under the chair and even tried to get into my handbag, wailing piteously the whole time. Getting the needle into him required three people, two towels and two syringes (he bent the first one). Anyone that says they can subdue an animal larger than a domestic cat gently and single-handed is a liar. WTF, Born Free?

[5] It is also OK to be furious with people who voted Trump because WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY THINKING? There was, however, a lot of anger directed at various sub-categories of Trump voters (e.g. white women), and while that’s entirely reasonable (because WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY THINKING?), the people I am most angry with are people who didn’t vote at all. Have you seen this chart? It shows how ‘did not vote’ would have played as a third party and, honestly, it blows my mind.

[6] Speaking of Boris Johnson, I am reminded that President Trump has, for much of his time in office, worn much the same expression as Boris Johnson the day after the Brexit vote. Clearly, Trump didn’t actually expect to win, doesn’t want to do the job (unless he can make a fuckton of money from it and carry on going to rallies where people cheer his every mangled sentence) and literally doesn’t understand politics, the presidency or basic English. Well, I never expected to fall in love with a creature that licks its own arsehole when he thinks no-one is looking, but here we both are. Suck it up.

[7] George W. Bush reading a book (or using the word ‘cogent’ correctly in a sentence) would be almost as astonishing.

Chinese Whispers

Regular readers will recall that I often return from China with thoughts, on voting (see Brexit, pursued by a bear), the Rape of Nanjing (The fish that is black and Notes from Nanjing), insect bites (Bite me), asking and answering questions, both in interviews (No means no) and when drawn from the Embarrassing Questions Box (Please use power wisely, Shake it all about and Open the box) and salmon-skin suits (A small, mysterious corpus). This year (and what a year it has been!), it has taken me rather longer to process my thoughts. Of course, being in any city a few weeks before the G20 carnival comes to town would be interesting. Every journey that involved actually leaving one’s hotel room required the approval of a small man in white gloves and a nondescript blue uniform, sitting at a desk with a bunch of other uniformed and remarkably non-threatening people standing around it. His desk was right by the lift, and one was required to provide one’s room number and passport before proceeding to the upper floors. The hotel restaurant was on a mezzanine only accessible from the lobby, which meant we all had to take our passports to breakfast, and then carry the wretched thing with us for the rest of the damn day. I kept mine inside my copy of Night Watch[1] on the grounds that a whole book was easier to keep track of than a skinny little passport, which meant that like a teenager with a spot, I was constantly running my fingers over it to check that nothing had changed. Hangzhou was looking its best, including the twin globe-shaped hotels, one intended to resemble the moon and therefore lit up with white lights, and the other the sun, lit up with yellow ochre (it looked rather like a pumpkin, but a very splendid one). The waterfront, beautiful lakeside parks and (that peculiarly Chinese thing) musical fountains were all poised to welcome President Obama, although I note that the first piece of music chosen for the fountains while we were there was ‘Time To Say Goodbye’.

Hangzhou is a charming place, but the highlights of the trip are always the students. For example, there was a student called Peter, with such a strong perfectionist streak that I had to physically remove his laptop from him to stop him continuing to tinker with his (excellent, finished PS). A quiet, perpetually worried-looking student named Hannah used The Power of Maths to demonstrate that Professor Sir Tim Hunt’s comments about female scientists being ‘distractingly sexy’ were nonsense. She also argued (successfully, in my view) that male scientists who found their attention wandering needed to pull themselves together, in the following deathless sentence: ‘I can concentrate all the way to the end of an experiment, even if there is a boy in the room.’ Another student (rejoicing in the name Jordan at the beginning of the summer school and renamed Bernard by the end)[2] expressed concern about the character count in his PS:

Bernard: You told me to use ‘she’ in all my hypothetical examples, but I need to cut the characters. Can I say ‘he’?
Me: If you want to, Bernard, but it’s becoming common practice in academia to use ‘she’.
Bernard: Why?
Me: Centuries of oppression.
Bernard: I have no further questions.

This year I also threw together a pub quiz on the subject of the United Kingdom in a few hours, learning a great deal about my students in the process. The incredulity in the room on being told that our Commander-in-Chief is a little old lady, for example, was highly educational. I asked them to name their teams after something British, which generated the predictable Big Ben, British Boys and Spice Girls, as well as the frankly baffling Spicy Chicken (I’m told this is a terribly funny pun in Mandarin). I grouped the questions into rounds, of course, including one on food that required them to draw a traditional tiered wedding cake (everyone got this one right), asked which food is served sunny side up (‘sunflower seeds?’), and how fish and chips is made. The answer ‘boiled and then set on fire’ received no marks, whereas ‘plunged into boiling oil’ got an extra mark for making it sound like an answer from the previous round on medieval history. Unsurprisingly, their knowledge of British history was scanty at best; the question ‘Name the two sides in the Wars of the Roses’ was answered correctly by one team only (the only team with a PPE student in it), although I also gave a mark to Spicy Chicken who happened to guess ‘red and white’. ‘When was the Civil War?’ drew answers from across the centuries, including one team who thought it was in the 1980s; and the question ‘How did Charles I die?’ was answered tersely by the team that went on to win with the grim little sentence ‘he have no head’.

The round on international politics asked the students to name the countries with which Britain enjoys the Special Relationship (every team answered ‘China’)[3] and the entente cordiale; here, incorrect answers (nobody got it right) included Sweden (‘cordiale sound a bit Swedish’), Germany (‘because I think entente sounds bad and I know Germany is bad’), Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Another round cherry-picked ten striking pieces of vocabulary from their PS drafts (i.e. at least one student in the room ought to know what at least one of the words meant) and asked them to tell me whether the word was an adjective, verb, noun or preposition and what it meant. This turned out to be a bit like the Uxbridge English Dictionary. The words were as follows: conurbation (‘when someone build a town without ask’), orca (‘orc that is lady orc’), zooming (‘making a zoo’), feudal (‘place where eat food’), Anglophile (‘place to file things’), nevertheless (‘definitely never happen’), kidnap (‘when child is sleepy’), compliment (‘you look nice’), complement (‘you look nice but no-one notice’) and collate (‘you are late because your friend is also late’). Bearing in mind that the only sports that capture the interest in China are badminton and basketball, I also put together a round on sports popular in Britain, including the question that offered them a point for every team they could name from the Six Nations. I was pleased to see everyone score at least three for naming England, Scotland and Wales (two teams, with a certain amount of inevitability, also suggested ‘Northern Ireland’, for which they got half a point: the answer was wrong, but the thinking was good), but the remaining suggestions ranged wildly around the world and included many nations that have no rugby culture whatever (my favourite was ‘Madagascar’). The only question from this round that everyone got completely wrong was ‘What is the profession of Mervyn ‘The King’ King?’ Brilliantly, they all answered that he was the Governor of the Bank of England, forgetting of course that this was a round of questions on sport.[4]

At the end of the (raucous, laughter-filled) quiz, after the points had been totted up and the prizes awarded, with what little voice I had left, I asked some of the students how they had learnt so much about the United Kingdom, given that they don’t study history and receive very little unfiltered news from the outside world. It seems that almost everything starts as a rumour that they might or might not bother (or be able) to verify, remarkably (and depressingly) like Chinese Whispers. The real joy, of course, always comes from letting the students ask questions rather than answering them, and thus the following day we braved the Embarrassing Questions Box.

eqb1
Eight months later, I still have no idea why this student felt the need to cut their question into the shape of a bus.

In a previous post, I declared my favourite question from the Embarrassing Questions Box to be from a student named Kim (‘Can you tell us everything you know about sex?’; see Open the Box). Chinese Whispers is a game without a winner, and it’s fortunate that I don’t have to pick a favourite here as 2016 was a vintage harvest of Embarrassing Questions, including the following gems: ‘Which area in the UK has the greatest number of handsome boys?’; ‘How do you dry your underwear every day? Because you can’t possibly use dryer every single day, right?’ and ‘How to find a boyfriend in the university?’ I love this last one because it suggests exactly the fruitless wandering I did so much of in my first few weeks at university (I wasn’t in search of a partner, but rather various rooms and noticeboards).

eqb4
‘How do I date a foreigner? Is it by making my face really sneaky? Is it?’

My favourite question this year, however, was this: ‘What do you think of real love? What is it?’ As I read the question out, I must admit that I wondered how on earth I came to this: standing in an air-conditioned room in Hangzhou, wondering if I was going to be able to make the projector work well enough later on to show them The Man in the White Suit, clutching a cardboard box in one hand, looking forward to my evening bowl of noodles and trying to answer philosophical questions about love. I actually didn’t find the question difficult to answer, but the fact that it was asked at all should give us pause. Two weeks of asking and answering questions all day (including mock Oxbridge interviews; see also No means no) causes both question and answer to feel rather slippery after a while, just as repeating a phrase over and over can both reveal and strip away layers of meaning. I said, ‘real love makes you feel that, even at your worst, you deserve to be loved.’ I’m quite proud of that as a spontaneous explanation; I jotted it down in my notebook immediately afterwards, which is why I’m able to quote it with such confidence. This was the last question and as we broke for dinner, my student Zoe told me that it was her question, and that she liked my answer very much. One shouldn’t have favourites, of course, but Zoe was my favourite this year, partly because she was such a thoughtful young lady: both in the sense of being considerate to other people, and also in the sense of turning things over in her mind constantly. In each interview I did the following day, I finished by asking them Zoe’s question. One of the best answers was, ‘If you don’t know the difference between real love and not-real love, it is not real love.’ (‘That’s a good answer’, I said. The student replied, ‘Yes. I think about that question all day. It stick in my mind’). In the face of huge, Trump-based global-scale nonsense, it’s hard to feel able to exert any kind of influence over events, but it seems to me that anyone who teaches, asks or answers questions has more influence than they realise. The whispers of a good question go on forever.

eqb2


[1] I took both Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (his finest work, second only to Thud!) and Night Watch by Sarah Waters (her finest work by a mile), for no reason other than it pleased me to do so.

[2] Bernard was concerned that his name might be a little old-fashioned, and when I asked him what other names he liked he said, ‘Jim, or Humphrey.’ Thus did we uncover his love of Yes, Minister.

[3] Enjoys! What was a cosy flirtation is about to becoming a savage buggering.

[4] Mervyn ‘The King’ King is a darts player. Even had the question been ‘Who is the Governor of the Bank of England?’, Mervyn King is still not the correct answer, as Mervyn King the Baron of Lothbury was replaced as Governor of the Bank of England in 2013 by Mark Carney.

Jam tomorrow: a tale of disappointment

In the old days, students wrote or typed their essays, and submitted the results as physical objects.[1] The staff read the essays, marked them, and returned these self-same objects to the students, possibly even meeting them to discuss, clarify or build upon their comments. Vast quantities of paper were sacrificed, but broadly this system seemed to meet the needs of all concerned. Then, at some point in the early noughties, one of the minions (whose only job is to spoon liquid over the twitching body of the Creature) overstepped the boundaries of his job description, and the world of marking was changed forever.

The Creature, whose existence I infer from what I see around me in the university, is the malevolent controlling force that propels the institution along in ever-stupider directions: a vast, grub-like being that lives in the bowels of Senate House, covered with electrodes and feeding on despair. Suggest other explanations if you wish:none of them can explain all the quirks and details satisfactorily. Perhaps the Creature was relaxing after a hard Friday afternoon digesting a junior member of staff from Personnel, who had dared to point out that a three-hour meeting is at least two-and-a-half-hours too long; or perhaps Personnel no longer have meetings, but simply gather into piles to sleep. Either way, I sense that the Creature was itself drowsy and unfocused, luxuriating in the sensation of the fluid moving around its vat, eyes closed, tentacles relaxed. The electrodes that hook it up to (among other things) the university timetabling software were, I fancy, relatively quiet. This lulled the spooning minion into a false sense of security, and he spoke without considering the consequences of his actions.

balthazar
Balthazar (Buffy, season three). Put tentacles where the arms are, the buttocks at the back and a load of electrodes on each slimy fold, and you have the Creature.

‘Minion,’ mumbled the Creature, who has never troubled to learn the names of those who serve him, ‘do you know how old I am?’

‘Nearly one hundred, Sire,’ replied the minion (let’s call him Gavin). ‘Your centenary is only a few years away. But everybody is living longer these days. I was reading on the internet the other day that–’ A tentacle flopped out of the vat, seizing Gavin by the face and arresting him in the middle of his (no doubt very tedious) sentence. ‘A moment, minion. What is … the internet?’

At the end of the ensuing conversation with the luckless Gavin, the Creature issued a mad decree: that all the world should be taxed that the university couldn’t consider itself modern (modern!) unless all written work was submitted, marked and returned online.[2] As the Creature’s decrees go, this is only mildly mad; my personal favourite is still the edict we had in 2008 to combat the financial crisis by buying cheaper pens. In theory, online submission and marking makes a lot of sense. Certainly it is a case of fixing something that wasn’t broken, but there are obvious advantages. However, in practice it has turned a pleasantly cathartic task into something that makes one chew one’s desk in frustration. The Online Learning Environment (which absolutely nobody refers to as ‘olé!’) is a joyless, counter-intuitive piece of crap. Having clicked through half a dozen screens to get to the blasted essays, each one appears in a window much smaller than one would like. The staff member can then mark up the text by attaching comments (slowly, laboriously) and scrolling through the paragraphs, fingers curled and wizened, all the time remembering that one’s New Year Resolution for the last four years has been to spend less time looking at screens. Marking up in this way isn’t anything like as quick or useful as (say) tracked changes in Word, and very often one simply gives up recording the more minor things. There is also no straightforward way to do detailed work, such as punctuating a sentence or suggesting words that could usefully have been removed from a paragraph, and the autosave doesn’t work properly and periodically tosses one out of the system without warning, like a crotchety bull tossing an inept matador out of the ring (olé!). Having read and marked an essay after a fashion, one is then required to give feedback under a set of meaningless headings, record one’s mark in several places, and then, exhausted, sweaty, and with a lingering sense of doubt that this exercise has achieved anything very much, move onto the next essay. Our marking system was, I suggest, developed by the same moron that put together the online ordering system for purchasing jam jars at my hitherto preferred jam jar emporium.

As I am fond of remarking in fits of false modesty, some can sing; some can dance; and some can make preserves. Happily, I can do all three (simultaneously if required). Making jam, jelly, curd and marmalade is, however, something I can do well. This not just any old jam, jelly, curd and marmalade: these are the finest fruit-based preserves known to man. Late summer is the time to make jam with soft fruit, and the point at which the season turns from autumn to winter is when I make jelly out of hard fruit such as quinces and crabapples.[3] January is for marmalade, because Seville oranges and bergamot (also called Marrakesh lemons, which I prefer as it’s in keeping with Seville oranges) are in season. Marmalade requires three categories of ingredient (fruit, sugar, and liquid) and I like to experiment with all of them. This year, for example, I am attempting three concurrent batches, the first of which contained Seville oranges, lemons, demerara sugar and six pints of ginger tea. One can only eat so much marmalade, and I give a lot of it away. After devouring the smashing orangey bit in the middle, people are often thoughtful enough to return the jars to me, but even so I thought it was high time I bought some more, and ordered forty-five online. That was a week ago, and the third batch of marmalade remains unmade, for reasons that will become apparent in what follows.

Friday
Jam jars arrive. The Seville oranges are looking a bit peaky, but I have time to make the marmalade on Saturday while Giant Bear is at a train thing.

Saturday
Marmalade Tide! Seville orange peel is fairly tough and needs to be cooked down for around an hour, so while it simmered away, I tore open the faintly jingly box. There are my three racks of jars; there are the six ‘fancy’ jars I’ve ordered to give to people who are Extra Special; and there is the delivery note. However, like snake eyes, my jars have no lids.

I manage to scrape together a motley crew of jars and am jolly lucky not to have lost the whole batch. Naturally, I assume this lidlessness is my fault. I am also enraged, assuming that the fucking website has allowed me to order forty-five jars without generating an error message that alerts me to the fact that, while nobody would ever order jars without lids or lids without jars, the wretched things are sold separately, as if a restaurant suddenly started charging extra for plates, glasses and cutlery. I contact the company, apologise for my stupidity and ask them to rush me forty-five lids. They reply that no, the jars and lids are sold as a package: I have in fact done everything right. My lids have been omitted by their system, which understands lids and jars as two separate things (why, since the order does not?). They are very sorry and will have some lids sent out to me with all speed on Monday morning. I say, hilariously, ‘Jam tomorrow!’; am briefly cross that I can’t think of a joke about yesterday’s jam; muse fleeting on the chances that the same person is responsible for my delayed lids and the online marking system; and think nothing more of it.

Monday
Jam Jar Emporium: What kind of jars do you want?
Me: I don’t want jars. I have fucktons of jars. I want lids. GIVE ME LIDS!
Jam Jar Emporium: Great! Glad to hear you’ve got jars!
Me: The order number and the fact that I want some lids are in the subject line of the email.
Jam Jar Emporium: Super! [Is it?] What kind of lids do you want?
Me: I want lids that will fit my jars. I don’t care about the colour or pattern. [I was so cross that I almost quoted Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat]. Any lids will do.
Jam Jar Emporium: What colour do you want?
Me: I literally don’t care.
Jam Jar Emporium: Right, but what colour do you want?
Me: Fine. Blue, please.
Jam Jar Emporium: We’re sold out of blue.

Tuesday
Just after breakfast, I receive an email that says my lids have been packed up and are on their way to me via courier. A nice man on a motorbike arrives with a jiffy bag that makes the right noise when I shake it, with my name and ‘OMITTED!’ scrawled on the outside in black biro. Recklessly, after dinner I email the Jam Jar Emporium idiot to say that my lids have arrived, and I prepare three pounds of fruit (Marrakesh lemons, limes and a couple of tangerines to bring it up to the required weight). The limes are teeny-tiny and full of pips, so this takes ages, but none of them have actually gone over, and it’s jolly satisfying to see it all bubbling away together. I’ve decided to make this batch with weak Earl Grey as the liquid, since Marrakesh lemons are what give Earl Grey its lovely smell, and for sugar I’m using honey. As I add it to the pan, I have the brilliant idea of immediately cleaning, de-labelling and sterilising the honey jars and pouring the brand new marmalade back into them. Accordingly, I sterilise these eight jars, plus another eight jars from the box. I count out the brand new lids, which are a fetching red with spots. Much like a heroine in DH Lawrence, the marmalade reaches its crisis eventually, and I ladle it into the jars. This is the moment at which I discover that the new lids are too fucking small.

Wednesday
Me: These lids won’t do.
Jam Jar Emporium: Don’t you like the colour?
Me: The colour is, as we have established, a matter of indifference to me. They won’t do because they are too fucking small.
Jam Jar Emporium: Are you sure?[4]
Me: Please find attached a picture showing both lid and jar.
Jam Jar Emporium: Oh dear. I think we may have sent you the wrong size.
Me: REALLY ARE YOU SURE.
Jam Jar Emporium: What size jars did you order?
Me [again, the order number is in the subject line of the email, so surely you can just look it up, but whatever]: 12oz.
Jam Jar Emporium: What’s that in kg?
Me: About 340g [I knew this from doing the conversion when buying the honey], but everything on your website is in imperial.[5]
Jam Jar Emporium: Nope. I’ve just searched for 340g jars and we don’t do those.
Me: You do do those. I have forty-five of them in my kitchen. You just call them 12oz jars, which is what they are. Again, however, I must remind you that it is the lids that I require. Do you do the lids for them?
Jam Jar Emporium: You’d assume so, wouldn’t you?
Me: YES. YES, I WOULD.

Thursday
Just after breakfast, I receive an email that says my lids have been packed up and are on their way to me via courier (again). This is less reassuring than it was last time, but the email comes from the boss of the fool I have been dealing with and so I remain foolishly hopeful. This ebbs away as the day drags on, partly because of Trump’s inauguration, and partly because I don’t think motorcycle couriers deliver jiffy-bags of jam jar lids after nightfall.[6]

Friday
It’s 5.30pm, and I am still lidless. This morning’s email from Incompetents R Us suggests I make the marmalade anyway and put clingfilm over the lids of my jars (because jars that have been filled with boiling sugar remain cool to the touch and the clingfilm definitely wouldn’t melt). I recall that, except for walking the dog (I don’t want to be borked to death), I have been unable to leave the house during the day all week for fear of missing one lid-bearing courier or another. The house, myself and the remaining three pounds of blood oranges are still in a state of tension, as, like Adrian Mole waiting for the giro, we continue to wait for the lids. If only I had some marking to do to pass the time.

 


[1] Other options are available, of course, such as not handing in work at all. I was once confronted by an angry student who had been awarded a mark of zero for failing to hand in an essay (and ‘awarded’ is surely the right word here). The student felt that a suitable way to persuade me to change his mark of zero was to yell at the other staff in the room, and then assault me with a quick burst of Cicero-like rhetoric. Under the impression that I was a. interested and b. allowed to make those kinds of decisions (I was neither), he looked me straight in the boob, and said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ Since I had created and then managed the student database for a year, I knew exactly who he was: I knew his name, mediocre A-Levels and unit choices, and yet I am still assailed by the nagging feeling that this wasn’t what he meant. Happily, not only did the mark of zero stand (because of course it did, despite a telephone call from his father, who turned out to be a minor civil servant and only too happy to take our side when I explained how little work his son was doing), but the student failed a load of exams the following summer and thus removed himself from the university forever, like a tick falling off a cow. Thus perish all mine enemies, saith the Lord.

[2] Why on earth would we want universities, of all things, to be modern?

[3] This year’s crabapple and apple jelly, which I made on Christmas Eve, was a corker. As described in a previous post (see Eve’s Pudding), it is sunset in a jar.

[4] AM I SURE. As if the reply was going to be, ‘actually, I’m not very sure. It’s so hard to tell the different between Things That Are Big Enough and Things That Are Definitely Too Small To Be Useful, isn’t it?’ No woman of thirty-six has ever said this.

[5] This is because making preserves is easy if you do it in imperial. Marmalade, for example, is a fundamentally imperial thing: three pounds of citrus fruit + six pounds of sugar + six pints of water.

[6] Although if they did, that’s a stand-alone early Buffy episode right there: the perfect excuse to get vulnerable jam-making ladies to open their doors to strangers after dark. The episode (and courier company?) would be called Nighthawk; Americans don’t watch ‘Allo ‘Allo, but one might include a sprinkling of hilarious references that only British viewers would understand e.g. Giles wearing a policeman’s uniform, rehearsing Pirates of Penzance, perhaps (‘Good moaning!’); an Italian exchange student shouting ‘The byowtiful lie-dee!’ at Cordelia; everyone stuffing cheese into their ears so they don’t have to hear Xander’s attempts at cafe chantant, and so on. The couriers would be dishy, leather-clad and apologetic, and then BAM! As per The Fly, fruit and sugar trigger these apparently nice young men to reveal beaks and talons and all the vulnerable jam-making ladies would be horribly pecked to death and/or partially eaten and smeared with jam. Then Willow decides to make marmalade for some reason (a school project, say), orders some jam jars that are ‘accidentally’ sent without lids, terribly sorry miss, we’ll rush them to you by courier – and thus our story unfolds.

Nothing but a Hound Dog

I love beginnings. In particular, I love the beginnings of books. The opening lines of almost any book tell you something worth knowing about the rest of it: done well, they are fascinating, tantalizing little grace notes that set you up beautifully for the rest of the book, just as an amuse-bouche sets one up for a delicious meal. Of course there are famously compelling opening lines such as those from The Go-Between,[1] Anna Karenina,[2] Pride and Prejudice[3] and so on, but wonderful beginnings are everywhere. My own personal favourite is found in Tom Robbins’s bonkers novel (is it a novel? It’s certainly writing) Still Life With Woodpecker. This book sprang into the world in the same year as I did, and begins thus: ‘If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done.’[4]

Non-fiction has much to offer here too. The Austrian animal behaviourist Konrad Lorenz opens his book Man Meets Dog with a quotation from William Cowper’s ‘The Winter Walk at Noon’ and the following intriguing sentence: ‘Today for breakfast I ate some fried bread and sausage.’ Of course this immediately calls to mind sausages themselves, both real and literary (see W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Since’, as featured in Joining the Dots), but setting meat products aside, ‘Today for breakfast I ate some fried bread and sausage’ is a brilliant opening line, with no obvious connection to Lorenz’s chosen subject (‘the relationship between men and their domestic pets’, according to the back cover) and sets a charmingly familiar tone, even in translation. Lorenz goes on as follows:

Both the sausage and the lard came from a pig that I used to know as a dear little piglet. Once that stage was over, to save my conscience from conflict, I meticulously avoided any further acquaintance with that pig […] Morally it is much worse to wring the neck of a tame goose which approaches one confidently to take food from one’s hand than it is, at the expense of some physical effort and a great deal of patience, to shoot a wild goose which is fully conscious of its danger and, moreover, has a good chance of eluding it.[5]

Similarly, the Tiny Book Hound, Giant Bear and I are doing our best to set the right tone at the beginning of our relationship (see Dog Days). It’s a steep learning curve for all of us: the Hound has eight years of another owner’s priorities, smells and commands to unlearn (plus two confusing weeks in the shelter), and Giant Bear and I have never owned a pet together, although we both grew up with dogs (and lots of other creatures, in my case). Rescue dogs also bring their own unique challenges. The Hound is frightened of loud noises and towels, hates having his lead put on or his feet cleaned, and refuses to sleep in his basket at night. His ideal resting place is nestled against me on my pillow, where I can be conveniently and unexpectedly licked in the face at 3am, but we have compromised on pretty much anywhere else on or in the bed. Occasionally, this means finding teeny-tiny paw-prints on the sheets (‘Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic Tiny Hound!’). He doesn’t smell, sheds very little and snores less than Giant Bear, and is thus a perfectly acceptable bedtime companion, but we both wonder how he will cope with (for example) being on the boat (see Tales from the canal-bank), where he will have to wear his harness at all times, the engine is deafening and the bed is four feet off the ground.

Meanwhile, we all continue to learn about each other, including the following Important Lessons from the last three weeks of dog ownership.

  1. The Hound is the only person in the house not that bothered about food.

I think he eats his breakfast and dinner mainly to please us. He likes cheese, and he likes liver treats, and he likes warm shreds of roast chicken, but I’m using the word ‘likes’ to convey the lukewarm nature of such feelings. When we eat our own dinner, he sits on a chair or a lap, but this is so he can see what we’re doing: our food may be inches from his nose, but he’s not interested in eating it.

 2. The Hound doesn’t like me to attempt anything without his supervision.

As previously mentioned (see all my innards-related posts), I have chronic bowel disease as a legacy of work-related stress, and work from my lovely little blue office at home the majority of the time, which has what amounts to an en suite. I’m hesitant to declare myself expert at anything, but taking a shit is something I can do without assistance. The Hound has other ideas, however: if I shut him out, he barks and claws at the door; if I leave the door open, he sits as close to my feet as he can, gazing trustingly into my face with an expression of great concern and occasionally sneezing in what I assume he thinks is a supportive fashion.

3. After three weeks with us, he is already better behaved than the dogs next door.

The Hound is allowed to bark at the dogs next door, provided he stops when asked. Bearing in mind that when he feels threatened by a bigger dog, the Hound forgets entirely how frightening he finds (say) agricultural noises on the Archers and clearly thinks he is a tiger that could rip the throat out of a Doberman, we have decided that barking at other dogs is a normal behavioural whatnot, allowing him to defend both us and his territory. Once I have hauled him away from growling and scrabbling at the ground when meeting a larger dog on our morning walk, he swaggers off, tail wagging and still barking threats at nothing, to show me what a big brave dog he is: woe betide a stick if he comes upon it in such a mood. The dogs next door are only slightly bigger than him, but in his mind they are the enemy at the gate (plus, I fucking hate the dogs next door. If ever dogs deserved to be barked at, these are they). If they start barking while I’m working in the office, I’ve discovered that opening the window (which is low enough that he can get his front paws up on the sill to see and sniff outside) and allowing him to bark out of it (so to speak) works a treat. When I’ve had enough, I shut the window, congratulate him on some excellent barking and the vanquishing of his enemies, and he goes back to his basket in triumph. It’s harder in the garden when only a flimsy fence separates them, but even here we have breakthroughs, as yesterday afternoon showed:

Dogs next door: Yap yap yap!
Hound: Bork bork bork!
Dogs next door : YAP YAP YAP we’re so fucking annoying YAP YAP YAP!
Woman next door: Be quiet, Shithose! Bad dog! Fuckweasel! FUCKWEASEL! NO![6]
Dogs next door: YAP YAP YAP! Yappity-yap!
Hound (don’t talk back): BORK BORK BORK!
Woman next door: Bad dogs!
Dogs next door: YAP YAP YAP!
Hound: BORK BORK BORK why don’t you dig a hole, crawl under the fence, come over here and say that? BORK BORK BORK!
Me: That’s enough, Hound.
Hound <immediately stops barking; ignores dogs next door who continue to yap and snarl and hurl themselves against the fence; gives me his ‘I’m the best dog in the world’ grin; and calmly asks to be let back into the house, where I reward him with a liver treat the size of his face>

 4. No amount of poo bags is ever enough.

The Hound is tiny, even for a Jack Russell; in fact, he’s so tiny that we think he might actually be something called a Russell Terrier instead (essentially, a miniature Jack Russell). How is it, then, that he can produce his own bodyweight in poo on a daily basis? Last week I congratulated myself on my foresight in taking two poo bags on our morning walk, and sure enough there were two poos. This morning, I took two poo bags even though he had done a massive knee-trembler[7] before we left the house. More prepared than a Boy Scout, we wrestled briefly over the lead and set off towards the tow-path; I was even thinking that he might not poo at all on our walk (or indeed ever again), so gargantuan was his first offering. Gentle reader, there were three further poos. The Hound is currently sleeping in his basket, a withered husk. So Kam die Literacystrumpet auf den Hound.

———————————————————–

[1] I think it goes something like ‘The past is a foreign country: it takes ages to get there and the food isn’t as good as you remember.’

[2] ‘Happy families are boring, which is why everyone in this book makes terrible choices and ends up sad and alone.’

[3] ‘A man in possession of an unfeasibly large amount of money and a massive house (but no job) simply must get married, because otherwise he might spend his money on billiard tables, waistcoats and moustache wax and really what are women even for otherwise?’

[4] Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker: A Sort of a Love Story (London: Corgi, 1980), p.9.

[5] Konrad Lorenz, Man Meets Dog (London: Penguin, 1980. Translated by Marjorie Kerr Wilson), pp.9-10. The book was originally published in German as So Kam der Mensch auf den Hund and features delightful Thurber-esque illustrations by both Annie Eisenmenger and the author.

[6] Giant Bear says we agreed to refer to Fuckweasel as Piss-for-Brains, but potato potato.

[7] Frank McCourt coined this expression in Angela’s Ashes to describe his parents having sex against a wall, but I make no apologies for reusing it here. If one is stupid enough to speculate about one’s parents having sex in print, one has to take the consequences.

Dog Days

Even though it is only an hour from home, Bath is our weekend away destination of choice. We like to stay in the same hotel, visit our favourite restaurants, and cycle through the various bookshops in what we agree is the optimal order. We finish with Topping & Company, which describes itself (entirely accurately) as ‘a haven for book-lovers’. There are shelves that go all the way to the ceiling, complete with library staircases. There are little nooks and crannies where one can enjoy one’s free cup of tea entirely surrounded by books. There is a large, impressive and constantly changing natural history section, which I am gradually transferring to our house one book at a time. It is a magical, life-enhancing and (for us) life-changing place, because on one of our trips, a member of staff at Topping & Co. brought her teeny-tiny Jack Russell to work. The dog’s name was Lettice; she let me play fetch with her for a good ten minutes; and she is the original Tiny Book Hound. Here is what has happened since then in our quest to acquire a hound of our own.

An indeterminate number of days leading up to Sunday. We are agreed that we’d like to get a Tiny Book Hound of our own (I try ‘Small Questing Beast’, but even in the privacy of my head this doesn’t catch on). We have a lot to offer a dog, we reason: there is the garden, full of exciting smells and insects; there is the fact that as a freelance I am home almost all day, almost every day; there are my morning walks, which always feel a bit silly without a dog; there is Giant Bear’s ability to charm any small dog simply by picking it up and rubbing its tummy (they usually fall asleep); there the dogs next door to hate and bark at; and there are trips on the boat, surely the most fun an adventurous dog could ask for (although see Tales from the canal-bank).

It’s emotionally draining just looking at the pictures and descriptions on the internet. Because of the nature of rescue animals, there are rarely more than two decent pictures and very few actual details about the dogs, all of whom seem to have irritatingly whimsical names (Trixie, Smudge, Buster etc.); I’ve given all the dogs pseudonyms so as not to embarrass or identify the shelter, but also because the names they have right now are objectively horrible. Some shelters provide little videos of the dogs running fetchingly across a field (i.e. they look good doing it, and also are probably actually fetching something), with emotive piano music in the background. I keep waiting for one of the dogs to lift its leg as the music swells into a key-change (that’s the dog for us, I think), but none of them do.

Sunday. Resolved to get a small, garden- and boat-friendly dog (i.e. one that can be lifted into the boat and/or whisked out of the canal with ease), we also agree that we don’t want to house-train a puppy, and we can’t afford an old dog with health problems. We drive to the shelter. The kennels are large, the volunteers lovely and the dogs exactly as you expect: a mishmash of breeds, ages and circumstances. They all represent a person who has let them down in one way or another and I am embarrassed by how open and eager they are when one crouches in front of their kennel: they trot up, sniffing, ears up, ready to fall in love all over again. It is both humbling and horrible.[1]

There is a huge black Newfoundland flopped in the shade like a discarded rug. There are two collies, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, with curtains over the front of their kennels to stop them barking (I find this out the hard way). There is a black terrier I’m going to call Springs, a tiny thing able to leap up almost to my eye level, straight up in the air like a jump jet. There are two of the dogs we picked out on the website. One I’m going to call Fig because she’s small and dark, about half the size she looked in her picture, friendly and big-eyed, but Not Our Dog (and reserved by someone else). The other is a very clearly a Very Large Dog in a very small body, and jolly cross about the whole thing. He needs an over-sized name like Jupiter, and he barks his Big Dog bark (I’ve no idea how he’s making that sound; it must take enormous amounts of energy) and jumps and hurls himself against the wire and eventually we give up trying to soothe him and move on.

Then there are two dogs we like immediately, in adjacent kennels. One is a puppy. One is clearly much older (we think at least ten; he turns out to be eight and to have lived with a smoker). We decide we don’t care and ask to meet both of them. Both are lovely, but (of course) we like the older one, about whom the shelter has no information whatever because he arrived twenty minutes before we did. The puppy is handsome, floppy of ear and large of paw, but he isn’t our Tiny Book Hound. The other one is. Tiny Book Hound is a Jack Russell, black-and-white like a cow, and with a black patch over either eye like an absent-minded pirate. He has absurd ginger eyebrows, terrible smokers’ teeth, a tail far too big for his body, and the obligatory stupid name. And we love him. We take him into the garden with one of the volunteers, and he jumps up at Giant Bear, and I see the exact moment when Giant Bear decides this is our dog. Tiny Book Hound romps around the garden like a much younger dog, front legs stiff like a piglet, barking incessantly in his whisky voice and pausing only to do numerous wees and then an almighty, leg-trembling poo. The dogs nextdoor to us at home (see Curtain-twitching) bark constantly, including in the middle of the night and whenever I have a deadline, and I loathe them for it. The barking of the other dogs at the shelter sets my teeth on edge; Springs has a yap that pierces my head like a knitting needle; Jupiter is deafening. How is it, then, that the thing I like most about Tiny Book Hound is his hoarse pensioner bark? It reminds us both of a radio play we heard on the way back from the boat (see Tales from the canal-bank), featuring an elderly gentleman with dementia who was able to think perfectly clearly, but struggled to say much more than ‘Perry Como!’ and ‘Belgium!’ We say ‘Perry Como!’ and ‘Belgium!’ to each other; the dog barks more urgently (‘Yes! Exactly! BELGIUM! BELGIUM!’). We go back to reception and are asked which dogs we have met. The puppy, and the old one with the terrible teeth, we say. Oh, the puppy! they say. What a popular boy he is today! Isn’t he adorable? Isn’t he handsome? Yes, we say. We’d like the other one, please.

Monday. Drove for an hour to get to the shelter in order to walk the Tiny Book Hound and fill out the paperwork to adopt him; twice on the way there, I catch myself humming the only Perry Como song I know all the words to.[2] Tiny Book Hound can’t be walked because he’s too unsettled and needs to spend as much time as possible in his kennel, so I try not to be disappointed that I’ve given up my entire afternoon for two long drives in the rain and no walk, and talk soothingly to him through the bars. He barks his lovely bark (‘Belgium! BELGIUM!’), wags his whole rear end and shows me his appalling teeth. I think he remembers me and is pleased to see me again (possibly because he thinks this means he’s going in the garden, but who cares), but he is cranky, dashing back and forth in his kennel and barking at nothing. I try to take a photograph of him through the bars to show the rest of the family, but the results are so depressing (bars, confused hound) that I delete them all.

I am told that he is in disgrace after growling at the vet this morning. The shelter lady says she thinks an anal thermometer might have been involved. ‘Don’t blame him, myself,’ she says, pursing her lips in what I take to be an (unconscious) imitation of a dog’s bottom. I say, ‘I love this dog. Tell me what I have to do to take him home with me.’ I fill out a three-page form and answer questions about our experience of dog-ownership and try to look and sound responsible on behalf of both of us. They agree that he’s a good fit for us and are thrilled to have someone take an interest in him so quickly: ‘The old ones can be hard to shift’, I’m told, which just breaks my heart. While I’m filling out our form, a fourteen-year-old cat is brought in (a ‘lifer’ according to the reception lady), who is being handed in by a widower because his wife used to feed the cat and he can’t cope. While I’m struggling with the idea of how miserable a person has to be to feel unable to open a tin every two days, I notice that Tiny Book Hound is listed on the board in reception with an even sillier name than before. The reception lady agrees it’s a stupid name that doesn’t suit him, and agrees we can change it provided we keep the vowel sounds the same. ‘What about Chico?’ she says. This is not an improvement, and we agree later that our first act as his new owners will be to change his name to something that doesn’t make him sound like a Mexican popstar. It’s such a stupid name that the shelter people – people who deal with dogs called Buddy and Sparkle and Taco every day – are bamboozled by it, and this iteration on the board is the third variation we’ve seen. I learn more about him, including that his previous owner died of something smoking-related, and that he (Tiny Book Hound) doesn’t like dog treats. ‘We’re trying him out on a load of different ones, but so far he hates them all’, I’m told. Much like me with the other children at nursery. What a discerning hound.

The volunteer I’m with explains to me why I can’t take him out for a walk, and I’m crouching in front of his kennel, listening to what she’s saying about the vet and whether the dog needs a chest x-ray; and then, while she’s in the middle of a sentence, Tiny Book Hound stops barking, puts his ears back and gives me a look that just says mate, let’s get out of here. I totally fit in your handbag. Honestly, I almost stuffed him under my arm and ran.


[1] The shelter reminds me slightly of a row of pigsties (who knows: it might have been converted from pigsties into dogsties), and therefore of this thought from Robert Fulghum, who doesn’t care for dogs:

The best feeling I ever had about dogs came in a primitive Akah village in the mountains of northern Thailand. The Akah keep dogs like we keep pigs and chickens. They treat their cattle as useful working companions, give them names, and would never, ever think of eating one. But they eat dogs. They are not pets – dogs are simply food. There are other ways to look at dogs.

No kidding. Robert Fulghum, It was on fire when I lay down on it (New York, Villard Books, 1989), p.25.

[2] Glendora is a desperately creepy song about a man who falls in love with a shop-window mannequin, including the last verse in which he stands helplessly in an alley-way while Glendora is dismembered by the shop staff: ‘She lost her wig, she lost her arms / And when they got through she lost all of her charms / Oh, Glendora! What did they do to you?’ I’ve also heard a version in which he rescues her various parts from a bin, declaring ‘I’ve got my girl, I’ve got some glue / We’ll be together when I get through / Oh, Glendora! I’m gonna restore-a you!’ They don’t write ’em like that anymore.

Tales from the canal-bank

It is a great loss to me (and, I venture to suggest, the world) that I don’t run a creative writing class. If I did, however, this week I would be asking my students to pick one of the following items, all of which I have observed at one time or another on, in or in the vicinity of a canal, and use it as the starting point for a short story.

We begin with items found floating in the water. Pearson’s Canal Companion suggests that canal flotsam is not entirely savoury, and he’s not wrong.[1] Here’s an arresting image from a passage on Langley Maltings (Titford Canal):

The water, too, seemed cleaner, as clear as a see-through blouse; though the contents of the canal bed thus revealed were not quite so desirable as the analogy suggests.[2]

Item one is a dead seagull, frozen in a position that, in conjunction with a set of humming overhead power lines, suggested it had been electrocuted (or, at the very least, greatly surprised) before flopping into the filthy water, wings forever stiffly raised mid-flap – but there could be so many other explanations, each ripe with Adventure and Plot. Item two is a whole, unpeeled and (apart from being in the canal) apparently sound onion, which reminded my husband of a lettuce (also whole, and also apparently fine) he once saw in the canal, forlornly bobbing along singing a song. This one almost makes sense, since lettuce is 100% useless (see Home Economics), but surely one knows that at the point of purchase? One doesn’t buy a lettuce in good faith and then, a few hours later, suddenly experience the stunning epiphany, crashing over one in a chilly wave of horror, that lettuce has nothing of value to contribute to the kitchen.[3] ‘Begone, lying vegetable!’ cried no-one ever, hurling the wretched thing out into the void:[4] one knows before one wastes one’s hard-earned cash that lettuce is Not Food in any meaningful way. A discarded onion, which could have formed the base of innumerable meals, makes no sense. Was it a missile in a heated domestic argument? Did it jump? Was it pushed? Endless possibilities unfold before us.

20160812_195644
A flock of filthy philanderers begging for burnt bacon bits

Our third floating item is a sex toy, last seen gently drifting towards Dudley like the world’s nastiest message in a bottle.[5] From a distance, it appeared to be common or garden white goods, such as I regularly see from the towpath on my morning walk, which also happens to be along a canal. On closer inspection, it appeared that an enraged sex fiend had chopped a plastic women into sections and then discarded what one would have thought was the most useful part, which resolutely refused to sink. This should not surprise anyone who has thrown things into a canal: Giant Bear and I have learnt from experience that the more embarrassing the item, the less likely it is to sink. In our case, two strings of high sausages haunted us for an entire evening. We couldn’t fling them into the undergrowth on the bank in case a dog ate them and was horribly poisoned; in our food bin they would have made the boat stink; and putting them back in the fridge seemed equally mad. We had just moored in an absolutely beautiful spot, as close as we could get to one of the moorings from our honeymoon. As we opened the canal-side hatch, a kingfisher zipped into view, settled on a branch just long enough for both of us to cry, ‘A kingfisher!’ and then was gone again. In other words, it was a moment both idyllic and restful, spoilt by having to work out what on earth to have for dinner now that there were no viable sausages. Finally, we were tired from a long day of locks (me) and boat-driving (Giant Bear), and simply didn’t have the patience to wander up and down the towpath in search of another bin. There seemed no satisfactory solution (“and the canal is full of shit anyway”, we reasoned, recalling several of the items already mentioned), so into the canal with you, where, oh fantastic, you are producing enough noxious gases to float about accusingly for several hours. Fish appear and take a few exploratory nibbles; moorhens peck at you, but you’re far too gross even for things that live in a canal cheek-by-jowl with electrocuted seagulls and discarded sexual aids. Other boats charge past (rather than on tick-over, as they should be), but, how wonderful, you bob up in the wake, battered and intestinal, but undaunted, reminiscent of an unfeasibly lavish greyish-pinkish bowel movement and definitely no closer to sinking. You catch on an overhanging bramble for a few excitingly yucky minutes, but then drift brazenly back into the centre of the canal for all to see. Overnight, mercifully, you vanish, but we are both convinced that you are not gone, but lurking, in the reeds or under the boat, like some mottled sausage-y sea-serpent.

Item four is a rat I have seen many times on the canal at home, who has learnt that a local gentleman in his twilight years likes to sit in a certain spot and feed the pigeons. Pigeons are messy eaters and leave more than enough for a ratty breakfast. This particular rat has been known to wear a little Lucozade bottle-top on his head (I assume it was sticky the first time he encountered it), and thus is known as Lucozade Hat Rat. I venture that this is a rat with a rich and varied existence, with the whole canal to explore (graffiti under bridges! Discarded toasters! That guy who is always in a tremendous hurry and smells of hash!) and his rakish head-gear to distinguish him from what must be literally thousands of other rats in the local area. An updated Tales from the Riverbank featuring Lucozade Hat Rat is just as likely to become a quirky bestseller as any of the things that actually do become quirky bestsellers.

Item five is non-floating, but no less poignant for it: a tableau of a depressed-looking ginger horse with a sore foot (back right), languishing alone in a benettled field. In the foreground, a partially-sucked mint humbug sits on a fencepost, quietly melting in the August sunshine. Was it offered to the horse, mumbled and then rejected? Was it left by a kind passer-by for him to take at his convenience? Perhaps the horse sees and smells the sweet, but his sore foot prevents him limping over to the fencepost to claim it and he is horribly tantalised by its tempting brown-and-fawn stripes. Perhaps he is faking a sore foot in the hope of blackmailing kind passers-by into leaving him mints, which he hoovers up quietly at night, surefooted and sneaky in the darkness. Perhaps the horse hates mints; perhaps he hates passers-by, too. Here, one might pause to give some thought to the protagonist of one’s canal-based tale. There is always the option of taking a cue from Tarka the Otter, Watership Down et al. and basing a story around (say) a family of ducklings, a deceitful horse or indeed a seagull tragically cut off in his prime. There was, for example, that time I rescued a mouse in imminent danger of drowning in the boiling floodwaters of a nearby lock. Surely he returned to his nest that evening and regaled Mrs Mouse with a tall tale of raging waters, foul smells, mysterious engine noises and then –lo!– a stick-based miracle? Or one might choose to write a terrifying horror story, starring one of the many dogs that haunt the canal, a surprising number of which can’t cope with locks, boats, other dogs or Being Outside. Think of the terrors these animals have to endure. The Unattainable Sausages! The Place That Was Dark And Barking Made No Difference! Everything Is Floaty And Weird! ARF! ARF! This year we met a couple with a large boxer, which the chap cheerfully informed me was ruining their holiday. ‘If we go into a lock and leave her on board, she howls, shakes and pees on the floor,’ he said in an almost incomprehensible Birmingham accent, shaking her lead belligerently; she ignored this, continuing to focus all her energies on Barking At The Canal. ‘If we take her off the boat, she tangles her lead around my legs while I’m doing the lock. She’s welcome to drown anytime she likes.’

Students with some knowledge of canals might choose to show off their mastery of canal-related terminology (windlass, cill, pound, winding hole etc.), and model their prose style upon that of Pearson’s Canal Companion, which is certainly idiosyncratic. Consider, for example, Pearson’s description of Holt Fleet on the River Severn (‘A rash of caravan parks and shanty-like chalets mar otherwise unspoilt riverside meadows for everyone but their proud owners’);[6] or the following comment on the Birmingham Canal Navigation:

So what do you think of it so far? […] Are you under its spell, or are you under psychoanalysis, still hyperventilating from its fulminating blend of inspirational industrial heritage and sheer downright ugliness?[7]

One could do worse that to cast a canal gnome as the hero of our tale. The Canal and River Trust volunteers as they are more properly known are easily identified via their blue polo shirts and bright orange life-jackets; they are almost always wiry middle-aged men with Midlands accents (‘Orroight?’), knowledgeable, charming and name-badged. One exchanges the same pieces of information with all canal gnomes: where have you come from; where are you going; yes, it is a pretty boat; yes, it is a nice-sounding engine; yes, my husband is driving it jolly well; yes, the water is low/high today; yes, the ‘missus’ has certainly drawn the short straw, walking miles in the lovely countryside along the towpath and pausing only to open and close locks, rather than standing still for hours in a cloud of diesel smoke and taking responsibility for anything bad that might happen to the boat; and what a beautiful/awful day it is. Canal gnomes help with locks whether one likes it or not, and admire Giant Bear’s driving, but more importantly for our purposes here, I bet they’ve seen it all: dead sheep the size of mattresses; enormously fat boaters bending the lock beams with their monstrous buttocks; broken paddles, lost windlasses, abandoned dogs; tipsy lone boaters leaving their vessels to fend for themselves while they man the lock; fisticuffs between anglers, boaters, walkers and kayakers all scrapping over the same stretch of duck-infested water; narrowboats grounded, overturned, sunk and on fire.[8]

Finally, there is the genre of our putative short story to consider. I suggest that canals are under-used locations in murder mysteries. Susan Hill uses a riverbank in her Lafferton detective novels, and my own humble murder mystery is set a few feet from a tow-path (and speaks of more than one suspicious death that may or may not have taken place in that general area); however, neither of us, or indeed any other mystery writer I’m aware of, has (as yet) made full use of the possibilities offered by a canal tunnel. Canal tunnels are dark, noisy, completely unlit except by the lights of passing boats, and sometimes have narrow walkways on one side, which cry out as places to dump a body (possibly of a person; possibly a large female boxer with a lead wrapped around her neck). The murderer would, naturally, be found out several days later, however. Experience has shown that when he or she least expected it and was peacefully feeding bacon to a passing paddling of perverts, the bloated corpse would loom out of the brown water, bump (softly, sausage-like) against his or her boat and then refuse to sink.

 


[1] The humble duck turns out to be a depraved sexual predator upon further investigation. Mallards have explosive corkscrew penises, covered with spikes and almost as long again as their bodies. Their preferred method of sexual advance is to quack madly, ambush a female duck and grab her by the neck before deploying their terrifying weapon.

[2] J.M. Pearson, Pearson’s Canal Companion: Black Country Canals, Stourport Ring, Birmingham Canal Navigations (Central Waterways Supplies, Rugby, sixth edition 2003), p. 23.

[3] I don’t even put it in a BLT anymore; avocado, cucumber or more bacon are far better options.

[4] This is actually a jolly satisfying part of being on a narrowboat. Washing up is so much more fun when crumbs etc. can be simply tipped out of the window for waterfowl to squabble over. Thus does one make instructive discoveries, such as that ducks don’t like mushrooms.

[5] Pearson writes that ‘there is about the Dudley Canals an independence of style and spirit’, but I don’t think discarded plastic pelvises were what he had in mind. Pearson’s Canal Companion, p. 63.

[6] Pearson’s Canal Companion, Stourport, p. 36.

[7] Pearson’s Canal Companion, Stourport, p. 17.

[8] One of the boats a lock or so ahead of us got stuck on the cill (the lip at either end of the lock that the gates seal against) and partially grounded while they waited for the rising water to lift them away from it. We worked this out eventually, but there is no standardised system of hand gestures between boaters, and so one bellows emptily above the noise of boat engines and the rushing of mighty waters. I’ve often wondered why the canal gnomes haven’t yet given their minds to devising a system of approved hand gestures to convey a range of common messages to other boats, such as ‘Help help I’m aground’, ‘Do you have an up-to-date copy of Pearson’s Canal Companion?’ and ‘My name is Inigo Montoya. You stole our lock. Prepare to die!’