‘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 at the time], 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 pompous 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 sets for French, Maths and Science’, 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.’

Broken Dishes

My current reading matter is the first volume of my diary, covering the years in which I was eleven and twelve. This is an instructive experience. I have recorded events that the uninitiated reader might expect, such as birthdays (‘The best birthday present I got was a trumpet from Mum and Dad. Dad insisted I try to play it. I sounded like a wounded beast’), my first day at secondary school (‘School is fun. I am in a form with the most enormous girl I have ever seen. There are other people there too, but they are squashed against the walls most of the time’) and landmarks such as cross-country races (‘Mrs B [English teacher] got glasses over Christmas. They seem to make her very bad-tempered. She was marshalling for cross-country this afternoon and didn’t seem to care at all that I did it two minutes faster than J’) and my first parties (‘we danced badly and laughed a lot’).

I also made a number of much more peculiar observations in volume one (July 11th 1991-July 24th 1992), from which we can conclude the following things about me, as both a person and a writer. Firstly, I had no sense of priority. A two-week holiday in Cornwall is summed up as follows: ‘Sick twice on the way home. M has an inflatable shark.’ Secondly, I was slightly obsessive about animals. Any encounter with a pet, for example, is always recorded with either name and colour and usually both e.g. ‘Cousin J’s rats are called Fennel and Parsley. I wonder why?’; ‘Midget is a brown pony with a white nose. He lives in a field with a big white horse called Bo’ or ‘I met a cat in a shop today. It was a tortoiseshell called Suzy’. The exact number of animals seen in the wild is also very important: ‘Today we saw eighteen grebes, sixteen deer, two ponies and thirty-three cows. Dad says there are pigs in the New Forest but we didn’t see any of those. Maybe he was making them up.’

Thirdly, and as shown in that last quotation, I show a distressing lack of trust in my parents’ attempts to curb the weirder and/or more pedantic aspects of my character.

24th Sept 1991: Had a major accident.[1] Cut foot open on Dad’s bicycle chain. There is a piece of foot missing, never to be seen again (prob. somewhere on patio). Mother says it will grow back, but I remain sceptical.

4th December 1991: Today’s advent calendar picture was a pipe and tobacco. This relates to Christmas in no way at all but Mum says I mustn’t write to the address on the back and complain as it won’t make any difference.

26th May 1992: Visited W today [Mother’s aged godmother]. She has a pond with newts in. Dad says maybe we can have a pond one day (he didn’t mention the newts, I noticed later, but much too late to bring it up without looking like I had my own agenda).

Note here the correct spelling of tricky words like ‘sceptical’, ‘tobacco’ and ‘agenda’. I put this down to my habit of learning most of my vocabulary from books. This meant that I was able to use such words correctly, and spell them correctly in written form, but often unable to pronounce them with any accuracy. My father still recalls my attempts to say ‘Neanderthal’ (a word I remember finding in The Eighteenth Emergency, in which a small boy is beaten up for writing the name of his bully on a poster showing various forms of primitive man and drawing an arrow to the Neanderthal), and which I pronounced like a phrase rather than a word (‘knee-and-earth-all’). I had the same issue with the word  ‘teetotaller’ (‘tea-toe-taller’).

Fourthly, my sexual development was something I had not quite decided to explore in writing. There seems to be a tension between the compulsion to write (of which more in a moment) and a coyness that I don’t remember and certainly haven’t felt for years. Consider the blank, uncomprehending nature of the following observation from 20th May 1992: ‘According to J, my legs go all the way up to my bum. This didn’t seem like news.’ Wonderfully, I copied many letters I received and wrote into my diary, including one that started with the following sentence: ‘Dear <literacystrumpet>, we are having fairly good weather here, it has been really whomid in recent days’. I should explain that, rather than a letter from an elderly and illiterate aunt, this is the opening line of a letter I received from a very early boyfriend. I have reproduced this in my diary with the original spelling, and then annotated it with a red pen, musing regretfully in a footnote that someone who can’t spell ‘humid’ probably isn’t right for me. The same unfortunate boy appears in the following diary entry, from 1st July 1992:

I have a boyfriend (I’m too embarrassed to write his name as it’s quite posh so I’m just going to call him X). X called on the house today and Dad shouted up the stairs ‘THERE’S A BOY TO SEE YOU!’ as if I was not only deaf but unfamiliar with the concept of boys and their ability to press doorbells. X looked utterly awful when I came downstairs, but I think that was because of Dad shouting and then hanging around as I checked in the mirror afterwards and I looked OK. X asked if I could come out for a walk, but after all that shouting Dad said I couldn’t go out because I have homework to do (this is a lie as I had just finished it, but as it was trigonometry[2] and I didn’t understand it I didn’t want to say I had done it already as then I would have had to show it to Dad [my father is a Maths teacher] and it might have been wrong from start to finish and he would have said so in front of X or told his awful joke about the squaw on the hippopotamus), so I said I didn’t mind and read my book instead.[3]

Fifthly and finally, I felt a compulsion to write that I now find almost embarrassing (1st September 1991: ‘Nothing has happened today. But it is only 10am and I am still in my pyjamas’. Note the startling lack of ambition here). This is true for days on which nothing happens; days on which plenty has happened, none of which now seems worth recording; and days on which I am too tired to write (but not too tired to write ‘I am too tired to write’). I seem to be anxious that, unless an event is recorded (and possibly prefigured, as per Beowulf), it might not have happened at all (2nd Sept 1991: ‘Mum gets back from the Isle of Wight tomorrow’; 3rd Sept 1991: ‘Mum is back from the Isle of Wight’)On Sept. 3rd, the only other item of note was a letter from a friend that I made at one of my many primary schools; while I was being educated elsewhere, we wrote each other copious, lengthy letters. We also learnt early on that we could put more or less anything as the addressee on the envelope, provided the address was correct. For some time, I addressed letters to her at ‘The lady in the green dress’, and so will continue to refer to her as such. The letter in question from The Lady in the Green Dress opened with the following non-sequitur:

Dear <literacystrumpet> How are you? I was just cleaning my room when I came across your letters and realised how long it is since I’ve written to you![4] Here is my list of Top Ten Boys

I was going to include the original list, but reading it now I realise I am still in touch with at least two of the people named and don’t wish to embarrass them. Number 5 on the list, however, reads simply ‘Pickles’. A nickname, or her way of expressing a fondness for vinegary condiments? Neither, it turned out, when I consulted the relevant passage in my book. The list of Top Ten Boys is something I have shamelessly stolen and used in my novel; in fact, reading back through this first volume of my diaries, I was struck repeatedly by incidents, people and feelings that I have used as source material. The Lady in the Green Dress, for example, appears as part of a composite character called Cath, who writes her own list of Top Ten Boys. Reading the fictionalised version (in which I have changed Pickles’s name, for reasons that I can’t recall but which I assume are to do with some kind of witness protection scheme) prompted a dim memory to flick a fin. Pickles, I now remember, was a black-and-white cocker spaniel belonging to The Lady in the Green Dress and her family.[5] Cath, who is considerably dimmer than The Lady in the Green Dress, wonders in her next paragraph ‘I’m not sure if <Pickles> really counts. What do you think?’. Our heroine Alice responds as follows: ‘No, and certainly not ahead of several actual boys’. She then attempts to soften this withering assessment with the more supportive ‘I would like to think you can do better.’ This, it seems to me, is a sentiment that can also be applied to the way in which source material can be reworked into something more structurally satisfying. This process of literary collage is similar to the feeling I have when starting a new patchwork quilt. The diaries are the metaphorical dead sheets, duvet covers, torn shirts and aged dresses, and the process of writing is the (often painful) process of tearing out seams, snipping off buttons, throwing tremendous tangled piles of useless thread and scraps onto the fire, and then patiently cutting, piecing and stitching it all into something beautiful.

[1] I am reminded of Tony Hancock exclaiming (in his own diary, I believe) ‘at last! Drama! Bill cut his finger! I bandaged it! Should I devote my life to this?’.

[2] Broken Dishes is a quilt pattern, predominately made up of tiny triangles.

[3] Poor old X must have thought I was like Senorita Nina from Argentina (‘She said that love should be impulsive, but not convulsive/And syncopation had a discouraging effect on procreation/And that she’d rather read a book and that was that’).

[4] It might have been as much as a week.

[5] How can I be so sure about the colour and the breed, you ask? Because I bloody well wrote it down in my diary as an item of earth-shattering importance the first time I went to play at the home of The Lady in the Green Dress, along with the names of all her stick insects and a list of eighteen ways in which her bedroom was better than mine, that’s how.

In praise of the handwritten word

Regular readers will recall my description of a small orange book (see Have you been eating all the big nuts again?) in which my parents noted down the food they served to an increasingly baffling range of guests in the 1970s. One can scarcely imagine a book more exciting than one recording incidents such as the first time I was sick over somebody else’s trousers (the trousers contained an unfortunate gentleman named Ian. No doubt the menu that day of cheese fondue and blackcurrant parfait cheered him up) or the universal shrug that seems to have greeted experimental puddings – and yet such a book exists. Shortly after Christmas, a parcel arrived from my brother in New Zealand, containing assorted Christmas presents. The most thrilling item[1] was a blue hard-backed book with a plain cover. This turned out to be our baby book.

I say ‘our’ because the first eight pages or so are devoted to me, followed by another six or seven pages focused on my (younger) brother. Not only had I never read this book before, I had no idea it even existed. The most striking thing is how clearly delineated our personalities were, even at a very young age. My mother writes shortly before my second birthday that ‘she is very insistent on everything being in the right place’ and notes my need to arrange my toys into lines; Father comments a few months later that I ‘decided’ to be potty trained; that I ‘accept just punishment only’ (still true); and that I have moved on from arranging toys in lines to ‘patterns, which at first glance have a meaning that only she understands’. Just after my fourth birthday, Mother writes the following: ‘She has very definite opinions and tends to defend them loudly, with no respect for person’. I wonder if one of the reasons that this could have been written yesterday with just as much truth is suggested by Father’s comment a little further down the page: ‘I like her flagrant disrespect’.

What a precious thing this book is! In two different hands and added to over a six-year period in a whole bunch of different inks, it simply could not be replaced or equalled by something electronic. Its new home is on the middle shelf of a bookcase that my father made, next to a red book containing my maternal grandmother’s diary for the year 1930 on one side and the aforementioned tiny orange dinner party book on the other. On the same shelf the literary-minded burglar might consider, for example, a selection of my own excruciating teenage diaries, which are not nearly as interesting or well-written as my grandmother’s. A typical passage from July 24th 1991 (I have written ‘WEDNESDAY’ in scary loner block capitals underneath the date, apparently incredulous that anyone could have a birthday party in the middle of the week): ‘Nothing happened all day until V’s party. We played Musical Statues. J[2] was out almost immediately and spent the rest of the game pretending to be a coffee pot mixer.[3] In other news[4] R’s tortoise has started to attack the lawnmower’. Grandmother’s diaries, by contrast, are much stronger meat. There are her views on the war (‘Russia is being beaten and we are having a very grim time in Egypt’ she writes, shortly before a paragraph about how cross she is to have put on weight recently ‘despite rationing’), a description of her broken engagement to somebody called Chris (this is mentioned in passing and is not even in the first paragraph of the entry for that day) and a touching account of the beginnings of her subsequent relationship with a penniless man nine years younger than her, who later became her husband and my grandfather.

All of these entertaining handwritten offerings are special and wonderful, but only the baby book contains evidence of a small girl who grew up to make a living correcting other people, although I’m a little disturbed by my two-year-old’s tenuous grasp of both spelling and diction:

March 24th 1982
She is very insistent on everything being in the right place … she can speak very well, invent names and situations, and tell brief stories e.g. ‘Once upon a time there was a fox, and he went to bed’. … Vocabulary is wide and always growing. Her only failings are still saying ‘tat’ and ‘tow’ for ‘cat’ and ‘cow’. She even corrects Charlie Eddy on his (correct!) pronunciation of ‘cow’.[5]


[1] Not that I am suggesting for a moment that temporary moustache tattoos, videos of Blake’s Seven and a T-shirt with Popeye on it are anything other than exciting – far from it.

[2] Friend from primary school; boyfriend for a brief but formative period a few years later, during which I remember him breaking off from his usual thoughtful and elegant letter to draw a sperm whale. The whale was never referred to or explained in the text and I therefore felt it would have been crass to mention it in my reply.

[3] This shouldn’t be a footnote in this post, strictly, but it is the only way I can think of conveying the fact that there was a footnote to the diary entry itself. I indicated this with an elaborate and oversized asterisk like a giant blue Catherine wheel. The footnote (I have drawn a monstrous box around it with a blue felt-tip to protect it from the Other Text) reads: ‘what is a coffee pot mixer? J looked at me with scorn when asked’.

[4] A phrase I learnt from television newsreaders and use on almost every page of my diaries from 1991 to about 1994, when it is displaced by the much less interesting word ‘Anyhow’.

[5] Charlie was the same age as me and came from a family of farmers. Total, total fail.

Eight legs bad

… before I cut my throat, 
I shall leave this final note;
Driven to it by the spider in the bath![1]

I once drowned a spider in the bath. Earlier in the day, my mother had stuck a post-it note on the edge of the tub that summed up the situation. It read: ‘Eek! Spider!’ I duly noted the large house spider crouching defensively in the bath tub, miserable and uncertain. And then some time later, I forgot it was there (the post-it having been removed contemptuously by another family member, or maybe it just fell off under the weight of its own portentousness) and I put the plug in and ran a lovely hot bath and read Time magazine for a bit while it ran. It wasn’t until I had removed all my clothes that I noticed the spider, now very dead, floating dreamily round the bath like a sad black glove. My immediate thought was to let all the water and assorted bits of arachnid out and never bathe again, but I think it is a sign that I was more mature than my fifteen years that instead I put on a dressing gown, went downstairs, got a jug and decanted the dead spider. The hot water had caused its exoskeleton to soften and break up, so it took several attempts to ensure I had poured every last knee and mandible out of the window. Then I got into my spider-broth bath and pretended it hadn’t happened and had a wash. And then, even later, I got the heebie-jeebies.

I am interested here in two apparently unrelated topics, joined together by this story: spiders (some dead, some alive) and the art of letter-writing (dead). Let’s take the spiders first, and let’s assume that the human dislike of spiders stems from three things: cobwebs are unpleasantly sticky to the touch; spiders have a disconcerting way of scuttling about; and some spiders bite, sometimes painfully and other times fatally. The first and second ideas of the general yuckiness of getting a web in the face and the creepy way that spiders move can be seen in literature (The Hobbit, Shelob later on in Lord of the Rings, and of course the final shape taken by It), terrible films (Arachnophobia, Starship Troopers) and multiple science fiction offerings, in which the most unsettling aliens and/or alien ships are inevitably slightly spidery (Babylon 5, Starship Troopers again). The third idea relating to bites is a little harder to verify when one lives in the British Isles, but happily (for the purposes of today’s post) I got bitten by a spider in Nanjing Park a few years ago and can speak with some authority here (see Bite me). The bite resulted in my feeling as if I was going to faint for about half an hour, followed by a hard, painful blister the size and colour of an egg yolk, followed by a permanent scar. Here is a jolly fact that I learnt from this experience: you don’t always feel the little bugger running over your ankle and you certainly don’t always feel it bite[2]. Compare this to the morning when, while sleeping on the living room floor of some relatives, I was woken at 6am by a spider running over my arm (in defence of my girlish scream, I thought it was a rat).

Given that spiders can apparently rush about one’s body whenever the whim takes them, and given that sometimes one feels it and sometimes one doesn’t, does this give credence to the much-quoted urban myth of spiders running in and out of one’s mouth while one sleeps[3]? I had a lot of fun researching this on the interblag. However, as always happens when I spend time trawling internet fora, it also renewed my despair at the death of literacy (“I have seen it with my own eyes. Maaany tonnes of these creepy crawlie bugs duuuude they’re waay trippy maaaan. Sometimes I think it’s gods way of stickin’ it to the man, man!” writes Roy of Corazon de Oro, Portugal, for some reason. Why would God need to stick it to ‘the man’, and why would He choose spiders as His means of doing so? And what man?); the death of common sense (“I woke up when a spider was crawling in my mouth. It was huge. I have taped my mouth shut every night since that happened. Almost died once.” Thanks, Mariah from Blairstown, USA. Thanks for sharing); and the death of self-consciousness at the banality of one’s own thoughts[4] (“Dying by choking on a spider would be a dumb way to die” says Priscilla Moreno of Fullerton, USA. Priscilla is apparently unaware that i. this is not good conversation; and ii. her surname is an anagram of e-moron). Got a thought? Share it with someone! Immediately! Don’t filter it first to see if it’s interesting, useful, thought-provoking or funny: just share it, preferably with as many people as possible and in a format that ensures it will live forever.

Contrast these witless burblings with the writing of letters: ephemeral, hand-written and intended for just one other person. The first entry in my new diary, which I began some time in 2009 and add to from time to time, has this to say on the subject:

I recall ceasing to keep a diary (several years before anything of real importance had happened to me) on the grounds that: i. when lots of interesting things were going on, I didn’t have time to record them; and ii.  I wrote a huge number of letters, in which I let my various correspondents know much of what I had been up to and what I thought about it, and it seemed beyond tedious to describe the same events for my own benefit. Having not kept a diary for fifteen years or more, I also can’t remember the last time I wrote a proper letter. Email and the mobile ’phone seem to have killed, finally and truly, an art that I flatter myself I was rather good at.

The most striking thing about the spider-in-the-bath story to me now is that my mother thought a post-it note an appropriate response to this domestic crisis. Why didn’t she simply remove the spider and say no more about it? And yet I also like the idea of notes appearing around the house, from one family member to another (possibly in imitation of William Carlos Williams and his well-rehearsed fruit-based verse, possibly not), drawing attention to various small emergencies or points of interest. This has a wistfulness to it that I don’t think any other form of communication can match.

[1] Flanders and Swann again, of course (see The origins of the filthy comma).

[2] Another thing I discovered while researching spiders bites was the Brazilian wandering spider, one of the most poisonous spiders in the world. In addition to being very painful, the bite also causes severe priapism for several hours. This is so extreme that it can lead to heart attack, loss of blood to (other, more) vital organs and, if left untreated, death within a couple of hours. It does, however, have the advantage that this particular symptom is unique to the bite of the Brazilian wandering spider (interesting in itself as the spider is very similar in appearance to a bunch of other much less venomous species of spiders, making studying the thing excitingly uncertain). Therefore, provided the patient isn’t too humiliated to draw the afflicted part to the attention of his doctor, it allows medical professionals to make an accurate diagnosis and start appropriate treatment swiftly.

[3] Shakespeare missed a trick, in my view, when he gave the following splendid line to Margaret in Richard III (act 1, scene iii): ‘Why strew’st thou sugar on that bottled spider?’ (Elizabeth repeats this description to Margaret towards the end of the play), but failed to follow the idea through. I know the spider she refers to is King Richard himself, but think how brilliant it would have been if Richard had whipped a bottle out of his doublet and replied, ‘forsooth, my lady, I am bereft of all but the sweetest of condiments. Om nom nom.’

[4] I also really wondered at the general tone of the people that write in such fora. For example, Brain of Roanoke, VA, reassured concerned spider-botherers by saying “Dont [sic] worry, I am sure you have had things a lot dirtier [than that] in your mouth before.” I resent your tone, Brian.