Laugh as we always laughed / at the little jokes we enjoyed together

I went to the funeral of my driving instructor this week. We lost touch after I moved back to Bristol, so I had to infer that her death (which was very sudden) was caused by a heart attack, based on the fact that we were asked to donate to the British Heart Foundation in lieu of sending flowers, and also from the fact that the eulogy made no mention of any kind of illness, long or short. It took me four attempts to pass my driving test and so many lessons that I lost count. My poor night vision and basic lack of spatial awareness were the main problems, plus the fact that I hate driving.[1] However, as long as nobody asks me to park quickly or well, and provided I don’t have to explain how a roundabout is supposed to work, I am a borderline competent driver.[2] The fact that I can drive at all is entirely down to her.

I drove to her funeral, and found that this meant passing through Somerset on the very roads we had driven along together, nearly eight years ago. I had decided to try to think about her as I drove, but found that the memories arose easily and unbidden. I am not a patient teacher, but she was. Between lessons, she turned over in her mind things that might help me overcome my faults as a driver; she would clap excitedly and say ‘I’ve thought of a new pune or play on words that will help you remember this!’[3] For example, crawling right up to a give-way line was referred to as ‘creep-and-peep’; ‘I thought you crept and pept very well that time’, she would say, giggling at her own joke. She encouraged me to learn from the mistakes of other drivers, tapping the dashboard and pointing to cars parked too close to each other or motorists trapped forlornly in yellow cross-hatched boxes at traffic lights. ‘Can you spot their deliberate mistake?’ she would say, completely deadpan. ‘It’s very considerate of them to do that right in front of a learner.’ She knew how much I hated roundabouts, which, combined with my fear of stalling, tended to make me drive them too quickly. As we approached a mini-roundabout, she would exclaim in my ear ‘rind the rind-a-bite!’ (as in bacon rind) to remind me to do it properly (I still say this now if I’m driving alone). When I finally passed my test, it was administered by a chap who tests driving instructors themselves, and only does the odd driving test to keep his hand in, so when she saw him get into the car with me she was certain (she told me afterwards) I was going to fail for a fourth time. When I came bouncing across the car park, I told her I had driven a two-lane roundabout correctly before I told her that I had, finally, at the age of twenty-seven, passed my driving test. She always insisted on driving home after I had failed a test, and this triumphal drive home (with her at the wheel again, so as not to jinx it) was punctuated with exclamations of ‘I’m so pleased about that roundabout!’ from both of us.

I drove well all the way to the church, and then did a bit of my trademark wonky parking, nestling right up to the next car on the right so that I couldn’t get out of the driver’s side until I had done half-a-dozen wriggles, firmly convinced that all I was doing was driving half-out of the bay at an angle and then reversing back in without improving the situation. I suspect that one of the reasons my parking has never improved is that my driving instructor used to find my total incompetence in this area very funny, and would often sit in the passenger seat, bubbling up with giggles while she tried to think of something encouraging to say, the car’s buttocks sticking out into traffic, the nose buried in a hedge. Her funeral was exactly what I expected: church packed to the rafters, service heartfelt, well-meaning and short. As well as flowers, the undertakers placed her rooftop driving instructor box on the coffin. I have no fear of death itself, but coffins scare the bejesus out of me.[4] However, I found that seeing this old familiar thing meant that I was able to look at the coffin without difficulty. The vast majority of the congregation were clearly not church-goers.[5] This became abundantly clear when the vicar suggested we close the prayers by saying the Lord’s Prayer together. Since nobody else knew them (and couldn’t read them from the order of service, apparently), he (and I) also recited the words of the nunc dimittis as the coffin was carried out of the building.

All day, I was reminded of how I felt when my first mother-in-law died, also of a heart attack (see The day after New Year’s Day) and we drove through wintry Sussex to the crematorium: numb, sad, and old. I remember a time in my mid-twenties when it seemed like everyone I knew was getting married and I was spending every weekend of every summer rushing off to some marquee or other; now I’m at the age where I have more funerals to go to than weddings. The two women were also similar characters in many ways: warm, generous, reliable, capable, focused on their families. My mother-in-law was outlived by her own nonagenarian mother, and so was my driving instructor. Her mother, a bright and sensible woman in her eighties, did the first reading, which was that lovely poem by Henry Scott Holland that begins ‘Death is nothing at all’.[6] She read it beautifully, in a tone that seemed to accept the finality and weightiness of death while simultaneously dismissing it as trivia. After the funeral I spent some time driving around more of the places we used for lessons. I even drove along minor roads to the next town over, joining the motorway a junction further down than I would otherwise do and making myself late for dinner, so that I could paddle about in the past a little longer.

At the time of her death, my driving instructor was, unbelievably, fifty-six; my mother-in-law fifty-nine. As I drove home, thinking about this, and how each funeral I go to makes me feel a little older, I remembered how old I had felt when I took my theory test (everyone else was an acne-spattered seventeen-year-old). I pulled out on the motorway into the middle lane, to escape a lorry that had been driving a few inches from my rear bumper, and remembered what she used to say when a truck drove too close to us during a lesson. ‘I expect that truck driver wants to get in the back seat,’ she would say, before wriggling her shoulders and saying firmly, ‘but I’m far too old for that.’ I don’t think there is such a thing as being too young to die, since young people die all the time, and often in ways that are far more drawn out and horrible than an unexpected heart attack. Nevertheless, I feel too young to have buried these two women, both younger than my mother, and who both seemed to have a lot more time ahead of them. Henry Scott Holland’s poem goes on, ‘I have only slipped away to the next room’, and perhaps that is the point: if death really is nothing at all, and all we are doing is opening a connecting door (as we might do in order to fetch something quietly from another room at a party, not wanting to interrupt the conversation), we cannot be surprised when Death enters, unannounced, and locks the door behind him.

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[1] I hate driving because I’m not good at it. The fact that I’m not good at it makes me hate it, and so we circle around, trapped on an eternal gyratory system of mediocrity.

[2] She once brought toy cars to a lesson in an attempt to show me how I could turn right safely at a roundabout, but I think there must be some kind of ziggle-zaggle in my brain where roundabouts are concerned: the explanation rolls in, and then tumbles right out again, making a lot of noise as it goes, but ultimately leaving nothing behind it but empty space.

[3] A pune or play on words is, of course, a reference to Terry Pratchett, which I am delighted to say is something that I taught her.

[4] The correct term for this is taphophobia, from the Greek taphos, meaning grave. It manifests itself primarily as an inability to look directly at a coffin. I’ve made it very clear to Giant Bear that I want to be buried in a cardboard box under a tree.

[5] The girl sitting in front of me, for example, had decided that an appropriate thing to wear to a funeral was a top through which her entire bra was visible.

[6] The third verse begins with the lines I have used for the title of this post: ‘Laugh as we always laughed / at the little jokes we enjoyed together. / Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me. / Let my name be ever the household word / that it always was. / Let it be spoken without effect, / without the trace of a shadow on it’.

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Joining the dots

Recently, I was lucky enough to be asked to find (or, if that were not possible, to write) some suitable poetry to be set to music, for a song cycle by my very talented friend J. The writing process was a cross between making a collage and reading an over-complicated map, the various steps of which I’d like to share.

I discovered Bill Callahan this year (I know. What have I been doing with my time?). Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle just blows me away every time I hear it. It also provided numerous little flashes of inspiration for this project, including the overarching idea of common-ness. The first line of the first song is this: ‘I started out in search of ordinary things’. This, and S posting a marvellously understated poem on his blog, gave me the starting point. The first poem I chose, therefore, was his poem Common Things’, which you can find on his blog.

‘Common’ is a lovely word. It has layers of meaning (communal; shared; vulgar; frequent; abundant; green space) and my next idea was to have four poems with the word ‘common’ in the title. Another line from ‘Jim Cain’ (‘I started telling the story/without knowing the end’) and a vague memory of the poem I finally tracked down on the interblag, ‘The Dearness of Common Things’ by the delightfully named Ivor Gurney, gave me the final poem in the song cycle, the idea being that I would do rather the opposite of the lyric and tell the story knowing exactly what the end was, but not knowing how to get there. My task, therefore, was to write two more poems to go between ‘Common Things’ and ‘The Dearness of Common Things’ to make a story.

It seemed to me that ‘Common Things’ suggested a relationship that held the seeds of its own destruction: the speaker wanting to be closer than closer, or perhaps closer than his or her partner might permit him or her to be, were they aware that such a thing was what was desired. It also seemed to me that not everyone would welcome so much intimacy, and that perhaps this yes-but-no-ness might eventually kill a relationship stone dead, leaving the rejected partner (female, I decided in this case) enraged and bitter. This in turn reminded me of Genesis 29, v11 & 17 (‘And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice and wept … Leah was tender-eyed, but Rachel was beautiful’) and supplied the name of the Other Woman. Here is the result, which in a burst of wordplay I called ‘Common Law’:

Our books held each other like hands:
One mine, one yours,
Piled into boxes,
Right and left.

Our harmonies were rich as singing
There are no echoes, but only a pause.
We go on,
Our names floating above us
Dark water separated from light.

Our bond was weak.
Whatever it was that held us together,
You broke it with words:
No
She –
I –
Her name is Rachel.

There is no ring
For me to fling
In your face.

Made for your mother,
But meant for me,
Her gift burns in the wardrobe
Terrible and white.

W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Since’ begins with a man cooking alone in his kitchen, which in turn reminded me of the final poem in our sequence and all its domestic imagery around the man living his solitary life (it’s not clear to me if he is contented or not). The third poem, then, needed to offer some suggestion of narrative between the ending of the relationship in the second poem and the ending-up-alone of the fourth poem. It seemed to me that he might try out life with Rachel, and that maybe it would turn out to be like most relationships: not particularly interesting, intense, loving or sad, but quietly, stupidly dull, particularly when contrasted with its fiery beginnings.

Going deeper into Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle yielded the extended bird metaphor in ‘All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast’ and ‘Too Many Birds In One Tree. My favourite thing about these two songs is the juxtaposition between the words and the music. ‘All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast’ has the unsettling cantering percussion and weird strings, even when the lyrics are telling what sounds like a rather inconsequential story about an eagle and his avian friends. ‘Too Many Birds in One Tree’ does a similar thing, but the other way around, with gentle music and Callahan’s soothing tones as he sings, in an off-hand sort of way, about the jolly fact that ‘the sky is full of black and screaming’. It’s alright children, he seems to say. It’s the Last Days and we’re just waiting for the chap with the trumpet, but in the meantime, here’s some cocoa and a cuddle. All the birds flapping about, some more lines from ‘Jim Cain’ (‘I used to be darker/Then I got lighter/Then I got dark again’) and ‘Since’ gave me the three main recurring themes of the third (and, in some ways, final) poem. ‘Jim Cain’ also contains the devastatingly good line ‘something too big to be seen/was passing over and over me’, and after banging these together in my brain for a while, I came up with the idea of lights passing over a person in a dark space: the lights of cars and buses passing over a man alone in a darkened hallway, in this case. The light and darkness and light again reminds him of a time when light and shadow had passed over him, when driving down a long road with trees either side caused the sunshine to flash on and off as the sun started to set.  The title is from Macbeth, Act 3, scene 2: ‘Good things of day begin to droop and drowse / While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse’ and I was also thinking of Isaiah 55, v. 11-12: ‘it shall not return unto me void … you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands,’ and that roaring noise trees make when you drive past them at speed. Since writing this poem, I discovered (in France, of all places) that there were some tree-lined roads where the speed limit had to be changed after people were found to have epileptic fits while driving. This turned out to be due to the trees being spaced a certain distance apart, which, when coupled with driving at some specific speed (in metric, naturally), caused the light coming between them to flicker: a suitable metaphor for the past if ever I heard one.

Good Things Of Day

I stand in the hall.
Lights move across me, from left to right.

Sun and shade and sun again,
Trees that roared and clapped their hands
Darkness whipping about your face,
You shouted about happiness.

The sunset sang golden from your ear
Clouds of starlings passed over, on their way to the sea,
Specks of rushy night, numerous as stars.
My passenger and I and night falling:
You, as you were then.

I stand in the hall.
Lights move across me, from left to right.

Dark and bright and dark again.
The lights are yellow, the walls
A colour I did not choose.
A voice from upstairs calls me,
And I go up
Without the thing I came down for.

The pillar and the beam

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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