BYKI

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaand before you know it, three days have gone by and you haven’t put a blog post up.  The last two days have been spent in a frenzy of gardening; mowing the lawn, re-seeding the bare patches of the lawn, pruning (I nearly wrote ‘pruining’ which, according to the male owner of this house, is what we’ve done to the buddleia) ripping up nettles and chopping up logs.  These are now waiting to be collected by the owner of a wood-burning stove.

BYKI (Before You Know It) reminds me of a series of language books we had when the children were small.  They claimed to teach Latin, French, German and probably just about every tongue known to humankind, before you knew it.  Well, we tried them and before we knew it, they hadn’t really learned very much.  Still, that was the state of play with just about all academic learning we tried at home.  Unless they were in a group, they didn’t want to do it.

At the moment I am waiting.  Waiting to hear about my application to Everybody’s Reading Week, and waiting for a couple of Quakers to come and visit me.  In the meantime we are being visited by some bumblebees who seem to have made a nest in our roof.  The builders next door said it was wasps, which just goes to show how little they know about hymenoptera; anyone could see at a glance that these were much too fat for wasps.  Mark reckons they are bumblebees, though what type we don’t know.  The consensus seems to be to leave them alone and eventually they’ll disappear.  Fortunately we are not allergic to bee-stings.

Neither am I allergic to nettle-stings, which was fortunate as yesterday my arms were covered in them.  Nettle-stings are actually quite beneficial, especially if you are prone to rheumatoid arthritis; the remedy is to whip the joints with nettles.

I hate waiting for people.  You can never concentrate on anything.  Which is probably why this post is so unfocussed.

OK I’m back now.  The Quakers have been and quaked – or perhaps quoken – and I have heard from Everybody’s Reading and they’re not.  Or at least I’m not.  Budgets are tight apparently – who knew? – and my application cost too much.  Last year I asked for more money, and got it.

*sigh*
So that’s today.  I’m off for a walk now.
Kirk out

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The Slush of Despond

Nobody in their right mind would ever want to be a writer.  I forget who it was now – some famous film star – who said that when people envied them their job, they didn’t.  What they envied was the perceived glamour; the interviews, the attention, the fame, the cars and the money.  And the girls (or boys).  What they specifically didn’t envy, because it didn’t occur to them, was the actual job; the waiting, the wrangling, the endless rehearsing, the waiting, the bad cups of tea, the horrible hotels, the alienation.  And this person (I still can’t recall who it was) said to the envious fan: ‘You don’t really want to be an actor – because if you wanted to be one, you’d be one.  You’d be doing rep or pub theatre or working for a small am-dram company; anything you could, because it’d be in your blood.’  And he’s absolutely right.  I say the same thing (perhaps more tactfully) to would-be writers: if you want to be a writer, just write.  But if you just want to be famous and do interviews and book-signings and get prizes, there’s no way past the slog.  And oh, god, the endless rejections.

What nobody tells you – because nobody can tell you the length of a piece of string – is how long this period lasts.  In my experience, there is first of all a phase where you are finding your voice.  You may get published during this period if what you do coincides with what’s popular; and that can be good.  It can also be bad news, because you may get stuck there and never evolve.  Then there is a phase where you have found your voice and need to find your public.  That’s where I am right now.  I’ve found a sort of limited public, in that I’ve published a few things: I’ve also found a sort of private public in you guys who are kind enough to read and comment on what I put on here.  But I have yet to find my wider public.

Every time I go onto Everyday Fiction – a magazine which has published a couple of my short stories – I see that my latest offering is still waiting to be read.  This means that it is categorised as ‘slush’.  I do not like seeing my carefully-crafted work described as ‘slush’.  But what can you do?  Insist they recategorise it as ‘genius in waiting’?

I don’t know.  There seems no way round this problem.  You just have to keep going.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress through the Slush of Despond.

Kirk out

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Woman and Man and Man and Superman

Well it seemed like a good idea at the time, to go to the Phoenix to see ‘Man and Superman’ by Shaw.  I didn’t know the play; I only know a few of his including Saint Joan and of course Pygmalion (‘My Fair Lady’.)

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058385/?ref_=nv_sr_1

and of course more recently, ‘Educating Rita’, though that’s not so much an adaptation as a work which references Shaw.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085478/synopsis?ref_=ttpl_pl_syn

But about Man and Superman I knew nothing.

Perhaps just as well, else I’m not sure I’d have gone.  It was a bit of a rag-bag of a play; the first act was pure Oscar Wilde – witty exchanges in a drawing-room – but the second was quite disconnected from the first and the third, consisting of long philosophical disquisitions by characters stuck in hell, was terribly dull.  I fell asleep and shortly afterwards when the play showed no indication of drawing to a close, I left.  Afterwards I found out it was three and a half hours!  Apparently the third act is often cut, and I can see why.  It might have been entertaining when its ideas were new (all the interesting people being in hell; heaven being deadly dull) but they are now so commonplace that the scene really dragged.  Ralph Fiennes as the hero, a descendent of Don Juan, is on-stage the whole time and has nearly all the speeches.  It must be an exhausting part to play; and in the first scene it occurred to me that the way he was playing the character was reminiscent of Rigsby in ‘Rising Damp’.  I have no way of knowing whether this was intentional and I don’t see why it should be, but Steve (for it was he) said he heard of someone who once fell off their chair laughing at Leonard Rossiter.  But I digress.

The central notions of the play are quite dated, too: that the aim of man (and principally of woman) is to produce a superman.  These ideas have been so discredited by their association with Nazism that had they not been given a largely comic treatment this play would have been quite offensive.  As it was I found it dull, baffling and disjointed.  But I did enjoy the first act and Ralph Fiennes was of course terrific.

It’s a weird thing, too, seeing these plays relayed from the NT.  You’re both there and not there; and when people laugh and clap you feel a weird disembodied sense of sitting among ghosts.

I shall explore this idea further, but that’s enough for today.

Have a good Monday

Kirk out

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Am I Itching? Am I Hell!

One of the useful things WordPress does is to tell you about anniversaries, and this morning a little anvil-shaped icon appeared in the corner of my screen.  At least, I think it was anvil-shaped, but as Mark has conclusively proved, I am rubbish at recognising icons.*  Anyway, it turned out to be an anniversary message so who knows – maybe it was meant to be a cake or a candle or a card or something.  I don’t know.  But it did shock me slightly to discover that it was seven years ago this very day that I started this blog.

Seven years!  Seven years is a significant period of time; in fact many people think our lives can be understood in periods of seven: infancy, childhood, adolescence/young adulthood, marriage and parenthood, settling down, finding your way/becoming responsible, middle age (around this time you tend to get a mid-life crisis) and so on.  As a rough guide it sort of works – which reminds me, I wonder if they’re still doing the ‘7-up’ series?  According to wikipedia they are: the last one came out in 2012.  Interesting.  I remember seeing it when I was teacher-training; since that was in 1980 I guess they would have been – hang on! – if they were seven in 1964 they’ll be the same age as me!!!  How come I never realised that?

Maybe I did realise it, and forgot.  I’m at that sort of age…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_Series

Anyway, back to the blog.  As I’ve told you before (you’re probably sick of hearing about it) Hanif Kureishi was the father of this blog, since it was he who suggested to me that I should start one.  I met him in Leicester library and instantly took his advice.  Initially I didn’t blog every day, but I soon got into the habit and now I blog around five times a week on average.

Over those seven years I’ve covered more topics than I can remember.  It started out being a blog about writing; but it soon occurred to me that as well as writing about writing I could practise my writing by writing about – well, anything that took my fancy.  So from home brewing to politics, from film reviews to gardening, from prose to poetry and from poetry to drama – and not forgetting the very pertinent category relating to my dear OH – I’ve covered quite a range.

And I’ve never regretted starting it.  Having a blog has enabled me to interact with other bloggers, to get comments on my stories and poems, and to get a residency on Mslexia’s very own blog!  Not too bad!

So a happy seven-year anniversary to all my readers and followers and a special thanks to those who’ve been with me since the beginning.  Why not drop me a line today?

Off now to see to the garden.

Kirk out

*I think it’s supposed to be a cup or chalice of some kind.  I’m still not sure

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I Am Not Washing My Husband’s Bras

Thanks for all the positive comments on the short story and please keep them coming.  I’d especially like to know if you guessed the ending and if so, what gave it away.  I hope it fares better in any case than my previous story, the one which began ‘I am Washing My Husband’s Bras’.  I thought it deserved a better fate than to be completely ignored in the Mslexia short story competition, but it didn’t even get shortlisted.

*sigh*

I may send it off to another competition.

Aanyway, today it’s a lovely day here in blogland and already I’ve been pervasive along Queen’s Rd as we had our usual Friday morning breakfast at Fingerprints.  We often end up having discussions of one kind or another over breakfast and today was no exception as we started on the topic of the election.  Mark is much more down about this than I am as he thinks it’s evidence that people are basically very self-centred and deceitful: I’m not sure what it’s evidence of, but I’m regrouping myself (if an individual can regroup themselves) to do things differently.  What that will involve I’m not sure but I’ll keep you posted.

Even more than self-centredness, which is depressing enough, what makes me gloomy is apathy.  I understand people feeling that politicians are all the same, that you can’t trust any of them and that nothing changes: what I can’t see is what these people who don’t vote would do instead.  So if you didn’t vote – not because you weren’t eligible, but because you didn’t want to – please let me know why.

I promise I won’t tear you apart – I’d just really like to know.

Changing the subject, I’ve just realised with a shock that it’s only just over a month till the start of Artbeat!  Five weeks from today the whole thing will kick off and I’ll be doing my Artbeat Opening Ode at Christchurch on Clarendon Park Rd.  So please put the date in your diaries and come down for the launch, from 5.30 on Friday 19th June.  More details to come.

Meanwhile, have a good weekend.  What have you got planned?  I’ve got Tomatoes tomorrow followed by gardening, then a shared lunch at the Quaker Meeting on Sunday.

Kirk out

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The Theory of Everything

Thanks for all the positive responses to yesterday’s story – please keep them coming, whether positive or negative.  Holly got the right answer to the question, who said ‘am I an oat?’  It was Monica to Richard in ‘Friends’ – one of the best lines in the show, in my opinion.  Richard was a great character and Tom Selleck played him to perfection.  But it’s one thing to play fictional characters which you can make your own; and quite another to play real people, especially when those people are still alive.

Stephen Hawking was given two years to live in 1963 when diagnosed with motor neurone disease *.  You can’t help feeling sorry for his wife at that time; marrying him, she thought she knew what she was taking on – two years of illness and then widowhood.  However hard that would have been to deal with, the reality was surely harder – nursing a severely-disabled man as well as bringing up several children without any help in an age before technological advances enabled him to speak and move himself, would put a strain on the strongest of marriages.

But the main problem with playing real live people is treading that line between interpretation and caricature.  You need to play someone and not mimic them, and that must be hard.  Michael Sheen does it well and Eddie Redmayne does a very good job here of showing progressive disability, allowing Hawking’s character to shine in his eyes and what facial expressions he is able to muster, as well as through his witty speech: when asked why he no longer supported his first theories about time, Hawking replies: ‘I predict that I was wrong.’

It’s tempting to wonder whether without the disease he would have produced the work: whether, if his own time had not been predicted to be so short, he would have concentrated his efforts so much as to produce the theories he is now known for.  It is of course impossible to say; but what is definitely true is that whenever great efforts and huge achievements are involved, there is always a price to pay – and it’s often those around the Great Man (it’s usually a man) who pay it.  Hawking’s marriage did eventually break up and he married his nurse (nicely played as a smug, conniving woman by Maxine Peake) and you can’t help thinking that here were two people who did their utmost in impossible circumstances – especially his wife.

I spent the whole of last year wanting to see this film and now I’m really glad I did.  It’s out on DVD so get hold of a copy.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2980516/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm

Kirk out

*incidentally, is it really wrong that whenever I hear this I can’t help thinking ‘neuter moron disease’?

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Short Story of the Week and What Was That Again?

Nobody has answered my oat question from the other week, so I’m going to give you one more chance.  Who said this, and to whom: ‘Am I an oat?’

Meanwhile as I wait for your answers to flood in, here’s a short story I’d like your comments on.  Specifically I’d like you to think about:

a.  Did it grab you?

and b.  Could you see the end coming or was it a surprise?

Here it is:

‘Heart2Heart’

It was a few years ago when all of this kicked off.

I’d always known I had a weak heart: my GP told me when I was eighteen, like it was some coming-of-age present. ‘Keep calm, avoid over-exerting yourself and on no account be tempted to smoke.’ I remembered his exact words.

I never had any intention of smoking – and since I became the manager of a charity for the disabled, I’ve seen enough lung disease to put me off the habit for life. Take Arthur, for example. Arthur Pewter: fifty-nine years old, worked down the mines for years, now has emphysema and can’t climb the stairs. So guess what? ATOS – or whatever they’re called this week – passed him fit for work. I ask you, what work? He can hardly sit at my desk without collapsing. Nobody wants to employ a deadbeat old crock like me, he says. His money was cut and his compensation long-gone. Might as well just cut me losses and top meself, he said. Took me ages to talk him round.

Most days you can wear yourself out trying to do even a half-decent job. It was bad enough when I started and it’s worse now. One day on a visit I nearly collapsed. I staggered to the doctor’s; my GP put the stethoscope on, inflated the cuff and squeezed her little rubber ball. The column of mercury sank like a stone: my blood pressure was through the floor. She wrote me a prescription; but we both knew I was on borrowed time. The only option was a transplant.

She got me on the list – and on that list I stayed. I knew there were more urgent cases than mine, but organ-donors were few and far between. I knew I shouldn’t worry, but I couldn’t help it: what would happen if the poor old jam tart just gave up the fight? Leon would be left alone; the children would be motherless, and without me to fight for it my job would disappear into a funding black hole.

Leon was forever moaning about having to watch people die – but this time it was personal. He was all set to go on another campaign, but then – god bless the EU! – they passed a directive changing the default position from opt-in to opt-out. You were presumed to be donating your organs when you died unless you stated otherwise. And all of a sudden that list began to move like crazy.

It was a Friday when I got the call to say that my new heart was waiting impatiently for me and I should get to the hospital pronto. The timing wasn’t great – I had a new client who was just starting to trust me – but it couldn’t be helped. I phoned Leon. ‘I’m on my way,’ he said. His voice was shaking – whether from anxiety or relief, I couldn’t tell. 

Of the actual operation I remember nothing. Leon wanted to come in but there was no way they’d let him, so it was just me and the team; and next thing I knew I was coming round in resus. I brought my eyes into focus on a nurse’s watch. It said 3.30: I’d been out for two hours.

‘Congratulations!’ She gave me a condescending smile. ‘It’s all gone really well.’

I looked up at the heart monitor: my blood pressure was strong and the heartbeat was peaking with an almost indecent enthusiasm.

‘That looks quite in order,’ I said. ‘Please give the surgeon my thanks.’

She smiled again, and left. After that there was an irritating procession of staff, all wanting to know how I was feeling, to which I returned the short answer that I was absolutely fine and that I could see everything that was wrong with them. When I asked how soon I could leave, they just smiled. I was getting sick of people smiling instead of giving me answers.

Leon arrived. He looked worried; I couldn’t think why.

‘Ah, Leon!’ I said. ‘Good. The operation went very efficiently and I need you to get the news out. For a start, you can call work. Tell them I’ll be back on Monday – then you can sit down while I work out the rest.’

He sat down next to the bed, looking puzzled.

‘You can’t go back on Monday!’ he said. ‘It takes weeks to recover – you won’t be in the office for a month at least.’

I swept his objections aside. ‘Nonsense! I can’t possibly be away for that long.’

Leon put on his professional voice and started to talk about organ establishment and recovery time-frames, but I was having none of it. I told him to get out a notebook and pen.

‘Now,’ I said. ‘I’ve been thinking.’ Once I put my mind to something I always know what to do. ‘Before I go back to work we need to find a Home Help.’

‘OK,’ he said, carefully. Instead of writing this down, he was looking at me as you might look at an unexploded bomb. ‘But what I really want to know is how you’re feeling.’

‘For heaven’s sake!’ I exploded. ‘Must I have this continual nannying? First the nurses, now you! I’m fine. There’s nothing whatever the matter with me. I had a problem but it’s been resolved. My heart is now functioning perfectly and I’m ready to get back to work.’

Later Leon brought the children in and I talked to Daniel about school. Ivy had made me a card but it was rather messy as she hasn’t learned to paint properly, so I laid it on the table.

The next day I discharged myself. I brushed aside the nannying objections of the hospital staff, though I felt very irritated at being obliged to sign some sort of ‘disclaimer’ before they would let me out. Then I went home and spent the weekend getting up to speed with emails. On the Monday I was back at my desk, reflecting with great satisfaction that I had hardly taken any time off work. People make such a fuss! It’s just a little change of heart, that’s all. Nothing to fuss over.

‘My goodness, what a bunch of nannies!’ I said to my colleagues. They were all flapping around my desk, demanding to know how I was feeling. I cannot stand this modern mania for airing your emotions at every opportunity. So I waved them all away and I’d got through most of my backlog when Sandra arrived. She just stood in the doorway and gaped.

‘We weren’t expecting -’ she began. I cut her off; the last thing I needed was more fuss.

‘I’m perfectly all right, thank you,’ I said impatiently. ‘Now. Come in, shut the door.’ She did.

‘I’ve spent the morning going through the files,’ I told her.

‘Oh!’ She stared at the neat tower on my desk. ‘What are these then?’

‘These,’ I said briskly, ‘are rejected cases.’

‘Re-jec-ted?’ She pronounced the three syllables as though she didn’t know what they meant.

‘Yes!’ I snapped.

All of them?’ She glanced at the file on top, marked with the name A. Pewter. ‘Is that Arthur?’

I sighed. ‘Listen,’ I said, ‘there’s no earthly reason why we should continue to support these people. It’s quite clear they’re just not pulling their weight. And by the way, I want a meeting tomorrow about the way we run things. This whole operation must be put on a different footing.’

Sandra was positively gaping now. ‘A different footing?’ she echoed.

‘I don’t want to say everything twice, Sandra, so please pay attention. I think we ought to get a private company in to manage some of these cases. They are a drain on resources. We ought to be making some basic income from these clients, rather than just letting them

hoover up money.’

Sandra looked ready to keel over. I dismissed her impatiently and went back to my files: by keeping my nose to the grindstone I had got through all of them by the end of the day. I got Sandra to convene a meeting for the following morning and left work feeling quite exhilarated. But I arrived home to find Leon looking deeply troubled.

‘What’s the matter now?’ I said. I may have snapped a little.

‘It’s you,’ he said. ‘You’re not being yourself.’

‘Nonsense! Of course I’m being myself! Who else could I be?’

‘That’s a very good question.’ He ran a hand through his hair. ‘But the way you’ve been acting since the operation – it’s not like you.’

I thought back to the previous week. Maybe he had a point – yes, now that I thought about it, I had been different before. Less efficient. More tolerant of weakness. Not able to get through as much work. But I’d just put it down to having a – well, a weak heart.

‘The thing is,’ Leon continued, getting into professional mode, ‘sometimes people feel different after a transplant. They report having strange thoughts; unusual feelings. It’s as if part of our personality lives in our organs.’

‘What utter tosh!’ I said.

But Leon wouldn’t let it go. ‘Maybe you should go back to the hospital and find out whose heart you were given,’ he said.

‘What a ridiculous idea!’ I retorted. I considered the subject closed, but to my annoyance, Leon’s idea seemed to have lodged in my mind, and in my spare moments I couldn’t help wondering whose heart was now beating inside me. It was irritating: I’m not given to speculation. I’ve never seen the point. But, since the hospital had made me an appointment for a ‘check-up,’ I decided to make use of it. I parked the car and walked towards the building. What on earth had possessed me to come to an NHS facility? I thought as I entered the reception and stood in a queue. At the head of it was a young Indian woman seated at a computer.

‘I need some information,’ I said briskly – and I outlined the purpose of my visit. She listened with growing incredulity.

‘I’m pretty sure we don’t keep that information,’ she said.

‘My husband works as a transplant surgeon,’ I said firmly. ‘He was the one who suggested it.’

‘I see.’ She looked down at her screen. ‘Well, even if we do have it I’m not authorised to give it out,’ she said.

‘Perhaps I should speak to your supervisor,’ I said, my eyes boring into hers. I was not used to being thwarted in this way. Why on earth had I come here? There would be none of this nonsense at a private clinic.

In the end I had to fill in a form and wait to see her superior. When she came I was summoned into an office. The woman logged onto a computer, put in my details and waited. As the screen changed her face took on an expression of the utmost horror. She stared at me and then back at the screen as though I could read what was written there.

‘Come on,’ I said impatiently, ‘it’s my body – I need to know.’

‘I don’t believe this!’ she said. ‘But it’s here.’

‘What is?’

‘I’m really not sure I -‘

I’d had enough. ‘If you don’t tell me I will take legal action against this hospital under EU legislation,’ I told her. I don’t like the EU but sometimes you have to work with what you’ve got.

She seemed to be considering: eventually she took a deep breath. ‘Impossible as it seems,’ she said, ‘it would appear that you have been given the heart of Margaret Thatcher.’

For a full minute we gazed at each other in total disbelief.

(c) Liz Gray 2015

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