I was just wondering what to write about when my eye lit on a notebook with an Escher drawing on the front. Twiddliness! I thought. So that’s where I’ll begin. OH has a book called ‘Godel, Escher, Bach‘ which is on this very subject. Godel was a mathematician and there are similarities between him, Escher and Bach, all of them being inclined to turn things upside down, inside out and round and round. Bach can take a simple piece of music, play it a few times, turn it upside down and sideways and then chop it up; Escher does the same thing with images, producing optical illusions where fish turn into birds and staircases, like share prices, go up as well as down. I’m not sure what Godel does because I skipped the section on him (shame!) but there you are. Maybe if it wasn’t so hot I’d be able to say something more coherent on the subject…
Yesterday turned out to be not such a bad day in the end; after a depressing morning I went for a walk (always a good plan) and sat in my easy chair for the afternoon. I use my easy chair – in reality a garden chair because an armchair won’t fit in my study – for periods of reflective writing, or perhaps no writing at all, just staring at clouds and daydreaming. I don’t actually do enough of this – I suspect most of us don’t – and it’s very valuable. Just to sit and allow thoughts to emerge as they will – or not – is one of the best ways a writer can spend her/his time, provided that the rest of the time you actually get some work done. And lo! while I was sitting in reflection I decided to check my phone for emails and there sat my weekly update on freelance writing jobs. I subscribe to this just on the offchance even though most of the jobs are not suitable for me, and there I found a novel-writing competition. I sort of have a novel – well, I have one in development, and since they only required the first 5000 words I sent them off. If they’re interested they want another 5000 in September – which I have – and after that I’ll have to work pretty damn fast if they want the whole thing. But that’s how I rock.
So you see, twiddling your thumbs can be highly productive. The joys of twiddliness!
That’s what I’m doing today, like Dory I’m just keeping on until something happens or I get where I’m going. Wherever that is… in the meantime I am getting seriously twitchy about the lack of holiday plans. I’m not even sure it’s sensible to go away and by the look of the travel websites millions of people will be doing just that, which makes it even less sensible. I long for a lonely beach, a quiet cottage somewhere tucked away where nobody goes, but I don’t think I’m going to find it. The trouble with lonely cottages where nobody goes is that sooner or later someone goes there – and they tell their friends about it, and their friends go there and before you know it the lonely cottage is a major destination and costs a thousand pounds a week. It’s a bit like this Dire Straits song:
Plus, everything’s expensive this year. People are desperate to go away – and I can’t blame them – and holiday companies are desperate to recoup losses from last year, and I can’t blame them either. So what to do? I’m not as hardy as Brian so cycling and wild camping appeals as much as an enema. All I want is a little self-catering place in the middle of not-quite-nowhere, one which doesn’t cost the earth. And can I find it? Can I buffalo!
Little Victoria Wood reference there for fans. Of course I have other plans; I can visit my sister in Wales and my daughter in Doncaster, I can have days out on the bike and I can do some decorating. Yesterday on freecycle I got a couple of match pots and the day before I got a pair of curtains for the living room. They fit perfectly and look great, so now I really want to decorate the living room to match. I also have to do some decorating for a friend, which has been on hold while I sort out my fatigue issues. But maybe I shouldn’t be thinking about a holiday at all – I think the government’s ‘opening up’ plans are insane and I will not be leaving off mask-wearing and social distancing any time soon. Sometimes I think they just don’t give a damn if thousands die.
Now I’ve gone and depressed myself.
After this week I shall be having a break from work so I will schedule some golden oldies for your delectation. Happy Monday and please, guys, be careful out there. Your mask could save not only your life but others’ lives as well.
Oh, and I cycled 17.5 miles last week. Not much to some people I know, but it’s good for me.
Utopiary is a word I coined a few years back to describe the kind of leaf-perfect tree-moulding that goes on in some gardens. In fact you can usually measure the wealth of a household by the amount of topiary because most of us are too busy just trying to get the hedge trimmed and the lawn cut (while also respecting no-mow May) to be remotely interested in sculpting our trees. Anyway, I don’t like topiary very much; I think trees and bushes should find their own shape rather than having one imposed on them.
None of which is what I was going to write about today. I’m in a real short story phase right now and I’ve started another one which tells the story of a stoning from the point of view of a man waiting to take part in one. I was shocked to discover that this barbaric practice is still legal in fifteen countries of the world, even if it doesn’t always take place. Sometimes there is no legal process whatsoever; the poor woman (it’s usually a woman) is simply sentenced to death for some alleged crime and in Pakistan since adultery is hard to prove the courts are able to ‘use their instincts’. In a deeply misogynistic society you can just imagine how that’s going to play out.
The story was inspired by an article in the latest Granta magazine which plopped onto my doormat this morning and was eagerly snatched up. Wimbledon being over, we’re back to doing the digital detox thing from Friday night to Saturday dinnertime, so I really needed something new to read. The theme of the issue is Interiors and it begins with A Series of Rooms Occupied by Ghislaine Maxwell who, in the absence of Jeffrey Epstein, is waiting in a detention centre to be tried for the crime of supplying young women to be raped by him and other men. I’m not saying we should go easy on Ghislaine if she’s guilty of these crimes, but growing up with a father like Maxwell can’t have been a picnic, and according to this article the place where she’s detained, the Metropolitan Detention Centre in Brooklyn, is ‘the largest and most dysfunctional’ in the US. I’m not saying our prisons are exemplary but they seem so much worse in the States.
Anyway, I’ve sent off a couple more stories this week, keeping the momentum going, and another one or two will be ready in the next couple of weeks. I’m finding that the momentum is more important than the results, in a way. I’m going to sit in the sun now – for once we have a hot sunny day here. Yay!
I bought this Booker Prize-winning novel a couple of years ago and read it in the space of a few days. Nothing I’ve ever read has given me a clearer idea of what it was like – particularly for a young woman – to live through the Troubles in 1970’s Northern Ireland. Not that Ireland is named, for in this book nothing and no-one is named. The central character associates with many people in the community; Third Brother in law, Oldest Sister, Wee Sisters, Somebody McSomebody, Longest Friend and Real Milkman, so-called to differentiate him from the Milkman of the title, who as it turns out is no milkman at all.
Nor are neighbourhoods named. There are the ‘people over the street’ (Unionists), the Nation over the Water (mainland Britain) and dangerous spots like the Ten Minute Area, so-called because it takes ten minutes to cross. The main character – whose name we do not know – is stalked by an IRA fighter who without saying anything at all definite, appropriates her as his girlfriend. This is a very gossippy neighbourhood where you have only to be seen talking to a man to be practically engaged to him; before long she is supposed to be this guy’s girlfriend and is approached by a gaggle of other such girlfriends in the toilets and given lessons on how to dress (always skirts, never trousers. It’s your duty to look nice for him, etc – but again, nothing is really said, only hinted.) There is no help from the authorities in this society; if you are injured you don’t go to hospital because the police hang around hospitals, and if you are in trouble the last people you go to are the police.
Milkman shows us how an innocent person with no interest in the Troubles can nevertheless be sucked in to assisting one side or the other. The will of the community – and by extension, the paramilitaries – is paramount, and in the end she is only released from the appalling grip of the so-called ‘Milkman’ by his death.
So once again, at 5 pm, our esteemed leader is due to make a pronouncement on Covid regulations. We’ve had the heats and the semi-finals and now it’s the final: ‘Freedom Day’ (aka ‘freedom to catch Covid day’) is supposed to be Thursday; the day when the government washes its hands of all responsibility for public health and leaves it to us. Will it or won’t it? Today it’s decision time because basically the result was a draw: Covid hadn’t won but it hadn’t lost either. We went to extra time but nothing conclusive happened so there’s going to be a penalty shoot-out; and the result will probably be that we should wear masks but we don’t have to and that we should just generally – you know, be careful out there.
You can just imagine how this is going to go when, say, an anti-masker goes into a shop or a pub and is asked to put on a mask. People were stroppy enough before but now they’re going to say ‘Boris says I don’t have to, so there!’ It’s just going to make things ten times harder.
This government is definite on points where it should be nuanced and vague when it should be clear. I despair; and in the meantime I’m going to carry on wearing masks and socially distancing. And that’s my choice.
This is going to be a football-free post, so if you want euphoria about things coming home you’ll have to look elsewhere.
It seems we now have a government which is socially distancing from its people. From July 19th – less than 2 weeks away – we’ll all be able to do what we jolly well like and if lots of people die it’ll be Our Fault for not being more responsible. Apparently it’s fine for mask-wearing and social distancing to be a matter of individual responsibility; I’m waiting for the relaxation of rules on traffic lights, seat belts and driving while drunk… yes, the government has finally given in to its lockdown sceptics and put the economy first. Though what the economy’s going to do if thousands of its workers die, I don’t know; there are already serious employee shortages thanks to Brexit. But seriously, when is it going to occur to them that you can’t run an economy without people? The news makes such grim reading nowadays (I nearly typed ‘grim reaping’) that I’m tempted to bypass it altogether.
Thank goodness for Wimbledon, where in the mens’ quarter-finals Djokovic beat the Hungarian Fucsovics, though not without some great rallies and multiple-deuce games – and almost unthinkably, Federer was out in straight sets, beaten by Polish player Hurkacz. We’ve seen this happen over and over, when a seemingly unbeatable player simply comes up against someone much younger. In the other matches, Italian Berrettini and Canadian Shapolavov were the victors. Today will see the women’s semis; Ash Barty against Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova against Sabatini. I’ve almost enjoyed the women’s draw more than the men’s this year, I’m not sure why.
I also watched some doubles, which is always fun, and I’ll try to catch some of the wheelchair tennis when it comes on. In other news, I finally managed to get an appointment for more blood tests and managed to dodge the very heavy showers to get out for a bike ride. And that was Wednesday.
It’s bad enough being Andy Murray in your 20s, but being an eighteen year old who has barely played in tournaments before, going out on a show court as the last Brit in the championship, was one step too far for Emma Raducanu. It was a shame; she seemed to love her previous matches but there was so much pinned on this one that it became too much and she succumbed to what appears to be a panic attack. Everyone was very sympathetic including her opponent, though John McEnroe has apparently been criticised for saying she found it ‘a little too much’, which seems to be basically what everyone else is saying so I don’t really see the problem. I’ve always liked the way the mature McEnroe (not the young brat) tells it like it is; the world of tennis is generally tactful to the point of saying virtually nothing, so his views are usually a breath of fresh air. The match was on quite late as well, and that may have had an effect. Anyway, she’ll be back. Meanwhile we are down to the quarter-finals. You wouldn’t get long odds on a Federer-Djokovic final and I’m going for Ash Barty-Angelique Kerber in the women’s, though that’s more open I think.
So what else is new? The government continues its assault on the people, producing a draconian Policing Bill to outlaw annoying protests (that’s the point of protests; no-one takes any notice otherwise). This administration seems to value old statues more than living people and the latest rhetoric about mask-wearing becoming a ‘matter of individual responsibility’ is just about the worst move they could have made; it means that loads of people won’t bother and it will make enforcement in pubs and shops etc much much harder. It will also shift the blame for any rise in infections onto ‘irresponsible’ members of the public, which I’m sure has been their aim all along. And who thought Sajid Javid was a good idea as Health Secretary?
Can I emigrate yet?
Anyway, here are some life tips from Peanuts for when nothing goes right.
Had a fairly good weekend, thanks for asking. On Saturday I whizzed round with the vacuum cleaner, watched a bit of tennis and then biffed off to a friend’s house for chat and chaat. Delicious. We watched The Night Managerwhich I had seen when it came out – scarily, 5 years ago! it seems like just before lockdown – and then I caught up with Today at Wimbledon. Yesterday I was a very bad Quaker indeed; I couldn’t concentrate in meeting and ended up looking at my phone instead. I expect to be Eldered very soon. After that I had a blitz on a corner of the garden (bastard bastard bastard) and went for a bike ride. I sorely felt the lack of tennis in the afternoon as it was too wet to go outdoors; at least it kept threatening rain but the real downpour only came in the evening.
Another week of tasty tennis beckons. The second week is always quite different from the first; the field has narrowed and you get a sense of who might make it to the final. All the British men are out of the singles now but the very interesting Emma Raducanu is still in the women’s draw. She’s just 18 but goes at it like a pro, so it’ll be fascinating to see how far she can get. The smart money for the men’s draw has to be on a Federer/Djokovic final (I wouldn’t lay odds on the winner) but the women’s is still quite open with some excellent players like Ash Barty, Coco Gauff and Angelique Kerber. So we’ll see. What’s really sad is that all the British players either come from abroad, grew up abroad or trained abroad (Murray moved to Barcelona aged 15) but it’s not surprising. We simply don’t have the infrastructure here; schools and community centres rarely have tennis courts, not to mention that the weather restricts play to about three months of the year. But, as I was saying to OH, it’s the class system that really did for tennis in this country. I remember as a youngster joining the tennis club next door and being thrown off the courts for wearing black socks (we were just practising, it wasn’t a tournament or anything). The members were very snobbish and unwelcoming and I imagine that was replicated in most places; not to mention that tennis was rarely played outside London and the Home Counties. So not only was the pool of players very small but the ethos was terribly gentlemanly; you used to see British players giving their opponents a nice polite little volley – which of course they dispatched with venom.
To return to the bindweed, as my brain did around 5.30 this morning, the problem is not just that it’s prolific; it’s that OH feels a tender concern for its welfare. OH is always extremely resistant to killing weeds, partly because they have a right to life like anything else, but also because they are a habitat for insects. I try to argue that bindweed and brambles are the Nazis of the weed world, that left unchecked they will destroy everything in their path, but my agonised pleas fall on deaf ears.
And then last night, just as I thought it was safe to look at my phone, I see that a short story has pinged back only two days after submission – and on a Sunday night! Two days – that has to be a record.
I was lucky enough to be able to see this last night and I’ve been pondering how to convey to you the magic that is Nomadland. It’s unassuming, to start with. None of the characters are in any way heroes or villains; there’s little or no conflict, there are no axes to grind, no points to hammer home. No-one is remotely good-looking; most of the characters are ageing and there is nothing remotely aspirational in their lifestyles. And yet, if I could hack it, theirs would be a lifestyle I might aspire to.
The moral – lightly drawn – is the failure of corporate America. Fern lives with her husband in a company town centred around a gypsum plant. When the plant fails, the town dies – there literally is nothing else there – and everyone leaves. Fern gets a casual job at Amazon (my one beef with the film was that they made working at Amazon look much more pleasant than it almost certainly is) over Christmas, then gets in her camper van and leaves. The rest of the film is a story of the road; stopping to earn money, going to camps, meeting the same people over and over again, finding and then losing people and always, always the amazing, astounding, overwhelming American landscape. The film was made in Nevada, Nebraska, South Dakota and California and the scenery is stunning – and this is the point; that the characters are not deprived; they’re no set of sad hoboes living out of a shoe box, this is a positive choice for them even if it has been forced on them by circumstances. Some of the characters are played by real-life nomads whose journey is totally life-affirming; the empty spaces, the open road, the companionship of other nomads – I almost wanted to be one of them. I say almost because I know I couldn’t do it; I like to be rooted in a place and besides I couldn’t deal with the lack of space – but it’s a beguiling prospect.
There are times when Fern comes close to settling down – there’s a guy called Dave who wants her to stay with his family but listening to their talk about real estate values she knows she can never be a part of this world. The pace of this film, too, is hypnotic; the stopping, the moving on, the occasional jobs, the reunions and partings which as one guy says are never final because they always meet again (‘I’ll see you down the road’).
Though I know I could never be one of them I’ve always been curious about nomadic communities. It seems to me an entirely respectable way of life and I’m sad that it’s been all but squeezed out of existence in the UK. It would be impossible to live like Fern, unless perhaps you went to the Highlands of Scotland – even then you’d soon run out of space.
You can watch a trailer here. I urge you to go and see this if at all possible.
I expect we’re all familiar with synchronicity. You mention the name of a person you haven’t seen for years and the next day you bump into them. You start humming an old song and the next moment it’s on the radio – that sort of thing. Yesterday I mentioned Dostoevsky and today he was the answer to a crossword clue which, annoyingly, I didn’t get. These things happen too often to be dismissed as mere coincidences, and yet it is not clear whether something more profound is happening. It may be that we are more aware of something and notice it simply because it was mentioned in conversation the day before, yet it’s hard to escape the feeling of having summoned it (or them) up.
I do actually believe in some sort of thought transference – lots of times I’ve known what OH is thinking without having any actual contact (a bit like Harry Potter with Voldemort) – and everyone knows what it’s like to walk into a room and feel an ‘atmosphere’; what’s that if not some kind of thought transference? Speaking of which, last night we watched Yesterday, a film about a world in which by some freak accident everyone’s memory of the Beatles is wiped out. Only one man remembers them; Jack Malik, a failed musician whose career has just come to an abrupt end. Could it be revived by passing the Beatles’ songs off as his own? It could; he becomes the most successful musician in the world but his success makes him deeply unhappy because he knows himself to be a fraud. In the end he releases all the tracks online for free, causing his manager to have a meltdown, and goes back to Lowestoft to be a teacher.
It’s not a particularly good film – the acting is quite lame and most of the characters wet and unconvincing, but it set me thinking: surely a more interesting scenario would be one where he pretends to have written all the Beatles songs but nobody actually likes them? Where everyone listens and then says, ‘Yeah, but it’s not Ed Sheeran is it?’ I think I might put that in a story.
Incidentally, can anyone explain to me the appeal of Ed Sheeran?
Anyway, have you had any experiences of synchronicity? I’d like to hear about them.