A Message of Heartfelt Gratitude

This is going to be a rather cryptic post as it’s addressed to the person who put an envelope through our door some time last night or this morning. I was completely choked when I saw what was in it, and I just want to say from the bottom of my heart, thank you. You know who you are – although I don’t.

That’s all for now. More later, including some possibly exciting news…

Kirk out

Let’s Play ‘Hammer the Poor’

Words cannot express, though I must try to make them, how much I loathe the system under which we live. It’s a system which rewards the rich, no matter how undeserving, and hammers the poor, no matter how they came to be so. It’s a system which assumes that wealth equals merit and that the poor deserve their fate. It’s a system which bypasses, even demonises, compassion and makes an enemy of welfare. It’s a system which punishes benefit claimants and hammers those in debt.

I’m not one of the worst-off. Not even close. I’m not on the streets or hanging on a phone line trying to find out why I owe the DWP money having received a threatening letter, nor am I a refugee about to be put on a plane in the middle of the night (Priti Patel makes my blood boil). I have somewhere to live and clothes to wear; I can’t be deported and nor, thank god, do I claim benefits. But I do have a substantial overdraft and no means of paying it off. Until recently I was coping with the charges: they made a hole in what I laughingly call my income but I could manage. And this month I was sure that in spite of Christmas and Daniel’s birthday (neither of which I grudge in the slightest) I had enough in my account to cover the charges. But this morning I had a text from the bank which I am not ashamed to tell you made me cry, because it informed me that I was about to go over my overdraft limit and should pay in funds today to avoid further charges. Fortunately I can ask OH to help me out here, otherwise I would be on a downward spiral to god knows where.

This has happened because last January the bank decided, out of nowhere, to virtually double the charges for those owing over a certain amount. Why? Just because they could, I guess – they didn’t bother giving any sort of rationale for it. I guess they needed to make up some money they were losing elsewhere, and who better to take it from than people like me; the poor, the overdrawn, those with nowhere else to go? I mean, they could hardly ask the rich, could they? You can’t ask someone like Jeff Bezos for money – he’s far too well-off. As George Bernard Shaw’s Millionaire says, ‘a man as rich as I am cannot afford anything.’ But we shall leave the rich in their self-made prisons for now and consider how many people out there are in my situation; stuck in some kind of debt incurred through no fault of their own – losing their job, an inability to make enough money, disability or illness – and being hammered by government, banks and other bastards. We feel isolated and helpless, we feel constantly hammered and unable to climb out of the mire. We feel abandoned by society and blamed for our own problems. We feel defeated.

We have to do better as a society, to find ways of helping each other. This is not a plea for money but for a better way of doing things. So let’s give our minds to that and together we will find a way.

Kirk out

On The First Day of Christmas

We all know the carol, right? On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me… but when actually is the first day of Christmas? As Nigel says exasperatedly to Adam in Rev, ‘if I have to tell one more person it’s not Christmas yet, it’s Advent, I shall go stark staring bananas.’ I can’t find a clip but I promise you that’s actually what he said. Meanwhile here’s another quite pertinent clip:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nbs8MVRGEfc

Technically Nigel is correct: it’s Advent until Christmas Eve when the festive season actually begins. It may actually begin with Midnight Mass, I couldn’t swear to it. You’d think I’d know these things having been brought up in or very near the church, but I’ve blotted it all out – much as the church spire used to blot out the view… anyway, the first day of Christmas is actually Christmas Day, and the season of Christmas is the twelve days thereafter.

Not that you’d know it now. Christmas begins as soon as someone can get away with setting it all off. Of course this year is different, but normally you sense that retailers are nervously watching each other wondering who will be the first to break cover and announce their Christmas collection. It’s generally some time in October; we don’t even get the chance to celebrate Guy Fawkes (don’t get me started on Hallowe’en) in fact the children have barely settled into another school term before the Great Rush begins. By Christmas Day evening it’s all over; the presents have been torn open, the dinner eaten, the crackers pulled, the Queen watched (or avoided) and the dishwasher stacked. Or some poor sod sent into the kitchen to wash it all up.

It’s not that I’m particularly a traditionalist. I’m not Nigel, but I do deplore the over-commercialisation of Christmas, the guilt, the sense that you have to show you care by buying expensive presents, the overindulgence in food and drink. But more than all that, it’s the fact that Christmas nowadays is completely front-loaded. The whole thing is out of balance; we jettison the period of fasting and reflection and skip straight to the feasting. All cultures – so far as I know – celebrate something; the new moon, the harvest, a new birth, a coming to man- or womanhood. Jesus was not born on 25th December; the Midwinter celebration is much older than Christianity which was merely grafted onto it. But all traditional cultures have fasting as well as feasting and all the major religions include periods of abstinence as part of their calendar. It’s about balance – and our culture is way out of balance.

I’ve also become somewhat plaintive about the absence of the Queen from our airwaves. I’m not a flag-waving royalist; I’m on the fence about the monarchy, but I do think she should have put in more than one appearance during the current crisis (or crises). I think she should have made a series of speeches to encourage people which, though they might have nauseated some, would have provided comfort to others. If we’re going to have figureheads like the Queen, they should at least pop up and say something in dark times. So whether it’s her decision not to speak or someone else’s it’s a bad decision. Mind you, I wouldn’t put it past Johnson to prevent it on the grounds that it might make him look bad.

Or worse.

Anyway, that’s where we are. We try to celebrate Christmas by not panicking and not buying too much, just a few nice things. Oh god, how many presents have I got left to buy? Can I get my Sainsbury’s order in on time? Oh no, I haven’t sent any cards yet!

Aaaaaaaaaaaand breathe.

And let’s spare a thought for those who are going to be alone.

Kirk out

New Shoes and Curtains – The Last Drop

I’ve been a tad spendthrift this weekend. Like most people when I’ve been without money and spending my nectar points on groceries because the folding stuff has unaccountably vanished along with the gold and silver pieces, when I get money I tend to go a bit mad. Not ridiculously mad, just slightly mad. And so in short order I bought curtains for the study, new shoes, a couple of books, some beers and a bottle of wine.

The curtains were slightly problematic. I had the measurements carefully logged on my phone and when I got to B and Q I was happy to see they had the exact shade of green that I needed. I even got a pot of the paint I’d used and placed them side by side to check. But for some bizarre reason they don’t sell curtains in pairs (why would anyone want a single curtain?) and there was only one left in the size I wanted. Oh well, I thought, I’ll get some in the next size up. But somehow or another I got the height and drop mixed up and when I got them home they fell to the floor. By which I mean they were too long. Never mind, I said to myself. Being an expert needlewoman I can cut off the extra and make it into curtains for the futility room. So I cut the curtains to the right length and put up the new shiny silver curtain rail and Bob was eventually my uncle.

At this point the words ‘new shoes’ began to whisper in my mind. If I ever go to any sort of formal event I’ve basically got the choice of trainers or purple DMs. Not the best choice with a long black or blue dress. A pair of black lace-up shoes may not sound very exciting to you but to me they are the very stuff of life: when the Doc shop in Leicester closed down I got three pairs of Docs in the sale and one of them was a pair of flat black lace-ups which I wore until they fell apart. Since then there has been a flat black lace-up shaped hole in my life which, it occurred to me on Saturday morning, I now had the means to fill. So off I went to Clark’s (mask – check, gloves – check, wallet – check) and was served by a delightful young lady who did not mind at all the teetering piles of boxes as I tried on several pairs in various sizes. I like Clark’s because they are the only place to do width fittings for adults and I have wide feet. I love the shoes and would go to bed in them if I could.

After that, what with Waterstones being next door, what could I do but browse the ‘BOGOHP’ (buy one get one half price) table? It’s be rude not to, right? I quickly snapped up a couple of books I’d had my eye on for a while: Lockdown by Peter May and Westwind, a re-release of an early Ian Rankin. They have things in common which I didn’t know when I bought them but I’ll tell you more about that another time.

And that was my weekend. How was yours?

Kirk out

Wealth is Wasted on the Wealthy

I had an idea or two in mind this morning but now they’ve flown, and I’m feeling a little like Fran in this clip from Black Books when, given a job as a favour from one of Manny’s underworld mates, she is asked to give a presentation with no clue as to what her job is about or even what the company does.

The rich – or at least those who comment in public on the issue of wealth inequality – are fond of saying that they ‘earned’ their money and therefore have a right to keep it, thereby implying that poor(er) folk just don’t work hard enough. There also seems to be an attitude that they know how to handle wealth, whereas poorer folk wouldn’t be able to. There may be some truth in this; a number of people who’ve won ridiculous amounts on the lottery fritter it away and end up as poor as they were before. But it’s about the mindset. How rich do you feel? Do rich people really, genuinely appreciate what they have? Or do they take it for granted and only want more? How many yachts is enough?

Of course ‘the rich’ are not a homogeneous group, any more than ‘the masses.’ It all depends on your perspective; when you look at crowds from a distance, people appear much closer together than they are in reality. So that although ‘the powerful’ (who are largely contiguous with ‘the rich’) always pull together when threatened, at other times they are probably further apart than we imagine. Like Orion’s belt, they only look like a constellation from where we’re standing.

I’m working on supposition here, since the wealthiest people I know have large houses in the suburbs and a social conscience; I don’t know anyone with a private jet or an estate or a fancy yacht, let alone any owners of multinational companies or bosses who get six-figure bonuses. (My brother-in-law did once have a boat but it sank a couple of years back after he’d spent years doing it up.)

But do rich people actually appreciate how rich they are? I suspect they don’t; furthermore I suspect that, just as I have no concept of what it would be like to have millions in the bank, so they have no idea what it’s like to worry about the rent or to choose between heating and eating. As Paul McKenna says, after a certain point it’s not about what you have but your attitude towards it. Are you poor in mind? Do you always want more? Do you compare yourself with others who have more? How rich do you feel? To be ‘poor and content’ may be a mealy-mouthed cliche but if you’re rich and discontented there’s nowhere to go. You’re on a treadmill.

So: as Fran so helpfully says, what are we doing? What’s it all about? Is this the best that we can be?

What am I doing here?

Watch the clip – it’s really funny.

Kirk out

PS I’ve recently learned the Greek for rich, which is ‘plautos’. Hence ‘plutocrat.’

A Desk of One’s Own

When Virginia Woolf wrote about women becoming authors, she prescribed an income of 50 guineas a year and a room of one’s own. I’m not sure what the modern-day equivalent is of 50 guineas, but I can tell you that a room of one’s own is a luxury I have rarely enjoyed.

The essential piece of equipment in a room of one’s own is of course a desk of one’s own; and this is something I have managed to acquire even if only in a corner of the bedroom. My first desk was a bureau in the hallway (I’ve blogged about this here) and my second, an ancient school desk with a sloping lid which I somehow acquired – maybe from a jumble sale? – and painted white. The lid sloped so steeply that I had to prop it up with fat books to make it level. On the top it had a niche for pens and a hole for an inkwell (at my first year at grammar school we had to use ink pens and I managed to get far more ink on myself than I ever did on the page; thankfully after this we were allowed biros.*) Then after I left home there were built-in desks in student rooms and finally, after years of desklessness, a magnificent one of my Dad’s which had sat in his study for years and was so old and creaky that it had to be held together with string. I seem to remember he bought it for 20 shillings from Timothy White’s. Then when that broke I was already in Madrid and had a tiny desk in the corner of my room and after that, once I was married with children, a table in the corner of the bedroom and then (joy!) for three years a proper desk in an actual study during which time I wrote a load of short stories. Around this period I also had a big dining table up at the chalet which, although a little creaky, was quite serviceable and looked out from a picture window onto the campsite and the trees beyond. But when we moved here I had to make do with a table in the library and a desk in a Friend’s house before I found a rickety old table on wheels and made some space for it in the bedroom.

I have written on trains, planes and buses. I have written in waiting-rooms and cafes, on beaches and in chalets in the woods. But the thing I long for most is a desk of one’s own – and a room of one’s own to put it in.

Kirk out

*I guess this could spawn another post; A Pen of One’s Own…

A Book of Two Halvezzz

I have already mentioned my successes with Paul McKenna’s book on sleep. When someone lent me a copy I was initially resistant, knowing him only as a TV and stage hypnotist and not wishing to subject myself to any form of ‘mind control’ but the techniques he suggests are rather different from what I expected. First, they are fairly commonsensical; things such as go to bed when you’re tired and switch off the TV an hour before bed (a custom more honoured in the breach in my case, though I do occasionally do it: the other night I turned the TV off and instead of watching the zillionth episode of Episodes got my keyboard out and laid down some groovy vibes.) Then there are techniques based on CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and others based on visualisation; in fact there’s a whole spread so that if some don’t work for you, others might. Since I got this book about a year ago my sleep has improved enormously. It’s not perfect but if I’m awake in the middle of the night I have a range of techniques to help myself, and I don’t normally have any trouble getting to sleep.

So, following the success of this volume I thought I’d try his book on getting rich. Again I was a little wary, having read so many ‘get rich’ manuals that were set in a very different universe from mine, but here I found a lot that resonated with me. Again he builds on techniques to eliminate negative habits (I was astounded how much of my attitude towards money is based on pity for the poor and resentment of the rich – more on this later) and to get rid of poor thinking habits, ie to visualise yourself having the things you want. An important part of the mix here is to think of riches as involving far more than money; in fact he re-defines wealth as ‘living your best life’ and quotes Rockefeller who, in his eighties and struggling to get around, when offered an electric wheelchair said he’d rather have the money. So often the rich are – or seem to be, since I don’t know any personally – in a prison of their own making, sometimes a literal prison with gates and searchlights and guard dogs. As George Bernard Shaw’s Millionaire says, ‘a man as rich as I am cannot afford anything.’

So far I’m entirely with McKenna in this vision. But he spoils it for me in two ways; one is by quoting people like Donald Trump and Philip Green (the book was published before either was discredited but I’d still struggle to see them as positive role models) and the second is by being a manual on how to be a good capitalist. McKenna’s model for making money is first and last a business model, and here’s where it all falls down for me, not only because I don’t believe in capitalism but also because I’ve never been able to sell myself in any kind of business arena, no matter how I tried. That’s one reason I’ve never been tempted by self-publishing, because the hard work is in the marketing and this is something at which I am utterly crap.

As far as the ‘pity’ and ‘resentment’ go, by trying a couple of his exercises I discovered that my approach to wealth was almost totally governed by these unhelpful emotions. This does not imply that I need to abandon my socialist views, nor that I should admire billionaires and regard the poor as responsible for their own condition; it just means that these emotions were blocking my own understanding of how I might progress. Here’s one exercise from the book to try:

Picture the wealthiest person you can think of who is also someone you admire. Picture that person with all the possibilities they have in their life. Put that picture in a large box. In one small corner of the box, imagine yourself as you are now. Then practise switching the images in your mind, so that you become the big picture and the other person shrinks to where you are.

Rinse and repeat.

Kirk out

Shall I Part My Hair Behind? Do I Dare to Plant a Tree?

My blogging prompt for yesterday suggests writing a post about trees but instead I went shopping and got my hair done. Now if you’re new to this blog you might get the impression from reading this that I’m the literary equivalent of Rachel in Friends, not getting around to Jane Eyre but reading Vogue instead. The thing is, there are some days when despite your best intentions you can get all your books out and sit there staring at the computer and it Just Isn’t Happening. And on those days when a card arrives in the post with some birthday money inside there’s only one thing to do and, reader, I did it. I went and bought me a new outfit and got my hair done. I have to say I’m very pleased with the hair cut and clothes and intend to estrenar both tomorrow at the Labour Party ceilidh.

Estrenar is a very useful Spanish verb for which there is no equivalent in English. But there should be because we need it; it means ‘to use or try out something for the first time.’ I coined a similar verb as a child, to pervise, however this is very specific to a jar of Marmite (or something with a similarly smooth surface) and it means to broach that surface for the first time. So I think we should all adopt estrenar into our language – as indeed OH and I do.

Now I know that you’re all champing at the bit wanting selfies but in my experience a photo never does justice to the splendiferous reality so I’m going to paint you a word-picture. There’s a lot of rust around at the moment in clothes shops (maybe it’s all the rain) and I eventually persuaded myself to try on a pair of rust-coloured trousers. They were stylish and comfortable so I took a chance and bought them, along with a couple of mix-and-match tops. I’d also taken a chance on a new hairdresser’s in town (Loughborough seems to have more hairdressers than any town has a right to; I don’t know why and my stylist couldn’t shed any light either) as I’d chickened out of unisex one Daniel uses because it was full of teenage lads. Sad, I know… anyway she did a brilliant job and took about six inches and ten years off me.

Today it’s back to the laptop face though. And I haven’t said one word about trees… ah well, maybe tomorrow. Or not, as it’s my actual birthday then and I have lots of stuff planned.

Kirk out

Writer’s Block, Anyone?

WordPress is determined to get me to use the new ‘editor’ which does things in blocks; why, I do not know, but like many such innovations they push you to accept new forms by making the old ones less and less attractive. But I resist change, not because I am a hidebound reactionary but because of the energy it takes to get to grips with something new. This is a constant feature of life and a continual problem for those of us over – ahem – fifty whose brains do not process new information as quickly as younger cortices can. But since wordpress has inexplicably downgraded the version I was using, it’s a choice between remembering something old and getting used to something new, so here I am trying to get used to my writing being ‘levelled up’, whatever that means.

I don’t consider myself particularly old, I’m pretty much on the ball and far from being ga-ga, but my life is a series of challenges which demand that on a regular basis I get used to something new. New things that have come at me in the past few years include: internet banking, online tax returns, contactless payments, wireless computer mice, ‘casting’ TV, mobile bus and train tickets, virtual kitchens (not for me but still) self-service checkouts (I’m still resisting these) and loads more I can’t bring to mind.

You might say, what’s the big deal? None of these things is particularly difficult, after all, and many of them make life a lot easier. It’s true that now I’m used to it, internet banking is very useful; it’s true that contactless payment is faster and easier and doing my tax return online is a doddle. But the point is I had to get used to all this stuff first. It’s as if you’re walking along a path quite happily but every few minutes someone tugs your elbow and says, ‘there’s a much better path up here.’ And then if you doggedly keep on using the old path they put obstacles in your way. And in the end someone comes down and says ‘this path is closing now. Please go to the new path.’ Just as HMRC are now digital by default, you have to apply for Universal Credit online and without internet shopping lots of avenues are closed to you. This stuff is largely driven by young men in Silicon Valley; it excludes the poor and the elderly and anyone else who can’t get their frontal lobes around it; and it’s very tiring. I want things to stay the same for a bit now, OK?

Then again perhaps the ultimate plan is to make all the free forms of WordPress intolerable so that we all upgrade to a paid plan. I wouldn’t put it past them…

Kirk out

Present (and Future?) Tense

Life as an artist is one headache after another.  Just when you think you’ve got things sorted, just when you have a plan, it all goes horribly wrong and like walking through treacle there comes a point where you Can’t Do It Any More.  I woke up this morning around five with a horrible headache and a Quasimodo shoulder up by my left ear (fortunately it was the left shoulder, not the right, ho ho: my left arm is my writing arm, so it’s logical.)  I took a couple of paracetamol and went back to sleep but the headache hovered over my pillow like a bad angel and clobbered me as soon as I woke.  It’s a mysterious thing how our muscles and joints express internal realities: I was talking the other day to someone who has a very tense working life and is now plagued by backache.  I rarely have backache: for me, tension is usually expressed in the neck and shoulders giving me headaches which I interpret as thoughts wanting to reach the brain but being prevented (if you think the brain is the only centre of awareness I would take issue with you: I think each part of the body is a centre of a particular kind of awareness.)  Only if I’m extra-specially tense do I get backaches and even more rarely, stomach aches.

How to engage with society is a big problem for most artists.  Some, like C P Snow, are lucky enough to fit in quite nicely and be able not only to hold down a job and write but also to write about that job (Snow was by turns a barrister, an academic and a civil servant who gave us the phrases ‘corridors of power’ and ‘the two cultures’.)  Then again, he never had to vacuum the sitting-room or run to Sainsbury’s for more marge.*  But for most of us fitting in – which means at the very least the financial imperative to work, and therefore to tick whatever educational and social boxes will persuade someone to hire you – is as problematic as it was for Larkin; ** and even when you are able to write full-time, there’s the problem of getting published.  And that’s a whole-nother way of fitting in (or not.)  When you write full-time the question is refined.  No longer do I ask myself which jobs I am suited for and would be able to do without going off my chump: now, the question is, how far do I write what publishers want (insofar as I know what that is) and how far do I write like myself (insofar as I can tell what that is)?  It’s a constant juggle: if you go too far in the direction of publishers you may be successful but at the cost of ignoring your own uniqueness; if you go too far the other way you risk never being published.  But maybe, just maybe – there’s a third option, which is that in truly being yourself you may produce something publishers didn’t know they wanted but actually really do.

I’ve blogged about C P Snow a few times.  Here’s one of the posts.

*They probably had butter anyway

** For me the problem was not only getting work but keeping it: I’ve had jobs which nearly sent me off my chump with boredom and other jobs where the work wasn’t so bad but I couldn’t fit in socially – and that seemed to be just as important.

Kirk out