Things That Happened On The Way To Somewhere Else

(some good and bad things that happened sometimes by accident)

Don’t Be Stupid, Mr. Gove: An Open Letter

Dear Mr. Gove,

I’d like to tell you a story, and it’s about my dad. My dad was the one that got away.

My dad was very stupid at school.

My dad was very stupid, and they told him he was stupid, and the tests told him he was stupid. They told him that he didn’t care because he was stupid; and he told them he didn’t care because he was stupid, and everyone was in agreement that my dad was stupid, and that he would never amount to anything. My dad’s dad, who was old, and sick, and had worked in a factory all his life until he got too old and sick to do it any more, did not think my dad was stupid, but he thought that the school knew best, probably. My dad’s mum was mostly only sad, and tired, and she shrugged and thought probably they knew best, and when they examined my dad (once, twice, three times) and every time he came out stupid, they said to him,

-Give up. School isn’t for people like you. University isn’t for people like you. Go and work in a factory. We are not for you. You cannot amount to more than you are.

And my dad did not. I have never asked my dad why not, but he did not.

And they examined him again, and he was a failure again, but less, this time, and then, because he was charming, and lucky, someone let him into university.

And at university, he did well. He did really, really well. And then he went to another university, and did really well there, too. And then a third. And once might be fluke, but three times is true, and it was true: he was not stupid. And from university he went to work, and he wore a suit every day, and rose up and up, and had four daughters, and he told them every day how clever they were, and how they would amount to anything they wanted to amount to, and he sent them all to schools where they were told every day how clever they were, how talented they were, and how they would succeed.

And we have.

My dad wore a suit every day until he could afford to not wear a suit every day, and now he sits on the patio looking at the sun on the hills, and people look up to him. We look up to him. Nobody thinks he is stupid, except  himself.

My dad thinks he is stupid. My dad is the one who got away, and everybody looks up to him, and he has made something of himself. But the teachers, and parents, and a system that should have been designed to support him, they still follow him, saying you’re stupid, you’re stupid.

My dad is the example, the exemplar. He came from nothing; he is more than he was then, he is everything he was then, he is not stupid. They will tell you, look, it is the best way, to grow yourself just by your own efforts, and maybe it is. But what is not the best way- what isn’t right, what isn’t fair, what is totally, utterly unjust in every form- is that he should feel every day stupid, stupid because they told him that at school. That at eleven they said to him- you are stupid- and when someone you trust tells you at eleven- you are stupid- it is too hard to think that perhaps you might not be. And it never goes away.It even goes against the Conservative ethos- he does not feel he has earned the things he has earned, because he is stupid, they told him so. It does not go away.

It never goes away, even if you are the one that got away. That is what we have left, when we stopped having eleven-plusses. That is what we gave up, and that is what you want to bring back, Mr. Gove. All the ones who couldn’t fight at sixteen not to go into factories to go into factories; all the ones who fought told over and over you are stupid, knowing all their lives that someone deemed them less valuable. All the ones with parents who were too old and sick and sad and tired to work with them, to read with them, to tell them you will, you will succeed, you can be more than you are.

If I am ever more than I am, I will do it because of everything I have had given to me by my dad, who had nothing, and earned it, and wears the scars of earning it every bloody single bloody day, and doesn’t believe he deserves it, still, after all the years of working, and proving to everyone.

Mr. Gove- please don’t do this. Don’t sort children into stupid and non-stupid, because even the ones who succeed- even they will remember, and even they will be harmed.

Don’t do this, please.

Love, Ella.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

I read Neil Gaiman’s new book on the tube home from the restaurant. And then I got home, and John went to sleep, and I kept reading. Somewhere about page 100 I started to cry, and I kept crying until I got to the end, and then I kept crying: big, ugly sobs, and if you had asked me why I was crying I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, not really.

Then I read it again. It was about one in the morning, and the street outside seemed very alien. I wanted to go home.

There is an essay by Laurie Lee called The Obstinate Exile, in which he is an adult in London longing for Slad, the village in which he grew up. It is a good essay; there is no copy of it online, but you can find it in the book I Can’t Stay Long. I first came across it when I was very young- maybe seven or eight- and like so many things I read then, there was so much I didn’t understand about it.

I was allowed to read anything from any bookshelf, or rather, nobody ever said I shouldn’t, which I took to be the same thing: there were lots of things I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, although I loved it. I didn’t get all the jokes in Wodehouse, or Chaucer.  I read a lot of Ian McEwan -Black Dogs, and A Child In Time, and (oh god) The Cement Garden- and didn’t understand any of it.

All sex and death and grown-up things, but I was not used to not understanding Laurie Lee. The sex and the dying in Laurie Lee were the sex and dying that is integral to childhood; the understanding of the passages and seasons of the earth that comes easily to the child, and that most adults forget. Children know so many things. Gaiman takes for his epigraph a Maurice Sendak quotation: “I knew terrible things, but I knew I mustn’t let adults know that I knew. It would scare them.”

I knew the earth more intimately then than I have known ever since: ever since has been a getting back, a going back, but it is like going back with a map.

I didn’t understand, then, that it would be this way. I thought I would always know what it was like to exist this way. I thought I could not forget. I thought that I would never leave, or sometimes I knew I would leave, but it didn’t seem real. I could not understand why Laurie Lee left. I could not understand why Laurie Lee did not go home, if he wanted to so badly. His reasons for not going home were not reasons I could understand, and as I write this I realise that perhaps it was because his reasons were not reasons but excuses, or post-facto justifications, of the kind that grown-ups make all the time, of the kind that the grown-up world demands all the time. Nothing ever just is, in the world; nothing ever just is, in the city. Everything is bluster- the cars on the Mile End Road are bluster- everything is excuses, and nothing is. I would not have wanted to understand this, then, perhaps. I was a story-child, and everything was: the stories were, they were, they were. That was enough; I would not have wanted to understand that in the world it is not enough just to be.

Neil Gaiman’s new book is. And it is enough.

Neil Gaiman’s new book is, the way potatoes are, and cow parsley is, and the way oceans are, or duck-ponds.

Neil Gaiman’s new book made me want to go home, and going home is a thing that’s gone, and I was crying in a dark room at one in the morning, reading and reading and reading. I had not owned a book, or been owned by a book, so completely since I was very small, it made me feel like reading used to, when I was little: it made me not want to understand, and understanding, I wanted to go home. The sex, and the dying, in this book is not the sex, and the dying of childhood: the understanding of it is the end of childhood, the end of going home to that house that isn’t, any more.

I have not told you very much about Neil Gaiman’s new book- I have not told you about the people, or the stories, or the magic, or the darkness- I have not told you about anything very much, except, maybe, why I was crying at one in the morning listening to the traffic on the Mile End Road, and I think that’s for the best.

This morning I am reading it again, and it is different this time round: it is different in daylight. I can see it, almost, as a novel, instead of a myth as much mine as Gaiman’s. I can read it, almost, like an adult. I can see, almost, what is real and what is not real in it, and I can see, almost, that I am forgetting already what it was like to read it in the night, and what it was like to remember. I am forgetting already what it was really like to understand the passages and seasons of the dark earth, to understand  what came, what comes beneath.

 

It Just Gives You All The Data: Storytelling and a Start Up

 Yesterday I was at a thing, and a man gave me a business card.

“Chief Storyteller”, the boy next to me read aloud, slowly, as if he wasn’t sure of the words.

The boy next to me looked younger than he said he was; he had a blue suit and worked in predicting trends for supermarkets. I was not entirely sure of his name, even though he had said it when he introduced himself to the man with the cards.

Isn’t it neat?, said the man with the cards. We get to pick our own job titles. Storyteller.

I thought about it for a minute. It bothered me. Storyteller.

Chief storyteller, said the man with the cards.

Yes, I said to him, because there didn’t seem to be anything else I could say, without saying this bothers me.

Yes, said the man with the cards. Well, he said to the boy in the blue suit, well. Keep in touch. You’re right about the trends thing. Yeah. Yeah. He shook the hand of the boy in the blue suit.

As for you, he said to me, you look on our website. You might…yeah. Yeah. He shook my hand, too.

The boy in the blue suit and I went out of the booth together, as if we were friends. We stood next to each other outside it for a minute, thinking, and then the boy in the blue suit slicked his hair back with the flat of his hand, and we looked at each other, and he went one way (to talk about trends, and brands, and data analysis), and I went the other, and flumped down on a chair outside a little glass booth to think about the thing that had bothered me.

What was bothering me was the storyteller thing. Chief Storyteller thing. It was definitely neat, and that was the problem. The man who called himself the storyteller was a person who was making a program to tell you all the data about your life, and letting you sell that data on the internet, to companies, for money. The program sounded pretty neat, too: it could track your heart rate, and your gym visits, and how far you walked in a day, and where you ate, and what you ate, and monitor what you read, and watched, and saw, and keep tabs on your mood, and check your email and Twitter and Facebook for you, and tell you what you should be doing better, and how.

It’s a journal, the man said to me.

It’s the future, I said, and I meant it.

The journal of the future, said the man, and I was not sure how I felt about it.

If you don’t know your flaws, said the man, how can you improve them?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to improve my flaws, but I knew what he meant.

It’s about change, said the man.  It’s all about change.

 

The future of change, I started to say, but I wasn’t sure what I meant by it, so I stopped, and we talked for a little while longer about the programming, and what this man might be able to do with his program, and then he gave us the business cards, and we went away.

I sat on my fold-up chair outside the little glass box and thought about how I felt about the things I wasn’t sure how I felt about. I wasn’t entirely sure journals were supposed to tell you how to change.

I thought about journals- how the only people who have kept a journal for a hundred years are teenage girls with ingrained pretentions, and arty types, and old men- and I thought about storytelling; how the teenage girls are writing in their journals were telling a story- look, look, I’m going on to bigger things, someone will read this and know where I came from- and how the arty types were telling a story –look, I am who I say I am; I am as bold and as strange and as beautiful as my art is, or would be if I made it- and how the old men were telling a story of everything that had happened to them to people who weren’t there any more–Doris, we are still not in India, we are still at sea, luckily there is a very funny fellow in the bottom bunk, he does marvellous impressions. I was not sure that the man and his program were telling a story at all.

It just tells you all the data, said the man, to me. It just tells you everything about your life that can be recorded. There’s a dev guy working on recording ambient sound, so he can track the noise level of his days.

I wondered if the program recorded the sounds, as well as the noise.

Just the noise level, said the man.

It… would be very useful for disabled people, I said. On the autistic spectrum, and that.

The man looked at me sort of blankly, the way he looked when I said I study Literature and write things and the way he hadn’t looked when the blue-suit boy said I do data analysis for a well-known shopping chain.

Yeah, he said, because probably there wasn’t anything else he could say. It’s got a lot of uses. It’s a really useful thing. It’s the future. It’s the journal of the future.

I was pretty sure that the man was right: that his program (which was very neat) was the journal of the future. I didn’t even think it would be a bad thing. Actually I thought it was probably a good thing: I liked the way it worked, I liked the way it came together. I liked the way it condensed the world into as many orderly lines as the dev guys could think of. I liked the way it took everything and made it one thing; the way it took everything (vague as fog, and looked for like mail) into something, something tactile, vivid, orderly. It was the neatest thing I’d ever seen, but it did not seem to me to be storytelling. In my head I heard the man saying it just tells you all the data. It was so neat; it did not seem to be storytelling at all. You could take your data and sell it to companies for money, or for deals: swap your till receipts and your walk to work for twenty per cent off your usual brand of biscuits. It was clever, and it was efficient, but it did not seem to be storytelling as I knew it.

So I thought some more (feet tucked under me, fold up chair, in this room full of ideas, and people), and I thought of these things:

In a room with twenty of them, you can see that start-ups are all a kind of storytelling: we have imagined this thing, and you will imagine you need it, and we will tell each other why. Here is the story of how we came to need this thing; here is the story of how it came to be. Be part of our story, and you can be like us.  They feed off each other, growing and changing, skimming over and under each other like swallows, never quite settling: all smart in their blackboarded rooms under all the ideas, and some of the ideas too small and strange to stand up on the earth outside. Kill your darlings, they tell writers, and I think the same is true for the start-uppers, the app-makers, the up-and-coming movers and shakers of the brave new world. (Writers and start-uppers are more alike than they seem, perhaps.)

It’s a brave new world, technology, only there’s nobody before us. We have found new technology before, but it has always been tangible, visible, things that built on things we knew. New boats, new weapons, washing machines and cars, but the internet is different. Data is different. Ideas are different.  We have not explored new worlds like this for thousands of years, perhaps thousands and thousands. We have not had to look at ourselves in a new world for so long that perhaps we have forgotten how to do it on our own: every schoolchild could tell you that stories are meant to reflect life, but life is big, and people are little.

Maybe we have just forgotten what it is to have a society so small that every story is about us; maybe we have never known what it is like to have a story made for us, a story made of us. The program just gives you all the data; your data. We are so used to data belonging to companies that perhaps the idea of owning it ourselves is strange. We are so used to being told our stories- for instance, you, the teenage girl with the dyed hair and the stickered journal, we know your story!- we know all the stories. We’re told them by companies, we’re told them by advertising, we’re told them by everything.

They say that a good writer should show, not tell: maybe, ridiculous though it sounds, the skill in storytelling is the same. To give you only what you need- only the data, to let you take that story and pass it on, to let you shape it, to let you change it. We tell the stories we need to hear. I tell the story not because I need to tell it, but because I need you to hear it; I choose the data that suits me, and I tell it to you. The storyteller takes the pericopae, the basic units of the story, and adapts them for her purpose: as weaving together the route to work and the foods you buy might influence the site of a new restaurant, so weaving together other elements of your data (presented to you by this program) might let you say look, this is who I am, this is the most honest story of me I can give you. I was wrong, then: the program was storytelling, as all programs must be, but the man was wrong too. The man with the cards is not the chief storyteller. There can be no chief storyteller with a program like this: a quasi-democratisation of data, and data analysis.  The Russian Formalists believed that literature thrived on a concept called “defamiliarization”: a process in which the familiar is made strange, to make you look at it from a new angle. So it might be with this program: in presenting the data to you as if it is not your own, but letting you claim it, there is automatically and inherently a space for story-telling. You need to fill in the blanks; you need to haul through your fuzzy memory, like the old men, and remember the sounds that made up the noise; you take the data, pin it together, shape it together, hold it up to the light and say this is myself; this is my story.

It’s all about change. This is the future of change.

The man with the cards is selling your story back to you, and you’d be a fool not to take it.

Note, and some small thanks:

The thing I was at was the Enternships/Wayra UK careers fair, which was really excellent; the company making the app I’m talking about here are Narrato; they are SO interesting, and made me have a lot of probably less-interesting thoughts about stories, and the telling of them. All worth looking up, even if you already have a job/things to think about, if you’re at all interested in the way that technology is going to be useful in the Brave New World- and thank you to everybody involved. 

Alphabetical Adventures In B

Bath, (/bɑːθ/ /-æ-/,(Noun) Bath.tub: vessel or receptacle intended to contain water for the purpose of bathing. (1616, Shakespeare Timon of Athens iv. iii. 87   “Season the slaues for Tubbes and Bathes.”  1631   R. Bolton Instr. Right Comf. Affl. Consciences 341”  It is nothing to swimme in a warme Bath.”)

Everything I own is in the bathtub.
Or, more accurately, everything I own that can fit in the bathtub is in the bathtub, and everything else is spilling over the sides into the bathroom itself, and everything else everything else is spilling over the door-bar into the hall.

 

Chiefly, though, it is all in the bathtub.

 

This is including, but not limited to fourteen jumpers in various shades of purple,  some boxes of books, a red cloth bag of plastic pegs, and a little bag marked stuff from the cupboard.

 

Everything I own is in black bin-liners in the bathtub, taped at the top, and every single bit of furniture is upside down. The bedframe has been completely dissembled and the dust-sheets on the divan have literally been slashed to ribbons. It looks quite a lot like my neat little flat has been invaded by marauding barbarians, which is how I’m choosing to think of it. Partly I’m choosing to think of it this way because I am certifiably unable to cope with reality, but partly it’s because invasion, is, after all, what they call it when you call them up. Home invasion. Invasions, barbarians, things in the bath.

 

Bar.ba.ri.an (/bɑːˈbɛːrɪən/): 1. (Noun) A person who is not a Greek, 2. (Adj.)of or belonging to Barbary. Obs., 3. (Noun.) an uncivilized, rude, savage, barbarous person. (1730   J. Thomson Autumn in Seasons 128   “The sad barbarian, roving, mix’d With beasts of prey.”)

 

Everything I own is in the bathtub because my home has been invaded by barbarians; and I wish they were the Conan-sort, because a girl can have a heart set-a-flutter by rumpled leather and astonishing forearms. But they aren’t. They are uncivilized, and rude, and savage, and they are eating us alive, and they are the reason everything I own is in the bathtub, and it has taken me this long to say it because I am ashamed:

 

everything I own is in the bathtub because there are bedbugs in my flat, and I am ashamed.

 

Bed.bug (\ˈbed-ˌbəg\) (noun): a bloodsucking bug which is a parasite of birds and mammals.Family Cimicidae, suborder Heteroptera: Cimex and other genera, and many species, in particular C. lectularius, which comes out to feed on humans at night.

 

They are very tiny, bedbugs, and very creepy (they feed on the sleeping! on the sleeping!), and I hate them more than anything I’ve ever hated in my whole life. I hate them with a fervour that makes the Catholics look lackadaisical and relaxed. I hate them more than dragon-fruit and the Tube at rush-hour and injustice. I hate them, and they love me. Like the Wild Things, they’d eat me up, they love me so, and -unlike Max, because that would be a truly grotesque ending to a children’s book- I won’t be satisfied until every last one of them- every nymph, every unborn child, every last motherfucking manjack of them- is dead as the proverbial doornail.

 

That is why my belongings are all in the bath-tub. It is part of my systemic campaign to annihilate these little bastards who have taken up residence in my bed and in my wardrobe and in my curtains.  There is a man in the bedroom with a tank of poison strapped to his back, which he is brandishing at their horrible little hidey-holes.

 

“I’ve found a big one here,” he says, chirpily, and I cower in the bathroom with all my worldly goods. He is very cheerful, probably because I am about to pay him four hundred and twenty pounds. The poison man pokes at the dust under the sofa. “Bit busy for cleaning, are you?” I would like to dissolve into the ground. I am too busy to clean behind the sofa. I am too busy not to have bedbugs.

 

Bu.sy: Activity, occupation, business; the state of being actively employed; an instance of this.. 2. Anxiety, solicitude, care; affliction, trouble; an instance of this. c1425   Bk. Found. St. Bartholomew’s  “Aftir a Ioconde feiste, bisy in this place was hadde of recouerynge men yn to helthe.”

 

Really, of course, I know that it’s not about busy-ness, or otherwise. I know that bedbugs are horribly, terrifyingly common in London (don’t read this article http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11165108). I know that they are nothing to do, with cleanliness.  And I know that this anxiety/affliction/trouble landed on me from the minute we ill-advisedly said yes thanks we’ll buy your sofa. That’s the greatest lesson of all, really. Don’t buy sofas from strangers. The strangers were the last tenants, and the sofa has been in the flat longer than we have. So, by extension, have the bugs.

 

This should make me feel better, but in fact makes me feel worse, partly out of misplaced guilt (it’s their home!), partly out of shame (WHY DIDN’T I KILL THEM EARLIER) and partly (this one is the worst) for a reason so horrible I can hardly bear to write it out.

 

First, I’m going to tell you about the last tenants. I don’t know much about them, except that they lived with the bedbugs, and that when we moved in there were crushed-up knock offs of various pharmaceuticals hidden in every filthy cupboard and drawer, and a Russian-English dictionary with “WOMAN AGENCY” phonetically written out in the front page, next to a number. They did not pay any bills. They never paid any tax. Their post still arrives in our letter box, all red and angry. They were not, so far as I can see, nice people. (We did not know this when we bought the sofa.)

 

 

Second, let’s talk about the fact that the bedbug (says Google) can live for years, and the fact that bedbugs feed on the closest sleeping human, no matter who it is, and that the same blood goes round and round in then, fuelling their horrible little legs and nasty shiny carapaces.

 

Third, this: http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/flea.php Yes, you have to read it. I don’t care if you say you don’t like poetry. Learn to like it. Life without Donne is literally not worth living.

 

Anyway, I’m just going to leave those things there. And hope that Donnelogic doesn’t count, and I haven’t fucked-by-proxy a grubby druggie with a yen for cheap tarts.

 

It is one of the more grim thoughts I have ever thought, and if my bathtub wasn’t filled with all my worldly goods I would be boiling myself at ninety degrees from the inside out. Coincidentally, that is what is going to happen to all the things in the bath-tub once the man has gone, because this is what happens when you have bedbugs.

 

Everything you own needs to be heated to sixty-seven degrees, or frozen for 2-7 days at fifteen degrees below. You need to shake out all your books, page by page. You need to sanitise your pillows. You need to inspect all your picture-frames and papers. A man with a knife needs to rip your bed to shreds and pour poison into the porches of its ears.  And you can forget about decent sleep, because you’ll wake up, flailing, paranoid that you’re being bitten.

 

Bite, /baɪt/,  1. The biting of food or victuals; concr. food to eat; chiefly in the phrase bite and sup. Also, a small meal; a snack.  2. A sharper, a swindler: 3. The act or action of cutting, piercing, or wounding, with the teeth;

I am, at point of writing, more bitten than a biscuit; I must have been a small meal or snack for half the bugs in London. They have been ruining my nights, and my days. They have been bugging me (HA) for more than a month. But no more. They love me, and they eat me, and I hate them, and I am ashamed of them, and I am writing about them to feel better about it all, and armed with my poison-man and my tumble-drier and my insect repellent, I will destroy them all to absolute motherfucking damnation. 

Partly because they are nasty little bastards.

Partly because I’d like my bathtub back.

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New Year’s Resolutions

I want to eat better; eat five-a-day and more raw and drink more water. I want to drink eight cups of water a day and some more at night. I want to cook delicious things and I want to eat only delicious things and not mind when I only really want a horrible cheap pizza because sometimes that’s fine too. I want to walk more. I want to cycle more. I’ve a beautiful bike and it’s a shame not to use it: I want to cycle to the park. We’ve a beautiful park and it’s a shame not to use it. I want to find the way to cycle to college. I want to cycle to college and to the station and to Sainsbury’s. I want to be outside more.I want to be inside less. I want inside to be more like outside.

I want to put herbs on my windowsill and grow tomatoes and chilli. I want to always have flowers in the house. I want the flat to be beautiful. I want to be more organised with the laundry and the washing-up and I want to paint the bedroom and change the kitchen lights and paper the back wall of the sitting-room with maps.

I want to clear the desk and make it mine; I want a space to write in. I want to write more. I want to be more disciplined with what I write and how I write and how I learn to write. I want to learn to write better poems and I want to learn to write better stories and I want to learn how to write better essays. I want to be able to write properly again. I want to work hard. I want to work at things for college and things for me and things for other places, too. I want to show other people things. I want to learn. I want to be able to learn. I want to be able to know. I want to never be tired of looking for new things and new ideas and new ways. I want not to be tired without cause; I want only the good kind of good-work-done tired. I want to be able to look for new things and new thoughts. I want to be well again. I want to do all these things so I can be well again.

I want to be well again and I want be happy. I want to be happy. I want to take stock of my good things. I want to number my fortunes and hold them up to the new kitchen lights to see them shine. I want to take those shining fortunes, shining people and tell them you made this better; I want to love them better and be kinder and wiser.

I want to do more good things for people I love and I want to do more good things for people I don’t love and I want to do good things for strangers; I want to help, because I am helped; I want to love, because I am loved.

I want to love lots. I want to love more. I want to be better at loving and better at giving and better at taking. I want to take help and not mind that I’m taking it. I want to take love and not question it. I want to take time and think I’m worthy of both my own and other people’s. I want love and help and time and I want adventures.

I want small adventures in the kitchen and big adventures on planes and strange adventures in graveyards. I want beautiful adventures with my typewriter and my favourite people and finding out good new things and doing good walking and good eating and good exploring and I want to look up, somewhere in those adventures, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point

if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is. 

I want to notice when I am happy and I want that to be often. I want to be happy in my body and in my mind and both at once, and even more than that I want it to be okay also when, sometimes, I am not. I want to be able to recognise that sometimes people are sad and sometimes people are tired and sometimes people are ill and in that also recognise that sometimes, also, people are brilliant. 

I want to try all these things and not mind if I fail. I want to learn to lose gracefully. I want to learn how to know when I am beaten.  I want to know when to lose a battle to win the war, and I want to learn not minding losing the war so long as I have the people I love and the words that I write and the little things I love so much. I want to remember that laundry in a heap by the washing machine and the whooshing sound of deadlines don’t mean that everything is over; I want to learn proportion. I want to find a balance.

I want to find balance.

And also, I want to be the sort of person who can eat a croissant without getting crumbs in her scarf.

Are those possible? I think those are possible. They might not be, but I can bloody well try.

Grateful 19/11/12

Here are the things for which I am most grateful:

-First the light, in three parts (and the parts are these:

the gold light in our bedroom in the morning,

next, the clear grey light over Topps Tiles and the tenements and the tree,

and last, headlights coming through the Mile End fog.)

-Second, the silver tea-pot. All shiny upside-down we are within it, and good strong Earl Grey.

-Good books.

-Good cheese.

-Good bread.

-Good wine.

-The garden on the window-sill. My parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, but rosemary would want more space, and parsley is bitter. Four for use, and one for love: basil for scent, and chilli for spice, and a rose for my birthday. I am not green-thumbed: my sunflower never grew so tall as the others’ did, but we do alright, my plants and I.  Sainsbury’s sold them off cheap (I am grateful for that, too.)

-Monday morning cut flowers, in all sun-colours.

-Next, the way the chimney stacks stand out against the storm, and the way the wisteria is creeping red round the bricks.

-The chimney stacks belong to the haunted house: I am grateful for that. For their dachshunds and dragons and tall gates. For their paintings that move. For their lamps in the dark.

-The paint has peeled away from a sign at the side of that house: it says PLAY BALL, BY ORDER. We will play ball.

-Next, jumpers.

-Next, scarves and my blackberry gloves, and my sage green coat.

-Blackberry bruises.

-Lipstick in Deep Pink.

-The red peg-bag. I am pleased with the peg-bag.

-The purple quilt.

- My floral knickers, and my floral frock.

-Custard creams.

-Creamed leeks.

-Newspapers.

-Dictionaries.

-Stories. (The old ones, and the older ones, and the new ones, and the way walking makes them all tumble together at a footfall)

-The sun.

-The clouds.

-The rain.

-Trains.

-Light at the end of the tunnel: as you come into Whitechapel, you come out of the dark. You will come out of the dark; I will come out of the dark; we will all come smiling out of the dark together.

-Coming home.

-Home.

(And this is home, this small flat opposite a haunted house, with its tiny window garden and its flowers on the table, and the light dancing shadows on the ceilings. And this is home. And this is home, for home is where the heart is, and I am grateful to have my heart where I am. I am grateful to be home:

I am grateful for my boy; I am grateful for that love and this light and Monday breakfast

with flowers, and tea from our silver tea-pot.)

Making Parsnip Soup

He came home with a bag of parsnips, and he stood at the door with his bag of parsnips and announced he was making me parsnip soup. I’m going off-piste, he said. Abandoning the recipe and making soup from scratch.

 

Alright, I said. I lay on the sofa and did a Sherlock Holmes quiz from a book of quizzes I found on the shelf. I put the orange blanket over my feet.

 

Where did Conan Doyle go to school?

 

Edinburgh, I think.

 

How are the parsnips?

 

I’m putting more wine in.

 

I looked at the wine bottle. White wine, and we were drinking red, and the white was half-empty. How much did you put in already?

 

A bit, he said, and shrugged.

 

Who narrated the Giant Rat of Sumatra?

 

Nobody, I think.

 

Correct, I said. Ten points to Gryffindor. How’s the soup?

 

He shrugged again.

 

It’s. Well. It’s sort of soup. It’s sort of…thick. Thick soup. We can dip bread in it.

 

Cool, I said.

 

I got up and went to have a look at the parsnips.

 

Ah, I said.

 

I know, he said.

 

That is thick,  I said.

 

Yes.

 

Very thick.

 

Yes.

 

More like mashed parsnips, really.

 

Mashed parsnips with wine. And spice. And chillies.

 

Yes.

 

We looked at the parsnips together. I reached for his hand.

 

Have we got any more stock?

 

No more stock.

 

No more stock?

 

No.

 

We looked at each other.

 

More wine? he said

 

For me or the parsnips?

 

Parsnips.

 

I sniffed it.

 

Mulled wine, I said. It’s bloody mulled wine.

 

It’s parsnips, he said.

 

Parsnip wine?

 

Is that a thing?

 

I had grapefruit wine once, I said.

 

I think Dad made parsnip wine once. He said it was delicious.

 

Is this delicious?

 

Is this parsnip wine?

 

We looked at each other again.

 

Taste it,  he said. I recoiled.

 

You first.

 

Ladies first.

 

You first.

 

He took a teaspoon from the draining rack and prodded the parsnips experimentally. A bubble rose where he had poked it, and fell again, a primeval, gelatinous, gloop of a bubble.

 

I feel like Frankenstein, I said.

 

You feel like Frankenstein?

 

Well, no. You’re Frankenstein. You’re Frankenstein and it’s- it’s- alive! I pretended to fall back in horror, hands to my mouth. He lifted the spoon to his.

 

Delicious,  he said.

 

Are you lying?

 

Yep.

 

I thought so.

 

Taste?

 

I opened my mouth like a baby bird and put out my tongue like a cat.

 

 Tiny bit, I said, through my stuck-out tongue.

 

Tiny bit like medicine, he promised.

 

He stuck the spoon into the pan again, and I heard it gurgle.

 

I’ve changed my mind, I said.

 

Don’t be a wimp, he said. I dare you.

 

And so I took the spoon from him, and took a heaped teaspoon from the pan, and ate it.

 

That’s revolting, I said.

 

That’s parsnip soup, he said.

 

Perhaps it will be better if we let it stand a while. Absorb the wine. Cook it off.

 

We left the parsnip soup on the hob and sat on the sofa. Sherlock’s arch enemy? Conan Doyle’s mentor? Conan Doyle’s driving passion? Place of death?

 

We finished the quiz.

 

Do you think we should taste the soup again?

 

We tasted the soup.

 

What about sausages for supper instead, he said.

 

Sounds good, I said.

 

He did the sausages and I scraped the soup into the bin.

 

*

 

What are you thinking about, I said to him, later, in bed. He was lying across from me with his eyes shut, but I knew he wasn’t asleep. The light from the cars and the lamps came through the curtains.

 

I’m thinking about soup, he said. Soup’s tricky. 

Things I Will And Won’t Miss About My Temporary City

I will miss the Marais, and the blue Creperie and the green bar with the fairy lights. I will miss the art shop. I will miss the bookshop and the upstairs of the bookshop. I will miss the river. I will miss the banks of the river. I will miss the banks of the canal. I will miss the way you can watch the canal turn into a point like an exercise in perspective. I will miss the way that so much of Paris looks like an exercise in perspective; the way the angles of the roofs don’t line up and the way the roads taper into alleys and the alleys bend upwards into heavy iron gates and I will miss looking through the broken bit of the gates to see what’s behind. I will miss the Yiddish bakery and its pickelfleisch and the way they fold it like blankets into bagels. I will miss smoking, everywhere; I will miss people smoking on station platforms and hanging out of trains and even (I saw yesterday) on the Metro. I will miss the way that nobody ever pays for a train ticket. I will miss the man who jumps the barriers at Raincy-Villemomble every single day; the man who made magic tricks for me the day I was crying on the platform. Once I saw him buying Spicy Chicken Wings and Hot Lover Condoms in Monoprix. I will miss Monoprix.

 

I will not miss our Alarmingly Camp Neighbour, Monoprix till-boy, and his tiny pink pants and his loud Lady Gaga at all hours of night and day. I will not miss being hassled in the street. I will not miss the man in his flat cap and his perpetual smile. That is the man who grabbed Cornelia for a cigarette and who, last week, backed me into a corner crying “just one little kiss”. I will not miss him. I will not miss the Brasserie and its inhabitants. I will not miss the dog shit and the people peeing in the road. I will not miss the three AM walk home through this grimy strange suburb.

 

Though I will miss this grimy strange Suburb. I will miss the Fancy Dress Shop and its solitary slutty mannequin, in her slutty Santa frock for winter and her slutty policewoman shorts for spring. I will miss the little red Soviet house and the strange square mansions. I will miss the tabac and the Chinese man who runs it and barely speaks any French at all. I will miss the boulangeries, red (best), blue (second best) and white (emergencies only)- it has only just struck me that these are the Tricolore of bakeries- and I will miss crêpes and croissants and baguette most of all. I will miss Lait Cru and Chapon, the chocolaterie. And I will miss the sign that says VOUS ALLEZ AIMER MON HARD DISCOUNT outside a shop I have never once been in, but walk past every day. I will miss the way I know exactly where I am going here; I will miss the way everything is familiar. It is suddenly strange that this is familiar and strange all at once, because, of course it is strange.

 

The little old man and his daughter/granddaughter with the round pink glasses who goes to the same nursery as Three; the baby-Goth mother with the black Labrador; Zeen and her hippy skirts; the Medea-woman, who wears only pastel pink, and bedroom slippers, and looks always as if she has committed untold tragedies unto herself and is keeping it tight-lipped, always on the verge of a breakdown; the Tsarist at the market; the Pirate and Leather Gloves- they are all familiar, and they are all bloody strange. Everybody in this suburb feels sometimes as if they have been cut out of other books, and other plays, and glued into place. I will miss that feeling. I will miss, too, feeling like I belong in a place so utterly mish-mash. I will miss knowing the train times from Est and Nord and when you need to run in order to get the last fast one. I will not miss the way the trains smell always of bodily fluid and booze. I will miss in the day the yellow sign that says DEMENAGEMENTS CHELLES, and in the night the purple neon that says FRUITS DE MER, and the way both of them say HOME when I am coming in on the train. I will miss home. I will miss this family. I will miss the children.

 

I will not miss their bickering; I will not miss being responsible for three small beings and a cat; I will not miss the cat, and the way it gnaws my belongings and then pees on everything it hasn’t tried to eat. I will not miss the way this toolshed has an indestructible, permanent hint of damp and the way everything that spends any time at all in here, including me, feels damp and grimy too.  I will not miss the way my books live in heaps on the floor. I will not miss the way the internet flickers in and out of connection in my bedroom. I will not miss the way I have needed the internet so desperately. I will not miss Skype.

 

I will not miss loneliness. I will not miss being this desperate for human contact. I will not miss, interestingly, speaking French. I am finding myself more and more stumbling over French, these last few days. I think I’m switching into England-mode, and my French is second in my head to plans, and thoughts, and people I have to speak to and things I have to do. I will miss hearing French, I think, eventually. I will not miss being the foreigner, the tourist. I will not miss having an accent. I will not miss being the odd one out. I will not miss the sometimes-feeling of being an interloper in a place that is the closest thing I have to home.

 

I will not miss my bed. I will not miss the way the pillow-cases don’t quite fit the pillows. I will not miss the permanent pawprints on my sheets. I will not miss being alone in my bed. I will not miss being alone, always.

 

Though I suppose I might miss it sometimes. I will miss that feeling I had yesterday of total freedom; that nobody anywhere knew where I was, with my red wine and my notebook in a grimy little Tabac by a train station in an odd bit of town, that I could go anywhere or do anything or disappear. I will miss Beaubourg, the Centre Pompidou. I will miss the things there I have loved: there is a Peter Doig there I love, and a Cy Twombly, and a painting of a map painted over a woman, and all the things I have sat by for hours, on my own and with Nelia. I already miss Nelia, but I’ll get her back soon. I will get all sorts of things back soon; I will get all sorts of new things. New flat. New uni. New city.

 

And I am so, so completely excited.

 

Still, there are things I will miss, and there they are, and there they were.

She that has a See-Shell

I wrote this in the comments on this blog, but apparently it’s too long. Bloody Blogger. So, this is a story about a picture @BellJarred drew. 

Once upon a time there was a woman who was- not unhappy, not exactly. Once upon a time there was a woman. She lived in a cottage by the sea with her husband and her six grown sons, and they were fishermen, and she was a fisherman’s wife, and a fisherman’s mother, and all day she mended their nets, and stewed their fish stews, and sewed up all the holes in their spare sou’westers. All day her husband and her sons sailed out on the wild wide sea, and all day she waited in her cottage on the shore for them to return, watching the edge of the sea for the seven red masts of their seven ships, and every sunrise she woke before them in order to set their porridge on the fire to warm, and every sunset as their ships came in she set their suppers on the fire to warm. Her days were long, and her days were lonely, and her nights were dark and lonely too, for her husband all damp and tired with the sea never so much as hugged her close. They had been married a long time, the woman and her husband.

Enough time for the six sons to grow up. Sometimes the woman thought that perhaps the six sons should find wives and lives of their own, but the cottage was far away from the town, and besides (reasoned the sons) they had a very comfortable life. Their nets were mended, their suppers stewed and their sou’westers always perfectly patched. But it was a lonely, lonely life for the woman, and she was- if not unhappy- she was not happy. She was not a happy woman, and the worst of it was that she could not swim. That she lived by the sea, where she had lived from her youth, when she was first married, and that she could not swim. Her husband thought it would bring her ill-luck, and that to swim in the ocean was to tempt the sea-gods to drag you down, and when they were both young he had whispered to her in bed at night all the things that hid in the deep grey of the sea, and she had been scared. But she was older now, and wiser, and she was not so scared, but she had never learned to swim, and now (she thought) she never would. The ocean was forbidden to her, even to paddle, for her husband told her it was no place to go, no place at all.

And she stood on the harbour wall, looking out across the waves for the seven red ships of her husband and sons, and she was saddened by the thought that she would never swim in the sea; never know the world that lay stretched out before her like sheets taut on a bed, that shimmered like the firelight on a million copper pans, that murmured like the wind through sealskins on the line. That night she tossed and turned in her bed, next to her husband, who never moved, or stirred, only snored. That night she saw in the darkness the four walls of her cottage, and that night she heard, as she had heard a thousand nights before, the low murmur of the sea. But that night, unlike the other thousand nights, she stole from her bed, treading only on the boards that creaked not, lifting the door so carefully so that the hinges might not wail: she stole from her bed and barefooted nightgowned down she went to the edge of the sea.

She was not a happy woman, yes. But this night she was positively unhappy: it seemed to her that her whole life stretched out like the sea she could not swim in, full of caring only for her sons and her husband and fish stews and sou’westers. It seemed to her that it was not much of a life, not really. She pressed one small bare foot into the sand at the water’s edge and she stepped forward once, and again, and again, and once more, and she was up to her knees in the forbidden sea.

Another step, and another, and her nightgown was heavy with salt water, up to her thighs.

She could not swim, remember.

She was not happy; she was unhappy.

“What now?” she whispered, to the sea, and the sea whispered back, but she could not understand.

She could not understand, so she took another step, and the sea whispered, more insistently, something different.

Another step and the water was up over her waist.

Stop, whispered the sea. Stop there. Stop now.

The woman listened to the sea, and the sea whispered to her.

Go back, go back, whispered the sea, and the woman took one step backwards. The wind whipped at her wet nightgown, and she was cold.

Good girl, whispered the sea, and something sharp brushed her leg. She reached for it. It was a shell, spiked through with coral. She picked it up.

Go back, go back, whispered the sea, and the woman took one step, two steps backwards.

Good girl, whispered the sea, and something soft brushed her leg. She reached for it. It was a feather, unlike any bird the woman had ever seen. Neither gull nor gannet, neither sparrow nor starling. She picked it up.

Go back, go back, whispered the sea, and the woman took one step, two steps, three steps backwards.

Good girl, whispered the sea, and something sweet and strange brushed her leg. She reached for it. It was a skein of silk, a silk unlike any she had ever seen, the kind of silk a princess might spin gold from, the kind of silk gods might spin the flaxen hair of princesses from. She picked it up.

Go back, go back, whispered the sea, and she took one step back, and she was on the shore.

Good girl, murmured the sea, good girl, good girl, good girl, and to her feet the waves brought a shell, a perfect shell unlike any she had seen before. She picked it up and held it to her ear, but she could not tell the difference between the sea in her head and the real sea.

And then she held it to her eye, and in the light of the moon, she saw.

She went back to her bed, and her footprints faded from the path, and the sea went on whispering, whispering, and she slept.

She was up, as usual, at sunrise. She waved goodbye to her sons, and she kissed her husband on the cheek, and he looked at her in surprise, and brushed it off. She watched their seven sails disappear over the horizon. But she did not set immediately to mending their nets, or stewing their fish stews, or even darning their sou’westers: no, she took from beneath her pillow the coral-skewered shell, and the strange feathers, and the skein of silk, and the perfect shell, and went down to the sea.

The sun was out, and it was all quite beautiful.

On the sea edge she took off her dress, and her apron, her socks and her shoes and her bonnet, and her underthings, and she stood stark naked on the edge of the sea, and she spun the silk round her until she shone, like firelight on a hundred copper pans; she spun the silk round her feet and calves and knees and thighs and hips, belly breasts arms shoulders hands back collarbones throat and jaw, and she shone, she shone.

She pulled her hair down from its sensible bun, and it shone, too, in the sunlight.

She wove the feathers into it, and the coral shells, and she saw herself in a sudden stillness of the sea, and she saw that she was beautiful.

She was beautiful, and she shone, and she held the shell to her eye and she saw for the first time how beautiful the sea was, and how beautiful the world was, beneath the waves, in the deep grey.

She pressed one small bare foot into the sand at the water’s edge and she stepped forward once, and again, and again, and once more, and she was up to her knees in the forbidden sea, only it wasn’t forbidden any more.

Come in, come in, whispered the sea, and she came, step by step, her knees, her thighs, her belly and breasts and shoulders. Her throat, her jaw. Her lips and her eyes and then she swam, for the first time, and the sea held her and caught her and she swam, and it was something better than she had ever dared imagine.

And she swam, this beautiful shining woman, with the shell held to her eye that she might see everything, and the ocean whispering in her ear that she might understand everything, and she was happy.

And as far as I know, she is swimming still, and she is happy.

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