Monday, 31 March 2014

Revealing Sarah's Motive.

My apologies, but there is to be as yet no relief from The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

After the Great Revelation, the angry response, and the turning on the heel to walk away from the still enigmatic but now seemingly flawed Sarah, Charles takes himself off to an empty church and does what I do frequently:

He splits himself into two people, an upper and a lower self, and then engages in a discourse in the hope of coming to a New Revelation at the end of the argument. (In my case, the upper self usually takes the form of something like an Isis figure; in Charles’s, it’s the figure of Jesus hanging on a cross a little way beyond the rood screen. Changing times, I suppose.)

And then, just like me, he finds the New Revelation. He presumes insight into Sarah’s mind and motive, and knows that her motive was entirely honourable: she was merely using deceit as a means of showing him the love he had for her – to which knowledge he was a stranger, courtesy of the rigid class system and a rich, pretty young bride-to-be called Earnestina. Unfortunately, Charles appears to be overlooking something, as those of us who have revelations are wont to do:

Sarah’s deceit had been to tell Charles that she had disgraced herself with the French lieutenant. He now 'knows' that she lied in order to provoke sympathy and reveal the latent sense of connection in him. But this doesn’t explain why she made the story of her disgrace a matter of public knowledge in Lyme long before Charles came on the scene. If this were me, I would find a way round the objection (in fact, I already have.) In Charles’s case, time will tell. Less than 100 pages to go.

But here’s something a little perplexing: As Charles is exulting in his realisation that he can have Sarah after all, we come across the following sentence:

Another scene leapt unbidden into his mind: Lady Bella faced with Sarah.

Who is Lady Bella? I recall no character of that name being heretofore mentioned. Who is she, and why does she suddenly appear as an adversary whom Sarah will handle better than Earnestina could? This is a damnably odd coincidence, and like all damnably odd coincidences, it’s probably entirely meaningless. But it’s still damnably odd.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Sarah, the Stain, and Alternative Entertainment.

Anybody familiar with The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and who has been reading my recent posts on the subject, must have been smirking up their sleeve and waiting for me to get a shock. Sarah, it seems, is not who (or what) we thought her to be. Sarah has been deceiving us (by which I mean Charles and me) with her finely tuned feminine wiles; the stain on the undershirt was proof enough.

Being a lot older than Charles, and having been the victim of similar wiles myself, I should have seen it coming. I didn’t. Charles was shocked; I was shocked. Charles got angry, and I got angry. Charles turned on his heel and stormed out. I closed the book and refused to read the next chapter.

I will, of course, finish the book. I can’t leave poor Charles to face his uncertain future alone, can I? We’ve been through too much together, and we’ve both been hoist by the petard of an overactive conscience. Besides, Sarah remains (for me at least) a beautiful and enigmatic creature; I want to know why she did it just as much as Charles does. She’s declined to give him an explanation so far, but I expect all will become clear eventually.

*  *  *

Change of plan, therefore. Having been shaken to my undershirt (figuratively speaking) by Sarah’s involuntary (though entirely predictable, as she would have known) revelation, I decided to lighten up by watching the Wizard of Oz remake, Tin Man. I only managed half an hour. It was all too frantic and messy, and I found the obvious superficial allusions to both Star Wars and LOTR irritating. Besides, Dorothy’s looks, mannerisms and facial expressions reminded me so much of somebody I know that I was becoming increasingly uneasy.

*  *  *

So then I progressed to listening to On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring by Frederick Delius. I thought of making a post about the music and what it evokes, and maybe I will. Or maybe I’ll decide it would be too tedious even by my standards.

On Being a Pudding.

During the course of beating the Shire bounds today (not quite literally, but you know what I mean) I took my customary repose at the half way point – by the south wall of the church, where the spring sunshine was bestowing its modest munificence and my only companions were two squirrels, two pheasants and an unusually vocal jackdaw. And as I drank in the unpolluted peace, a thought occurred to me: what would I do if the Priestess turned up on my doorstep unannounced? (We went to the church frequently, you know, back in the days when new connections were dropping from the internet like cockroaches from the ceiling of a Bronx apartment.)

The writer’s instinct set a little scenario in motion, and I watched with amusement to see how it would unfold. How it unfolded I needn’t go into; suffice it to say that I was the personification of a perfect baked Alaska, fresh out of the oven – only the opposite way round.

A Dubious Comparison.

I was just listening to The Wailin Jenny’s track This is Where, and somebody entered a comment along the lines of ‘They’re up there with John Denver. They should be more popular.’

What a bloody insult. How can you not notice the difference between the music of the spheres and the sound of an errant gloop of syrup dripping off the spoon and onto the waxed tablecloth twixt jar and toast?

I thought I’d do opinionated for a change.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Sarah Gets the Nod.

Oh, Charles! What have you done?

‘Precisely what you would have done in the circumstances, old chap. No more, no less.’

He’s right, you know. He is.

*  *  *

But to go back a little way:

I was aghast with shock, dismay and disappointment. Charles, my literary doppelganger, reneged on the kindredness of our spirit tonight. He took the safe road, the conventional road, leaving poor beautiful, benighted Sarah to vanish into oblivion.

Only he didn’t. I said Sarah was irresistible, didn’t I, and I meant it literally. Mr Fowles cheated. Two chapters down the line he admits his little game:

‘What you just read in the last two chapters isn’t what happened at all. That was only what Charles imagined might happen as he was taking the tedious train journey from London down to the West Country. He did break his journey at Exeter, and what actually happened was this…’

I’m sorry I doubted you, Charles. Blame your author. He thinks you’re just a character he invented, but we know differently, don’t we? Only one thing now troubles me (though I don’t suppose it should, since the deepest shadow is the natural corollary of the brightest light.) This has to end in tears, doesn’t it? It always did for me, sooner or later.

*  *  *

This post will only make sense to those who’ve been reading this blog diligently for the past two or three weeks and know of my current preoccupation with The French Lieutenant’s Woman. How different my posts about this novel have been from those I wrote about Dracula and Frankenstein. That’s because they deserved to be lampooned, being mostly populated by implausible characters and situations. This one’s different: I'm in it...

On Worms.

I did my duty by the Lady B today. I rescued an earthworm that was crossing Church Lane very slowly.

Did you know that there’s another species of worm that lives in the sand of sea shores? It’s called the rag worm because it has ragged tassels growing out of the side of its body. It’s much bigger than the common earthworm, and it bites.

Countering the Dragon.

Is China really such a watery place? My most abiding image of China is the pre-eminent presence of water – rushing streams, placid rivers, lakes, canals, the sea and fishponds. And the feature of the classic willow pattern design which always most draws me is the little bridge over water with the three men crossing.

Friday, 28 March 2014

On Discovering a Difference.

I’m not blind to the fact that I’m labouring the matter of The French Lieutenant’s Woman at the moment, but it really is proving to be a tome of some significance.

Tonight we find Charles in London, first at his club with his rakish old school friends, then at a place we might term ‘an amusement emporium’ purveying amusements of a distinctly dubious nature, then in a dingy garret with a young prostitute. Throughout it all Charles is prey to a battle raging inside him. On one hill are ranged the forces of sexual arousal; on the other, a natural disgust at the levels to which the desperate, the debauched and the socially disenfranchised are prepared to descend. And if you’ll permit one more indulgence of my fondness for alliteration, the denouement to Charles’s dissolute adventure is that he vomits onto the prostitute’s pillow.

This reminds me of that strange night I spent in a room above a Soho restaurant where I went with some actor friends one Christmas, the room with the subdued lighting, exaggeratedly opulent fittings, and an oversize bed on which I lay talking with a strange woman (in both senses of the term.) I remember feeling confused about what everybody else was doing, and what the hell I was doing there in the first place. The drink and whacky baccy had flowed freely that night, and the resultant perceptual haze seemed to act as a barrier to full cognisance of the finer details. I can attest, however, to the fact that nothing but words passed between me and the strange woman. Whether or not I was betraying the script, I shall never know.

And it reminds me of another night spent at a colleague’s stag party at Trentham Rugby Club, at which the strippers eagerly demonstrated that the twin forces of legality and moral rectitude have no dominion at a private engagement. You take my meaning, I assume.

My response to both events echoed Charles’s response almost perfectly, with one exception: I, too, found myself in the middle of the same battle, but the outcome was a resounding victory for the forces of objection. I never made it to the prostitute’s garret, and so there is, mercifully, no demeaning memory of vomiting onto anybody's pillow.

The mirror continues to reflect, however, with remarkably accurate resonance.

Lazy Thoughts.

A thought for all those fellow HSPs out there: I sometimes find it helps to remember that the deepest shadow is a natural corollary of the brightest light. I gather it’s why some bipolar sufferers decline medication.

*  *  *

I was just listening to the old Thunderclap Newman hit Something in the Air when a very short short story formed immediately in my mind. If I can summon the enthusiasm to write it some time, I’ll post it here. It’s an anti-groupie story.

*  *  *

I’ve discovered that if you tap the top of an empty St Cervois lager bottle, first in the middle and then at the edge, you get two notes that alternate from the octave down to the fifth below, which is a very commonly used interval in western music. Isn’t that interesting? I wonder whether the people at the brewery know they’re selling musical instruments.

*  *  *

Last night I saw an unexplained shadow cross the ceiling in the corner of my living room. I saw unexplained shadows a few times in my last house, but that was the first one I’ve seen here. It was right above the TV set, but I doubt there was a connection since the TV was off at the time.

*  *  *

It really bugs me that all Bob Dylan’s recorded classics have disappeared from YouTube. I wonder who’s responsible. There are times when I just ache to hear Boots of Spanish Leather again, but it’s gone. Although Mr Tambourine Man was my favourite track, and It’s All Right Ma the one I thought the cleverest, and Gates of Eden the one I found most enigmatic, Boots of Spanish Leather  was the one that most resonated with something at the core of my nature, and one of the few things that haven’t changed much with time.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Still Being Charles.

In the matter of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, our flawed hero, Charles Smithson Esq, has just had an interview with his future father-in-law and been offered the reins of the wealthy entrepreneur’s burgeoning business empire. You’d think he’d be pleased, wouldn’t you? Instead, he’s horrified. Few things could be more tedious to a man like Charles than having the reins of a burgeoning business empire strapping him to a dull commercial environment, and he’s in a state of near panic at the prospect. Me to a tee.

Meanwhile, our flawed but irresistible heroine, Sarah Woodruff, has followed Charles’s advice and decamped to a hotel in Exeter. She’s bought herself a teapot (Staffordshire, no less) which she unwraps and regards with pride and delight. She isn’t used to having things of her own, you see. (That sort of thing gets to me. It does.) And I can’t help thinking that Charles must surely soon begin to question the value of his betrothal to the pretty, rich, but relatively insubstantial Earnestina when there's a woman of Sarah's calibre still breathing in the world of mortal man. I know I would.

A Light Bearer and some Laid Back Sheep.

I encountered HT54 again today, but this time it wasn’t the fleeting and unilateral affair that it usually is; this time there was a good ten minutes of direct, diligent and delightful discourse. And those ten minutes brought illumination, both actual and psychological. I was disabused of several erroneous assumptions to which I have been prey for some time – assumptions based on good evidence which proved to have been not quite good enough. I do believe I smiled (twice, possibly…)

*  *  *

And here’s an interesting thing:

Sam and Ange’s sheep have been moved from their pastures on the higher ground down to a field adjacent to the farm house, in preparation for lambing. The fields they usually occupy are all on a level with, or slightly below, the lane, and the sheep are skittish animals. If I approach the hedge or gate, they run away. Their new enclosure is raised about eight feet above the road, separated from it by a wire fence and steep embankment. And they’re no longer skittish. Instead of running away, they stand by the fence and regard me with evident curiosity. It seems their elevated position makes them feel safe, or even superior. It’s much nicer that way.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Google and the Philistine Tendency.

I don’t object to the ads that Google place around the periphery of YouTube pages because it’s easy to select Full Screen and get rid of them. Neither do I object to the ads they show at the beginning of the videos themselves, because it’s easy to switch the sound off until they’ve finished, or select ‘Skip Ad’ where available. The salient point here is that neither interrupts the video or the music you want to listen to.

What really bugs me are the banner ads they throw across the screen while the video and music are playing. They do interrupt the creative process, which is disrespectful to the artists, the uploaders and the viewers. What’s more, it’s probably counter-productive. If you’re in the throes of near-ecstasy at the sight of spectacular landscapes and the sound of beautiful music, what are the chances you’ll be sufficiently impressed by some piece of visual pollution advertising life insurance that you’ll decide you really must get in touch with those people tomorrow and buy some? Not likely at all, is it? You’re more likely to get raving bloody mad at having to divert your attention from a thing of beauty while you search for the little cross in the top right hand corner of the banner.

So come on, Google: if you presume the right to custodianship of a facility as wonderful as YouTube, please discharge your duties with respect for a principle a little more meaningful than your petty pecuniary interests. You can afford it.

*  *  *

I’d like to say why I’m not making many blog posts at the moment, but I can’t for the same reason as I’m not making them. Work that one out if you can be bothered.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Martin and Me.

I watched an hour-long documentary tonight in which Martin Amis talked about the essence of Englishness. Although some of what he said had a slight whiff of jingoism about it, and though I found his constant use of ‘England’ and ‘English’ in contexts which referred to the whole of Great Britain a little jarring, his body language and method of delivery appealed sufficiently to make him worth listening to.

(I usually find this to be so: chemistry is far more important to me than whether or not our views accord. I would far rather spend time arguing with somebody I like than agreeing with somebody I dislike.)

Any hint of pretention in Amis was negated by an equal hint of the saturnine; and, unlike so many of the people whose faces and opinions air in the media these days, he was at least articulate without being stuffy. And so I listened and was entertained.

At one point he talked about the difference between American and British dating ads. He said that American males are in the habit of overselling themselves, while British males tend to undersell themselves as a method of coping with congenital insecurity. I decided to write my own dating ad just to see where it would go:

English gentleman (by inclination, but not birth) of advancing years (but aren’t we all?) seeks youngish lady (by inclination, but definitely not birth) for cocoa and curmudgeonly conversation. Must be enigmatic, suspicious of my motives, and extremely private by default. Chinese preferred, but needs good English language skills and an innate appreciation of humour which is usually dry, mostly ironic, and occasionally lugubrious. Must be open to the belief that ghosts are generally not the disembodied spirits of actual late people, that fundamental religionists are as silly as humans get, that trees have feelings, and that there are fairies at the bottom of my garden. Looks optional, but definitely no dancers, since certain inflammatory characteristics may be feebly smouldering but refuse to be extinguished altogether. Needs to be sympathetic to increasing quantities of wistful philosophising induced by moderate (or slightly higher) amounts of alcohol to be consumed after the cocoa’s gone cold. A fondness for Will Hay comedies, world music and the High Romantic tradition would be an advantage.

That’s where it went.

I began an autobiography once, you know. I did. I gave it up after about 8,000 words out of sheer boredom. It is interesting to note, however, that much of what I wrote about my early life accorded quite closely with a lot of what Amis said. So there you go. It’s getting late and I haven’t watched any YouTube yet.

Friday, 21 March 2014

After Bulwer-Lytton.

The wind was howling with intent again, so I just went out to move my garden bear…

… to a place where he’ll be less likely to get blown over and broken. And I can say – with full awareness of literary clichés from once upon a time to they lived happily ever after, and in homage to Snoopy the Dog – that it is:

a dark and stormy night.

It is. Windy, raining, and black as a French Lieutenant’s motives.

Being Wound around Sarah's Little Finger.

The matter of The French Lieutenant’s Woman is gathering pace. I read four chapters tonight and am now at about the middle of it. It’s bothering me just a little because the similarities between Charles Smithson and me continue to present themselves ever more certainly as the plot progresses. The same predilections, the same delusion of a duty well done, the same naïve belief in the capacity to remain aloof, the same malleability in the hands of a truly enigmatic woman, and the same uncharitable drive for self-protection. In short, the same flaws and weaknesses. I’m almost afraid to finish the damn book for fear of reading my own destiny there.

And what of Sarah Woodruff, with whom poor, smug Charles is now experiencing the kind of difficulty with which I can entirely empathise? She is, I think, probably the most alluring, unfathomable, complex and completely observed character I’ve ever read. And isn’t it interesting that the author occasionally reminds us when he comes out of the story and goes into commentary mode (most unusual for a novel) that these are not real people, but merely characters of his own creation? Frankly, I’m not so sure. And, fortunately, only those with a good knowledge of the book will have a clue what I’m talking about.

Old Winters and the Sound of Summer.

The weather is cooling here in Britain at the moment. When I fetched the bird feeders in at dusk this evening, there was a distinct bite to the blustery breeze – not unseasonal, but unfamiliar after the mild winter and the balm of an early spring. When I felt something cold touch my face, I realised there was hail in the air.

And then what do you think I heard? A bumblebee. Is there any sound more redolent of summer than the hum of a bumblebee?

After dinner I settled by the fire to watch one of the few TV programmes I make a point of watching nowadays: Transatlantic Sessions on BBC4. It’s a series of jamming sessions by some of the most famous names in Celtic music, and was first attempted back in about 2000. I remember Mel and I watching it one New Year’s Eve around about then. It’s definitely winter viewing, and the warm fireside compliments it well.

At one point Julie Fowlis sang one of my favourite songs. It features on an album of hers that I used to listen to while I was falling under the spell of The Mists of Avalon, back in the winter of 2010-11 and also sitting by a warm fireside. It took me back to those early exchanges with the Priestess who was already under the spell of Mists, before she and I both decided – each for own quite different reasons – that we could no longer afford one another.

So that sets the tone of the moment: old memories, old faces, and Old Man Winter serving a little of his own fare this late in the year. But I wonder how the poor bumblebee is faring.

Music and Diplomacy.

This is my latest fave Chinese music video. Not only are the girls pretty as peaches (which expression means even more to the Chinese than it does to Americans) but the music is a real taste of old Cathay.

I gather Michelle Obama is off to China just about now. The Chinese don’t seem to taking the visit all that seriously:

‘A piece of lightweight diplomacy which should help ease Sino-US relations’ is the statement I read. Now, if Michelle could only play the guzheng like a good ’un, we might be getting somewhere.

On Fine Fashions and Faltering Fires.

For some time now I’ve been looking in the charity shops for a lightweight casual jacket to replace the cheap dowdy one I’ve been wearing for a few years. Yesterday in Ashbourne I found a hopeful in the first shop I went into. I didn’t try it on because I wanted to search the other six shops first, and I found another one a little way down the line.

It was a Gant, which I gather is quite a prestigious brand, so I tried that one on and looked in the mirror. I got a shock; I looked good in it; I truly don’t remember the last time I looked good in anything. I’m not the sort to look good in things, but this one seemed to work some magic. It was a safari style with no frills and the fit was perfect.  The collar was the perfect size, it was the right colour, it had just the right number of pockets, and the cut said ‘quality’ – casual elegance without pretension. But it was expensive by charity shop standards, so being the cautious person I am where money is concerned, I decided to go back to the other shop and try the first one on. It was half the price of the Gant, you see, and I have a habit of noticing these things.

The arguments came thick and fast as I walked from one shop to the other:

‘You’re not the sort to buy things just because you like them. Money is an issue, always has been, remember?’

‘Who the hell gives a tuppeny toss what you look like anyway?’

‘The notion that looking good will boost your self-image is a pathetic attitude fit only for Culture-Dependants.’

‘You have far more important things to spend that sort of money on.’

…etc, etc.

I agreed with all of them, but countered them anyway. (I must have been feeling rebellious or something.) I got back to the other shop and tried the jacket on. Nothing. It was ordinary, no more. 

‘That’s it then; go and buy the Gant. No more arguments, just do it.’

The coat hanger was in the same place on the rail when I returned to the second shop, and it was empty. I searched all the rails. No Gant.

‘Have you just sold a coat?’ I asked the assistant.

‘The American Gant? Yes, about five minutes ago.’

I wonder what the opposite of a Fairy Godmother is. I think I might have one.

*  *  *

The reason this post didn’t get made last night was because my fire decided it wanted to pretend it was a funnel on the Titanic. It was belching smoke into the room at a rate I’ve never known a fire belch smoke in all my life. I opened a window but it didn’t help much, and eventually I had to let the fire go out. And then I felt sick all night from smoke inhalation. Today I found what seemed to be the problem and fixed it, and tonight the fire behaved impeccably. But that’s another story.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014


I’m not going to explain why I haven’t been blogging for the past couple of days, not this time. It’s a secret. I wasn’t going to make a post tonight either, but I’m being nagged to mention yesterday’s only happening of note:

There came four ladies walking
Down the road as I drove by
No sooner had I stopped the car
Than one of them said
So I did

(Clue: It’s a pun.)

And it seems I’m in the van of the New Millennium Post-Liberated Movement. I was more shocked by Sarah Woodruff’s revelation than Charles Smithson was – and him a Victorian. Being so precocious makes you feel like a character from Stephen King’s The Langoliers.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Uncertainty Principle.

I tend to think of myself as something of a nihilist (in fact, I seem to recall that somebody once accused me of being a nihilist, but I don’t remember who.) I’m not entirely convinced, however, since the short general definition of nihilism given in the online OED is:

The rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.

..and the more precise philosophical definition is given as:

The belief that nothing in the world has real existence.

And therein lies the problem, because in order to believe that something is meaningless, you first have to define ‘meaning.’ That’s when the ground gets shaky, as it always does when semantics come into play. It seems the best you can hope for is to conclude that whatever the nature of existence, understanding it will always be shaky.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Finding the Familiar.

When I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman, it seems that instead of holding a book, I’m holding some sort of magic mirror that reveals not my face, but fragments of my nature, my imagination, and maybe some recurring but forgotten dream.

I’ve just read the passage in which Sarah Woodruff follows Charles secretly through the woods of Ware Commons, there to confront him with a restrained but inwardly impassioned request: that he permit her one hour to tell her story, since no one else in Lyme could be trusted to understand it. He describes her face thus:

Sarah had one of those peculiar female faces that vary very much in their attractiveness; in accordance with some subtle chemistry of angle, light, mood. She was dramatically helped at this moment by an oblique shaft of wan sunlight that had found its way through a small rift in the clouds, as not infrequently happens in a late English afternoon. It lit her face, her figure standing before the entombing greenery behind her; and her face was suddenly very beautiful, exquisitely grave, and yet full of an inner, as well as outer, light.

That is exactly how I would have described somebody I knew – and who also told me a personal story, cognisance of which was restricted to one who might understand – if only I’d had Fowles’s way with words. And the dynamic is perfectly observed: Sarah’s strength emanating from her inferior position, and Charles’s weakness becoming ever more magnified by his superior one. I understand that very well.

I’ve already remarked on the similarities between Charles and me. His reaction to Sarah’s entreaty is very much what mine would have been (…and Charles had, with that atrocious swiftness of the human heart when it attacks the human brain, to struggle not to touch her.) His outward response is different, of course, since Charles is a Victorian gentleman conditioned by an artificially strict code of propriety. My sense of propriety is not so very different, but at least it’s self-taught and therefore more adaptable.

How glad I am that I didn’t read this book until now, now that I can understand it and gain a little more self knowledge in return. It’s been happening a lot these past few years – finding books that I wouldn’t have understood not so very long ago, but with which I can now engage in an almost perfect state of empathy.

Friday, 14 March 2014


I put an old lesson to good use today. A couple of years ago, the man who brought the big owls to the village fete said ‘If you see a stunned bird near a road, it’s probably been hit by a car and probably isn’t injured. Birds are surprisingly good at surviving car strikes. The problem is that they cool down very quickly and can die of hypothermia, so what you need to do is keep them warm until they’ve recovered.’ At around the same time, Melanie of Anthropomorphica reported doing just that for a greenfinch, so I decided he was probably right. (Melanie knows about these things, you see.)

Today I saw a little blue tit sitting on the ground at the bottom of my garden. Blue tits aren’t in the habit of staying still very long, and this one looked like he’d been on the wrong end of a sucker punch. Time to test the theory. I picked him up and cradled him in my hand, gripping firmly but not tightly. He didn’t struggle; he seemed quite content to rest under the covers and move his little head about.

After a few minutes I opened my hand to see whether he wanted to fly. He didn’t. He poo’d on my finger instead. (Thank you.) I waited some more, I talked to him, I stroked his head. He continued to stand on my finger. I began to get impatient (I was in the middle of a job, you know?)

‘Are you ready for the off yet?’



I continued to be patient; I might have even whistled. I thought of singing to him, but decided against it. Suddenly he was gone, off to the nearest hedge. Job done. Nice one.

Thursday, 13 March 2014


Somebody told me today that I was a big influence on her when she was younger. She didn’t say whether the influence was good or bad, but she now has a husband, a little boy, a detached house in the suburbs and a job, so it can’t have been all that good.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

It's a Mad World.

I read a news report today about a woman who was leaving her office when she was harassed by a seagull. It caused her to stumble on the step, so now she’s suing her employer for not taking proper care of her health and safety. The matrix is crumbling, I think.

And by an odd coincidence, being harassed by a bird causes another woman to stumble on a step in my story Signals, which I’ve been considering posting at the other blog. Maybe it’s a signal that I should.

Being Between Worlds.

A bit of unanticipated stress caused the onset of a heavy bout of CFS symptoms last night – pounding heart, crushed feeling in the chest, light nausea and extreme tiredness. There was no point in trying to work at the computer after dinner, so I repaired to the living room to have a quick nap by the fire. It lasted 2½ hours. When I woke up I felt better, apart from being weak as a kitten. No, that’s wrong; I’m always weak as a kitten at the moment. Weak as a wood mouse would be more appropriate, and all the better for being alliterative.

And while I was asleep I dreamt that I was on a hospital trolley, all gowned up and about to go into surgery (for what, I have no idea.) I was given my pre-med, and then I heard a man’s voice somewhere in an adjacent reception area say ‘You’ve lost that girl of yours.’ I felt it had some relevance to me, so I leapt off the trolley and went dashing off to find out who was speaking, who he was speaking to, and to which girl he was referring. I woke up before I got there. Or maybe I collapsed from the effect of rushing off under the influence of a pre-med. Or maybe my subconscious mind wasn’t prepared to be loaded down with a list of all the girls he could have been referring to.

*  *  *

One thing that is giving great pleasure at the moment is The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I’m getting through only two short chapters a night, and it’s going to take ages to read the book. That’s because the prose is what you might call meaty (as long as you’re not a vegetarian and find the word ‘meaty’ a trifle unpleasant.) Every sentence has to be lingered over and savoured, which is a damn fine thing in my opinion. I haven’t found a single example of dubious credibility yet, and it’s as rich as you could wish for in perceptive exposition of human nature. I think I’m going to have to find out a bit more about John Fowles (apart from the fact that he’s dead, which I already know.)

And I’m going to hazard a guess that if Charles Smithson is as much like me as I think he is, it won’t be long before his affections for the pretty but prissy Earnestina will cool, and he will, instead, find himself hopelessly under the spell of the plain but profound Sarah Woodruff.

But now I’m beginning to sound like the soap-obsessed Lucy Moran from Twin Peaks, so I think it’s time I unscrewed the scotch bottle and re-discovered my natural environment.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Perennial Uncertainty.

I was just listening to Deva Premal singing the Moola Mantra on YouTube again. For those who don’t know, Deva Premal is something of a legend in the field of popularising sacred music, especially the Vedic variety. She has a beautiful voice, and much of what she sings is very beautiful too. For me, that’s as far as it goes; what bugs me is the kind of comment people leave. The first on the list is:

‘Oh my beloved God. I love you my Lord.’

This puts me in a quandary because I’m dying to add my comment along the lines of:

‘I do wish people would stop seeing this as some sort of Gateway to God. The older I get, the more I’m convinced that we’re all God. Every rat and earthworm is God. Every grain of sand is God. There is no gateway. And the older I get, the more I’m prepared to admit that I might be wrong. Is that the real big difference between us?’

I continue to restrain myself because as much as I like pricking the bubbles of Mother Culture, I have an inner conviction that trying to prick the bubbles of individuals’ beliefs would be both spiteful and unnecessary – not to mention presumptuous. But I still wish they’d realise that their beliefs are just things they choose to believe. And maybe I’m being arrogant in saying even this much.  

Spring, Stings, and Gentlemen.

We had a day to honour the very name of Spring today – warm and sunny with hardly a breath of breeze to remind us that winter might still have a sting in its tail. In celebration I took a packed lunch and walked the mile or so to the mediaeval church of St Mary and St Barlok, there to assume my accustomed position in the lea of the south wall and eat it (the lunch, that is, not the wall.)

The serenity of the occasion was disturbed only once, by a pair of cyclists come to sightsee, and who were probably foreign since they smiled but didn’t speak. And while I was there I made two discoveries.

The first was that the sloping area of ground beyond the north wall gives way to a wide ledge which would normally be all but impassable in the summer months, being choked with undergrowth that would require the assistance of a machete to negotiate. This early in the year, however, there are but a few straggly branches of rhododendron and sundry roots to trip me up, and only one of them did. And the reward for making the trek among the old trees occupying this fledgling wilderness was a high view of the river and the landscape beyond. Fortunately, the cyclists didn’t follow me.

The other was in the church itself (where the cyclists did follow me.) Standing diffidently in a stone base at the far western end of the nave is part of a Saxon cross, about three feet tall and apparently one of two that were discovered when the north wall was being underpinned. The accompanying notice said that it had been dated to around 900AD. I’d never known it was there before, and it was odd to trace the carving with my fingers, knowing that it had been made by a Saxon hand over a thousand years ago. I did have to question the date, however. If my reading of history is correct, where I live now would have been part of Danelaw in 900. Would they have been making Saxon crosses in Danelaw? I don’t know; it’s something I’d like to ask a historian.

*  *  *

Signs of spring were evident in other places, too. The embankment beneath the Stone House no longer has a daffodil in bloom, it has an army of them (well, something between a platoon and a company at least.) And there are crocuses springing up in yellow and purple livery in many a garden. And my lawn has its first daisies. And I saw both a butterfly and a bumblebee. And – best of all, though slightly worrying – I confirmed this evening that my friend the bat has, indeed, woken from his winter sleep. He was hunting over the garden at twilight, apparently in fine fettle. I just hope that winter isn’t preparing a sting to bring us down to earth, and the bat into a hasty re-hibernation.

*  *  *

I’m still keeping the fireside warm at night, though, and tonight I discovered that Charles Smithson Esq – the hero of The French Lieutenant’s Woman – continues to resemble a younger version of me. So noticing of the right sort of young lady, and so respectful of their finer feelings.

Cutural Circumspection.

I just watched a video of a CBS feature on ‘Leftover Women’ in China. According to the report, women in China are considered fit only for the scrapheap – not even worth dating – if they’re not married by the time they’re twenty five.

As you can imagine, the CBS journalists were aghast with the sort of indignation which commonly follows the time-honoured notion that only the mores of Our Culture are worthy. Any divergence on the part of The Others is reprehensible by default. Well, I can see that the Chinese attitude might create a notable difficulty for Chinese women, but cultural variation and complexity are worth a little more in-depth consideration than a five minute piece on CBS, I think.

But do you know what really bugged me? The comments on this video were pretty brainless even by YouTube standards, and the one I particularly remember came from some American guy who said:

‘Chinese women are ugly anyway. Some Japs are okay.’

There speaks a redneck of taste, intelligence and refinement.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Seasonal and Literary Notes.

So now it’s official: according to the Met Office, the winter just passed (as the Met Office defines ‘winter’) was the wettest in England and Scotland since official records began in 1766. See? I told you…

The rain
Was being
A pain

…didn’t I? And according to the National Trust, the storms resulted in more trees being lost than at any time since the Great Storm of 1987.

(For those interested in literary connections, the Great Storm of 1987 features in the celebrated novel Possession. I read Possession at the behest of the Priestess; she said it was apposite. I considered raising the objection that, though my years be advancing, during none of them did I ever aspire to be a poet. But I decided to relish the moment instead and say nothing. Relishable moments are few and far between these days, and too precious to be suffocated at birth by misplaced honesty.)

To continue: I did also say it was pretty windy at times, didn’t I? I did. To my knowledge, we lost five trees in the Shire – three standards and two smaller ones.

What I don’t understand, however, is this:

I read a news report today which said that English strawberries are now in the shops, courtesy of the mild winter. Well, mild winter or not, early March seems a bit unlikely for naturally grown fruit. Strawberries are associated with May and June, and mine certainly aren’t showing any inclination to develop yet, which suggests that the ones in the shops were grown in closed, artificially heated conditions. In that case, what has the mild winter got to do with it? Maybe somebody can enlighten me.

Daffodils, on the other hand, are naturally associated with March and April, and I saw the first one in bloom today – on the embankment of the 17th century Stone House, which is marginally closer to the river valley than we are up here.

(I judge the Stone House to be 17th century, though I’ve seen no written evidence to support my assumption. The owner tells me, however, that it had its origins in 1485. I’ve seen no evidence of that either, although various aspects of contrast between the foundations and the present property lend credence to the belief that an earlier house once stood there.)

OK, this post is jumping about like a Chinese firecracker on coke, so back to the beginning:

Something else I’m sure I glimpsed briefly today was a bat. If so, I hope there are some flies about because I’d like to see more of him or her in the coming months. I like bats.

And just to take one final jump before fizzling out, I’m finding the character of Sarah Woodruff, the eponymous heroine of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, most engaging. She has a quick, intuitive understanding of people, you see, and also a kind disposition. That’s what makes her so attractive, not her pretty face (which, as I recall, isn’t so pretty anyway.)


Friday, 7 March 2014

The Essence of Sentimental Value.

I made the trip to the tip today and threw away the clear-out things. I didn’t enjoy it. The problem with Things is that they’re associated with other things, less tangible but more precious things, and tearing the two apart comes at a price.

Take one of the shirts, for example. It was the shirt I was wearing at an actors’ party one night when a vision of loveliness came over and introduced herself with the words ‘Hi, I’m S. I was asking one of the actors who the guy in the check shirt is.’ It was the start of an adventure replete with drama and high emotion. It’s a special memory.

And then there was the desk light. It was a good one, an expensive one, and it illuminated my desk and computer keyboard through many years of writing fiction late into the night, fortified by countless scotches and the sense of fulfilment that comes with creative endeavour. One of the pleasures of writing fiction is that it takes you into endless other worlds where there’s more adventure to be had, not to mention the thrill of having it accepted for publication. So that’s another special memory, and another Thing indelibly connected with it.

I realise that in the greater scheme of things memories are ultimately worthless – I’ve said so often enough – but they’re still friends of sorts, precious friends, and casting their ghosts among the broken rejects of anonymous strangers just doesn’t feel right somehow. It feels disrespectful.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

An Interesting Comparison.

Anybody who has read The French Lieutenant’s Woman will be familiar with the leading character, Charles. Last night I was at the point where Charles’s early life as a young man was being described, and I was surprised to find that we had a lot in common. There was the same inclination to rakishness tempered by short-lived Christian fervour and a veritable nanny of a conscience, the same love of books and nature, the same vociferous objection to fox hunting, and the same tendency to be out of step with the received attitudes of our native cultures.

What seemed odd to me was the fact that Charles was the son of a baronet and grew up in a mansion, whereas I was the son of a bus driver and grew up in social housing. Maybe it just goes to show that style owes no debt to breeding after all.

Pretty in Plastic.

There’s a billboard advert sprung up around the Sainsbury’s store in Ashbourne. It’s for some health product or other, and the backdrop to the minimal text shows the face of a young woman of around late twenties or thirty.

A very pretty face it is, too – well formed features, clear eyes, perfect make up and impeccably styled hair. But that’s all; there’s no trace of character or personality anywhere in sight.

No doubt it’s intended to represent some sort of ideal for the modern world. ‘This is what you can aspire to, girls, if only you use our product.’ Well now, it reminds me of something one of my daughter’s boyfriends said to her once:

‘Pretty girls are ten a penny. If you want to be attractive – let alone beautiful – you need a hell of a lot more than just a pretty face.’

Indeed you do. You can, after all, make a plastic doll look pretty enough.

Some advertisers recognise this fact and give their female stereotypes a modicum of personality. It’s usually of a fairly shallow variety, but at least it’s a step along the way. You’d think the makers of a health product would know better, wouldn’t you?

Engaging with the Tome.

The style of writing in The French Lieutenant’s Woman is fascinating, being an unusual mixture of linguistic formality, complex clause relationships and verbal idiosyncrasies which sit together in a muscular, masculine sort of way. It isn’t the kind of thing you could speed read; it requires some concentration. You either engage with it or you put the book away. It is, however, highly descriptive and well worth the effort.

What’s also fascinating is the insight it gives into the mores and cultural nuances of middle and upper class Victorian society – and some of them are curiously familiar, which maybe I should find disturbing. And then there’s one little personal connection:

The range in the kitchen of the domineering Mrs Poulteney has a bad habit of smoking when the wind is in the south west, which is odd because the fire in my living room exhibits exactly the same fault.

Sweeping the Decks.

I’ve decided it’s time for a bit of a clear-out, so I started the process today by collecting together some defunct household items and old clothes – the household stuff to go to the municipal tip, and the clothes to go into the Oxfam recycling receptacle provided at Sainsbury’s for the salving of one’s conscience by contributing to the universal good…

(I find it difficult to throw things away. It isn’t that I’m a hoarder, more that I become strangely attached to Things based on a deep suspicion that everything has consciousness and will feel the sting of rejection. Accordingly, I have to convince myself that I’m probably wrong in order to summon up the necessary ruthlessness. This suggests that I’m either uncommonly astute or a prime example of retarded development.)

Why I should feel such necessity, however, isn’t fully clear. Sometimes I become possessed of the notion that my days in the Shire are numbered, and that I’m shortly to be moved on by fate to pastures new. Sometimes I become possessed of the notion that my days in the densest of material universes are numbered, and that I’m shortly to be moved on by one divine artifice or another to pastures old but unremembered. And sometimes I just wonder whether clearing things out is a way of revitalising the subtle energies and attracting new things to brighten up a state becoming jaded. A troupe of Chinese dancing girls with a hamper full of fried rice would fit the bill nicely.

On which note, I’m currently listening to a mantra being sung in Mandarin. Such a pretty language.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Shades of Disappointment.

I’ve mentioned before that being an incurable optimist can be something of a curse. It means that you’re always terribly disappointed when something goes wrong, even though you tried hard to convince yourself in advance that it probably would.

It remains a fact nevertheless that, however bad things get, there’s always a grain of belief – sometimes buried so deep that it would take an unlikely alliance of Speke and Burton to find it, but it’s there – that one day the bad thing will go away and a good thing will replace it. It’s why I find it so disturbing when people die whilst still in the throes of adversity. To me, it means that the natural order has malfunctioned. Heaven has got it wrong. And if you can’t trust heaven to be infallible, what the hell can you trust?

*  *  *

I sat in a town centre yesterday, eating my King’s luncheon of a £1.10 bag of chips from a chip shop, courtesy of my lottery win. (Actually, they don’t come in bags any more; they’re served in one form of polystyrene container or another these days, but chips from a chip shop will always be a bag of chips to me.)

And while I was quietly so engaged, I watched the people passing by. In particular, I was searching their eyes to see whether I might spot a special pair – one which didn’t echo the hum of Mother Culture. No luck, I’m afraid.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

For the Sake of Saying Something.

There is a lone light shining in the darkness of the Shire. It’s oblivious to the fact that it’s a beacon, but I’m not. And arcane as such a statement is, at least it beats the bile I spewed onto a Word document and then deleted.

*  *  *

I claimed my £64 lottery prize today, then splashed out on a second hand paperback from a second hand bookshop. The French Lieutenant’s Woman it was. It cost £1.50, and I read the first two chapters tonight without finding fault with the writing. Unlike some better known names, John Fowles really knew how to write. I doubt there will be any tearing of this one to shreds. Pity.

*  *  *

The business in Ukraine is troubling me far more than I suppose it should, but I keep seeing video footage of a Very Important Person who has the look and bearing of an underfed sewer rat. And I'm inclined to judge situations more by the people generating them than by the nature of the situations themselves. It's why I often take sides in direct opposition to the seemingly rational arguments being expounded. In politics, seemingly rational arguments are usually loaded at best, and often examples of the most outrageous sophistry.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The New Attila?

I’m sure Mr Putin must realise what a dangerous game he’s playing at the moment. The threat of military intervention in Ukraine is setting alarm bells ringing here in the west. The suspicion is being entertained that he’s trying to reconstruct the USSR, so just when we’re getting used to seeing the Russians as friendly neighbours whose rich folks even buy our football clubs, Putin seems determined to ring down the Iron Curtain again and take us all back into the neo Dark Ages. I wonder why. Or maybe he isn't. Maybe he just likes rattling his sabre.

A Hitch in Transmission.

I’m having difficulty making posts lately. I’m almost constantly stressed, you see, forever teetering on the edge of the corrosive mire of anxiety, the hot cauldron of anger or the cold pit of depression, and I take frequent dips into all three.

The past few years have been dominated by the losing principle – all manner of things from hair to people to personal freedoms – and it gets to you a bit after a while. I know what I want and what I don’t want; the problem comes with getting one and getting rid of the other. The result is that both serious focus and frivolous abandon are brief and infrequent visitors at the moment.

Take last night, for example. I wrote quite a long post on the rediscovery of Deva Premal on YouTube, and the difficulty I have with earnest people who think they’ve found God or some other form of spiritual enlightenment. (Siddhartha and I have some characteristics in common.) But it was very late; I read it back and it seemed both turgid and confused, so I deleted it and went to bed.

On a lighter note (ha!) I did have two firsts this weekend:

The first first was getting four numbers up on the Lottery. It’s the first time I’ve had four numbers in the nineteen years I’ve been playing the game. According to the website, it means I’ve won £64. That’s about $100 (I think) for the benefit of Americans who can’t be bothered to work it out. That’s quite a lot of money to me, but I decline to trust Lady Luck until she’s sitting in the back left-hand pocket of my jeans.

The second first was getting a junk e-mail in French. That was really exciting, and I was tempted to click on the link just for the experience of being defrauded in a foreign language. I wasn’t feeling that adventurous, though, so I didn’t.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. Thank you for watching the test card.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Finding a Post.

There are days when thoughts flit so quickly through my mind that none of them stays long enough, or develops sufficient substance, to provide material for a blog post. Today was just such a day. Today was an odd job day, and an odd thought day. I did lots of odd jobs and had lots of odd thoughts. The jobs were done quickly and the thoughts came and went. Until, that is, a warming reverie took hold and made me realise something I never noticed before. But to begin at the beginning:

A troupe of Chinese dancing girls approached.

‘You American?’ they asked.

‘No, English.’

‘Ah, English. English good.’

‘Dead right it’s good.’

‘You want to come for picnic with us, so we practice proper English?’

‘Dunno. What’s in the tucker bag?’

‘Tucker bag?’

‘Snappin’ tin.’

‘Snappin’ tin?’

‘The hamper.’


‘The food box.’

‘Ah, food box. Rice.’

‘Rice? Just rice?’

‘Fried rice. You like fried rice?’

‘Well, yeah, ’suppose I do. No bean sprouts or water chestnuts?’

‘No, just rice. You only have time for rice, then we give you our undivided attention…’

‘Hey, that’s pretty good English for a Mandarin speaker.’

They giggled – all at the same time – and the reverie faded. But then I realised something. You know what Ashbourne doesn’t have? It doesn’t have a Chinese takeaway. Whoever heard of a town without a Chinese takeaway?

It was my ex-wife who introduced me to Chinese food. I’d never heard of bean sprouts or water chestnuts until then. She also introduced me to Monkey and The Water Margin. The hero of the latter, Ling Cheung, became a household name and I never looked back.

So there you have it. Ashbourne is seriously deficient in one important particular. And I managed a post after all.