09 +00002015-11-19T19:02:00+00:0030 2012 § 6 Comments
“… when we’re pretty sure we have the whole picture and are reflecting on the roller coaster nail biter of a journey as the end approaches, the author punches us in the stomach. Once again we’re treated to a big last minute shock in the same way she shook us in Sausage Hall.”
May I express here my sincere thanks to @TheBookbag’s Ani Johnson. The review may be found in full here.
09 +00002015-03-01T16:28:13+00:0031 2012 § 12 Comments
Last Saturday, I helped my husband to prepare his allotment, for sowing with a new cycle of plants and seeds. He needed some assistance, because during the long winter months the shelter that he and his partner-in-grime had built over it last year to foil the pigeons (it succeeded) had collapsed under the weight of an unexpectedly heavy fall of snow. Carefully, we untied some dozens of pieces of binder twine and rolled up long lengths of chicken wire to ready them for the grand rebuilding. Improved design, he says, will help to prevent the same happening again; we shall see!
Partly because they were pretty difficult to reach amongst the debris of broken timbers and chicken wire, and partly because we’d had some over-supply, leftovers of last year’s crop remained, a brassica graveyard. Eight or so stalks of blackening Brussels sprouts tilted in a broken rank towards the boundary fence, a row of wounded soldiers at their last gasp. Several misshapen kohl rabi poked from the earth like a giantess’s bunions.
Some heads of red cabbage, severed from their stalks, lay on the ground, broken and rotting, their outer layers turned into slimy winding sheets. Their lone companion, still growing, had grown a new rosette of small heads after the original cabbage had been cut, twisting itself into three dark petalled shapes, a macabre bouquet paying last respects at the funeral. Dried sticks of weed poked through the soil, which glistened unhealthily with a scattering of glossy green clumps of over-wintered willowherb and expanding whorls of nipplewort.
Overhead, the sun shone with real warmth. New purple buds were swelling on the tangle of hawthorn twigs in the gateway. The bees in the adjoining apiary were flying, great tits were two-toning in the hedge and a lone hare loped away over the meadow. Spring was on its way, but I don’t recollect having ever been so vividly aware of the round of decay that must precede renewal.
Oddly, I found it comforting: it was as it should be. And somehow it made me feel more philosophical about death. Each plant and creature has its time. Then comes the Grim Reaper. It is only seemly. And there is something wonderful about the soil which is both grave and nursery; now it is manured and turned, I am reminded of the beauty of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘shining-shot furls’ of ploughed land, from which will spring new life.
09 +00002014-10-16T17:30:21+00:0031 2012 § 8 Comments
‘And I of ladies most deject and wretched …’
I’m not actually feeling depressed myself: with these words, Ophelia, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, bewails the fact that Hamlet, who has recently been wooing her, is now treating her with utter contempt and has implied that she, because she is a woman, can be no lady, unless a licentious ‘painted’ one. The word ‘lady’ is one I’ve been pondering since, a week ago, we spent two very enjoyable days walking with our friends Priscilla and Rupert and, over breakfast, I told an anecdote from my remote bookselling past, which, briefly, goes like this:
The founder of the small library supply company for which I used to work, who was a First World War veteran and a very old man (I’ll call him ‘Mr Smith’) when I first met him, always stayed at the George Hotel in Stamford on his visits to and from London. His wife, a formidable lady by all accounts, the eldest of five clannish and strong-willed sisters, was a semi-invalid who spent most of her time at home, engaged in various projects that could be completed from her bed; for example, she taught herself fluent German. However, when her illness – whatever it was, it always sounded quite vague to me – was in remission, she would occasionally accompany him on his business trips and eventually they checked in together at the George, which is a magnificent old coaching inn and quite grand in its way. One of the services it has always offered is tea in bed, delivered by a waiter. On the morning after their arrival, the waiter duly knocked at the door and entered with their tea tray. The founder’s wife sat up in bed to take it from him. The founder himself also sat up and the waiter addressed him with the following greeting:
‘Good morning, Mr Smith. Not the usual lady, I see!’
Aside from the fact that I find this very funny – it became one of the company legends – it’s interesting because of its use of the word ‘lady’, always a slipperier noun than its plainer alternative, ‘woman’. My husband was once berated by some female colleagues for saying ‘Good morning, ladies,’ even though, as he pointed out, ‘Good morning, women,’ sounds both comic and slightly disrespectful (and in any case, he added, he always said, ‘Good morning, gentlemen,’ to a group of men). But ‘lady’ is not a straightforward term. If not used with care, it can be very patronising: why do we refer to ‘dinner ladies’ and ‘cleaning ladies’, but use the terms ‘female’ or ‘woman’ as epithets for women with a recognised profession (policewoman, female barrister, woman MP)? Would anyone today refer to a ‘lady teacher’ or a ‘lady librarian’? (There were actually ‘lady librarians’ running the public library service before the Second World War; they were generally women from the upper middle classes, whose families were so well-heeled that the local authorities didn’t need to pay them a salary and, as soon as salaries were introduced, many of these jobs were then taken by men! ) And what of the careers to which women have been admitted only in more recent times? Would anyone seriously allude to a lady soldier, a lady bus driver or a lady CEO? Don’t we all abhor the slimy man who refers to his spouse as ‘the lady wife’?
And yet … amid the hubbub of modern life, we may – sometimes – still wish to be referred to as ‘ladies’. For example, when a mother with a lively child in tow says to it, ‘Give up your seat to this lady,’ or ‘Be careful, don’t bump into that lady,’ it would be only the most truculent and militant of us who would correct her and say, ‘Please refer to me as a woman.’ Shops – including online ones – still refer to ‘ladies’ fashions’ and, although some facilities in hotels, restaurants and public places are now marked ‘Men’ and ‘Women’, most still use the more traditional ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Ladies’. Speechmakers still begin their address with ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ – or sometimes even the grander ‘My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,’ with its delightful implication that all ‘ladies’ are in some way aristocratic. And most of us are fascinated by the great ladies of the past: Bess of Hardwick, who began life as a ‘woman’ and worked her way up; Lady Castlemaine, one of Charles II’s two most famous mistresses (though the other, Nell Gwynne, was definitely a ‘woman’); and two scintillating Duchesses of Devonshire, each quite different from the other – Georgiana, the eighteenth century holder of that title, and the recently-deceased Deborah, chatelaine of Chatsworth House, who was born a lady and became a greater one.
Listing some of these ladies, however, brings out another connotation of the word: it can be and often is very closely associated with the oldest profession. Thus the deliciously evocative ‘ladies of the night’, ‘his lady-friend’ (meaning ‘not his wife’) and a ‘lady no better than she should be’, a term much favoured by my grandmother, usually delivered with a flash of the eye and a pulling-down of her skirt over her knees, as if to imply that her virtue, at least, was safe.
I return to Ophelia. One of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic heroines, she is portrayed both as the ultimate virgin and, after her madness sets in, as a foul-mouthed woman conversant with sexual practices unbefitting a ‘maid’. ‘Lady’ is a word she uses frequently. She herself embodies its ambiguity, and by extension the double entendre of the word itself. It is an equivocation which today’s women, who in this country have almost but not quite achieved equality and in many others are still fighting a tough uphill battle to get anywhere near it, often resent. Are we ladies or women? Does the word ‘lady’ still have a place in our society? What of its counterpart, ‘gentleman’? But that, perhaps, raises a wholly different topic!
I’ll leave the penultimate word to Ophelia:
‘Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night.’
And the last to myself:
Or, perhaps, ‘Good-bye, Ladies? Hello, Women?’ Words, words, words!
09 +00002014-06-23T12:22:26+00:0030 2012 § 12 Comments
Canal banks in June: great mounds of blackberry-promising fatfulness; blushes of dog-rose, fluffing; field roses with hearts of gold; elder sprays of cream parasols; purple-loosestrife spikily soaring; yellow flags already rent and over-blown, but bright to the end; hemp-agrimony, overdressed and busty for an opera of bloom; meadow-sweet candy-frothing and a-buzz; hemlock towering on red-splotched trunks with canopies of flowers; bittersweet, weaving its poisonous way with velvet cunning through the twiggery; armies of mare’s tail on the march; suckabee Himalayan balsam just beginning to pout; tow-path beds of campion, partying in pink; sweeps of buttercups amongst the broken banks of the pasture; good old hogweed, slumming it with grandeur; inevitable rosebay willowherb rising and aspiring to July; lush grasses teetering on the brink.
Sit in the almost silent narrowboat bow and love the flower parade, whose scents undulate like the ripples spreading wide.
09 +00002014-04-01T10:33:47+00:0030 2012 § 4 Comments
We celebrated the start of spring this weekend by paying our friends Priscilla and Rupert a visit. We were looking forward to seeing their new-born lambs. They have eight ewes altogether, of whom four have borne a total of nine lambs (three sets of twins and one of triplets). They don’t know whether the other ewes are in lamb or not – apparently it is very difficult to tell whether a ewe is pregnant unless she undergoes the ovine equivalent to a scan, which for most farmers would be prohibitively expensive. (It occurs to me that an enterprising entrepreneur should come up with a ewe’s pregnancy testing kit!)
Whether or not the remaining ewes have been successfully impregnated, one thing is certain: Terence the Tup is in clover. Some of my readers will remember that Terence had a few runs-in with a mating harness at the beginning of the winter. Once Rupert had finally figured out how to put it on, it chafed Terence, so he was allowed to step out of it forever. This meant that his virility could not be measured. All that Priscilla and Rupert could do was wait and hope that he had triumphed.
Terence takes over the story:
You wouldn’t believe this, but that Rupert has fitted up a telescope in his bedroom so that he can spy on me. Prurient, that’s what I call it. If a ram tried that, he’d be locked up. It’s bad enough trying to get a bit of privacy when you’ve eight ladies to look after, without him butting in. He says he’s doing it on humanitarian grounds. Pah!
Everyone seems to think that I’ve struck it lucky here, that it’s an easy billet for me, with just eight women and no other blokes trying to muscle in. I’ll have you know it’s not a straightforward as it looks. For one thing, some of my girls are quite flighty. They’ll argue with each other over who should be next for my favours and then, when I pick one and take her side, they’ll all turn on me. Sometimes, that means I don’t get anywhere with any of them and I have to wait until things have settled down before I try again. Then Rupert comes out (having, I imagine, been glued to his bedroom window – you’d think he’d have better things to do) and says he’ll get rid of me if I don’t perform. You can’t win.
And another thing… Rupert and Priscilla bought special fodder for the ewes once they thought they were in lamb, to give them the right nourishment. I’d no objection to that, but they were downright stingy when it came to letting me eat it as well. I didn’t get any of it ‘officially’. They didn’t seem to understand that I was as busy making lambs as the ladies were – busier, in fact. I’m a dad of nine now, and counting, not just a mum of two or three. They should have seen that I needed the victuals to keep my strength up.
I found a way round this eventually. I decided to cold-shoulder any lady who wouldn’t share her provender with me. It worked a treat: they all gave me some. They might not have minded ganging up on me sometimes, but if there was one thing that none of them could stand, it was being ignored. I should have tried it in the first place: they’d all have been in the club in no time. Rupert thinks that I’m getting a bit fat now, but what does he know about BMIs for sheep?
Once the lambs started to come, though, I got the boot. Seriously, it’s the truth: I know it sounds outrageous. They used some hurdles to fence off part of the field to segregate me from the girls, and fastened me in with one of last year’s lambs, ‘to keep me company’. Little whippersnapper. I give him a good head-on crack, skull to skull, whenever I think no-one’s looking. Fortunately, the telescope has been trained on the girls who’ve yet to give birth, so Rupert doesn’t see it if I’m careful. I ask you, though, what kind of maternity unit does he think he’s running here? I’m certain there are no telescopes involved in ‘Call the Midwife’.
By the way, eight of my nine are boys; they could use me in China. ‘Ramming it’, I call it.
09 +00002014-02-16T19:19:22+00:0028 2012 § 4 Comments
He didn’t smile as he inserted the knife, but he felt the satisfaction within him. With only slight pressure, the fine blade slid remarkably easily into her chest. The sun was shining and the sky quite, quite blue, just the way he loved it for a moment like this; colour mattered. The grasses on the dyke bank softly sighed their green tune and swallows looped and flickered with azure ease down over the water to drink, unconcerned about the scene being played out just above and alongside their surface glide. The savage bruise to her face was turned to the ground and she seemed almost asleep, were it not for the now irregular breathing and the gurgle in her throat. It was kindness itself to ease her out of this life whilst she lay unconscious, the violence of an hour ago lost to her. He cradled her head as she moved on, stroking her hair with the tenderness of the lover he wasn’t.
A moment of stillness hung over the fen, as of a breath held for fear of disturbing a sleeping giant. Then, as he pushed his boot hard against the bank to raise himself and turned his head to check the horizon for human interference, a frog leaped into the dyke and a wren skittered away from a waterside reed thicket. The moment and he were done.
He slid her into the water, rinsed his hands and the knife and walked away without looking back, along the bank to the rough hardcore track where the stolen van stood in the space between rough elders and hawthorns. Glancing frequently towards the distant road, he pulled the bike from the vehicle, stripped off his every garment and threw all into the back before dressing again in the mountain biker gear he’d brought with him. A sprinkle of petrol, a tossed match and he was off on the bike, on his way up the track away from the road with just the knife, wrapped in plastic, in his Camelbak. From a distance, the smoke looked like the work of a farmer.
Twelve miles away, he dropped the knife from a bridge into the waters of the Welland and tossed the plastic wrapping after it. Then he rode home, where he hosed off the bike and his shoes with the meticulous care he always applied after a cross-country jaunt and went inside to complete the cleansing process. In the bathroom, he stared carefully at the image in the mirror, gazing with calm confidence into the eyes which had now avidly watched the utter horror of three randomly-chosen women.
Away in the fen, the woman’s body had floated face down to the centre of the dyke. It would be four days before a field hand in a tractor would glance down and then stare intently at a shape which could not be misinterpreted.