It's Christmas Eve, and I want to bake. I want floury smudges on myself and cinnamon filtering under the door to my bedroom and sugary, buttery blobs of batter between my fingers. I choose some spiced Christmas biscuits from Nigella's domestic goddess cookbook. I grind pepper into a little bowl and rattle and clatter among the spice bottles for the mixed spice and soon a honey-fragranced dough is turning in the red KitchenAid.
Cutting out shapes in dough is a fabulous, time-travellingly Christmas thing to do. I never did it at Christmas when I was a kid -- mine was not a baking family -- but it makes no difference. It's a direct line to being four years old, like the smell of paste, cutting things out of the newspaper, making a sandcastle. In the brand-new chi-chi kitchenware shop that's just opened in Cambridge I chose the moon shape because I love the moon. And also they were completely sold out of stars.
The house smells evocatively of cloves and cinnamon and Bing and Harry Connick compete for crooning laurels in the living room. The bird loves the big band accompaniments and dances around looking like a tiny green Christmas decoration, with his festive red tail and burnished tummy feathers. There's a fantastically garish Christmas stocking from my Dad, sporting gilt-threaded appliqué snowman and Santa, under the enormous poinsettia that Pluvialis got for me before she left for Maine. A strand of soft blue yarn is peeping out of the box that my old friend Crinkly-Eyed Smile l sent me from Australia. A green-and-white bag all the way from China, from International Woman of Mystery, with exotic unknowns inside.
Later, I'll call my mother, whose timezone dances the sugarplum fairy ten hours before mine. She has a basketful of goodies from me. I wish I could sit on her bed and watch her open them. She might even like these biscuits, she of No Sweet Tooth. They're spicy and biscuity and have a hint of honey -- the vaguest scent of eucalyptus. My love affair with honey is decades old, and I couldn't possibly be unfaithful to my Australian bees.
Spiced Christmas Biscuits
300g plain flour 1 tsp ground mixed spice 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper 1 tsp baking powder pinch salt 100g unsalted butter 100g dark muscovado sugar 2 large eggs, beaten with 4 tablespoons honey
Preheat oven to 170°C and line baking trays with silicon paper.
Mix together the flour, salt, pepper and mixed spice in your mixer or processor. Add the sugar and butter with the motor running, and then slowly the egg and honey mixture. Don't add all of this if the dough starts to come together before it's run out. Form the dough into two discs. Wrap one in clingfilm and put it into the fridge.
Dust your work surface and the other disc with flour. Roll out to about 5mm and cut out your shapes. Smoosh remaining dough into a ball and wrap in clingfilm, while you get the other disc out of the fridge. Roll and cut out. Add the remaining dough to what you had left over from the first disc, and roll out ... continue until you've used up all the dough.
Put shapes on trays and bake for around 20 minutes. It can be hard to see when they're done -- if they're not doughy on the bottom, they're cooked. Put on wire racks to cool.
Nigella recommends that you ice these with a plain white glacé icing, which puts me in somewhat of a quandary. Me and icing have a fraught relationship. In the first place, I tend to think it makes things too sweet. But these biscuits are spicy enough to handle that, and are even perhaps not quite sweet enough to be left plain. In the second place, I just hate icing. I hate making it, and I hate the actual part where I ice something. Why is that? Mysteries of the Xtin Bake Psyche.
I'm hoping I'll get away with a simple dust of icing sugar.
A few years back, after one of those desultory wanders around the video shop that afflicted millions of poor little Westerners before the advent of Netflix and Amazon DVD rental, Pluvialis and I ended up on the floor of the living room with two Ben & Jerry Wiches, watching National Treasure.
We were really ready to enjoy this movie, you understand. After the Half-Hour Browse Of Death in the video store, your standards are as tenderized as minute steak.
Pluvialis and I laugh quite a lot. There was the time that the birdoole fell backwards off the bedroom curtain. Then there was the time when we were in Waitrose and she decided to mess with my head over the pronunciation of "gravadlax". Then there was the time that I faux-swatted at the parrot with a pillow because he was chewing the bedhead, and accidentally whacked him under the bed instead, with bemused tweeting emerging from the depths. That one went straight into the Pluvalis--Xtin mythology.
National Treasure put all of these into the shade. I don't remember anything about it except for the part, close to the beginning, when Our Hero Nicholas Cage unearths a ship that's supposedly been under the snow in Antarctica (!!!) for more than 150 years by dusting a couple of inches of powdery snow off the surface of ... gadzooks! The ship's nameplate!
OK, no, I remember there was some stuff about the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well. And, um ... the FBI.
After the snow-dusting escapade Pluvialis and I started laughing and yelling at the screen at the same time. Every thirteen seconds or so we would yell the next wild plot development at the characters and then high-five our preturnatural screenplay prescience. Pluvialis kept saying, damn, Xtin! We should write one of these! We can put Diane Kruger into a pink Vera Wang! That totally counts as a plot development!
A couple of weeks ago, I sent her the link to the latest in the franchise: National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Seriously. You don't even have to go and see it to get all the health-giving laughter. Just watch the trailer. Maybe twice. And in case you needed anything further, herewith a plot summary from the New York Times critic Matt Zoller Seitz:
"To acquire the cleverly named Book of Secrets, Ben plots to kidnap the current president and blah, blah, blah purple monkey dishwasher."
In May, walking home, I saw a hedgehog. I haven't seen one lately, but I don't need to, for I have Boy in Yellow Converse instead, a man more like a hedgehog by the day --- simultaneously the appearance of the friendly, the everyday, the familiar, that which belongs in the stories of what is good and right; and the wild, the fleeting, the moment that is captured and thought over, that which belongs only in the story.
On Saturday night, with a plastic cup of Fitou in one hand, I rubbed between the paw pads of a fine grey-and-white tom cat at a party. He observed me out of slitty eyes and concaved his spine with a sound only an interrogative cat can make, an uprising diaphragmatic trill of vaguely determinate import. His white belly fur furls out like a concertina paper lantern. In a bowl in the kitchen there are tiny ginger biscuits from the Netherlands and party-sized Mars Bars on the mantelpiece. Boy in Yellow Converse --- who at this time of year favours terribly retro white leather trainers with red stripes --- wanders the crowd, arching over it with mythological tallness and a Polaroid. His targets warm to him with the shy affection of strangers, clustering to his piked leanness like goslings to watch the images take shape. I talk to a girl with glimmering American dentistry in her smile and a formidable brilliant-cut diamond on her hand which flashes as her hands stir the air, she laughs, chipping high split cadences. I watch the dip in her throat, shorter than she.
On Wednesday my feet are cold again. Spongy, rabbit-combed turf and clover underfoot and Pluvialis a few hundred feet away at the fence calling Mabel out of a tree. She whistles, pushing her hair out of her eyes with the back of a hand that will later be bloodied. She hefts a quail in her hand and catches it, which has the absurdly loose-jointed action of dummies pitching over waterfalls in cheap action flicks. Mabel! The quail goes up again. I shuffle in my wellingtons, watching rabbits dancing everywhere, white flash-flash-flash gone into the hedge, under the sod. Suddenly a movement near, and I turn my head. Straight, impossibly straight, against the ground like a burnt butter hoverbeast, and fast. A silence in my mind. Black tipped tail, perfect like a calligraphy brush dipped just-so into the ink, and words come back to my thoughts all in a rush, David Attenborough, The Children of Cherry-Tree Farm, stoat! A small purposive furry sinew with a blaze of white under his chin. Rabbits in his nose.
There he goes.
I recover my voice. Stoat! I yell to Pluvialis hundreds of yards away, uselessly but I cannot help it. Even at the distance I can see her amusement at my eight-year-old delight and she displays a thumbs-up. I am ruining her day's hunting because I am distracting Mabel. I dance around on the hillocky warrens trying to keep warm, tinkering with malteasery piles of rabbit droppings with the toe of my boot. Pluvialis gets Mabel to the fist and wanders back to me with the distinctive rolling, sailorish gait she has when booted and disappointed. She sighs, circumflexing an expressive black eyebrow.
She gives the hawk a wing to pluck. Mabel is all at sixes-and-sevens and Pluvialis is accidentally footed. I see the stoat in my mind, skimming the ground, low wide-arc ears cupped to its head. She sucks the back of her hand. The silvery late afternoon glints go out of the light and we go back to the car.
M, ever maternal, puts Savlon on Pluvialis' hand and we drink coffee out of cups with wildflowers on them. S, the guru, rolls a cigarette and Pluvialis smokes her Camels. There are three pointers. I am wildly, wildly in love with these dogs, lithe and silly and brilliant. The black and white alpha bitch rests her muzzle in my lap and I hold her head, cupping her ears and running a finger down the groove in the centre of her lovely skull. I remember the gleaming, coppery afternoon in September when I watched her quarter the field in Barton for G's barbary. She had leaned against my knees, warm flanks alive with delight, miles to run, the fabulous smell of everything, the promise of things hiding.
But now they climb into our laps and cock their floppy ears and glance every now and then to S, the Super Alpha of the house, while he mocks me gently for my shameless adoration and craven capitulation to the insistent wet-nosed nudging for more ear-stroking. M confides later that this is rich, since he sleeps with the bitch cupped spoon-style into his belly.
At home I stand on the street, wiggling my frozen toes and puffing frost, watching the odd, Grimm-esque yew on the fence, alive and rustling with birds gobbling the squishy red seed cones. A mistle thrush dances out on a dropped, curving branch haphazardly bunted with needles and missteps, falling through the greenery, a soft papery sound of wings striking, a leopardy breast and bright eye, bobbing uncertainly on a too-far twig. Cocks its head, chocolatey go-fast stripes moustachioed. What?
Inside a tight ball of ladybirds sleeps behind my bedroom blind. I make tea.
It hasn't snowed yet. I yearn for snow, the magic of the far away and story book, Christmas card of places cold in December. Dancing fluffy flakes clumping and bursting like handfuls of paper torn into bits and thrown around with a kind of triumphant reproof. The odd, ear-muffling silence before, like the sound of the door closing on soundproofing. Everything white and crunchy and unlike itself. But if not snow, then frost.
Frilly, tiny fronds of ice clinging to everything, frozen silvery lichen. Crisping just short of silently underfoot, a milimetre of shiny ice on a recent footprint, a leaf curled and candied, crackle. A morsel-toting blackbird prints tiny greennesses on the clipped hedge dove-grey through the ice. White sheets everywhere, tyre-tracked on the road, over the courts, everywhere there is a shadow, suddenly where the sun don't shine blinged.
I break off a piece of a spider's web, hard for a split half-second like spun sugar, no time to think, a smudge of sticky cold between my fingerpads as though it had never been there.
I have new shoes. I am tall, new degrees of vision, the tops of things. Black gown, black gown on that, all black, the perverse precognition of objects.
It is cold in the court and I look at the lamps at each corner, frosted. Peter was playing squash. Pluvialis pressed to my ear, I say something. nothing. Peter was playing squash.
I go back to the table. Smeared long exposure evening dress, zoom burst wine glasses, the sound of my heels striking the wood, the tops of things. A crisp frame of the master's brown eyes, cocked sparrowlike, perspective-forced candle comas. Then I am on the other side of the table and she holds my hands, tiny and splintered. Tears on her knuckles and I am at home, Pluvialis holds my shoulders, my ribs hurt.
At the funeral a shifting, rippling mass of people makes no sound at all. Kippahs against the sky like something fruiting under frost. It is cold, colder and the soil is dark and we breathe water. The field behind us spits skylarks flip, flip watery mordent of sunset and desperation. I pull my gloves on and off, on and off, running my fingers through the wind. I put earth into the grave. I sleep cheek to the sod, wake cold, again and again. I burn myself, my hands, doorways are strange, thoughtless trajectories treacherous, keep out of reach of children. I will sit still a lot.
Vaulted wood inside after, I hold his wife's hands, we see each other for the first time, she is like the bloody pages of a book come to life, a staggering battlement of power and grief with a black cap of cropped hair. Our eyes meet and it is knowing that on the fens you are underwater. You have been abandoned, she says. A silence. The smell of tea.
Later on the wrong side of Trinity long tailed tits trilling through water shearing a wet birch, silent blackbird, the kigo of not happening.
Back in the days when I was a bored corporate drone, I was a competitive cook. I had a large group of friends who were all also bored corporate drones, and we relieved our boredom by entertaining one another with wildly complex and fussy gourmet dinners. Foodie fundamentalism of the Everything from Scratch manifesto. Reduction sauces that took four days to make. Carefully stacked towers of --- well, pretty much everything. Every piece of cookware crusted with dreck and later handwashed, because my corporate dronehood was not the sort that came with an enormous Bateman-style crib of chrome, glass and dishwashers.
So much for that stage of my life. Now I'm into more deliciousness, less palaver.
The instruction to watch out for the case of a cake is the dead giveaway: "In another bowl ..."
No no no. No other bowls, thank you very much. Before you know it there will be exhortations to add four different kinds of mixture alternately with a cooled melted batch of something which must then be folded gently into some eggwhites whisked to soft peaks. Whisked in another bowl, naturally.
My stalwart and justly famous chocolate cake requires a single bowl, and doesn't even need me to break out my fire-engine red KitchenAid mixer. (Although I confess this may be a demerit). In general, I'm prepared to tolerate two bowls. That rules out almost everything which requires whipped eggwhite, and I court controversy now by telling you, one and all: forget any cake which would have you whip eggwhite. So not worth it. Right now there is a cake waiting for you to bake it which is just as delicious and twice as impressive as any of those which preciously claim to be light and fluffy on account of the blessed whipped albumen. And this from a chick with a mixer that whips three of the gelatinous little bastards into soft peaks in 55 seconds, so trust me.
All of this, cooks and cake-lovers, to introduce a cake I baked for the first time last week which at a stretch meets the Two-Bowl Limit, but it's rather moot by dint of being a palaver. But oh, mercy -- it is so worth it. The wonderful, wonderful moody dark sweet-and-sourness of autumn English plums, zinged up with sugar and cinnamon and baked onto an almondy, buttery puck of batter like a rich fruity openfaced sandwich. Pink plummy stains in the slices, warm spiced air all through the house.
The recipe is named after a German friend of great Australian chef Stephanie Alexander's family, who first gave it to them. The recipe is for a 28cm springform, which is an enormous tin -- the typical one is about 23cm. I baked mine, appropriately, in my fabulous dark-blue enamel Dr Oetker 26cm springform which Pluvialis brought back from Germany for me -- that was the trip where she and JH Prynne greeted a goat in a German forest.
I didn't cut down the quantity, figuring that I could leave aside what batter was oversupplied. Alexander cautions that it is important there not be too thick a layer of cake, an admonition I endorse having made it. On consideration, I'd reduce the quantities by a third for my tin. If you have an everyday springform, I'd halve this recipe.
Ripen your plums really well -- arrange them on a plate and admire their dusky-cheeked bloom for a few days. Eat one or two. Do you see those tiny rednesses, like miniscule plummy blood vessels? Your plum is ready.
You must serve the cake warm. The recipe (which is from The Cook's Companion) suggests that you can warm leftover cake in the oven for 15 minutes wrapped in foil, so I did that for my dinner guests. But since then I've had brilliant tea-break success whirling a slice in the microwave for 25 seconds. Indistinguishable. And ready before the kettle boils ...
Mieze's plum cake
275g softened unsalted butter 250g sugar 200g plain flour 200g self-raising flour pinch of salt 3 eggs, lightly beaten 100ml milk 1 cup ground almonds 12-15 plums, halved and stoned
Preheat oven to 180°C and lightly grease a 28cm springform tin. Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, then mix in flours and salt. Add eggs and milk to make a soft dough. (The mixture should drop easily off the spoon). Spoon batter into prepared tin (it should not fill more than a quarter of the depth as the cake rises a great deal) then sprinkle over ground almonds. Arrange plums, cut-side up, on the top, starting with the outside edge and working toward the centre. For the topping, melt butter and stir in sugar and cinnamon, then allow to cool. Whisk eggs well and stir into cooled butter mixture. Spoon over and around plums. Bake for 1 hour until cake tests done in the centre. Serve warm with cream or icecream.
Xtin's Extra Notes
I never bother to whisk eggs that are about to be added to batter in my mixer. Gratuitous waste of Another Bowl. The instructions are interesting because you would usually add the eggs to the creamed butter and sugar and then the flour and milk to that. I found that the order suggested gave a different texture than my usual buttercake batters, so I'd stick to the instructions. One day I'm going to do it the other way to see if it has an impact.
The genius of this cake is the layer of ground almonds which separates the plum-and-cinnamon layer from the cake beneath -- otherwise the plums would just sink to the bottom of the batter. Pile the almond a little more thickly at the edges of the tin, or your plums will fall down the outside edge. Not that this happened to me.
At the traffic light, sometimes, the one in the next car. You look and he is there, not like usually, so many crash-test dummies in real people clothes. Eyes through the road and out the other side, sad folds in the blink, a scrape of jawline razor burn like a washed jam stain. The deoderant tossed hastily onto punch-drunk sheets before he ran out the door wondering about the call he hasn't gotten yet, not realising that a fragment is paying attention to the blue silk tie he saw on some guy on the tube last night which even then he didn't know he thought was pretty but his mind watched it for four stops.
This other person, this other life, and you are sad like you never are for yourself.
Ospita is terribly, terribly sad; musically, mountainously sad, a blackbird sotto voce in a frosted hedge for the spring which seems impossible. It is dying and human voices calling desperation and imperatives and hope and faith shot down again and again until we wish that nothing were left but instead they stubbornly drag themselves through the rooms of the poem smeared with blood and rage. On the cover, a figure in a coat leans in to the receiver in a telephone booth. Merciless instruments of hope and grief and the promise of connections, voices into nothing. The gobsmacking truth of:
......Anger the oxide of faith
The typesetting is large and dark and unpredictable, the first leaf near open-faced, the inside leaves bleeding through the paper, inky petechiae in the right margins of the page before, the moment after you hurt yourself but before the pain.
But it is not the personal, bodily, intimate hurt of reading Prynne, the hot, dry-eyed grief of his rhythms. Ospita is a sadness taken apart, audible but unseen, glimpsed but muted through a window of rhyme and delicate, lilting melody in language, torn-off papery streamers of Shakespearean heroes that never were:
......The ear tips and clouded underwing ......Swoops across the sky. Then where and where ......In this globe of health we balance and bear ......From room to room, where is a lasting thing? ......Where is a good done that also stays it? ......Someone attempts the new soft swing but out ......In the earthglow between mind and chest ......Brilliant metallic birds like kisses dive to rest.
And skyward, birds -- birds everywhere in flight: lapwings, plovers, gulls, swallows, exquisite in their obliviousness, perfect in their presentness.
The poem is thick with houses and landscapes, ground, grass, rooms, fields, doors, sky, and wonderfully, in a moment of spectacular evocative flight, tree-top sarcens. Everywhere is dark and unpromising, slamming and stripping, empty and loud, far and threatening. But at the last, a walk. A walk dredging soil and walls, roofs and grass from the cold and muck and putting them back under our feet and over our heads. No voices but a silent piano waiting.
......Thick with languages I walked without stealth ......The fields of angry farmers, proud ......To be harmless and legal, half and half, ......No one could fathom my strong shoes
In the cover sheet there is a wrinkle in the paper, the odd slashy crease you iron into your shirt when you're in too much of a hurry. Faint and flattened like an old scar.
Apologies, my warm and yeasty baker's dozen of dedicated readers, for the suspension of transmission. My mother is here, a watercoloured smudge of Australia, motherly love and faint resentment in her wake. Your regular programming will be back shortly. In the meantime, I wanted to share this t-shirt from snorgtees. It speaks to me.
It's been windy and squally, wound down into cold and the odd gust, the sun low and molten. Pluvialis points to a sun dog on the way. The fens that I have grown to love for their mud-pie and dishwater palette are absurd in saturated technicolour. Muddy track rambles like chocolate between hedgerows resplendent with blood-drop hips and haws, chicory flowers and foamy yarrow. A rainbow arcs over fields pinked with clover blossom. Mabel is tall and spined with excitement, all Oreos and marshmallow, a chip of pointed chocolate. A cocked firearm, sweetmeats and confectionery. Shadows long in the cocoa puddles.
We walk. Pluvialis just ahead, me a deferential four paces behind, wide to off-slip, the hunter's Japanese wife. Mabel parallaxing, eyes silver dollars on points to infinity. Pluvialis speaks to me with an open hand, a head turn, we are silent in the corduroy buzz of grass and I feel like a Marine.
A rabbit appears out of the grass like post-war animation, flecky golden brown a sheaf of wheat toasted, impossible flash of white, fuzzy broad soles of its great thumpers, perhaps I don't see that, bells ring invisibly as Mabel is slipped, flattened soft ears propelling downwind over the clover and stubble. No time has passed they are down the slope together and furred haunches contract and they fly in moments together and her tail opens and no time has passed.
She is in the grass. The rabbit is in the hedge.
We walk quietly in the mud. It spatters rain, beading on her scapulas.
In 1924, my grandfather (not this one, the other one) went on a trip to England with his scout troop: the First Toorak, one of the first in Victoria. In those days, of course, one went to England on a steamship, so going meant being away from school for more than six months. However, his headmaster, the redoubtable Dr Littlejohn, opined that he would learn more in six months abroad than in two years at school, so off he went.
That is he in the foreground, on the deck of the ship.
I knew that he'd gone, of course -- the trip was part of the family storytelling -- but I didn't know about Dr Littlejohn. I heard that today from my uncle, the eldest of my grandfather's sons (with my own father occupying the noble Number Three spot) who has transcribed my grandfather's diary from the trip. He knew that my grandfather's stories of the journey were some of my favourites, so he emailed it to me. Top notch avuncularity if ever there was! The diary is so crammed with gems I barely know where to start. He recounts trips to chocolate factories, newspaper presses, light-bulb manufacturing lines, drapers, clothiers, castles, cathedrals, museums and all the other Evidence of Great Empire to which the wee Australian boys must needs be exposed, naturellement. Ditto tours to Oxford and Eton. And not a little bit of parading for the better element, I must say:
" ... then we all got into charabancs and were driven to the Palace. After waiting for some time in the Riding School Room, Sir Alfred Pickford gave us our instructions about what to do when the King came in. About ten minutes afterwards the King and 4 of his attendants inspected us. Then he gave us a speech. Then BP gave 3 cheers for HM. Then HM took us his abode at the entrance and we marched out with “Eyes Right”."
The King himself! My grandfather always said that his impression was that he looked "just as he did on a penny".
I think, though, that my baby grandpa's affections really lay with the Prince of Wales. Something about the postscript to this is exquisite in its adoration:
"This morning we all went over to the stadium and practised for the march past and got back in time for lunch. This afternoon, we march past HRH the Prince of Wales as Chief Scout of Wales. In the middle of it all down came the rain and we all got wet. After tea we had an enormous meeting round a rather small camp fire. The different contingents gave different songs and the night went off very well. We got back to our tent and turned in. P.S. The Prince attended the camp fire."
Did he, indeed.
How much more fun could a boy in 1924 be having? Wait until I tell you about my grandfather's wide-eyed reportage on the employees the Osram Electric Lamp Works!
"It is a tremendous place and only 500 out of 4-5,000 employees are men. "
There is so, so much more. Thank you, thank you uncle J.
First, a word about yarak. There are lots of lyrical and technical descriptions, but basically, for us hawking laypersons, we can think of it as your basic hawk game face. It is the posture and expression a hawk assumes when it is ON.
Today, Mabel was pretty darn yarakky. Crested head feathers. Penetrating, military gaze. Dropped ultra-ready wings. All I could think of was ...
Photoshop props to Pluvialis, who mercifully loves to make me laugh more than she is sensitive to outrageous mockery of her bird.
I had a notably godless childhood. Or maybe a God-less one, because although there was barely a frankincense-scented whiff of religion, there were plenty of gods around. My mother's world -- and the top of her dresser -- was a metauniversal jamboree of bhagavats, emblems, archetypes, goddesses and totem animals. Candles and flowers and tiny resin-cast foxes at the feet of a little brass Shiva. A foot-long reclining Buddha loomed over a plastic figurine of the Evil Queen in Snow White. No, really.
And her guardian angel, of course. Bringer of parking spaces and protector against ills we know not of. She didn't live with the others, but all by herself on the bedside table. A tiny conical wooden shape for angel raiment, blue, daintily painted with flowers, with a teeny-tiny wooden head and teeny filagree brass wings and the teeniest-tiniest expression of beatitude ever managed by a 000 brush. Even to my five-year-old hands she was light as a feather and smelled like the drawer my grandfather's handkerchiefs lived in. She had been sitting on mum's bedside table, wherever she went, since long before I was born. I think she was from Mexico.
The angel in the picture, though, is mine. Mum made her for me out of Fimo and two little gold-effect fans and some foil moons and a tiny gold shell for her halo. Mum's thumbprint is on her left sleeve.
She stands next to my pencil-cup and my memo-block with the silver X paperweight on it and my Penguin of Death mug, which holds a Great Bustard feather and a crackly, fractured bit of honesty and a magpie feather and an otherworldly, snow-white puff of goshawk down.
Another little talisman clambake, on the other side of the world.
Ladies and gentlemen, my first real-live run on a bank! I took this shot this morning of the bankbook-clutching queue outside Northern Rock, which ... actually, never mind the boring details. Suffice to say that this is category-A hysterical mob behaviour. Very sedate, neatly dressed, well-behaved and typically nicely-combed-silvery-haired-and-pensioned hysterical mob behaviour, but still. Just outside the frame there is a pair of bemused-looking cops watching to make sure that no-one did anything ... well, mobbish.
Quick! Start stashing all your cash in the mattress! That'll improve the economy and show those American subprime defaulters what-for!
Northern Rock shareholders, come over for a drink. I feel for you.
(1) So, since the middle of the year when I had the Mane of Insanity™ cut into a more manageable shoulder-length 'do, I've been gingerly stepping toward my long-planned abandonment of Long Hair. Yesterday I got it cut and I was thinking about other things and then I spent the evening at a party in London, and this morning I got up and saw myself in the mirror and ... wa-hey! I have short hair! Flippy, shoulder-clearing short hair! Gads. The relief. I feel my codependency lapsing a little, but possibly only because I think my hair currently approves of me. If it could speak it would say "Yes, very nice. Edgy, yet age-appropriate. Also, your My Giant Mane of Hair is Me syndrome was getting on my nerves. And in conclusion, the Sebastian Evocatív Crafty styling paste is the bomb. No, don't tell me what it costs, I care only for funky broken-up lines and touchability."
(2) At aforementioned party, I injured my ear. Seriously. I slammed it accidentally into a high-mounted wrought-iron bannister in the Cheshire Cheese. This is currently runner-up in my hall of fame All Time Stupidest Injuries. The Stupid Injury is distinguished not only by the neuronally-challenged circumstances under which it was sustained, but also by how mind-bendingly regularly the injury reminds you of same. The record is currently held by the burn incident involving the keyboard-essential pad of my third left finger, my ceramic hair straighteners and the phone ringing at an inopportune moment. My pinnae are not used for typing, for which we are thankful, but they do perform crucial duties related to propping up hair when placed with stereotypical push-behind-the-ear movement deployed by one million Method actresses trying to convey nerves or concentration. New Flippy Do™ requires intensive repetition of same. Slight microexcruciate every time. But worse, mental YouTube ... 14th century stone steps. Lulu wedge heels. Careful negotiation of first step ... slam!
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The edges of a field in Barton. Drilled dirt, crumbly like stale chocolate bourbons. Close up, oilseed rape seedlings barely broach the surface, green fleck in brown tweed. Don't tread on them. Pluvialis stalks the tractor-stencilled mud with a cigarette and the gos.
Two riders, gentle coconut percussion against the asphalt, helmets banded, wide stripes of safety fluorescent yellow as though they scalped a pair of roadworkers. They pass the break in the hedge, and the closer rider looks. He smiles. He has the same disciplined relaxation in his shoulders that Pluvialis has in hers. Perhaps he is as on edge as she is today, but he is walking a horse four feet from rush-hour articulated traffic, and she has a raptor leashed to her wrist with rabbits grazing quietly in the distance. Silenced eyebrows and slow glances, slow angles, like actors in period dress, hello Mr Darcy, split-seconds still to come.
I sit in the loose knit of grass at the verge. Grasshoppers and dragonflies, chick-scalps yellow and soft and dry like seed-heads, yesterday's tea for tiercels. Dead briony tangles and gossamer flickers peripheral. I wish for a cup of coffee, though I have already battled one down in the car with the hawk on my fist, leaning my shoulder muscles into the curves. Almost-stable footing, tendons grit and glass, doublegrip secret handshake, no sudden moves and we'll all walk out of here alive. The sun on the next rise, Stockholm syndrome.
I saw some cows today. Thinking cattle thoughts and breathing thrips out of the air. Black and white flanks all piled together in the long grass tufted with chickweed and yarrow. Still and warm with suedey ears like crepes folded into a paper coronet and filled with black insulation fluff. Around clockwise, around anti-clockwise, back and forth, start again. Gyroscopic inky-tufted cones of cowhide. Shoo fly.
But the rest of the cowhide rested. Grassy exhalations wandering through beats and over entire bars, sostenuto out of suitcase lungs. The lights, so goes the culinary. A careful rear hoof itch-cocked. Crump, crump largo, grass champed into damp green pucks, oddly treble fabricky tearing mass miniature uprootings, anthill hair-root earth-movings.
A buttercup yellow dredger clipped the weeds growing in the riverbed. A-yoom-a, a-yoom-a, all the time in the world. Eclipse mallards in his wake. A single sculler, blades laid backs to the water, perdendo.
My frame of mind at the moment doesn't really deserve the friendly, boxy appellation "frame". That would be something you could hang on the wall, maybe in the bathroom or the dark part of the hall, or in a pinch you could stack it in the attic next to the other crap in dubious taste. Because it's handy and oblongish and flat, you see. Which is not the current state of my mental. Another thing which is friendly and boxy is grammar and syntax. No wonder we understand one another. Sustained prose, however, is another matter altogether, so while I spool up something to say later, six observations:
(1) Many odd juxtapositions work brilliantly and make, like bringing something out of solution, a very particular kind of satisfaction unique to the combination of things that ought not to go together---an unexpected scent of bread in a library; Gill Sans with overwrought gothic drop-caps. However, my 1792 edition of Hume's History of England (13 vols.) sitting next to my collection of Ravilious' interwar period Persephone dinnerware is not one of these.
(2) Which is annoying me to an extent wildly disproportionate to its relative importance, which is surely microscopic bordering on negligible.
(3) My prose style is utterly fucked by trying to write my thesis. Are you hearing this stuff that is coming off my keys? What the hell was that last thing I said? Could I possibly sound any more pretentious, uncomfortable and over-sub-claused?
(4) The convention of alphabetically listing entries beginning "The" under the initial letter of the following word instead of under "T" has apparently died.
(5) I would be outraged.
(6) Except that I am a command-F whore who still has to sing the alphabet song under her breath in the library.
Once upon a time there was an accident-prone bumblebee. She made origami cranes and was heartily sick of "bumble" puns. She wore scuffed purple knee-pads she'd inherited from a friend who was into skating. The kneepads were kind of embarrassing, but most of the time she was alone, and it saved on bruises to her fuzzy black knees.
The way she saw the world tended to make everything more than it was. She'd get overwhelmed and bump into things. She preferred the small exact folds in her tiny coloured squares of paper, plain and patterned, covered with four-petaled flowers or stripes or diamonds, which were suddenly birds. One fold at a time.
When she looked around her house, she saw many more cranes than there really were, a folded faceted flock of thousands. She smiled.
Moral: for the bruises, wear knee-pads. Otherwise, your eyes are fine.
This is my coffeemaker spouting espresso deliciousness onto a demerara sugar cube. I love watching the coffee.
Everywhere has its own little microcosm of aphorisms and proverbs unique to it. Cambridge has one made up or mangled from bits of Shakespeare or lines of poetry or something from film noir via Zizek. A well-thumbed favourite is Cornford's line on Brooke: "Magnificently unprepared/ For the long littleness of life."
In my case, on the contrary. I'm terribly, tragically equipped for the long littleness. Moment with no -ous. Time passes like an egg scrambling gently in the pan with nothing but an absent-minded wooden spoon and a dab of butter. I have no idea where the days go. People ask what I've been up to, and the answer, to the nearest reasonable approximation, is nothing. Nothing other than thinking some thoughts and conversing some conversations and having a bath and eating noodles and enjoying minor new-word discoveries and layering up rainbowed strata of trivia from Wikipedia. World history and species designations and celebrity babies like one of those souvenir bottles with coloured stripes of sand in it.
Pluvialis is sitting outside in her garden in tangle of sunshine and anonymous overgrowth. She is smoking her preferred Camel light out of the corner of her mouth while she makes a lure for the goshawk by stitching a rabbit pelt over a shooting dog's retrieval dummy, both of which she bought this morning on our visit to Quy Country Fair. She sews with black linen leatherwork thread, fine and powerful like a garrotte. She arranges the tail puff, as though primping the petticoats under a bridesmaid's dress.
Jane's door in London. A brilliant, chipped red signal of welcome in Islington. When first I saw it, I pressed my forehead against it like the pope kissing the tarmac, and not just because I have a thing for doors.
It was 9.30PM and I was Dead Woman Walking on a mixture of railway misinformation, Tube line closures and rain. Rain, especially, on the outside of the bus to which I was forced to resort, rain psychotropically smearing the brightly lit Saturday evening of London into an unparseable splodge of coloured chalk washed down the gutter; rain on the coats of everyone inside the bus, warmed into fog and plastered onto the windows, smokescreening the splodge into pastel shades of absolutely nothing you could pick out in the fucking A-Z, let me tell you.
A fabulously beautiful punk woman sat opposite me in black 20-ups, her hair standing precisely in tall and extremely acute eletric blue triangles, tapering into navy at the tip, like a spray of bunsen flames. She had bus-veteran mien. She'd know where the bus was on this route at any given moment blindfolded and with all the windows blacked out. A flicker of wry pity passed through her pink-shadowed eyes watching my nervous pomeranian-style angling and wuffling trying to work out where the hell we are. On her denims was a little yellow badge with the silhouette of a CCTV camera on it. Caption: OBEY.
By a miracle, or perhaps her milisecond of broadcast goodwill, I got off at the right stop, into the sheeting deluge. The wet world is friends with me and my map again. But not with my red chucks. I navigate with damp feet and my brown paper package safe in my woefully middle-class M&S bag for life. And through the curtain of cold asphalty droplets ...
Jane saw travel-trauma in my eyes. I drank red wine until my shoes dried out.
Today, I put the head of a day-old cockerel on top of a glove, held out my fist to a goshawk standing on another fist, and whistled.
Sudden, startlingly massive view of cream-and-chocolate barring, arched triangles of vintage television. Curious split-second of being in cross-hairs arced from nostrils. Then pow, like shaking hands with a grappling hook.
A delicate talon pronged through chick-eyeball. Thoughtful, fastidious consumption of same. Beak clicks, so close to lip-smacking you swear she has a pair. Something tempting offered on the other side of the room. Pow! Gone, like recoil or missing a step at the bottom of the stairs.
Here's what this was: cool.
Here's what you don't want to do: anything else, ever again.
Not so long ago, there was a stick insect. She was very beautiful --- the absolute spit of a twig. No insectivore gave her even a first glance, let alone a second one.
The stick insect liked romance novels and spent her weekends at the shooting range improving her accuracy. She figured that it was best to be prepared. She was a really terrible shot, but she daydreamed about taking out a predatory bird or two, SWAT-style.
But mostly, she made like a piece of wood. She was great at it. She had the most sophisticated anti-bird system in the world. To realise her dream, she'd have to go out to the end of the branch wearing a caterpillar hat and make like an edible cheerleader.
But she didn't. She made like a stick, and dreamed of riot shields and hand signals and automatic weaponry. Perfect.
Moral: sometimes life is dreaming and staying alive.
Tomorrow I am going to a party celebrating my dear friend Jane's birthday. With a side of housewarming. She is a person of wild and extraordinary talents, hooded blue eyes like coupons cut out of estuary water, and a kind of gulfstream system of loves and loyalties that make her never a dull moment. She is a playwright --- wonderful, wonderful word, even among all those appellations with which I am so in love.
This is my gift, wrapped up in my favourite brown paper and cotton string. I am holding it right now, because it is comforting, and today I have been squashed like a bug by someone whose mission it was to make me feel squashed like a bug. And, damn it all to hell, they managed it. Bug. Squashed. Me: 0. Evil squashing waste of my time: 1.
In spite of my enduring love for the paper and string, the best part of wrapping the gift is the fat white pencil I have for writing on the black tag. The pencil is from that mecca of stationery porn, Ordning&Reda, which is to notebooks and paper what Krispy Kreme is to donuts. And don't even get me started on the boxes. Which are expensive. Well, no, not really, except that I want them en masse. The thought of buying a lone instance of their black linen-covered medium box makes me think of a black bear cub alone in the snow. In the shops I pick them up and hold them fondly before putting them back on the shelf in the lovely matching-but-slightly-mismatching stack to which they so rightly belong. In my dreams, I have a room, or perhaps just a wall, which looks just like an archive. A ranked and filed flock of boxes, everything contentedly under a lid.
The white pencil is stout and vaguely anarchic. Ur-paper is white, erasers are white, correction fluid is white, the empty PhotoShop window is white. It is the un-pencil. You could unwrite something, white it out, blank it, bleach it. Goodbye, words! Or you could write on something black, something dark and unforgiving. And like magic, a message.
Inspired by a wonderful shot at Scrivenings, this is my first day of school. It is February, 1978, and I am four years old.
I am so tiny. I know it, even then. Everyone is taller than me, even my baby brother, who is two and a half. My miniaturity is such that all the other school blazers--even the smallest of the small ones--have three buttons, but mine only has two. My wee checked dress, light as air in cotton and polyester for the Australian summer, balloons at the bottom with its inch-upon-inch load of hemmed-up fabric. I long for something in the shot to provide some contrast for the enormous piece of luggage in my hand, the smallest schoolbag they had.
I remember the photograph being taken. We are in the tiny paved courtyard in the front of my house, through the French windows into the sitting room where there are a pair of scratchy brown couches that my mother covered with a pale lemon-coloured sheet for me when I had the chicken pox, and a tiny little bar behind a special door underneath the record player. It opens down, unlike any of the other doors in the world, and it has two tiny brass struts which pop out and hold the door straight out like a table, where my dad puts glasses and pours whiskey. I love the special door. The courtyard is behind the high white wall that is at the front of the house, where the number is, but not where the front door is. Our house is on a corner, and the street where we are numbered is not the street where the door is. Another wonderful and mysterious thing about our house, not like other houses. Another special door. It will take me many years of adulthood to get out of the habit of adding door-finding instructions to my address.
I fizz with nerves. I am completely, completely overwhelmed by the importance of what is happening. Especially the little forest green blazer, which is crispy and flat and stiff-fuzzy on the outside and has silky material inside it and it has buttons where everything before seemed to have zippers or nothing at all. Mum stands a little away, and her expression and the camera tell me more things about what is happening, her mobile eyebrows and crooked smile speaking of the need to capture me, because this is not the everyday, it is a part of the story that must be written down, like the appearance of a magical creature or the discovery of another door.
What I remember most vividly is the bag. It is so big, and it has two handles, and my hands are tiny, tiny, and my fingers are being squished together in a bunch from holding it. I look down at my fingers, because I hate this sensation. I still hate this sensation. Thirty years later I see my fingers, impossbly tiny, and I am back on the paving, and I can feel that I am not going to put the bag down, even though I want to rearrange my fingers, because mum wants me to hold it for the photo.
So I look away from my fingers, and up at her. I feel the bag lean against my knee, cool and vinylly. She crouches to get in line with me, folding up gracefully, as she always does, and I see her lovely, angular, precise pianist's hands prop the camera delicately at the edges as though it is already a negative.
I am so scared. Everything is so important. What if I don't find the right doors?
Once there was a crab who lived under a rock, thinking. The rock was flattish and shaped a bit like a big stony dinner plate. It had a couple of barnacles on it and a flea-circus style population of tiny invertebrates of one sort or another.
The crab liked it under the rock. It was dark and salty.
Was it better under the rock? Perhaps there was a whole new world out under the sky, or in the many tiny pools bunted with bubbly seaweed and anemones nearby. On the other hand, she wasn't a crispy sun-dried crab up on the beach like the ones coasted up on the tide.
She blinked an eye on a stalk. And then she blinked another eye on a stalk. She watched some pretty silica fragments run through a crack in the rock like a tiny marine lava lamp. She clicked a claw. Mmmm, watery, she thought.
Yesterday I was leafing through one or other of the tree-nemesis spectacular of supplementary components to the Sunday newspaper. I think I may have been trying to do an ickle-wee crossword which I can never do. This is probably because it is too difficult for my weakling sabbath cognitive skills, but I always feel like it is because the damn thing is too ickle and my mind can't think of words in that point-size.
Anyway the rest of the page was short reviews of mystery fiction. The critic liked the things on offer, because they worked with the genre creatively, and because they did that other apparently desirable thing, which is to say something perspicuous or new or otherwise not neuron-fryingly banal about the human condition.
I hate this phrase because of course it comes under the heading of neuron-fryingly banal itself. But sure, some insight is always good. Or some amusement, or the poignant thrill of recognition, or whatever else we traditionally get from some goodly observations about What It Is To Be Alive, or similar tasty cliché.
But sometimes it is a paradox, no? Ought the incisive reflection upon how boring and repetitive and pre-re-experienced being alive sometimes is actually reflect? Actually be as boring as the experience it is trying to invoke? My life involves serried ranks of hackneyed whines which already litter the blogosphere. It is hard to finish a dissertation. I worry about my value. I am lonely. I am sad. I am bored. Students are stupid. Academics are both baroque and petty in their intrigues in pursuit of meaningless indications of status. Or tenure. I am not sure what it is all for. I have issues with procrastination. I am distracted by heartbreak. I lack the ambition and ruthlessness which everyone else seems to have. I feel displaced. Blah blah. The next number in the sequence is ...
You could develop a little utility to write blog posts like this. And then you could take over the world by frying everyone's neurons with a dirty banality bomb. Perhaps this is the master plan.
The moral of the story is: graduate students are the enemy. Read mystery novels.
We scramble out of the cheapass futurism and warped windowframe must of the hotel as early as we can and make for the harbour, where Pluvialis will be meeting The Man with The Gos off the ferry.
We kill time. Or Stranraer kills it, I can't tell. Pluvialis smokes distractedly. Men with clippered haircuts wait in cars with things on the rear-vision mirrors, breakfasting from brightly coloured aluminium and heat-sealed plastic. A cormorant fishes among the boats, disappearing prehistoric ninja-style in the barest hint of concentric ripples. Black-headed gulls snooze and preen sleepily on tubular steel, some smudgy in winter plumage, some still sleekly balaclavaed. Ashy juvenile herring gulls coast massively overhead with parents white like optical brighteners in detergent.
I am absent and gummy for lack of sleep. I sit in the car while Pluvialis alternately wanders the waterfront and leans against the car, sprung tight with anticipation and the seismic weirdness that has been everywhere since we got here. I lean my head against the car window. There is a tap at it, and a spare man ten years younger than me with eyes that skitter and tobacco smoke shadows under his cheekbones wants £2 for the bus to Dumfries. He wouldn't ask, but his grandmother you see ...
He has a broad, lilting voice like singing or a child. He can't understand my accent. I break his long familiarity with the cadence of these exchanges and his face comes oddly alive from its almost graven, sooty impassivity. With a twinge of a surprising mixture of embarrassment and amusement I realise that he is annoyed. How dare I be difficult to understand! I look at him and raise my eyebrows in the universal language of fuck off. He plants his hands in his pockets and leaves, disconcerted.
The Man With the Gos arrives, enormous box in each hand. He and Pluvialis get the hawks out for a look on the waterfront. The air fills again with the thundering low thrum of the tacit. They turn their heads and speak to the hawks and their hands move and their gazes fix suddenly like catching sight of a lost contact lens, and what I know is happening becomes a single free electron on the enormous charged sphere of what is actually happening.
She chooses. The hawk goes back into the box.
We get into the car and drive 400 miles. We rig shade and open and shut windows and crank the AC up and down like an AI-governed climate control system on speed. Every now and then there is a rustle and a thump from the box and each time I am overcome with relief. At the services 25 miles from Scotch Corner, I eat a Solero and Pluvialis has a cigarette. I contort myself like a buttonhook to get a glimpse through the slit at the bottom of the box. A pair of yellow feet, planted like she means it, and perpectively enlongated feathery flanks like ermine. Sigh of relief. We get back to Cambridge like painted wood stripped with steam and overexcitement. Pluvialis takes the bird home.
We're at the hotel. Pluvialis is making some temporary jesses, which she doesn't actually need, but we don't know that yet. She's forgotten her ruler, so she's cannibalised the frosted glass bedside tabletop for a cutting guide. An episode of a cop drama that we've seen before is on the itty TV, and we snicker about our previous predictions about the solution to the lame-duck mystery aspects of the story while calfskin moves between her hands.
The room smells of leather and sweet-and-sour pork we got from the guy down at the Cantonese takeaway with the growly, mellifluous Scottish accent and skater t-shirt. Pluvialis sits at the horrible frosted glass computer table, which matches the hysterical flock of frosted glass everywhere, looking hugely out of place and mismatched by desperate dint of matchiness. She handles leather and grease and scalpels with the thoughtlessly close attention of long familiarity. It is precise like watchmaking but bodily like painting something six feet across -- her arms make semaphore in tiny bursts between fingertipping some small crafty goal which I can't decipher. She uses her teeth. The leather is curled and pulled like ropes of sugar or plaited bread. Expertise and old, old knowings-how condense on the wall and run down the chipped wallpaper.
When she has cut them out, she lets me have one to grease for her, with a delicious-smelling stuff called Ko Cho Line which reminds me of getting new school shoes. I am five years old and allowed to stir the cupcake batter. It is over too quickly. I put furry bright pink dabs onto the skinny damp strip of leather and pull it between my hands over and over. Suddenly it is buttery and springy and I think again of breadmaking, of elastic, yeasty dough. She knots and folds. Holds them up in her new glove, pale yellow like sugar creamed with butter, a gift I bought her at the falconer's fair, the one where the parachutist fell out of the sky.
The light is terrible -- a tiny 40w bulb above our heads in a ludicrous cup-shaped frosted glass shade casting tea-coloured shadows everywhere you need to see. Pluvialis purses and frowns and cocks her head this way and that. I'd say she pushes her hair out of her eyes, but she doesn't -- it falls into her face and she looks right through it. She lines the jesses up next to the leash and the titanium swivel which came in the smallest ziploc bag I'd ever seen.
I go to take a bath, because I am hugely unsettled. Stranraer. I want to leave right away. It may have been the wrong time of day, because the epiphanic golden stain that illuminated our first glimpses of the ocean west of Dumfries is gone, and everything is grey and somehow both faded and bloated. The shop windows are covered with riot-proof steel shutters. The town is like a giant dead fish.
We have been on the road for nearly 400 miles. Just over the border into Scotland I see a raven on the soft verge. I cannot believe it is so big, and then I cannot believe that I cannot believe it, because it was that particular incredulity which made me want to see one at all. For a split-second I am comforted by the fact that knowing I'd be surprised had no impact on the surprise. I worry that I can think myself out of experiences, but I cannot. Not with a raven. It is clockworked like a giant rook, slowed down, stepping the gravel with majesterially impressive black pantaloons.
Everywhere is caterpillared with stone walls which I long to touch, and then long to build, and then long to pilfer a stone from, over and over again. Blackfaced sheep and whitewashed houses and scribbly AM radio as Tandulkar is caught behind in the second test. That won't happen until tomorrow, but time is squashed like a raisin. The motorway services are all the same, which I knew already, but the sameness bears down on me like loss of bloodflow in my toes, tingle-pain and fatigue. We stop at a Little Chef. It is a waiting room in Hell. A Hotel California--Groundhog Day temporal disturbance zings the air over the miasma of sublimed Heinz baked beans and bacon grease. Pluvialis and I hold the wipe-clean menus in front of ourselves like shields for an interminable minute, exchange glances and abandon the table.
The tub in the hotel is hugely long and sunken, and my puffy long-distance-drive toes don't touch the end. The bathroom is an extravaganza of clash. Bubblegum pink shower curtain. Gappy brick-red wannabe-axminster with egg-yolk accents, upon which rests a shaggy baby blue and navy bath mat and matching pedestal mat. The basin side tiled in deco-ish black and white, the recess tiled in mesmerising cream 1" mosaic with a gilding effect. There is pine-scented shower gel in forest green sachets.
There is a faux black marble false wall in the walk-in robe, and a nine-foot padded chocolate brown suedette headboard above the twin beds. To match the chocolate brown suedette roman blind, you understand.
The water is faintly coloured, as though someone dipped a teabag in it for half a minute. Or like the water in the glass where the jesses were soaked. Tannins. Peat water, says Pluvialis. A bath in your basic whisky ingredients, she adds.
So I'm still getting serious traffic from the creamy-and-delicious slice of nature kitsch, but for some reason once again known only to Skynet's incipient sentience, I'm now getting a respectable number of walk-throughs from:
Singularly appropriate, as well. I was veritably in the proverbial headlights, this morning. I spent 25 minutes on the phone to the Home Office (or more accurately, from, since they called me). My brain went dead and silent. Stay Perfectly Still and The Giant Predator Won't Eat You. Now my basal ganglia are jingling with the rest of their paleolithic programming. Move! Move move move move.
Thank god Pluvialis and I will be on the road tomorrow on The Journey to The Goshawk. For a start, seeing a clawed goblin predator might cause my ganglions to shut down again and I can stop running around like an idiotic and tempting morsel of psychological-prey deliciousness.
I would suck under interrogation. Either that or I'd go into catatonic shock so quickly I'd be the best spy ever.
Poetical Histories No. 3 (1986) Mortgages D S Marriott
Reading this poem is a very strange experience. It's typeset large and fervent, each serif planting its own tiny flag of occupation. The size of the lettering means that the smallest kink in the kerning and lining is obvious, and there is something faintly seasick about the way the text travels. The words themselves are like English translated out of itself and then back ten times, like the lyrics of a very familiar song sung in Portuguese or one's own name seen in a mirror. Someone speaks in the poem, saying something made out of nothing but syntax and words, and we are set afloat by language that is not built for understanding.
It is light and warm inside the poem, and it smells of roast potatoes and wood and the sounds of people talking in the background. The poet likes words like "sequela" and "canticle" and "scansion" but the poem is best when it is not talking this way -- when it is talking of roads and birds, houses and the sea.
My favourite lines are:
The kite flew highly, pleurisy, & dark dough. & the passageway is another earth, double handle and ratchet, to the churning warmth.
I am desperately in love with the ampersand at the beginning of the sentence. I always feel a minute zing of rebellion when I begin a sentence with And, which I do often, and ampersands are like typographical sugar roses -- the decoration that is edible.
The type on the first page is pressed twice as firmly as the rest -- its reverse stands in a faint, nubbly block on the cover. The paper, cream Ingres, is guillotined on every side and there is a single tiny bump to the spine, otherwise what the booksellers call fine. And on the last two pages, my first glimpse of the watermark on the paper -- a crowned lion rampant, holding a little sabre aloft. He looks braced and a little astonished, as though he's been caught sleeping by an assassin. Although his tail is rather nobly and particularly curved for that, perhaps.
My maternal grandfather, the one married to this beauty, his lifelong love, was an engineer. He loved engines and gadgets and tinkering and building. His hands were never grimy or oily unless they were actually handling the parts of something. The rest of the time they were soft and warm and square and dry, like folded brown paper in the sun. He had dark, iron-coloured hair side-parted like a cartesian axis and smelling so comfortingly and deliciously of his hair tonic. In my mother's family (and mine) Christmas stockings were hung for everyone, no matter how old. My mother and grandmother bemoaned, by tradition, the difficulty of stuffing one for my grandfather. He was temperamentally immune to the ribbon-and-trinket excitement of Christmas. He had crumply, alert blue eyes that could be liquid or pebbly, depending on what he was thinking. When I was about eight, we sat together on one of the dining room chairs. They each had a tapestry seat stitched by my grandmother with a petit-point eagle in the centre. The windows had long, moss-coloured velvet curtains, and the sun was shafting between them onto the table, illuminating the airborne dust. My grandfather was telling me about atoms. "Do you see these?" he said, casting a shadow through the motes and onto the french polish with the cuff of his coat. "If an atom was standing in front of one of these, it would be like the most enormous skyscraper the atom had ever seen!"
One Christmas, my mother put a tiny roll of very small-gauge copper wire into the toe of my grandfather's stocking. No eight-year-old with a new bicycle lit up that brightly. He coiled and uncoiled the little roll like miniature tinsel on his tree-hands. For months afterwards, each time we saw him he'd tell us where a part of it had been put to use. I imagined tiny coppery fragments glinting secretly everywhere. My mother still laughs that the best present she ever gave her father was an impulse buy for seventy-five cents.
Actually, he wasn't really an engineer, because poetry made no sense to him.
He started the degree. They'd made special allowance for him, because he'd failed English in his final year at school, and a pass was mandatory to attend university. But he had a giant geeky brain full of numbers and diagrams, so they told him he could start reading for his degree on the condition that he get a pass in English that year.
My grandmother tutored him. (She was also reading for a degree, in English, a very unusual happenstance down to my very unusual great-grandfather, more about whom in some other post). But he failed again that first year. But since he was an exhibitioner in physics, he was allowed to stay on for the second year.
It was the Tennyson, they said ever afterwards. Patiently, and every night (or so the family story goes), my grandmother would read from the dog-eared Everyman edition that's next to the line of Austen in my bookshelf. But ...
At this point in the story my grandfather would raise his spare, dark brows and purse his lips, like a negative reverse-out of the expression he made when he was working on a machine. He'd hold up his lined, soft palms with a matte gleam on them like a well-loved paperback, and he'd shrug theatrically. Or as theatrically as my grandfather ever got, which wasn't very at all, which just made it that much funnier.
We'd all laugh, and his eyes would go crinkly and pebbly and then liquid. They kicked him out after the second time he failed, so he never got his degree.
He was the first person to tell me that a light year was something about how far, not something about how long. And I still see atoms gobsmacked at the dust.
I'm not especially attached to my anonymity here. It seems to me both too much trouble and oddly self-aggrandizing to be too obsessive about precisely how many minutes with one's blog, one's links and the assistance of google would lead the assiduous reader to the details of your pension plan. Like most of the democratic industrialised world, I'm counting on my extreme and unrelenting dullness to protect me from anything really egregious.
The strange, one-way-perspexy pseudo-privacy of the electronic. Of course there is a seductively impervious, plastic feel to the safety of solitude with the keys under one's fingers. Waxy like a waxwork that never looks quite like Prince William. Scrutiny is not his friend. Reality is the split-second glance.
Still. One of my lurkers, someone I know in this, the much pithier and weirder real world with different Bayesian priors, is searching my blog for himself. By name. Good heavens, dear boy, I do not even refer to myself by name! Sure, it might not be neurosurgery to unearth same with a little intelligent data-mining, but there's laissez-faire and then there's My Supervisor Can Use Google Too, You Know.