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Taking Reg’s remains to the dump

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Christmas past, with Reg’s ‘mushroom table’ beneath the tree

I went to the dump today, with the remains of my father-in-law. More accurately, I drove to the dump. My first drive in a while, and my first in many years in the towns where I used to live, and where I will soon live again.
Anxious about many things at present, and always anxious about driving, it took me a few attempts to reverse into a space, failing to get the car into reverse gear, and fearful that there would be men sniggering at me, and rolling their eyes. My imagination, of course. After attempting to get my husband to swap places, so he could perform the manoeuvre, he roundly told me that I would only get less nervous if I drove more often, and I deftly parked soon after.
I did not look behind me at the items in the back seat, the footwell, of the car. The green office chair, which had never been that comfortable, did not concern me. But the remains of my father-in-law did. Small, wooden items made by Reg Bradley, father-in-law from my first marriage. Little stools that he had made for my daughters when they were toddlers; a tile-topped low bench, which had served as a bedside table in the house we are leaving, and before that as a … what did we use it for? … in the house I lived in before, for twenty years, and where I raised my daughters.
Reg’s creations were square, sharp-cornered. Tights were often snagged, shins bruised. They were solid, well-made, and put together in his shed from timber bought for a song at auctions. They were popular amongst our friends, back in ’80s. They would say, ‘Would he make me one? I’ll pay him for it,’ and he’d make a coffee table, and only charge a fiver for it. Not much more than the cost of the wood, nails and glue that had gone to make it.
He made me a sewing box on legs for Christmas, one year. It had an insert, set in the top, with compartments lined in green baize. Win, my mother-in-law, added in a box of pins, a magnet for collecting pins, should they be spilled, a tape measure, and other sewing essentials.
Our flat, when the girls were tiny, and later our house, when they had grown a little, was filled with Reg’s woodwork. Reg did not live to see us in that house, in which he would have spent visits hammer in hand, workbench set up in the back yard. But he died of a heart attack (his second) in the time between us finding the house and moving into it.
When my first husband and I separated, we were each left with Reg Bradley coffee tables, tile-topped. The one that remained in the house where I stayed, with my girls, had bottle-green tiles on top with a mushroom motif, and was known as ‘the mushroom table’. Long after our daughters had outgrown the little stools, they were used as plant-stands, or to place coffee cups on, next to the armchair. One of them had ingenious, crossover legs, which allowed the stool to be collapsed flat; often when a child was sitting on it.
We are now in an in-between place, my second husband and I. We have nearly sold the house we have lived in for more than eight years, and have not quite bought another. In a strange symmetry, my husband has had a heart attack in this in-between space, as Reg did twenty-nine years ago. Though my husband has survived.
Time to let go of Reg. No reason to keep his remains. Many items have gone over the years: my sewing-box-on-legs; my daughter’s wooden Tardis with a torch inside that shone a light through the plastic dome in the top; the mushroom table (offered to my ex-husband, who had quite enough of Reg’s tables already). The dark-stained bathroom cabinet, later painted white, which was left in the house I once shared with Reg’s son and his granddaughters.
I did catch a glance, in the rearview mirror, of the stool with the collapsing legs, before my husband took it, and Reg’s other remains, to the relevant skip. I knew it was time to let them go. Hoping that someone might pick them up, those little stools and that tile-topped bench, and take them home.

A Grammar School Girl: assimilated, not converted

Grammar schools: a leg-up onto the social mobility ladder for poorer children, or a kick down for those unable to pass a test at the age of eleven? They are back on the political agenda, placed there by grammar school girl, Theresa May. In Kent, where I live, they never went away.

rosebery-class-2hI, too, was a grammar school girl, from 1971 to 1976. I lived on a council estate, just a few yards from the back gate to Rosebery County Grammar School for Girls. My daily walk to school was via the tradesmen’s entrance. I was the only girl from my estate that took that walk. There were only two of us singled out by the 11 plus test – me and Peter Mann, who had gone to the boys’ grammar a year or so before me. My brother followed him a few years later. We were oddities. Our elevation made us different, other; admired and reviled by the world we were brought up in.

My mum was a cleaner at the grammar school that I went to, and she also cleaned for a woman, Mrs S., in one of the big houses nearby. Mum was so proud when I got my place at Rosebery, the very same school that her employer’s daughter went to. I went cleaning with Mum during a school holiday. There were earthenware cups and saucers, and a bowl of brown sugar for the coffee we had in the lovely kitchen before starting on the bedrooms. Mrs S. came into the kitchen, and Mum told her that I had got into Rosebery. Her distaste was barely disguised. The daughter of her ‘lady that does’ getting into Rosebery? She just about managed a ‘Well done,’ before scurrying off.

I was excited about going to the school. It was a stretch, I am sure, to kit me out. I didn’t have everything I should have done. I remember not having the blue Songs of Praise hymnbook, and being told week after week that I must get my mother to buy a copy. We were supposed to have colouring pencils for Geography; I had wax crayons, which resulted in remarks on my homework about the need to have the right equipment.  The feeling grew, as time went on, that I did not belong. I found a small group of friends who were also, in some ways, outsiders, and we survived. Most of us left before the sixth form, for the freedom of a local F.E. college.

I am one of five children. Two went to grammar, three to secondary moderns. We studied different subjects. In many ways, they were more prepared for the world of work, since the grammar didn’t teach typing or secretarial skills. But they were also steered towards certain, traditionally working-class careers. My two sisters (one with undiagnosed dyslexia, the other in hospital for long periods during her childhood) did not pass the 11 plus exam. They went on to gain university degrees in their forties and fifties; university was not suggested to them in their teens, let alone staying on at school beyond the age of 16. Only grammar school children did that.

When it came to choosing schools for my own daughters, I was filled with anxiety. My eldest passed the Kent Test to gain a place at grammar school, but as my own experience of grammar had not been good, I was in two minds. I sat with the other parents at an open day, on the verge of a panic attack. What should we do for the best? The school was smaller than the other schools we had considered. My girl would probably do better in that environment. In the end, both daughters went to grammar; both escaped for the freedom of an F.E. college instead of the sixth form.

There was a school reunion a few weeks ago. I decided not to go, as some memories  – both of school and of my home life while I was there – are best left in the past. It has been fun, though, to see some of the old photos posted on a Facebook group. To see faces I still recognise, forty years older, at the get-together.

There is a photograph of Class 2H, which embodies my experience at Rosebery County Grammar School for Girls. I am sitting next to the teacher, the lovely Mr Stokes, who was the kindest form teacher ever. I have a class prefect’s badge pinned to my tie. I so wanted to help, to be good, to do well. My feet are tucked behind the chair legs. This is because I had holes in the top of my shoes, where my big toes had poked through the cheap patent leather. I wore those shoes to school for a long time, as there was no money to buy me new ones.

My time at grammar left me with a feeling of being a fraud, that I did not really belong there. Although I did go on to higher education, that feeling remained with me. This place, that kind of education, was not for the likes of me. I even felt like this when I returned to study in my forties, to do an MA.

I read something recently about Mr Spock from Star Trek. Half human, half Vulcan, he lived amongst humans on the Starship Enterprise, assimilated but not converted. That is how I felt, being plucked from my friends and background into an alien world.

Now there are more than Fifty Ways to Leave

We’ve all had break-ups. There’s the ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ scenario; there is often blame and recriminations of the other party, sometimes self-blame, whereby we examine what we have done wrong. There is usually some discussion, argument, sorting out of stuff – who owns the CDs, who gets custody of children and pets, a splitting of finances.

But what about friendships? In these days of social media, cut-offs can be swift and devastating. How easy it is to ‘unfriend’, to ‘block’ without discussion, leaving things unsaid, things unsorted.

When I think of friends I’ve left behind, they fall into different camps. We have moved apart physically, geographically, changed jobs, changed schools, just don’t get the chance to hang out anymore. I had my children when I was young, and lost many friends who were getting started on their careers whilst I was negotiating nappies. Natural progressions, my former mental health nurse called it when I mourned people I was losing at a time of great change, when chronic illness came into my life. I used to find it harder to let go than I do now.

There are friendships that end in a row. In hindsight, there were things wrong with those friendships from the start. I’ve examined why those people and I became involved. Was it that circumstances pushed us together when we had little in common? Were those things we had in common harmful?

Some friendships end with confusion. A friend I had been close to for many years suddenly starved me of contact. My emails, phone calls and texts all went unanswered. There was no incident before this, no indication of what was to come. Six or so years after she broke contact, I remain baffled as to what I might have done. It was painful for a long time, then I became angry. It was cruel to treat a friend that way. I deserved an explanation.

I am an explainer. I broke up with a very long term friend once. He had been around for so long, I accepted how things were between us, until new friends said, ‘Why do you let him treat you that way?’ I’d shrugged off some very unacceptable behaviour in the past, but when I came to look at your relationship, I actually didn’t like having him around. So I wrote to him and effectively ‘broke-up’ with him. He was hurt and didn’t see what he had done wrong, but there was no other way to do it.

Recently, I ‘unfriended’ someone on Facebook. Someone I have been fond of, but their comments on my threads were so much in opposition to my own thinking I couldn’t tolerate them anymore. Attempts at discussion went nowhere. It helps that I rarely see this person in real life; I know it will be awkward when I do.

I have been ‘unfriended’ twice in recent weeks, each time without discussion, though I can guess at the reasons. Both ‘unfriends’ are people I know very well, in whom I have confided in real life, and they have confided in me. These are acts of hurt and anger, which feel irreparable. In days gone by, they might have slammed doors or slammed down phones, or perhaps not spoken of their hurts. They might have kept away for a while; we would have made it up. But there is something final about wondering where your friend has gone, the friend that always ‘Liked’ or commented on your Facebook posts, only to discover that you have been ‘unfriended’, even blocked.

I can psychologise here. Perhaps these people grew up in atmospheres where it was not safe to discuss things openly. Perhaps there is a family history of cutting people off. Indeed, this is the case in my own family – aunts not spoken to for twenty years, people ignored in the street. It’s a strategy I have used, a learned strategy. Self-protection was an issue in some instances; in others, a lack of self-awareness as to what I was doing. It’s never to late to say sorry, I have found, and some of my previously cut off relationships have been restored, years after a break. True friends forgive.

Paul Simon wrote ‘There are fifty ways to leave your lover’. With social media and texts, there are even more. Separation and divorce involve a painful division of possessions, shared space, shared bodies. Friendship break-ups could, perhaps, go through the same process. It would help with the grief, allow people to eventually pass in the street, to think that was someone I was once close to, to wave and move on.

It’s Advent: Let the Pre-Christmas Tension (PCT) begin

He hasn’t even started his Christmas shopping. He sighs deeply at the task ahead. I’d show some sympathy, except that I have taken care of the presents; he only has to choose one for me.

IMG_0930We’re having a reduced Christmas this year. Fewer names on the gift list, spending less on those that remain. We (mostly) gave up sending cards a few years ago, sending emails and a Christmas missive instead, giving news of the year gone by. This was supposed to save us (me) time and energy. I have energy problems already, and the writing and sending of cards was a further drain on my limited resources. What has happened instead is the Christmas missive has become a major production. We both have a perfectionist streak – my words have to be witty and well-edited by him; we have to choose just the right photos to add in, chosen from the thousands we’re now cursed and blessed with, in the days of digital; he has to make the layout as perfect as possible. This year, we are wondering whether to just email a nice photo with links to our respective websites. But which photo?

Pre-Christmas Tension (PCT) is the name I have given to the phenomenon, and I think that women are particularly prone to the condition.

In my childhood, my mum went into debt every year to give a good Christmas to her five children. Gifts were bought from Ali’s Bazaar – a chap who sold toys and all other sorts of goodies from the back of an estate car, on easy terms, instalments paid throughout the year. Then there was the food, tons of it, and the trauma of Christmas dinner. The magic of the feast was performed while Dad gaily went to the pub with his mates. I recall Mum serving everyone else, then finally sitting down in front of her plate, and sobbing at the tragedy of lumps in the gravy. Meanwhile, my whiskey-sozzled father nodded in a doze over his dinner.

When I grew up, and had a family of my own, there was the annual decision of who we were going to upset that year – my parents or his. Until someone suggested that we could do as we pleased: stay in our home with our own children, upsetting both sides of the family. By that time, my mum had given up on choosing presents. ‘Oh, you know what they want,’ she said, meaning my children, husband and myself. ‘You buy them and I’ll give you the money.’ Her PCT was no doubt reduced, while adding to mine.

Like my mum, I tried to give my daughters a good Christmas, and got thoroughly exhausted in the process. Though the rewards were sweet – the squeals of delight on Christmas morning. And they both still love Christmas, even in their thirties, when they are now prone to experiencing PCT for themselves.

The lessons I have learned about Christmas are:

Please yourself – don’t do things out of duty

Perfection is never achieved – don’t cry into the lumpy gravy

Keep your expectations modest, then you won’t be disappointed

Don’t place expectations on your grown-up children – they have their own lives, their own, newer Christmas traditions, which might not include you

It’s OK to opt out – of gatherings, jollity, or out of Christmas altogether

Give yourself a rest – in the PCT season and during the festivities. Last year, I went to a yoga and meditation morning at the beginning of December – the best gift I could give myself

I was raised Catholic, and though I am lapsed, I love singing carols. My favourite is In The Bleak Midwinter, from a poem by Christina Rossetti, and one of the things I like about Christmas  is light in the darkest days of the year. Also, a chance to remember those we only hear from once a year, like Elsie, who was a neighbour, and sat with my two-year-old daughter on a snowy winter’s day over 30 years ago when I went into hospital to give birth to my second daughter.

Perhaps I will send this as my Christmas letter, or maybe an email with a nice photo, and a link to this post. Meanwhile, it’s my turn for the odd dates in our shared, everlasting Advent calendar, so I shall slot the first reindeer in his stable. Tip – I don’t get Christmas Eve, but there are more reindeers on the odd dates of Advent.

Love and death

I am the servant of a 20-year-old cat. Each day, I live with the knowledge that she won’t be around forever. A recent dream found me carrying her in a cardboard box, across a field, on her last journey to the vet. My daughters fell in at my side (Biscuit is the last pet we all owned/served before they left home). The sun was shining, and I said to Biscuit, ‘What a beautiful day for your last day in this world.’ I woke sobbing, and went to check on the old girl, who was sleeping peacefully, but not finally, on the sofa.

Biscuit enjoys her new blanket

Biscuit enjoys her new blanket

It was a comforting dream, knowing that I will do my best for Biscuit, as I have for two other cats – not letting her go on any longer than is right for her; being with her when the needle goes in.

With the first cat I took on the final journey, I let her go on for far too long: injections every three weeks to relieve her arthritic back legs, which she struggled to lift over the litter tray. I kept her going for me, and I vowed never to do this for another cat. My struggle was with the acceptance of death, with letting go.

As the child of migrants, death was something experienced via visits from uncles or aunts who, somehow, had heard the news from Ireland in the days when few of us had telephones in the house. My maternal grandmother’s death was something I barely understood. I had only met her two or three times, and I knew that there was ‘no love lost’ between my mother and her mother. Mum was kind of upset, but in a closed-down, angry way. She said there was no way she could go to the funeral in Ireland, with the five of us children to look after; I think she didn’t want to go, and we were the excuse. There was a tradition of closing the curtains when someone died, out of respect, and there was no telly allowed either. I found the loss of children’s TV that day greater than that of my nan. I also didn’t know how to feel about the death of someone who should have been close, but whom I barely knew.

My first experience of a death that truly affected me was of a pet. Prince, our little cross-breed dog with a bit of Jack Russell and a lot of ‘the devil’ in him, took it into his head to keep running beyond the house of the neighbour who gave him a biscuit every day, and ran and ran with me in pursuit. The more I chased, the faster he ran, eventually into the path of a car. He was still, but his eyes were open and he was breathing when the car driver stopped, picked him up and took the two of us home. Prince disappeared to the vet’s in a neighbour’s car, and I never saw him again. I thought it was my fault, and my mum did not comfort me, so lost in her own grief for an animal she seemed to love more than her own mother.

I didn’t go to funerals as a child, except for one where the father of school friend had died, and the children’s choir, of which I was a member, sang at his service. Even then, I just felt sorry for the girl, not sadness about her father’s passing.

My first funeral of someone I knew well was for a girl I worked with in Woolworth’s, who was just 15 when she died of leukaemia. Even then, a mix-up over the church meant that my friends and I arrived just as everyone was coming out of the service. We then went on the crematorium, where I watched this box disappear through a set of curtains, unable to connect it with my friend.

In my mid-twenties I experienced the devastating death of a friend, Julie, who took her own life, just days after the birth of my second child. The people around me thought it best that I didn’t go to the funeral. My sister arranged for a beautiful flower arrangement to be sent on my behalf. My mum came to stay for a few days, seeing my grief. But no one said, ‘I’ll look after the baby; you go and say your goodbyes.’ For a long time, I didn’t believe she was dead.

It took me 15 years to come to believe that Julie wasn’t coming back. I was seeing a psychotherapist at the time, and I said that this girl’s death was something I needed to deal with. I said nothing during the 50 minute session; I just cried and cried, let out all the tears that I should have shed when she died. I finally believed that she had gone.

I didn’t go to my father’s funeral, partly because I was very ill at the time, but mostly because I was angry with him, and had been for years and years. I don’t regret missing this. It was the right thing to do for me, and I believe that funerals are for those that are left behind, not to mark respect for the dead. I heard there were disagreements about the service: Mum wanted them to play ‘Walk Tall’, made famous by Val Doonican. It was a song that Dad sung when he was drunk, swaying in the doorway of the living room after a good session in the White Horse. My siblings didn’t want to be reminded of those times, nor were the lyrics appropriate: “That’s what my mother told me when I was about knee high…” My dad wasn’t brought up by his mother. He didn’t get to know her at all before he was 16.

It was my father’s death that led me to have my own will drawn up. I was a single parent at the time, and with no partner to assure my wishes were met, I didn’t want my mum saying I should have a Catholic funeral, or that I should buried when I wanted to be cremated, or that said burial should take place in the town in which I was raised. I was 40, and it was the first time I had squared up to the possibility of death.

I have few problems with death these days. My favourite TV programme is Six Feet Under; I am now watching it for the third time. I find it strangely comforting, especially at times of great sorrow. I watched it at the rate of two episodes a day when my friend Karen was dying of cancer. It helped me to cry in the way I should have done when Julie took her life all those years ago. And here’s the biggest thing – I offered to deliver the eulogy at Karen’s funeral. I knew that I was the best-placed person to do this. It was the hardest thing, but when I heard the non-religious celebrant talking about my friend, clearly knowing nothing about her, it stirred me on to give my account of the real Karen.

I missed her terribly, but I did believe she was dead. Much of this was through seeing her in the last few weeks of her life. On one visit, I took her for what turned out to be the last visit to our favourite cafe. She could barely walk, but somehow we got there. Here is an extract from ‘Where the High Street meets Star Hill’, the prose piece that ends strange fruits, the poetry collection I published in her memory, to raise funds for Macmillan Cancer Support:

November, two weeks on from diagnosis, she is home, and my husband Bob and I arrive to take her out to Norma’s cafe. She is skeletal, yellow-tinged, wonders whether she’ll be able to make it to the car, to the cafe, but somehow we get there. Two cappucinos, mine a decaff, and she fancies a packet of Quavers, so that’s what I get her. She is exhausted after twenty minutes, so Bob goes to get the car, to bring it as close as possible. She asks to sit outside in the cold air. She has spent weeks indoors, staring out the window, too tired for TV, bored of the radio. ‘I do love you, Karen,’ I say. She giggles. She and I don’t say things like that to each other. ‘I love you too,’ she says, and gives me a peck on the cheek.

strange fruits is available from www.culturedllama.co.uk All profits from its sale go to Macmillan Cancer Support.

Not just for January: creative resolutions, commitments, manifestos and planning tools

New year’s resolutions: unrealistic promises to yourself made to be broken, or a way to kickstart your plans for the year? I gave up on them a few years ago. The dark days of January are no time for donning the hair shirt of deprivation. But I do use planning tools, and make commitments to my creative life throughout the year.

A list of writing commitments is pinned to the noticeboard next to my desk. I don’t update these very often, but they do serve as a reminder of such things as:

I shall not share my writing too soon

I shall write what I want to, not what others ask of me

I shall help others with their writing, but not so I don’t have the energy for my own work

I shall write every day

The last of these is no longer relevant for me, as it was tied to Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way telling me to do this, and I no longer follow her advice. See my previous post on this. I have encouraged others to write commitments to their creative life, and have often adopted others’ commitments when they have been shared in group exercises. One person’s, to read one book at a time, helped me to get through the growing pile of books started and abandoned in favour of another book. I just did this for a summer, but seem to have slipped back into my old ways. But that’s OK: it’s a commitment I can pick up at another time if the book pile begins to feel more like homework than pleasure.

Some people use manifestos for their work. A definition, taken from the website SoulPancake:

Manifesto: a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives.

Go to the link to read others’ writing manifestos, and add your own: SoulPancake

In addition to my commitments, I mind map writing plans and pin them to my noticeboard. I have old ones going back several years pinned behind the current one, and it’s good to sometimes look back and see what I have achieved. I refer to the current one if I feel stuck for what to work on, and it might remind me, for instance, that I have tagged draft poems in old notebooks that need to go on to the computer (I always draft by hand). The seemingly dull act of typing out the poems gets the creative juices flowing and working on screen allows me to cut and paste, change line breaks and fiddle around to my heart’s content.

DIY Pathway to PubI also use mind maps for working with others, for instance in planning towards publication of the latest Cultured Llama book, Do It Yourself: a History of Music in Medway by Stephen H Morris. Mind maps are a great way to take notes and then share them with others (some say that mind maps are personal and can’t be understood by others). Here’s one that I prepared earlier.

For those that prefer a ready-made planner, there is a great one on the Urban Writers blog. They will also send you prompts and challenges, as well as details of their urban and rural writing retreats,  if you sign up to their mailing list.

As someone with limited energy, I subscribe to Sustainably Creative. Michael Nobbs, an artist, blogger and tea drinker, also has a chronic illness, and offers a daily podcast, ‘One Thing a Day’, on how to move your creative life forward using small steps. He often invites members to join in online sessions, and offers tools to work without becoming exhausted. One tip I have picked up from Michael is working with a timer (mine is a mechanical one, topped by a gingerbread man). Though, I do tend to ignore the timer when it rings, it does remind me that I may be pushing myself too far. I have reset the timer twice in order to continue writing this post! So I shall bring it to a close before I get exhausted.

I am adding to my writing commitments this January: I shall spend more time on my own writing than editing others’ writing. Let’s see how that goes.

 

I may be Second Hand Rose but I’m no bag lady – from jumble sales to charity shops

I used to go to jumble sales with my mum, queuing up early for the best bargains, tussling with the expert jumblers, my trained eye honing in on colours and fabrics from the piled-high tables, pulling out, selecting and rejecting for size and repairable damage (missing buttons: OK; broken zips: no; I’d never get round to replacing them).

When I was 17, I had a thing about smock tops. I got some great ones from jumbles and charity shops. This was at the height of punk, and although the young people of Epsom weren’t all going round in bondage trousers, black sacks and safety pins, many had got rid of the tops I liked, I was able to get bagsfull of the things for pennies. My mums’ friends used to spot them for me, too, and most understood my taste in style, size and fabrics. My Nan didn’t get it, passing on a bag of secondhand clothes, mainly nylon and crimplene. I thanked her politely, then binned them.

Jumble sale treasures of mirrorcloth, embroidery, cotton, cheesecloth … I rarely bought a new top, a new jumper, and the only winter coat I bought new, for years and years, was a black duffle from Millett’s, where I also got my Levi jeans (they were relatively cheaper than they are today).

I’ve been a fan of charity shops for as long as I can remember, too. As well as clothing, I bought records and music-related stuff. A giant poster of Black Sabbath for 10p, which was blu-tacked to the ceiling above my bed until it scared the bejesus out of me by slowly unsticking and falling on my face in the middle of the night. A copy of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles for 40p, which I recently discovered is a rare, Mono, first-pressing.

Maria and sister Eileen at Maria's 18th birthday party

Maria and sister Eileen at Maria’s 18th birthday party

For my 18th birthday, the only gift I asked for was a lumberjack shirt. From Millett’s, of course. I wore it to my 18th party, and wore it to death thereafter. I probably held on to that shirt till it frayed at the collar, till the fabric went into holes. I’ve dreamt of that shirt; I’ve written about it:

I dream of a shop filled with all the clothes I’ve ever worn

The shopkeeper offers the shirt

I wore on my eighteenth birthday –

the only gift I asked for –

blue and black, like a lumberjack’s,

frayed threads, faded check,

detached collar and yoke

now healed. ‘Try it on,’ he tempts,

sleeve across breast, hand on heart.

It no more fits than the jeans

I wore with it – red-tagged,

stitched patch – the felt-penned plimsolls

lying gape-mouthed on the floor,

or the skins of outgrown friends

hung on a rack by the door.

(From strange fruits by Maria C McCarthy)

After I left home and went to Thames Poly in South East London, I searched out the jumbles of Plumstead. I even went bespoke, with  a friend asking me to find him a suit jacket.  My student grant was never overspent, not with my foraging ways.

The advent of boot fairs made jumble sale pickings less choice as people realised they could get good money for their clothes instead of giving them away. This has now extended to ebay and the like, with old clothes now rebranded as ‘vintage’.

My clothes-buying habits haven’t altered much, except that I haven’t been to a jumble sale in many years. My last jumble purchase was a cream cotton cardigan with wooden buttons. I paid 40p for it about 10 years ago, and it’s still a summer favourite. For me, a week without a foray of the charity shops is a week not lived. Last year’s winter coat was long, waterproof and hooded – perfect for the flood-ridden season. It cost me £8, and I priced it online as £120 if bought new. This year, I found a nearly new grey wool coat with a black velvet collar for £3 in my favourite thrift shop, which sadly closed last week due to the owner’s retirement.

I don’t like women’s magazines; I occasionally flick through one at the hairdresser’s and it always makes me feel inadequate, when most of the time I feel OK about myself. I look at the fashion pages of The Guardian Weekend magazine with astonishment. Miserable-looking models in clothes at ridiculous prices. One week, in their All Ages fashion feature, an older woman was pictured in an outfit that looked like she’d taken a random selection of clothing out of someone else’s wardrobe, whilst blindfolded, and put it all on at once. They had turned an elegant woman into an expensive facsimile of a bag lady.

I do buy new, though usually at the sales:

Sales

I purchase the stories concealed in dead

women’s vests, carry my own screwed

up bags in which to stow my purchases.

Yet, once in a while, a sale, the feel

of new cloth, cotton soft and brushed,

or silk tagged with 70% off, beyond

my grasp at top price, But, yes, it fits,

the price is right, and a blouse is wrapped

round a square of tissue, folded with skill,

slipped into a quality paper carrier

along with a hanger with special grooves

that stop silk falling from its grip.

I relish the sum of full price

minus discount; money saved,

not spent.

I go for quality when buying new – no Primark for me – and when buying secondhand I draw the line at shoes and underwear: no dead women’s vests for me; I won’t walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

There isn’t a word or phrase to describe my fashion sense, unless it’s ‘anti-fashion’ or maybe I’m more like Second Hand Rose.

 

Going Home

I did not speak to my father for the last few years of his life. Some of the reasons are mine to tell; others do not belong to me, are not for sharing here, and there is that thing about family secrets – who knows, who doesn’t, it’s hard to remember.

‘He was fond of the drink,’ they would say, meaning that he was an alcoholic, not fully acknowledged by us, his family, and not at all by him. His drinking was nobody’s business but his, he said. Anyone who has lived with an alcoholic knows otherwise; their drinking is everyone’s business.

He was the father of five children; I am the middle child. He didn’t know how to relate to us. He didn’t know how to love us. I can name only a handful of good memories of being with him. One where he led me by the hand on the way to Sunday Mass, lifting me as I kicked the piles of autumn leaves in the park, so it felt like I was walking on top of them, my feet not touching the ground. Another, when he and I were alone, awaiting the wedding car after the rest of the family had left.

There were times, many of them, when I wished my mother would leave him, find someone nice. There were times when I thought of him as a monster.

When he died, I was very ill. Too ill to travel to his funeral, too ill to cope with the emotion of it all, and not prepared to hear the stories of what a lovely man he was when I knew otherwise. It wasn’t until seven years after his death that I came to know him, and that process is ongoing, another seven years on.

I wanted to know where he had come from, how he came to be the man he was. I knew little of his childhood in Ireland, only that he had been left by his parents who went to England without him, and that he was raised by his Auntie Molly, amongst her children.

Through good luck, the help of a man in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, who came to be a good friend, and meeting the cousins my dad was raised with, plus an old schoolfriend of his, I pieced together my father’s story. It has been material for poetry, stories and for crying my way through to a kind of forgiveness. There is a lot of talk about forgiveness these days – it does not mean condoning the things a person has done, but coming to terms and letting things go. Perhaps understanding how the early influences in their life, a lack of love, caused them to become the person they grew up to be.

I first visited Mitchelstown, my father’s home town, in 2007. I decided to go alone, the first time I had travelled by myself. I was 47 and it was about time. It was a deeply emotional experience, gruelling in many ways. But I met people who took me to their hearts and do so each time I return. I visited in September 2014, not only a social visit, but to read from my collection of stories As Long as it Takes at the town’s Culture Day celebrations. In an email before my visit, my friend Liam said, ‘Pleased to hear you’re coming home.’

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The photos I am adding to my Friends’ Gallery are from my visit to Mitchelstown, September 2014. Me, with my friend Liam Cusack (left) who helped me find my way to Mitchelstown, via a letter I sent to William Trevor who was born in the same year and the same town as my father. Next to Liam is Jim Parker, a schoolfriend of my dad’s and now a friend of mine. Jim ended his career as Chief of Staff of the Irish Army. A local celebrity, I was honoured when Jim travelled to Mitchelstown to hear me read from my book. We are having lunch in O’Callaghan’s, which was formerly a jeweller’s shop owned by Peter and Mary Dold. Mary is one of the cousins my father grew up with.

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The second photo is with newly found cousins – Edel, Anne (who is not fond of of having her photo taken) and Liz. They are the daughters of two of my dad’s cousins, Nelly and Mary. I think that makes us third cousins. We had a wonderful afternoon together, piecing together family connections, guessing at the secrets that the older generation reveal only unwillingly, if at all. And making me feel a part of the family.

So is Mitchelstown ‘home’, even though I have never lived there, have only spent a couple of weeks there in total? It surely felt like it that day.

Writing – it’s not a competition, and a few words about the public life of writers

A couple of years ago, I decided to stop entering writing competitions. I haven’t stuck to this religiously; I have entered two in the last year, winning and placed in each. And there’s the thing – I had to tell you that I’d been successful; I shared the news on Facebook, Twitter and on this website. Each win feeds the desire to enter more competitions, to feel the buzz of receiving even the most modest of prizes. Not quite an addiction, but getting there, and writing is not, and should not be, a competition.

A writer these days must be visible, have a web presence, have their name noticed beneath poems or the titles of short stories and non-fiction pieces in publications and have bagged the odd prize. I encourage this as an editor: Cultured Llama does not take on shrinking violets; books published by small presses are sold mainly by the author, their public profile, the readings and events they take part in to promote their work. But has this led to oversharing, to a need to be published and winning all the time?

Back in November of last year, I had a submission-a-thon, collecting all my unpublished poems and sending them out. Many rejections and a few acceptances followed in the next three months. Some of the acceptances have yet to be published, with the longest wait 11 months between submission and publication. This is hardly instant gratification, but it is satisfying to finally see the work in print.

A quicker result is to post work in progress on Facebook, either on the many writers’ groups or on your profile page. I rarely do this, and I rarely read the work of other writers who post. For one, I find it hard to take in poems or long texts on screen. Secondly, I like to read poems when I choose to, when I have the concentration to read them thoughtfully. Poetry is not something I read casually. It demands the attention that social media does not encourage. And for me, for my own work, I don’t want to share work too soon, to get caught up in those times when I think my draft poem is brilliant, only to see the faults in it later on, and wish I had never shared it.

The same goes for writing ideas – the number of times I have shared something I want to write, that I am planning to write, only to fail to write a single further word. A writer friend once said to me that you shouldn’t give away your fire. I wasn’t sure what she meant at the time, but I do now.

When it comes to collecting poetry and publishing a book, will people want to buy your work if you are always giving it away on social media? You need to have enough of a publishing profile to get noticed, but not be overexposed.

It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I noticed recently that I have stopped submitting my writing to be published in print and online magazines. I keep a file of what and where I have submitted, and I used to aim to submit once a month at least. I also note publications and readings I have given. The last few months, the list has been thin, mainly readings and events. Will I be forgotten? Will I cease to exist as a writer if I don’t send my work into the world? These were my initial thoughts, but then I reminded myself why I write. Firstly for myself, because I have to, because I would go totally crazy if I didn’t, and secondly to get an audience. And it’s easy to get  caught up in the need to be published so that the writing of new work, of work that might never be developed or see an audience, ever, is pushed to the back. And that work needs to happen as much as the gems that get published.

So my thoughts right now are do not go naked into the world of social media. Keep some clothing on, and plenty that you hide in the wardrobe for special occasions.

Here is a poem by Gordon Meade, a reluctant participant in social media, from his collection Sounds of the Real World.

The Philosophy of Facebook

It is the same flawed philosophy

behind Facebook; the one that says

if a tree in a forest is not seen

 

to have fallen, then no tree fell.

If you do not put up a post saying you have

written a poem, then the poem

 

does not exist. Taken to the extreme,

it means that unless you have shared something

with the rest of the world or, at least,

 

with your designated friends,

or friends of friends, then nothing actually

happened. Once again the private life

 

is dead. For example, that fox I saw

last night in the garden is only now alive

because I have shared it with you.

Not an ageing hippy, just Rocking in the Free World

There are some songs that I have to dance to. One of these is Neil Young’s ‘Rocking in the Free World.’ I’ve heard this several times in the past two weeks, one of these played live by Neil Young. It went on and on, with several false endings before rousing the crowd to another round of singing, arm-waving and punching the air. I heard it on the radio a few days later, turned it up loud, danced and sang around the kitchen.

Then, a few days later, a local band played it at a community event. As tired as I was, I leapt out of my fold-up garden chair and rocked out. In quite a reserved way, I thought, since no-one else appeared to be joining in, beyond a slight swaying. I held back from punching the air, for instance.

After the band finished their set, I went up to tell them that I had seen Neil Young perform it live the week before. I’d been noticed from the stage, and the singer, plus a bystander who joined in the conversation, called me an ageing hippy. I’ll forgive them their use of cliche, but ageing? Hippy? Really?

Poster by Jeremy Deller

Poster by Jeremy Deller

I’m 54 and have no problem with being this age. I’m looking forward to turning 55 – 5 is my favourite number and see 55 as an excellent age to be. But I was too young to be hippy the first time round; therefore too young to be an ageing hippy. Is it really so unusual to see a woman of my age rocking out?

It’s not as though I am stuck in ’60s and ’70s music. I love Arcade Fire, their crazy theatricality on stage, their simple but meaningful lyrics, which have brought me close to tears at times, often when listening to them on my iPod on public transport. Their anthem ‘No Cars Go’ is such a perfect song; I always listen to it twice. I am just as happy to bop to Pharrell Williams, the Jackson 5, to my favourite folk supergroup Bellowhead, or to Blur’s ‘Song 2’. My poor body is unable to pogo to the last of these in the way I used to, but I pogo in my mind whenever I hear it. For those too young to remember pogo-ing, ask your mum. Or your gran.

So I’m not an ageing hippy. I couldn’t do the drugs for a start. My one attempt at smoking dope sent me to sleep, then I was violently sick all the next day. Nor am I a rock chick, the other cliche that has come my way. I used to follow a band in my teens, going to all their gigs that I could and waiting afterwards to speak to the band. But this comprised chatting about their music and, well, stuff. I did fancy one of them. I later found out he was gay. So no sex or drugs, just the rock and roll.

So before you apply your lazy stereotypes to me, I am not an ageing hippy or a rock chick, I just like music.

Here’s a piece about the Neil Young gig at Hyde Park by Peter Cook, who was my companion for the day. Read Leadership Lessons from “the Young Ones”.

 

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