Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Two Sons, No Fire and the Freemasons


So!  Part 2!  You get two posts today, for being so kind as to wait for me for more than a week.  To continue the ramble of life…

The other birthday last week, was Son Number One.  He was 21.  He is an unusual person, in that he doesn’t really care at all for birthdays, and he doesn’t think it was at all lame to come and spend his birthday with me, his mum.  I kept what we were doing as a surprise.  I actually had some more money for this birthday.  Stanley had been astonishingly selfless in contributing money toward it at the expense of his own birthday.  (I’m not being sarky: I love birthdays, and Stanley thinks he doesn’t, but seems to really – he likes having a fuss made of him and going somewhere.)  We agreed it was an important birthday, and we should do something – even if it was only proving to Son Number One that birthdays aren’t all boring once you’re older than twelve.  (Where he picked up this singularly unfun idea I have no clue.)

So he came down on the Saturday and when we woke up on Sunday he was actually a bit excited and eventually, after feeding Fluffhead and leaving him with Stanley for the day, we set off to the secret and much fun venue.  I don’t think birthdays should be about grown up stuff, myself.  So I took him to the London Dungeons.  This was actually a complete misstep, as he had always said he enjoyed it at school, and would love to go back.  I enjoyed it once too and thought the same.  But he stood in front of it and did that thing only your own kids can get away with doing, of saying: ‘Is this it?  Is this the surprise?  Oh.’  Its all in the ‘oh’.  (I was a bit relieved to tell the truth, as I was still Womanflu-ing – I cannot get across to you how heroic I’ve been all week going out and doing stuff with my Dreadful Ailment dogging me every step of the way.  I was relieved to not have to be pleasantly frightened or have loud noises in my ear when I was feeling all dizzy and spacey anyway.)  It did leave a bit of a hole in the day though.  I hadn’t been sensible and accrued a Plan B. 

So we wandered up and down the river and South Bank for an hour and a half, building up a hearty appetite for something or other.  (Noticeable lack of Odd People down here in this area of wealth and prosperity, by the way.  Marked noticing of ruddy faced well-dressed people and happy looking tourists.)  Son Number One loves good old Pizza Express.  So we sat there and had a very extravagant meal (we spent the meal money plus the London Dungeon money; we had drinks and siders, and starters and desserts and every good thing.)  (Meanwhile Stanley texts and tells me he is finally exhibiting the cold and feeling ‘poorly’.  I have always liked this wan little word.  I text him that he needs tea – since he refuses most medicine of any description, which really offends my inner hypochondriac as I have LOTS of medicine to hand.  He accepts the suggestion of tea, and is not heard from for a further while.)

After the meal, Son Number One is suddenly full of beans and thinks the London Dungeon isn’t such a bad idea after all.  I then have to inform him we just ate any possibility of doing it.  To which he asks what else is in the surrounding area that is any good.  And I have a fit of nostalgia and tell him we aren’t far from the Museum of London.  This has always been my favourite museum over all others.  He loved it when small too.  We both have a near obsession with the Fire of London room.  Showing what an amazing person he can be sometimes he thinks the Museum would be a fine idea and we trot off to it after calling poorly Stanley for directions.  (I have no sense of direction, and Son can get back from anywhere having been there once, but we needed to get there for him to memorise the route.)

We have a great walk through the City getting there.  (I say to him that this will be the birthday he remembers as the Spectacular one, where I gave him Fresh Air and Exercise and Education, to go with the customary feed.  He looks both humourous and exasperated by this; I love a good incorrect spin as an irritant.)  On the way there, right near London Wall, there are suddenly Morris Dancers everywhere, who I hear first rather than see.  I hear the knee bells.  They go past hither and thither, no one direction only; different costumes and all happy looking.  Sadly, I have worn the wrong shoes today (I wasn’t expecting to have to do so much walking) so I don’t have the energy to chase them as I usually would to ask why they are so incongruously here, in the near deserted City back streets on a Sunday.  Their bells fade away after a while.  We pass a sign for the Museum of Banking.  I suggest we go there instead.  We both laugh heartily and settle for not vandalising it.  (See, I am not entirely without reasonable enlightenment despite the occasional strong view.)

Then around the corner, is what I think is a little horse.  Then another.  People are tending small brown horses – are they ponies? – and feeding them hay, by the side of vans.  I am very excited as only a Nature Loving Born Townie can be, at the idea of Sudden Unusual Strokeable Animals in London.  I do actually rush up to the first of these people and ask if I can touch their horse.  The woman smiles at me kindly and underlines my Towny Ignorance by informing me it’s a donkey.  Of course it is, now I look at it.  I am so ignorant of so many things, its annoying.  I’m sure I rode on donkeys at the seaside when I was little?  I just don’t quite remember.  The donkey is very friendly and utterly peaceful.  It looks up at me without ceasing to munch at all, and flicks its lovely brown ears.  I don’t think hay looks very good to eat, but the donkey seems most pleased.  Its name is Jezebel, which seems completely silly and therefore a very good name.  Son laughs at me for a while as I am so excited to stroke it, and then its friends that appear close by.  In my excitement, I completely neglect to ask these people why there are donkeys and Morris Dancers in London on a Sunday where there aren’t any people.  We forge on, and get to the Museum.

I forgot it had been refurbished.  It has not been as mangled as the Natural History Museum, which I remembered as a marvellously elegant building filled with tall soaring skeletons of the long gone beasts (and that excellent Human Biology section where the woman screams as she falls in the canal in the film that demonstrates heart rate and stress).  It’s now a loud, neon, completely overcrowded theme park for children.  Stanley and I vowed to not go there again, the disappointment in the change being too great.

I don’t know what it is about museums refurbishing not only what needs to be redone, but also what is perfectly fine, and has a cult following.  They ruined the Fire of London room.  It used to be a darkened room, separated from the rest of the museum by a heavy black curtain.  The lights would go down, and the wind sound effects would start.  A voice would say, ‘Its 3 in the morning, and all’s well….’, the town cryer, words to that effect.  It would tell of the Fire, beginning in that small house in Pudding Lane, and going on, progressively lighting up the brilliant model of London before it with tinny little orange lights, showing the progression of the fire.  The wind would howl, the voices of the narrator would tell of the attempts to outrun the fire and failing; how eventually they took to blowing up houses before the fire could get to them, which was the only thing that stopped it in some areas.  There would be sound effects of explosions, woody and old, and projections of orange and yellow flames would rise up all about the room.  It was slightly amateurish and completely mesmeric and wonderful.  I don’t know anybody who didn’t like it.  Now, it’s a semi lit room (no curtain).  They have kept the model and the rising flame effects, but only within the area of the model – so you aren’t involved in a surround way, anymore.  They have lost the narrator, and instead have several different voices telling you about the fire.  The annoying thing is – it’s more of less the same accounts, Pepys, Evelyn etc – but the atmosphere is completely lost.  No wind, no explosion; the model is barely lit up, only sections.  There are inane projections of some fire eating a manuscript and shadowy old houses from a documentary programme referenced at the end shown on the back wall of the room.  It’s all clinical, and informative…and has no feeling of time travel or ambience whatsoever.  (I really hope someone kept the original audio of that Fire Room, so that if something they will listen to complains and asks for the old one back it’s still possible to have it.  I hate that feeling – that something good is irretrievably lost.)

They did the same to the Victorian Walk downstairs.  There still is a good set of Victorian mocked up shops, showing the goods laid out.  But there used to be street sounds pumped through the whole section.  As you progressed through, you felt as though you were in a crowded Victorian street, hearing people calling their wares, hearing coaches clatter past, complete with snorts of horses…now there are only sounds for the pub room, and they are oddly muted.  I was sorry the Diseases section was gone.  How else will the world know about Glanders?  Such a scary Victorian disease.

We enjoyed the Museum in other ways.  We enjoyed playing the daft computer games there; we enjoyed the new Black Death room (oddly atmospheric in its bitty presentation).  We enjoyed the Roman section (though again, it had been rendered oddly slick and antiseptic by the renovation).

But all in all, even though he waited for his cake for a further day and a half, Son seems to have had a good birthday; or an ok birthday…which is better than the no birthday at all he would have done for himself if left to it.  He had such a good time he’s still here.  I just had him busy in the garden, while I’m doing this.

Then it was the time for Fluffhead to get back in the spotlight of Life.  Saint Mum came to take him to the park yesterday, and astonishingly, I was still snotty.  (Twelve days and counting.  Humpf.)  I watched some Buffy with Son, always good for a veg, and then decided to take my spacey self off for a Good Lie Down.  This was of course a doomed idea, as Saint Mum immediately reappeared with a bleeding headed Fluffhead.  Despite having stood up under a metal slide in the park (far away), and having created a great gouting wound, he was miraculously not turning into Tetchyhead.  It took Saint Mum an hour and a half to get back from the park on the bus, to ask me what to do about the wound.  (I told her in future to go straight to hospital and not come back for me.)  By then it was a bit all over the place and there were lots of bloody tissues here and there.  Fluffhead seemed completely unpeturbed, so I walked him round to the doctor which is 5 minutes away.  As they did last time he had a head bump, they helpfully refused to see him and insisted I go to the hospital.  (Because of this, and so I would be prepared in future, I had an emergency £50 for a taxi to get there in a hurry…the hospital is an hour and half away by bus, again, in rush hour.  I do love doctors, can you tell?)  Luckily, Son was still here and had his car.  He has a very slacker attitude to life in general and is very unimpressed with his brother altogether, but leapt to action and drove us there very quickly.  Saint Mum, who was still guilting (though he would just as easily have stood up under that slide with me as her, so just one of those things), was still fretting, so was very impressed with his speed and readiness in crisis.

Stanley had been diverted on the way home, and met us there with his excellent customary calm and togetherness.  I was actually too snotty to panic, which was a good thing as I do a really good panic when moved.   Fluffhead had fallen asleep in the car which led Saint Mum to further worries of possible concussion, but you know how lulling cars are for tinies.  As soon as we got to the Children’s Waiting Room, he caused havoc and tore up and down the room, and wanted to play with all the dirty old hospital toys, and the other wounded children.  I pursued him with antibacterial handwash; Stanley pursued him with our toys; my mother pursued him with her calculator, which did the trick, as he loves Grown Up Things He Shouldn’t Be Playing With.  We were seen amazingly quickly by the world’s perkiest nurse (in my experience NHS nurses are relatively surly; children’s wards are the definite exception).  She gained his eternal love with a clicky pen torch while she examined his head.  Apparently nowadays they glue children's damaged heads instead of stitching them.  We had a very fun time holding poor Fluffhead like a battering ram sideways while I rinsed his hair to get the blood out (what a sad little sight, all the blood running into the bowl; how clean his hair was after).  He complained and yelled and generally showed great good health, and continued as the perky nurse dried him and the perky doctor agreed the glue was ok and he wasn’t cut as deeply as it looked, scalp wounds bleed muchly etc etc.  He was finally pacified by the Freemasons.

Yes, the Freemasons.  Instead of conducting some shadowy international political intrigue involving costumes and blindfolding (and possibly Jack the Ripper and definitely Mozart), they were visiting the hospital and handing out teddy bears to sick children.  We got one with a red suit on.  The woman looked completely normal and not the slightest bit in a Secret Society famed the world over for…well, how many books have you read on it?  How many dodgy documentaries have you seen?  What do we really actually know?  We don’t really, do we, as its secret…(Did you click on the link?  Fascinating!  Are you convinced?!)

All I can tell you is, we left the hospital that evening, having named the teddy the Emperor Octavius Wolfgang, the Horned One.  (I named him, obviously.)  Fluffhead fell asleep, apparently unconcussed, in the car, on the way home, his hair drying in the breeze from the open window.  Clutching the small Freemason Teddy.


A post that wasn't meant to be about politics or my cold...


Well, here I am.  Back after a strange interval of life that felt very rushed, yet very slow.  I got a massive cold.  I’m the only female I know that does Womanflu.  I think its related to the fact that I think my sense of personality is almost entirely contingent on my sense of embodiment.  If my body feels wrong, all of me feels wrong.  If I’m very tired, for example, then life can feel very dark indeed.  (Since Fluffhead has been born; even since the last trimester of pregnancy where I ceased to be able to sleep comfortably in any position, I have been in a different state of consciousness to before.  A very changeable and more prone to downers/anxiety and general instability than before.  And I’ve never been that stable!)  Tiredness plus cold, tsk tsk…

So, womanflu isn’t a good thing.  I’m notoriously addicted to Sinex nasal spray (for over 20 years now), so my nose is a permanent mess of blocking and unblocking.  When I get a cold, its far far worse.  Then there's the head fogging and headache, the itchy throat that drives you crazy at night with the attempt to not start coughing, cos if you do you’ll be starting something that will carry on indefinitely and feed itself.   

I find it annoying that I catch most colds from people that wouldn’t just be responsible and take a sick day from work.  It seems to be the hallmark of Manliness and Productivity in some workplaces (and it applies to women too, to not look weak, and fit in) to come in when suffering a bad cold and continue, lamely, to attempt to work anyway.  Whilst busily infecting everyone else in the workplace, who take it home and infect their partners and small children.  I find that short-termist and stupid.  That day or two days when you could have just gone home and rested and not spluttered over the communal kettle might have saved some mother and child several nights of asthma and steaming the child in the bathroom all night; or antibiotics for a chest infection they got.  It’s selfish in fact, to stay at work when you’re ill.  Go home, rest, recuperate, and come back when you’re better: be doubly productive.  If you have a full time permanent job, this is what sick days were invented for.  It’s not a contest to see who won’t ever have one and therefore be more manly, and dedicated to international capitalism.  (This topic really vexes me.  As you can guess, Stanley brought home this cold from two plaguey colleagues at work; who also took it home and infected their wives and tiny babies.  It was ironic that Stanley Typhoid Mary-ed this cold, in that he was actually the last to get it properly: me first, then poor lil Fluffhead, then him.)

Anyway, during all this snotty fun, it was Stanley’s 45th birthday.  We are a bit poor at the moment (I say that like we’re temporarily embarrassed millionaires; this is a bit hopeful of me – we are poor for the foreseeable future, I just have hope we might be a tiny bit less poor at some point).  So I didn’t really have any money much to do anything great.  Stanley always takes his birthday off work, so he did.  I tried really hard to not make the day all about me and how I had to go out with him even though I Am Ill (imagine what fun I am as a companion; then run away)…We went into the biggest nearest town (East Croydon), and wandered about the shopping centre and sat peacefully and ate ice cream, like old folk.  I always get quite excited at shopping centres.  Partly because I have never shaken off the marvellous marketing idea that if I buy something (whatever it is) I will feel better about life in general, a new me!  This is usually rubbish of course, but its very tempting rubbish, and I can count myself as intelligent-ish all I like; I still get sucked into the miasma of this silly concept sometimes.  But this day was different.   I don’t know if it was because we wandered round the post riot sites first, and it was sad seeing so many burnt buildings and boarded up buildings…which then got me to thinking I was seeing more odd looking people out than normal.  (You know the odd people:  they look like they have never had a job, they have a way of sitting about like they never ever did and never will have anywhere to go in particular.  Some of them look angry and scary; some look sad and talk to themselves.  Some just tic, or look very lost.)  I see them everywhere, wherever I go, and they have always wanted to talk to me, always.  I have had some very good conversations with some of them; none of which made sense in the Agreed Reality where we buy things, have a job, have dinner, watch TV, have hobbies, families etc.  That Life.  But they all made sense in other realities (ones where the streets were golden and had red gems in; and another where a man took a good 45 minutes for me to convince him I wasn’t the ghost of his dead ex-wife).

We sat there, in the Whitgift Shopping Centre, eating double scoops of ice-cream and chatting about the world, while watching the odd people, and the women with babies (the babies were either of the Exceedingly Cute or Very Big Headed type – since Fluffhead, I gravitate to other babies when I’m not with him; he was at home with Saint Mum, being babysat).  I realised that though being out with Stanley alone was rare and wonderful; and talking with him was also rare and wonderful, it was sad too, as I don’t seem to like shopping centres anymore.  All I could see was endless things I couldn’t afford, or actually want, at all.  All advertised desperately, with gaily painted signs, neon, screaming loud lettering.  I don’t want any of this stuff – there’s nothing I can’t wait for.  I wasn’t excited about the clothes; I’ve never been much into fashion.  I wear whatever I see that I like and that’s that.  I don’t do labels.  I take from whatever is in if I like any of it and add it to whatever I have.  I haven’t liked anything much that’s been in, for ages.  (I suddenly felt Old.)  I asked Stanley and he felt the same way (he’s a black jeans and band T-shirts man anyway; he’s the casual-est a old Goth can get and still have a passion for Industrial music…he would hate that set of labels I just put on him, so take them as mere indications of a much bigger picture, not a set in stone description). 

I wasn’t excited by the music we heard as we wandered through HMV, him pulling me along casually by my belt loops, as he does do when I linger and he wants to move on.  Him dragging me affectionately about through music shops is something of a tradition.  But the music was harsh and aggressive, and I’m sorry – R&B is not what it used to be.  I realised I was sitting, walking, moaning about the place, worrying about the state of society and feeling it was all a bit off and not right, even at this cursory afternoon glance.  Instead of eating out our lunch – the Big Treat – we decided to change it to Take Away Pizza delivered at home, so Fluffhead could share the garlic-bread and not be left out.  It was very strange.  It was better to be back indoors.   It felt …not unsafe….but almost soulless, while out.  I was unsure how much to attribute this to my altered condition of feeling pretty crap and mucussy; and how much it was actually the world.  I still haven’t mentioned politics yet, and I won’t really just this instant.  I just will say that a lot of things don’t feel right anymore…some people’s attitudes seem to be shifting.   

For example: Its no longer thought wonderful and a great feat, that we created the Welfare State out of a debt ridden and beaten up country at the end of World War Two, so that we could look after everyone and ensure that something as basic as the right to try and live a healthy, non-destitute life was not just a hope.  To not go back to the scary arbitrary charity helping of the 1930s – where people still died rather than go to the doctor because they couldn’t afford it; people still did starve, in this country, when there was no work and they couldn’t get a job.  (I'm not saying the welfare state is perfect; its riddled with flaws in its execution....but its a damn sight better than what preceded it, in my opinion.)  There’s a horrible creeping voice I hear all over the place, from the mouths of otherwise reasonable people.  They say things that work out to this sentiment: ‘why are we paying for people who aren’t our own?  Why is it coming out of my pocket?  Why am I expected to be responsible for anyone other than Myself, and my family?  Let the weak die.  Let them suffer, it’s their fault they have no job/are sick’ etc etc etc.  It’s often dressed up as: ‘we can’t pay for them; we can barely pay for ourselves.’  It’s often lately joined with: ‘This is all the fault of Labour, this economic mess…’  It truly IS amazing how one political party can be responsible for the gambling immorality of the Entire World Banking System.  I truly am impressed that the hedge funders, bundlers of debt salesmen and futures speculators are all Labour members, apparently.  You learn something every day…

Yep.  Lots of things bother me, and that day…they really got to me.  Those riots in August very much unsettled me.  At first I did my usual self preservatory panic and hoarded food and found the key to the nursery, so I could lock myself and Fluffhead in there if necessary (see – I don’t overreact to stuff; dead practical, me), while calling for the army on Facebook.  Calm as anything, exemplary…Then I really did calm down, and it stopped (mighty relief).  And I read loads of articles about why it happened, and the one comment that got to me more than any other was one made by Philip Shallcrass (a Druid, and thinker).  He simply said (in a rambling Facebook thread) that until inequality was addressed in this country, things like this would continue to bubble and erupt here and there.  I won’t rant about all the many and linked probable causes.  I just thought that one summed up the root, and summed up the solution.  InequalityAnd I walked about that shopping centre and thought of all those people just sitting about.  (Inclusion/exclusion.)  And the other ones buying stuff they probably don’t need, on their lunch hours, to cheer themselves up.  (Aspiration/Envy.)  Its bright and light and airy in there…and tempting and soul destroying.  Our society IS sick, but its not in the way Cameron would have it, and its not his solutions that will work…

Next year – I shall not take Stanley to a shopping centre.  (Lets not even mention Dawn of the Dead, eh?)  I don’t care what stuff he might want, we can zip in and out if there’s stuff he would get the satisfaction of buying and unwrapping.  (He is a technogeek – there is always some musical or computer gizmo needed.)  But then I’ll take him somewhere proper, somewhere real, where you can see the sky, and hear the birds.
***

(Off you go – have a toilet break before I ramble Part 2 of this post.  Which will be happier and involve random donkeys munching hay.  Really, it will. )



Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Urchin’s Adventures, or: My Infinite Sympathy with Postmen

Yesterday I overdid it.  This was the opposite of the last Stewart Lee stand up I went to, where he said there was nothing there for anyone under 40, in a smiling and arch way, that excellent way he does.  I would say, that urchining it about the place, is a thing solely the preserve of persons under 40, and quite fit.  While out yesterday, and getting more and more tired, I kept bumping into tiny tykes, ten year olds with odd wheely baskets full of free newspapers they were dragging about up the hills for delivery, and saying to them: “Aren’t you exhausted?  This is very tiring, isn’t it?”  And without exception, them all looking at me weirdly and saying, “No, we’re fine, it’s fine,” before scampering off (yes, at a scamper, up a hill; my jealousy at their working bodies knows few bounds).

In case you wonder what I’m on about: my new Saturday job began yesterday.  Delivering leaflets for a local electrical company, singing the praises of their ability to refit your boiler, and fit you some solar panels etc etc etc.  What I completely didn’t factor in to this day of most excellent outdoor exercise, and opportunity to ruminate forthly on the philosophic aspects of life (blah blah) was that this part of Surrey is damn HILLY.  Really really hilly.  Its all either going up or coming down.  And however slight the curvature is in places, its flat virtually nowhere.  Every day I take Fluffhead in the pushchair down to town for errands, and its 10 minutes down the hill here, and then 15 minutes up again.  This is hard work with 4 pints of skimmed milk, tins, babymilk, and other stuffs under the pushchair.  I neglected to give thought to what it would be like to (basically) do that 15 minute walk with the equivalent weight on my back…but for over 6 hours.  I mean, I thought of it; but I didn’t really put wellie into that thought.  I should have.

Set out for 8.15 a.m., with water and an absolute load of leaflets and a hat (promised rain).  I thought how nice it was to get out of the house for a day and walk with the sky and the clouds and the trees and get some good air into my lungs (and not have to listen if Fluffhead became Tetchyhead).  For a while, I went back and forth, up a street and down a street, looking at everything with interest, listening to birds; mind peaceful and uncluttered, as promised.  Thinking, well this is quite easy and unbothersome.  My dad used to be a postman, for years.  Surely this is in my blood.

I was noticing all the different types of houses.  People have an amazing ability to personalise things which are more or less the same.  Changing a door or the colour of paint, or what bit of the beams you paint black or white (fake stockbroker Tudor, a lot of the fancier houses round here, left over from the early 1910’s-1930’s).  The variety of front gardens planned and done so beautifully: quite a treat to see.  I’m a very nosy person, so it was great to have an excuse to go right up to people’s front doors and look at their front gardens, or through into the back garden.  To get a glimpse of their houses insides through the letterbox (lots of proper wooden flooring in the older properties; some parquet tiles in the fancier houses).  A thousand different lives, different d├ęcor, snatches of conversation, shrieks of the spiritual brothers and sisters of Tetchyhead.

Two hours of this, and I’m feeling very fit and a bit puffed out, simultaneously.  I start to think that all these houses look the same; that I have done this house before – but no, the door is a bit different, the letterbox isn’t the same.  I start to notice that people in this country – or at least in this part of Surrey – don’t want to be visited by anybody, ever.  They are deliberately making their houses difficult to get to.

It’s either up stairs or down stairs to get to the houses.  Why is the land not flat?  Who decided it was a good idea to build a load of houses (now having bred like flies to cover the whole area, streaming up and down as far as the eye can see, through the trees) on such a load of inclines?  Who wants to live in a house with a breakneck set of steps leading down or up to it?  And why are they imagining it’s a good idea to pave them with the slippiest beige flagstones that grow a strange green mould?  Both the flagstones and the mould, even more so, become incredibly slippery when wet.  It started raining.  Its suddenly rather hard and slow going to just get down or up to these houses (depending what side of the street you are on).  (I start seeing visions of those inane ‘injured at work’ adverts.)

Not only this, but lots of people here seem to have designed their driveways and front gardens with quite a bit of malicious whimsy in mind.  The quantity of twisty-turny pathwayed drives; gravel to crunch through that walks like sand, you have to heave yourself through it, and cars parked right by the front door so you have to squeeze yourself between them to post anything through the letterbox...is astonishing.

Then there’s the letterboxes themselves.  Some of them are hidden; and a lot of them are cross.  I stop infront of a door after the obstacle course of the driveway, and there will be a sign, either professionally done (Don’tKnockIt.uk is a familiar one) or in biro that’s fading quickly from too much sun, and it will say: ‘No free newspapers or junk mail or leaflets, please.  Thankyou!’  They seem to imagine that being polite will stop it happening.  Let me tell you, when you just navigated a slippery and dangerous set of steps and an even larger hill to get there, and you have a weight of crap on your back…you don’t care about these signs.  You aren’t going to let them stop you doing your job.  You just climbed to this subterranean or blinking treehouse domain; you are going to put that damn flyer through the letterbox.  You aren’t going to ironically nullify your present existence by NOT doing it.  Sod that.  Even the shoutier signs (‘NO BLOODY JUNKMAIL!’) are not going to deter you.  (You’re just going to do it very quietly.)

But they hide.  I stood quite befuddled infront of several doors yesterday, looking for a nonexistent letterbox.  Before realising that there are unlocked outer doors that you slide to one side to get into a sort of small vestibule, the world’s tiniest atrium.  Here live people’s wellies and in one case, a very attractive pair of black female biker boots with multiple silver buckles, that looked to be my size.  (Yes, I considered theft; I am a terrible person and honest about it!  I also considered that there were a streetful of possible witnesses over the road, the actual owner of the boots might suddenly fling open the door and give me a heart attack, and I already had loads to carry let alone a pair of boots. And Most Importantly: what if those boots had a verruca or athletes foot type virus lingering in their depths.  Erk!!!  So my more sensible side prevailed.  Plus, sometimes I do do wrong things – then I remember I have a conscience and start to feel dreadful, which quite ruins the buzz of whatever it was.)  Anyway, you leave your missives (and charity bags, and Thomson Locals etc,) in this tiny space, which mostly has shelves.  And sadly abandoned tiny articles of children’s toys (a knight on a horse that had no head that I stepped on).  Lots of walking sticks.  Many pairs of Converse Allstars.  Lots of overcoats and jackets and children’s umbrellas of all colours.  Very trusting I thought, to leave all these things out where anyone can get to them.  (I think a lot of us may be casually criminally minded, like me; but in reality too timid and lazy to actually do anything.  There’s the English spirit!)

Those houses that had locatable letterboxes, be they embedded in walls, cleverly, or in the door, still don’t want any post delivered ever.  Close to half of them have these letterboxes so close to the floor that you have to kneel down to deliver anything.  You are over-weighted by your bag that swings round and hits you as you do this.  You creak about and your wet trousers tighten on your legs.  If you are wearing a rucksack, it overbalances you and you try to not bang your head on the door as you fall forward slightly.  A lot of the letterboxes have that strange broom effect inside.  They are stiff to open, and then you have to fold anything you have in half to be able to get it to withstand this spiky interlaced broom/hairbrush arrangement on the other side, to be pushed through.  (I believe this is for insulation, to lower heating bills.  Its also a bloody nuisance.)  Once you’ve done this, removing your hands through the stiff metal often comes close to skinning your fingers; it snaps back loudly once you’re done.  I am no longer surprised that many postman don’t even bother to deliver mail in the traditional sense anymore.  House after house of man-eating letterboxes and you’d just drop the mail by the door too.

That’s another thing. I repent of ever wanting to have a dog.  I had a fright more times than I can remember yesterday, with many different breeds of dog.  The very minute you come up the drive they start barking.  The second you open the letterbox (which, remember, you are doing with both your hands with the stiff ones – one to hold open the box, the other to fold the paper and push it through), they are jumping and barking frenziedly.  No exaggeration.  I got the impression I was being hunted by one group of terriers.  They actually succeeded in biting loose one half of the stiff brush on their side of the door; and when I pushed through the leaflet quickly and worriedly, they ripped it up.  Are they not fed?  What’s with the excitement with the paper?  But that’s not what repents me.  Dogs are dogs, they get excited.  I like their enthusiasm.  What repented me was the smell coming through so many of the letterboxes when I opened them.  Such a smell of fusty old dog I have never smelled before.  Are they dead in there?  Piled up in a rotting heap just inside the door where you can’t see?  Does anyone ever hoover?  What are they feeding these poor things??  Are they washing them ever??  Seriously, the smell got at me so many times I started to feel like it was stuck in my nose.  (I smelled it for the rest of the day.)  Oddly, I didn’t see one cat all day; and neither did I smell any cat houses.  You know the smell of an over catted house: that ammoniac smell.  Nothing.  Just overwhelming wet, dirty, dog smell.  Very interesting.)

At that point I bumped into our postman.  I had been going for four hours and all the houses and streets were starting to look like a 70’s ghost story:  they would just go on and on forever; if you turned round, it would be the same view as infront of you.  There was no getting anywhere.  That was the other strange thing.  I did feel as if I wasn’t going anywhere.  Because I was going a few paces along then downward or upward, a pause to deliver (and be confused about it), and then up or down again, a few paces along and then…again etc…I asked my local, Sean, how on earth he does it.  It was raining again, and he stood infront of me in shorts and a blue short sleeved shirt, hatless and ruddy cheeked.  And as peaceful as usual. They want to remove some of his pay and make him do more shifts, and while its pensionable, its less money.  He wasn’t happy; but in as smiley a way as usual.  I envy his temper.  He says the trick to any hilly round like this is to go up the left side of the road, and down the right.

I nod frowningly.  That makes sense…I think.  Topographically, or…?  I feel a bit addled now, and I ran out of water an hour ago.  He doesn’t take any, he is hale and hearty.  I follow his instructions.  But it doesn’t make any sense.  If I’m going uphill it’s harder than if I’m going downhill.  Obviously.  If I’m on the right or the left of the street makes no difference.

At one point, I come to a door that’s open, and rather than just throw a leaflet somewhat carelessly on the blue door rug, I call out, over the sound of a hoover.  I call again.  A voice tells me to come in.  I do.  I stand in the lightest, cleanest small hallway and look through into an amazingly spotless kitchen, painted primrose yellow and covered in sunflowers, as if the owner is a florist.  The hoover switches off and from a staircase off to the left comes the welcoming houseowner.  He’s just how I always thought Mr Pickwick would look, except in modern day clothes.  Like a happy and large professor dressed in many shades of blue wool.  He grins very warmly at me. I haven’t seen a person twinkle in real life till now.  I can’t help grinning back even though I’ve seen far too many horror films and also wonder if it’s a trap and he’s about to put his leather apron on and fetch the chainsaw.  I stay near the door. 

He is very chatty.  He sees the illustration on the leaflets of a house bedecked with its new solar panels, and tells me about the manufacture of such.  And why I really should go to Fribourg, in Switzerland.  Though its no place for a vegetarian, I’m told, as they do an awful lot of cooked pork there.  But the Black Forest, I should try the Black Forest; such a good people, the Germans, so clever.  I agree.  I have no idea how we came to be talking about Germany.  He tells me how he has restored his house from scratch, with the front door being a particular passion and having taken him all year: stripped, sanded, stained glass, leading, painting.  It does look…lovely.  Its also blue.  I nod along to everything, getting a piercing urge to ask him to adopt me and give me a less exhausting Saturday job.  I don’t.  I’m not sure why, as I am starting to feel a bit desperate by now.

The last two hours are spent mostly watching where my feet go, so I don’t fall over on the stupid steps.  Everything has become full of vividity. I am very tired, and have a headache.  I have a sudden and overwhelming conviction that I actually shan’t do this again, as my back and legs are going to kill me for the next two or three days, and I am already tired and achy from Fluffhead Life anyway.  I am meant to be filing quietly, I’m pretty certain of it.  Something orderly and indoorsy, and related to words.  It’s at this juncture that a man explodes angrily out of his house and yells at me: “’Scuse me!  Can’t you read??  No junkmail!!”  He is bristling at the beginning, but by the time he’s finished he’s not.  He looks at me, and I can see from his face that I am looking a bit bedraggled and wet, and alarmed.  In fact, I catch myself thinking I might cry and I know it’s on my face, as he ends with: “…So next time, just…don’t, eh?”  And he smiles at me lopsidedly.  I say sorry in a small voice.

But by then, I really am tired, and I really do ache, and I spend the next half a street trying to not cry; then I get even tireder and can’t quite remember why I was thinking of it in the first place.  I marvel at the automatic action of the legs, which whilst throbbing unkindly, are doing the business.  Abruptly, the street ends, and I decide I am done too.  I don’t do the other side of it either.  I just set a course for home, and watch the ground till I get there.

Back home, Stanley has missed me, as he does when I am not in the house (though he’s incredibly self sufficient when he knows I am about).  Fluffhead sleeps, so Stanley talks loudly and quite a lot to me while I automatically run a bath and discover on undressing, that I have a couple of ginormous blisters that (amazingly) I wasn’t aware of while out.  He washes my back, and talks on.  I am not processing much of what he is saying.  I interrupt him and ask for giant chocolate buttons.  He fetches some and feeds them to me.  I feel like a happy seal.

I start to feel more human again about an hour later.  It occurs to me that as well as being too tiring, this job has had a funny effect I didn’t expect:  it made me feel like a stranger in my own area.  All that going from house to house and never going in (except Mr Pickwick – and then I felt like begging, for some reason), made me feel like a starving waif with my nose pressed against the window of the sweetshop.  But I do live here.  In the nicest house I ever lived in, in a lovely street.  I am very lucky, and I do live here.  For once, I am not an outsider of something nice.  I don’t want to feel like that from a job.

So no more of that particular urchining for me.  The search is still on.  A Saturday job.  In the meantime: where’s the Deep Heat, ‘cos my calves are killing me, seriously they are. 

Friday, 16 September 2011

Imaginary Gardening, Purple Loosestrife and Chervil

This morning
The sun is so strong today.  All the trees branches wave about in the slight breeze.  They look fat and happy and full of light.  I’m feeling a bit bi-located again today.  Except I’m imaginary.  I don’t think where part of me is ever truly existed as I’m visualizing it.  Its part of a cultural myth, from a hundred books, songs, films.

If you look on the OBOD website, here, you’ll see a wonderful colourful depiction of part of where I am in my head today.  I’m outside from that painting of herbal preparation and harvest, but that’s the mood…in the green green garden, watering my plants, snipping off dead bits, collecting herbs in a low brimmed wide basket, made of twisted twigs.  I do actually have that basket; I keep my small garden tools in it.  It was given to me by Stanley’s mother (the world’s best completely not pagan yet so full of credentials she should be pagan woman: she is so countrified and knowledgeable about what everything is, where it grows, what it does, how to cook it and how to be almost completely frugal and self-reliant, she puts me to shame).

Still, in my head, there I am, wearing something simultaneously practical and sensually lovely: a pair of faded cut off jean shorts, so I can feel the earth on my knees and thighs when I sit down in that sun.  A worn old cotton blouse with tiny mother of pearl buttons, blinking in that sun.  Bare feet, so I can twist that cool grass beneath my toes.

In my head, I am tending to my thick and fecund patches of garden Chervil and Purple Loosestrife.  That’s because I have this tea towel (given to me, I now remember, by that Empress, Stanley’s mother), showing lots of herbs grown by the Suffolk Herb people at Monks Farm, in Essex.  I often find myself ruminating while staring at those marvellous drawings of Chervil and Purple Loosestrife, one atop the other. 

You don’t think much about Chervil, I’ll bet you a pound, you don’t. And I bet you a fiver you hardly ever thought of Purple Loosestrife, if you ever heard of it at all. I didn’t, either, before this tea towel (let no one say a tea towel can’t be thought provoking ever again).

Chervil is not renowned, nowadays, as particularly healing, or tasty, or useful.  Its one of those sidelined herbs.  You hear much more palaver about Basil, or Parsley or Sage, don’t you?

Culpepper says Chervil (also known as Anthriscus Cerefolium) is also called Sweet Cicely, or Mirrhis, as folk-based names.  I don’t even really know what it looks like, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it growing.  Culpepper says:
The garden Chervil doth at first somewhat resemble Parsley, but after it is better grown, the leaves are much cut in and jagged, resembling hemlock, being a little hairy and of a whitish green colour, sometimes turning reddish in the Summer […]it rises a little above half a foot high, bearing white flowers in spiked tufts, which turn into long and round seeds pointed at the ends, and blackish when they are ripe; of a sweet taste but no smell, though the herb itself smells reasonably well.[1]

Well, there we are.  I’m tending that.  Under the splendid heading ‘Government and Virtues’, Culpepper says chervil can ‘moderately warm the stomach’, and can ‘dissolve congealed or clotted blood in the body, or that which is clotted by bruises, falls, &c.[2]’  I shan’t say what else he said, because people often read these old tracts as ‘quaint’ which Annoys Me.  (Another post, later, will talk positively of Modern Western Herbalism; I just cut out a massive ranty section there).  Modern herbals, such as Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, say chervil can be used to treat high blood pressure and indigestion, as well as having actions as a diuretic and expectorant.  Brilliantly useful, to be taken as a tea, ‘thrice daily’…or the fresh squeezed juice, to be used as a lotion for eczema[3].  What a helpful, nifty little herb I am gardening in my imagination.  (And how much more successful, thus far, than my actual attempts at gardening?!)

What do modern herbals say about Purple Loosestrife, then, as Culpepper says nothing?  The good Jekka McVicar doesn’t forget about Purple Loosestrife, also called Lythrum Salicaria.  It got the ‘lythrum’ part from the Greek, meaning ‘gore’ – it was used by battle doctors to stem bleeding and heal wounds.  It also used to be used for treating diarrhoea and even dysentery.  It also helps to tan leather, with high concentrations of tannin; plus is very useful to beekeepers for wintering colonies of bees: they can collect pollen from it right up till autumn.  It can grow to four feet, with lance shaped leaves and pinkish purple flowers that attract hoverflies and dragonflies as well as plentiful butterflies.  It’s being scientifically researched today for its properties in healing intestinal illnesses[4].  It’s a proper little helper; I feel all wise-woman-ish.  (Its also apparently a bad plant to overrun a wetland area, causing problems with diverting streams and clogging up banks etc; its maligned for this reason in parts of the States.)
                                                ***

That was all much earlier.  Now its night, and dark; and dinner has been had.  In my imaginary head of earlier, I could have cooked with the chervil.  Mrs Beeton (Stanley’s mother has 2 copies of this, one huge, and one huger) often used it in soups, along with sorrel (another almost forgotten herb). See here, for Cucumber Soup with chervil and sorrel (you have to navigate a fair bit down the page, but it’s all alphabetical, so it’s easy).  You shouldn’t go about the place eating Purple Loosestrife, I have discovered…so don’t try that at home. (Apparently, however, you can use it to attempt to 'calm quarrelsome oxen' by placing it on their yoke...thats the meaning of the 'loosestrife' part of the name...so I hear, from a couple of sources, here's one...)

In my head it’s all time to sleep soon.  Soon Tetchyhead will need putting down (yes, he’s Tetchyhead today); and tomorrow I begin my temporary Saturday job of urchining around the wider area delivering unnecessary missives to uncaring and probably irritated people, for very little money, till I find an office job.  I am assured that my head will be wonderfully uncluttered during these many hours, and I shall of consequence think of much rubbish to write here.  We will see. 

So, night comes to the BlackberryJuniper garden.  Now the night scented stock is blooming; you can just see them from here under the light of the waning moon.  I am wearing a large shawl with long tassels.  The air is cooler now.  'Night.




[1] Culpepper’s Complete Herbal, by Nicholas Culpepper, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited (1653; 1995), p.65.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, by Thomas Bartram, London: Constable & Robinson (1998), p.109.
[4] The New Book of Herbs, by Jekka McVicar, London: Dorling Kindersley (2002), p.187.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Things That Annoy Me, No.2

Style Fascism in Creative Writing Courses, and Taste in General about Writing in this Century


Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.[1]

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs[2].


What I mean here is that lovely dictum we’ve all been hearing for a number of years now:  Show, Don’t Tell!

I’ve been having a bit of a fit of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century novels lately.  I get faddy.  I’ve been re-reading eighteenth century bits I read for my dissertation; not the whole of them (Time!  Time!  Woe!), but segments.  And Jane Austen has been having regular visitations from me, as has George Eliot, and Charles Dickens

I have always found the ‘Show, don’t Tell’ dictum annoying.  It assumes that all the big fat epic novels of the past did nothing but tell, and never showed.  It also assumes that the telling voice must have been so blisteringly boring or annoying that you will be done with narrators’ altogether.  It implies we will have no more of middle men, those narrators coming over here, stealing our stories and telling them to us, when we could equally envision them for ourselves (were we only given the words)!  Pish!  This sounds all very good.  Full of independence.  Nice pioneering spirit, hmm?

But how about the idea that it also plays into the laziness of our age, our generation?  The fact we all spend so much time in front of the TV, or out at films (less so, but still a nice popcorny treat when you can…).  The fact that unless we can see something, have it right in front of us, it just can’t seem to be processed?  People seem to give very little thought to the fact that when watching anything, they are watching a process of careful construction.  Somebody picked the images, the lighting, the composition, the mood music over the top.  The editor alone, had a huge impact on what you see, that looks at once so artless, but is obviously very artful.

Film and TV are obviously visual mediums.  The reading of fiction is also visual, but in a very different way.  The words relate and tangle with the images the writer gives you, the sense of an atmosphere.  These create your own interpreted vision in your head, of what the writer said.  (This is why we get annoyed if we see a dramatisation of a book we like but the hero or heroine look wrong, not how we imagined).  Peter Shaffer[3] rightly said, in his play Amadeus, that when twenty characters talk at the same time in a book or a play, its noise; but in music it’s the most beautiful harmony.  If someone makes an adaptation of a book you like, to film or TV, and it’s not as you envisioned at all, then its noise to your mind.  The weaving together of your imagination, the visual descriptions of the author, and the words they used are the ingredients that give you your scrumptious cake of reading.

Now, I did several Open University writing courses, and all were excellent, and helped me a lot.  (One taught me to love the Edit and not fear it; another taught me to love the Critic, for he too has his place, for example.)  But one spent far too much time telling me how much drama had to teach the writing person[4].  ‘Course, drama has loads to teach the writing person – many techniques are useful: pacing and plot arc-ing etc, to just name two.  But there was such an emphasis on visual description of every aspect of the story, and this was mirrored in lots of otherwise helpful writing books I read in conjunction with the course, that I began to feel annoyed. 

For example, if your character cries, don’t describe why she is crying, or even the tears on her face.  Describe by her actions alone, why she is crying.  If your hero is triumphant after previous desolating circumstances, don’t tell us why, don’t even tell us how…just show us his joy in his actions, convey it to us like a camera, moving over the scene, make visual links that tell us the story that way.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a very exciting way to tell a story: so that it is all immediately visible in the mind, as clear pictures.

But it isn’t the only way, and it’s certainly not the best way, alone.  It’s just a style, a good style, but a style fad like any other style fad.  I say, LOUDLY, take from it what you want, use it when it suits you, and mix it up with other ways of story telling. That’s my opinion, and it’s how I write.  DO NOT let anyone tell you how you should be writing, and that one way is Best!  I say Fiffle, to that.

I know lots of people who still enjoy those rolling thumping epics of the nineteenth century, like Middlemarch (the mythically wondrous George Eliot), to pick a great fat one at random.  Or even the monstrously rambling and quite idiosyncratic doorstops of the eighteenth century, like Tom Jones (Henry Fielding), or Tristram Shandy (Lawrence Sterne) or Clarissa (Samuel Richardson).  The people I have spoken to (my own small sample, yes, it won’t stand up as a sociological survey, I’m quite aware) have said what they love about these enormous tomes are the love of words the authors display, and the Narrative Voice.

People forget how fun it is – and how common it was, in the days before mass literacy – to be read to, to be spoken to – to be included; drawn close and talked to as a confidante.  Here, the absolutely awful (really) villain, Lovelace, from Clarissa, is writing a letter to his best friend, defending his dread plans of raping (yes, isn’t it graphic subject matter for the 18th century?) the poor Clarissa, and describes his life playfully:
Who knows but in her time, poor goody Moore may have met with a Lovelace, or a Belford, or some such vile fellow? – My little harum-scarum beauty knows not what strange histories every woman living, who has had the least independence of will, could tell her, were such to be as communicative as she is– But here’s the thing–I have given her cause enough of offence; but not enough to make her hold her tongue[5].

Now what’s this I hear you say?  That that isn’t a narratorial voice, but a character voice?  That’s more or less the point.  Those enormous tomes were filled with character voices.  They were as direct as direct could be.  They played with form, they played with voice.  After the rape (yes, Lovelace was very dastardly indeed, I spent the whole book sighing and getting cross and shaking my head – it was a bloody good read), poor Clarissa writes various letters to people, trying to get them to believe what has happened to her.  Lovelace has cleverly separated her from her family and friends, so she is alone.  She has a bit of a breakdown, loses her sense of self for a while.  Here, in one of her little fragments, she tries on Lovelace’s thoughts, blames herself for what he did to her:
A LADY took a great fancy to a young lion, or a bear, I forget which […] She fed it with her own hand; she nursed up the wicked cub with great tenderness […] so that like a lap-dog, it would follow her all over the house.  But mind what followed.  At last, somehow, having […] disobliged it on some occasion, it resumed its nature; and on a sudden fell upon her, and tore her in pieces–And who was most to blame, I pray?  The brute, or the lady?  The lady, surely! – For what she did, was out of nature, out of character at least: what it did, was in its own nature[6].

Isn’t that chillingly persuasive? Relevant?  (We still have arguments about rape today: this justification falls into the ever disgusting and puerile ‘she asked for it’ category.)  But see how it’s written?  There’s no images as such here.  Yet you see it, in flashes, you hear it in your mind, you hear the male voice overlaying the female.  You are there, in the story.  And the thing about Richardson and some of his eighteenth century compatriots, was that all the voices are the narrator, really – all the novels were a big soup of their own ideas on morals and how life should be lived: it was ALL narrator, when you got down to it.

Some of the best novels of the nineteenth century made great fun with the whole concept of narrator.  In the Woman In White, by Wilkie Collins, the female protagonist is menaced through most of the book by another marvellous villain.  She tells the story.  Then (SPOILER ALERT!!!) at a brilliant and vital moment of the story, he abducts her.  The next entry you read is by him!  The complete change of tone and the shock of realising what has happened and the intimacy of suddenly hearing and feeling this dread character speak himself is wonderful!  (I gave a great gasp and had to get up and go and tell Alias Troubadour, who I was with at the time.  The cat was disinterested; so was Troubadour, but still.  I found it genuinely thrilling.)

The great argument FOR the showing and not telling, is that it is very immediate, it places you right in the centre of the action, and doesn’t tell what to think about it.  It lets you make your own mind up. That is very true of the good examples.  But what its made for in reality, is a lot of very lazy shorthand writing (and film, tsk tsk), and a lot of telegraphed emotion.  The whole point about writing is that it’s a lot more subtle and penetrating than dramatic techniques alone.  You can be in someone’s head – or everyone’s head, good old omniscient narrator, so much slagged today – or just one.  Or no one’s; you’re just an essence of the time, the area, a spirit of place.  The other point is that you will make your own mind up as to what to think anyway.  You aren’t stupid.  You’ll figure out that the narrator is Of Their Time, and bear that in mind when listening to the moral pronouncements especially.  

Moving to the present day (as most of the famous omniscient and semi-omniscient narrators are behind us), you’ll find some of the most loved works of now, tell as well as show.  The hugely successful Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell (Susanna Clarke), was a marvellous throwback to the past ways of writing, spliced with writing more Nowishly, an obvious example.  Or…

Hear this:
Dear God,
Nettie here with us.  She run away from home.  She say she hate to leave our stepma, but she had to git out, maybe fine help for the other little ones.  The boys be alright, she say.  They can stay out his way.  When they git big they gon fight him.

Maybe kill, I say[7].

Do you feel that?  In my opinion, that’s the only way to dispense with a omniscient narratorial voice.  A very powerful ‘I’ voice.  That was the scarily strong and moving voice of Celie in The Colour Purple, by Alice Walker.  You can’t be more there than a direct hearing of a story.  You close your eyes and see it from the feeling of it.  Not just any images given.

Even in more popular women’s fiction – lets be rude and call it chicklit, as is so often done in that derogatory way – you’ll hear particularly in early Jane Green, and the mistress Lisa Jewell right until now, a fair bit of telling going on with the showing.  It’s mixed up – and very readable for it.  They haven’t thrown the baby out with the bath water.  Neither have brilliant current literary writers like, say, Sarah Waters (Fingersmith, Affinity, Tipping the Velvet etc).

I think maybe you’ll be saying to me: but you’re confusing omniscient narrators with character voice, altogether.  I say nope – the people who argue the Telling Vs. Showing case, they are the ones confused.  What they forget is that George Eliot and her summations, Charles Dickens and his pronouncements; they WERE characters.  All those overblown narrators, sailing over the main story, apparently robbing you of the right to think for yourself: they were characters in their own rights, albeit without a name, often.  They set a tone, they held the atmosphere, and sometimes they controlled the pace.  But they were just as valid as any other character.  Use them if you want.  Just because they are out of fashion doesn’t yet make them obsolete.

Novels are about hearing voices, as much as about seeing images.

I have to go and eat lunch and do the hoovering (just to pointlessly narrate myself here), but I’ll leave you with the original Miss Chicklit herself, and don’t you love the sound of her youthful voice, here loving to play with the idea of omniscient narrator:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine.  Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition were all equally against her[8]
In addition to what has been already said of Catherine Morland’s personal and mental endowments, when about to be launched into all the difficulties and dangers of a six weeks’ residence in Bath, it may be stated, for the reader’s more certain information, lest the following pages should otherwise fail of giving any idea of what her character is meant to be; that her heart was affectionate, her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind – her manners just removed from the awkwardness and shyness of a girl; her person pleasing, and, when in good looks, pretty – and her mind about as ignorant and unformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is[9].

Well, don’t you love it? 


[1] George Eliot, Middlemarch, London: Penguin (1994; 2003), p.7.  Opening lines of the book.
[2] Ibid, p.838.  The closing lines of the novel, the summation.
[3] Peter Shaffer, Amadeus, London: Penguin (2007) – I refuse to give the page ref – read the whole thing!  And if you get a mo, do read his Equus as well.  It’s what the word Fabulous was overenthused for.  He is always Very Thought Provoking. (And shocking, so be prepared, specially with Equus.)
[4] This course will remain nameless, but anyone who has done it will recognise it immediately.  It also had the other major flaw of using one short story by one of the course authors, all the way through, as an example of various types of style and re-writing techniques.  I feel like being a bit cutting about that, but I won’t.  I will just say: more varied examples would probably have been a lot more helpful.
[5] Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, London and Bath: Penguin (1985), p.790.
[6] Ibid, p.891.
[7] Alice Walker, The Colour Purple, London: The Woman’s Press (1983; 1992), p.17.
[8] Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1998 edn.), p.1.
[9] Ibid, p.5.