Monday, 30 June 2014

Women, Money and Debt in the 18th Century Novel, Part 2: ROXANA, Section 1

Roxana: The Culture of Trade – ‘Expert in it as any She-Merchant’

Section 1

Whenever you read the novels of the 18th century, you can’t help but be struck by extremes of optimism in terms of trade and finance in the characters shown, as well as marked personal avarice.  However, also shown is the sense of great desperation felt by the poverty stricken masses left out of the century’s economic boom cycles.  Sir Lewis Namier, historian, makes clear the feel of the age for most readers:

Every country and every age has dominant terms, which seem to obsess men’s thoughts.  Those of eighteenth century England were property contract, trade and profits.[1]

Roxana was published in 1724, and holds within it a captured sense of the emergent culture of individualism and linked financial acquisitiveness that became so ingrained and characteristic as the century progressed (and look at us now; very little has changed).  It addresses both the desperate decisions made by the poor alongside the dizzying greed of those who have risen.  As Roxana herself says, her reasons for accumulating wealth began due to the desperation of “Poverty, my Snare”[2], and then after she is rich became “an excess of Avarice and […] vanity” (p.202).

To generalise, Georgian England was responding to changes the century before that were prompting the growth of the market economy, which “successfully went forth and multiplied”[3].  From about 1700 till the mid century, individuals were still grasping at the new opportunities, and Daniel Defoe, in choosing to portray these economic changes, was uninterested in hiding the predatory nature capitalism had already assumed (which is so normalised these days we take it for granted…).  Bram Dijkstra points out that it isn’t until 19th century fiction that the naked greed and disregard for others that often accompanies getting rich was hidden behind new ideologies.  For example, women were again enclosed within “myths of sacrifice”, only allowed to be ‘saved’ from wrongdoing if they were (and remained) a victim of exploitation by another.[4]  He makes the (startling) point that Roxana’s individuality as a heroine and her mirroring of a “moment in history”, is that she turns the situation of exploitation around and charges for it.  She takes control (agency, in psychological terms) back from circumstance and from the patriarchy around her.[5]

In this 2 part examination of Roxana, I’m hoping to lay out how her entire fate is driven by her attitude to her finances – that they define and shape her sense of self.  Even moreso than Moll Flanders (what a woman, seriously!), Roxana is a book about acquisition.  About dealing with the world via the medium of money and goods attained.  (How male is she painted?!)  I’ll examine the various incidents and relationships in her life, showing the development of her attitudes to money – its not so much linear as its exponential: she greatly increases command of her finances and concomitant sense of personal power and control over her life and its circumstances.  For instance, she is attracted to her first husband (who turns out to be a useless character), partly because of his virtuosity as a dancer (p.7).  Yet later in the book she learns the real worth of social accomplishments such as these (what they can procure you, not  how they can fool you) – she dances for a King, and gains her name, status and vast financial reward as his mistress (p.176).  John Richetti comments that:

Her obvious irony is that social determinants produce a self that cannot manage to survive.  The story of [her] survival and prosperity lies in the acquisition, through economic necessity, of a natural [law, economic] perspective on social forms.[6]

From the very start of the novel, Roxana defines herself and her family in economic terms.  From the 2nd paragraph, she informs us of the fortunate state of her parents’ wealth in changing countries, from France to England.  She is already well aware of social forms.  She comments that her father’s goods were “selling very much to Advantage here, my Father was in very good Circumstance in his coming over” (p.5).  Her first concern, at every incident she relates is to tell the reader exactly how she is placed to deal with the situation in practical monetary terms. Her position, very early on in the narrative after her first marriage, is one of extreme material and emotional hardship.  It leaves her believing that she has only one thing left with which to barter to provide her with the means to sustenance: herself.  Her desperate need for material things only reinforces her belief in the importance of these material things. 

This is natural: when even the most basic things (food and shelter for yourself and your children) are going to be revoked due to your lack of ability to pay for them, it’s likely this position of acute powerlessness will not be forgotten.  It’ll be imprinted on the mind.  As Richetti comments, when Roxana is extremely wealthy (much later in the book), and is being plagued by another compulsion (that of hiding her past from her daughter Susan) – only the extremely rich can ignore the need for money and goods and deem them worthless or unimportant.  Ironically, by then, it’s Roxana who is demonstrating this attitude, due to her terrible remorse about Susan:

Her ultimate stunt as a unique individual is to gain the whole world and then declare it meaningless[…] that superficial alienation of stupendous wealth is a breathtaking if unbelievable act of egotism and privilege.[7]

Hmm.  He’s judgmental?!  To me that comment sounded not so much one of her ungratefulness culturally at her fortunate position as a person; but more one of ‘you succeeded in a Man’s world then rejected it; how dare you, Woman!’ – but that’s just how I read it…

It may seem ‘unbelievable’ that a woman almost entirely governed by her need for financial/material security would eventually see these things as valueless, but I’d say the most interesting thing about her as a character is that her feelings about what money does genuinely change – she learns.  She begins to think of her money as tainted (“my ill-got Wealth, the Product of prosperous Lust” [p.259]), and to consider whether her trade-offs have benefitted her as much as she had initially thought in her endless countings up:

Not all the Affluence of a plentiful Fortune; not a hundred Thousand Pounds Estate, […] not all the things we call Pleasure, cou’d give me any relish…(p.264)

She finally clashes with the other value systems that govern women: that of family and child-rearing responsibility.  They are precisely the values that had originally caused her to begin her career as a prostitute after desertion by her husband left her no other means to support her children.  This circularity can be illustrated in the text, through her involvements with men.

Critic Bram Dijkstra offers a schematic analysis of Roxana’s financial acumen by looking at her relationships with men, for example.  I have chosen to mirror Dikstra’s article structure for this section, as he shows useful developments in Roxana’s financial thinking.  However, there are many ways in which my opinions differ from his.  The most important of these is that he oversimplifies complex and competing ideologies; this is especially visible in his close analysis of the novel (we’ll get to that later).  He considerably underestimates the degree to which Roxana’s interest in the possibilities of capitalism is mixed up (especially later in the book) with emotional qualms, relationship qualms in particular.  The immense psychological cost she has to pay in the end outweighs her gains on the material level.  Other critics have noted the tensions between the ideologies driving Roxana, and how uneasily they sit within the narrative.  Richetti referred to the whole novel as “deeply problematical”[8].  Maximilian Novak has stated that Roxana’s narrative “reflects something close to despair”[9].  Roxana is torn between an altruistic sense of motherhood and her fervent need for material security personally – that these two dynamics clash and cause her to become a deeply fragmented and contradictory person is borne out by the narrative as it progresses.  Dijkstra chooses to ignore this tension, which leaves his arguments sounding clever but hollow.  I’ll show you my view as we progress.

Dijkstra makes a very good initial case for each liaison being a different stage of Roxana’s financial instruction.  The first feckless husband shows her behaviour to be avoided; though at this stage she is powerless in a business sense, both as a female and a wife: “I saw my Ruin hastening on, without any possible Way to prevent it” (p.11)[10].  Roxana’s husband ignored her good financial advice, of which all her suggested remedies for bad financial management are later endorsed by Defoe’s subsequent inclusion of them in The Compleat English Tradesman (1728)[11].

Her husband eventually deserts her, and as a middle class female trained for nothing, as Ian Bell points out, she is forced to make a choice leading her to vice.  This is because she sees herself as a “woman of quality, an image that does not vanish when her money does”[12].  She cannot reconcile her understanding of her status to her actual circumstances.  In the mercenary world, where attributes are assessed in terms of their usefulness or marketability, her genteel expectations and training fit her only for a life of deception and persistent fraud.  Her training has involved an upbringing where wealth and possessions have always been emphasized (recall the first page of her narrative, and her enumeration of her parents’ moveable treasure): she knows no other system of judgement for her life.  Security through goods is what she has always understood.  Stone makes clear that at this point in history, apart from marriage or becoming a servant or seamstress, prostitution is the only other profession open to women.  So its interesting to note Defoe’s respect and belief in women of business – a repect Dijkstra notes too.  James Thompson, however, notes that this support has its limitations.  Defoe’s enthusiasm goes only as far as married women managing their husband’s finances, or widows.  There are no career opportunities for single women: “a never married tradeswoman is a logical impossibility for Defoe”[13]. So, Roxana’s education saw she was fit for nothing but prostitution; but it is her quick brain that allows her to make such a resounding financial success of her ‘chosen’ career.

Dijkstra suggests that Roxana’s next liaison, with the landlord-jeweller (where she finds the necessity that turns her to trade), is an introduction to basic commerce.  He is an international merchant (not a drone tradesman as her first husband was), and thus represents a step up the financial ladder in terms of efficiency[14].  He makes an immediate mark on her consciousness by appearing and restoring, seamlessly and quickly, “the social order from which Roxana has fallen” – by paying the bills and tidying up the place with the help of gardeners, buying furniture, and procuring her a feast: “poor Amy and I had drunk nothing but Water for many weeks” (p.26).  By doing all these things for Roxana, he immediately places her under an obligation. 

A very important stage in Roxana’s growing psychological education occurs because of an incident in this liaison: that is, the deeply problematic event of Roxana “putting Amy to bed” with the landlord-jeweller, against her wishes.  Dijikstra has persuasively argued, and here I partially agree, that Roxana did this for pragmatic business reasons: “that my Maid should be a Whore too and not reproach me with it” (p.47).  So this is not merely a spiteful act, caused by Roxana’s wish to corrupt another because she has been corrupted, as critics like J.R. Hammond and John Richetti have suggested[15]; it is a sound emotional way to re-establish authority over Amy, a parity between them that was being lost by Amy’s increasing over familiarity and snideness, and would no doubt have worsened over time by Amy’s own sense of her sinlessness compared with her mistress.  Of course, nowadays, this whole scenario is brutal and criminal…take this as in its time, remember this story and the values it represents and depicts occur over 250 years ago.  To continue: Dijkstra points out that in The Compleat English Tradesman Defoe again and again emphasizes the need for strict control over servants and apprentices; and that therefore, for

Roxana to be an efficient businesswoman meant that she would have to be in firm control of her immediate environment, […] an efficient exploiter of others.[16]

There is no suggestion within the novel that this is anything other than an ‘immoral’ act.  But morals and business have rarely meshed successfully.[17]  Richetti asserts that not only has Roxana re-established discipline but she has triumphed over the “ideological positions [Amy and her landlord] represent”; as by Roxana’s bold and vile action, she causes both parties to “lose their respective claims on [her] as ideological masters”.[18]  The sense of the nakedly predatory nature of early capitalism is never made clearer than by the rape of Amy.  After that, balance is restored.

Hmm.  Whilst this explanation is slick and persuasive, it ignores a vital moment in the dehumanization of Roxana.  The cost to her as an individual, of this action, and the concomitant loss of identification with Amy is huge.  Amy is no longer her trusted ally, but her soiled stooge.  Roxana is only capable of cold cmfort over Amy’s misery over the rape, referred to only as ‘the bedding’:

[…]She was undone!  Undone!  And cry’d almost all Day; I did all I could to pacify her: A Whore! Says I, and am I not a Whore as well as you? […] Well, all did not pacify Amy, but she cry’d two or three days about it; but it wore off by degrees. (p.47)

Richetti notes that at this point Roxana “stands outside the consolations of any brand of Christianity”[19]; while G.A. Starr goes even further, suggesting that by this incident Defoe “means to consign Roxana to the devil”[20].  He argues that the bedding of Amy reveals “a hardness of heart” which suggests that “Defoe regarded his heroine as a damned soul”[21].

This nasty incident is certainly a foreshadowing of the almost schizophrenic behaviour Roxana gives in to towards the end of the book[22].  It shows openly, that she has made a decision between the relative merits of human relationships and her own need for material and psychological security and control.  To stop herself from being hurt – materially and emotionally – she must continue the process of psychological alienation and detachment she began when she took the decision to “whore for bread” (p.202).  She begins to render all human relationships “contractual”[23].  The landlord-jewller, knowing now where his interest really lays (he despises Amy after the bedding, as Roxana cleverly figured he would) draws up a contract of cohabitation for Roxana, complete with penalties for leaving: he “arranges his desire with social forms; he modifies social restrictions by counter arrangements of his own”.[24]  This method of relating to people is now a far cleaner and less emotionally wrought one for Roxana: she accepts the contract.

This is where we’ll darkly leave it for today, with Roxana having become a pimp of sorts…she has many more lessons and adventures in store, we’ll catch up with her the next segment.  She is a BRILLIANTLY readable and flawed character.  I hope you enjoyed reading this – more people should read Defoe, he had a lot of interest to say about the period through his characters – and his period, my god, really not that different to ours in many ways…

[1] Sir Lewis Namier, quoted in Roy Porter’s English Society in the Eighteenth Century (London: Penguin, 1991), p.185.
[2] Daniel Defoe, Roxana or the Fortunate Mistress (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 this edn.), p.39.
[3] Porter, ibid.
[4] Bram Dijkstra, Defoe and Economics: The Fortunes of Roxana in the History of Interpretation (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1987), p.23.
[5] Dijkstra, p.24.
[6] John Richetti, Defoe’s Narratives: Situations and Structures (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p.199.
[7] John Richetti, The English Novel in History, 1700-1780 (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p.81
[8] Richetti, p.73.
[9] Maximilian E. Novak, Realism, Myth and History in Defoe’s Fiction (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), p.101.
[10] In the 18th century, as Lawrence Stone makes clear, whilst a woman’s position in marriage was made slightly better by the increase of the provision made in her dowry (as in, she made a major improvement to her husband’s finances – an improvement on the century before), there was absolutely nothing to stop the husband wasting the money or making bad investments.  Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (London: Penguin, 1990, this edn.), p.221-2.
[11] Dijkstra, p.18.
[12] Ian A. Bell, Defoe’s Fiction (London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1985), p.162.
[13] James Thompson, Models of Value: Eighteenth Century Political Economy and the Novel (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996), p.121.
[14] Dijkstra, p.31.
[15] J.R. Hammond, A Defoe Companion (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993), p.127; John J. Richetti, Daniel Defoe (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987), p.109-10.
[16] Dijkstra, p.28.
[17] This was seen later in the century with Edmund Burke insisting that poverty wages for labourers were fine, as to interfere with the free market was to interfere with the “laws of God”, and that, to be frank, “great trade is always attended with great abuses”.  Frank O’Gorman, The Long Eighteenth Century: British Political and Social History, 1688-1832 (London: Arnold, 1997), p.271.  How little changes – how much stays the same…
[18] Richetti, Defoe’s Narratives, pp.208-209.
[19] Richetti, The English Novel in History, p.73.
[20] G.A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography (New York: Gordian Press, 1971), p.165.
[21] Starr, p.169.
                                                 Daniel Defoe, author of 'Roxana'
[22] Psychologically, her need to reduce Amy to her own ‘whore’ status, so she cannot be judged by her anymore, as well as get control over her by inducing Amy’s own sense of powerful shame, has been commented on by psychologist Christophe Scheel:

“the childhood schema of Roxana is running the show here: her own sense of defectiveness as a person, taught to her by her parents love of things over people and the lack of affection she received, leads her to begin viewing people as objects she can only understand by either having them admire her material position, feeding a sense of control over her situation and therefore outward self – or else they are to be reduced from the status of Judge over her (as she felt Amy was: she saw her as a Bad Mirror) by an act of humiliation: the Bedding.  She took Amy’s power over herself away – and could even judge her herself, after that incident.  Roxana resented Amy (imagining Amy’s thoughts about her were as bad as hers about herself – projective identification, rather than mere projection), and so belittled her in a manner both physical and psychological.  It was shrewd, it was cold: it was the act of someone terrified of losing a sense of self identification.  Roxana is very flawed, horribly human.”

– Personal correspondence with Christophe Scheel, Retired Psychodynamics Psychotherapist and Retired Lecturer in Eighteenth Century English Literature.  Quite a guy!!
[23] John Mullan, in his Introduction to the edition of Roxana used here, p. xx.
[24] Richetti, Defoe’s Narratives, p.206.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Beautiful Words, Part 1

This is a series of freewrites I did from Margret Geraghty’s excellent prompts book The Five Minute Writer (2009).  This was one of my favourite exercises, and it goes like this:

The British Council recently did a survey about what the most beautiful words were, in the English language.  Voters in 46 countries, over 40,000 of them.  The top 3 were: mother, passion, and smile.  (No chocolate, shock!)  Something universal here.

Pick one word from the British Council’s Top 20 and freewrite for 5 minutes.

Then make own list and do the same. (I’ll get to that in the subsequent parts of this series – my own list got long!)

British Council’s Top Surveyed Beautiful Words are:

  • Mother (I’ve done this one elsewhere, another blog post, so won’t include it), Passion, Smile, Love, Eternity, Destiny, Freedom, Liberty, Tranquility, Peace, Sunshine, Sweetheart, Gorgeous, Cherish, Enthusiasm, Grace, Rainbow, Fantastic, Blossom, Hope.

The thing that boils your brain and makes your veins feel like hot soup is running through them; the broths of a thousand cold nights breathing in your body.  Sweeps of red velvet and purple chiffon as you hold your arms open wide, running past you and the colours take your breath away.  A humming feeling of joy and purpose – in life, in touch, in love.  The purring contentment of many cats seizes your mind and soars you high, with the birds, up with the birds.  Where the way is plain, and route clear, however long it will take, it is your life to be lived.  And in the meantime – the stare between 2 people, pulled together by chemicals and a sense of almost divine connection; they stare at each other and feel the burn between them, all parts of them heated and moving.

                                                              This beautiful drawing from:

It’s not a cliché to say that a smile from a stranger can brighten a whole day with its spaciousness, the sudden sense of sun.  It’s not a lie to say a week’s worth of bad mood can be cleared and healed, to a degree, by one smile in the right place at the right time.  Smiles of children, smiles of grown ups, smiles of those you love.  The way cats seem to smile, with their sweet faces stretched back.  Those little black lips, so dry and warm, the scruff tautness of whiskers.  The love of the hug and the smiley face, walking all over your stomach as you try to nap on a Saturday afternoon, on the sofa.  Once upon a time, a while ago.

The thing that makes the world go insane.  The thing that makes the world  slide into narcissism, that thinks it’s altruism.  The thing that makes a child smile or cry to see a loved one; that makes a dog wag its tail, that makes a cat thread through your legs, a small weave in a life of weft.  The thing that makes you lie awake at night, crying quietly and alone, even with someone next to you.  The thing that makes you feel like life is worth living, because of the you that you see in someone else’s face, reflected back like the best mirror.  Or the thing that makes you want to die because it has been removed and you don’t understand it.  Or you don’t love yourself and see no hope.  Love is hope.  Maybe, possibly.

On the one hand, this is a glossy romance cover from the 80’s, where a couple on a windswept beach are clinched, and she is barely able to hold her eyes open as her passion drags her head so far back, the weight of her hair, golden and kissed by all suns, falling heavily behind her.  The man has heavy muscles, again kissed with suns, and he holds her bowing back, his hair dark and monstrous.  They are locked together, like this – for eternity.

Eternity is also where you go if you don’t believe in Christ – eternity of hell, of torment – the ultimate punishment for disagreeing with someone.  The punishment of a child who has no more words, no more arguments, no logic or reasoning – or compassion.  Its one thing to say that those who prosper in this life through deceit and lies will get a comeuppance in a life to come; another to doom those who disbelieve because of lack of brain damage, to the same place.  The urge to fascism in humans is almost unparalleled.

I wonder why so many of these words have been hijacked by perfumes, or marketing campaigns of some sort, to the point where I don’t see their beauty in this list.  To me, destiny sounds a hard thing.  A life of suffering that you are doomed to.  Hmmm.  Sounds like a curse word – ‘It is your Destiny!’ She raged at him. 

Or else…this is a Bond Woman, Ms Destiny Waits: she’s oiled and limber, has a sassy mouth and is quick with a gun.  She runs in high heels, she doesn’t sprain her ankle (as I would); and Bond – well, he may think he has her (he certainly Had Her), but really she’s already gone, on her speedboat, off to the next thing; ‘cos surely, she’s an international art dealer who also plays the harp and violin – she has concerts to attend, places to be.  He is but a dalliance; he was fun for a night, and dodging bullets is hot, after all.  And that camera crew, that seemed to be everywhere…what was that about?

She lit the cigarette, watching the flickering of the little flame with a feeling of wonder.  These little moments of relaxation outside of the office were what made the day doable.  She looked out, seeing the many shades of green on the returning colour of the shrubs – the trees still bare.

Most of her life spent feeling oh so tired, and just this small sacred tiny moment, one of not many, where suddenly the world looked gorgeous and new again.  It roared through her, the song of herself a song of happiness and sweetness.

When she went back upstairs, moving lightly and slowly, she felt an airiness that had been gone from the morning before.  Now, though the time till it was hometime was long, really, it felt as if it could be done.  She sat at her desk, tapping away, at varying pace, while her thoughts led her gently onward, feeling in a small bubble of happiness and peacefulness.  For however long.  A precious time of quiet in the mind and quiet in the body.

6 o clock in the morning and alls well….the echoing wind, and the pent up flat voice of the speaker call to me from 6 years old, standing in the dark curtain covered tiny room.  The Fire of London will rage any moment, starting from Pudding Lane and branching out, via small lights in buildings, spreading ever onward.  The cracking of buildings; the way they blew the buildings up, trying to stop the fire feeding.  People escaping via the river with all they can get onto small boats; Samuel Pepys buries his things, and stands from far back watching the whole spectacle.  Time moves in a bubble.  A thousand times I have been to this room in the Museum of London, and always, from the smallest age, I come and stand here.  Transfixed by the freedom produced by devastation.  A new world of nothingness and ever greater harshity, facilitated by crackling and soot and people’s faces blackened for a historical disaster I was never there for, but which haunts me onward.  I always come back to the moment of freedom here.  It started so small, and leaves you with nothing.   A moment of exhilarating freedom; before you realize nothing really is nothing, and all your freedom – if you were an ordinary person – was taken away – your home, the possessions and savings you spent years accumulating to get away from where you were, to better yourself.  History is full of such harshness.  And now – that room is forever gone in the form that it had – they have remodelled the museum, and while the Fire of London room still exists, it’s a pale pale shadow of what it once was – it has a degree of detachment in its telling of the tale now that takes its monstrosity and reality right away.  I do not approve.

A moment in a Japanese garden I have never been to, it’s not even an echo of the Kyoto Gardens which I have been to.  It’s a Japan where small women swish back and forth. Their constrictive dressing and tiny feet, their imaginary painted faces (the weight of much stereotyping leaden on their serene faces, serene with being held in place by too much makeup, painted faces not real faces) passing by me, as I sit on a bench, watching the scene.  An ornamental fountain makes tinkling sounds, a small gardener rakes over some gravel far to the right. Is he very small or far away, like Father Ted and Dougal – he might actually be very small – he is a figure from a tiny executive toy zen garden, ever raked by uneasy hands of palpitative directors, looking to settle their minds of worries about their careers in this sodden economy, all the things they had to do to get right here…shake shake go their hands on the tiny rake – crack, it cracks in half under the weight of their guilt.  I sit in what may be a snowglobe of a garden, feeling the soft weight of sun on my shoulders, warm and bathing me.  There is peace sitting here in the sun, watching the imaginations of a thousand westerners go quietly past, with a soft bowing of head; past and into the den of imagination of someone else, who imagines these women elsewhere, doing other things, releasing their small bodies from their garments.  I sit and watch the birds fly gently overhead, small birds, pastel coloured – hint of pink.  In the far distance is a rice field, a paddy field, and its composed like a painting of serfs working.  So pretty, not being the one to sweat and work.  Imagination is so often composed on unreal things.  This tranquillity is unreal.  But pleasant.  I realise I am in fact sitting within a Willow Plate…

The idea of me sitting in an empty ballet studio, in a ray of sun, in a perfect lotus position.  My spine straight.  I sit there, eyes closed, and feeling the bake of the light on my lids – all is red behind them.  I see stars and redness, the madness of running veins.  The horses of imagination pull past me, and gallop on.  I am entering a state I have never been in.  I feel a strong connection with the floor under me, the air around all of me.  I sit, bathed in the light of the cosmos and feeling my inner space stretch and grow.  Planets swirl in my mind; fast and incredibly slow and leaden – yet suspended, great heavy gaseous masses, suspended and non dropping.  Meteorites move through.

Really, I am in bed.  Weightless on the point of sleeping and cruel is the day I must get up into.  Cruel and bright and screaming with light.  Beautiful and harsh and strong.  I lay there, eyes closed, a moment more, feeling the peace of having woken, and the peace of being able to go back to sleep again really soon.  The peace of a little thought, but not the churning wave that usually pours through and tires me further.  I feel the strength of the minds fight to reactivate and I still it – a feat rarely done.  I say to myself: ‘I am at peace’, and I lay there, so heavy and stapled, in what feels like my truest state – prefect ease and rest and warmth, covered by the duvet; a cat sleeping on my feet; a boyfriend with one leg thrown over me, his breathe warming my cheek.  I let it all go, and slide away, back to the place where I lie prone, my hands soft and unclawed, and nothing matters but floating away, sinking and the redness behind my eyes, that fades soon, soon it fades.  Away and gone, am I and it.

And then I awaken, finally, and I see that I am sitting upright, cross-legged.  My back rests against the shed.  I am bathed in light, from head to foot.  The sun sits high above me, to the right, a perfect glowing orb that I cannot look at, though I always do, and see that moment of pulsating before my eyes burn the image and then everything I look at after is a black hole in the middle of this dark blotting sun.  There is nothing but meadows in front of me, green and rolling and getting dry.  Fields boundary the huge field, and far off, cows low to one another, or just low because it’s what they do.  They chew peacefully, and the birds sing, up in the trees, an endless twitter and a rustle of branches.  The smell is of warmth, warmth and possibly something assort of honey-ish.  I have no inclination to move. I stretch out my arms, and I watch the sun glint off every one of my hairs; I watch my arm be golden.  Its beautiful, my skin glitters as if I’m wearing body cream and sparkles – but this is just sun.  Here it is warm deepest spring – almost summer, and everything is awake and going about its business.  I am here to watch and feel and soak it up, and that’s what I do.  I sit in sunlight, and I don’t really stir.  I put my hands to my head and feel the heat being absorbed by my hair.  I consider a hat; but here, if I get drowsy and fall asleep in the sun, I won’t feel sick, I won’t burn; I will simply wake up later, still warm and smelling the honey and still tan, ever more golden.  There will be no pain, because this is where I rest; this is the sanctuary.  I’m on the Lands, ever safe.

Sweet, sweetie, sweetheart my love.  The little things he croons, that I croon too, as we lie there, twining, naked and sweaty and like little furless kittens, a pack of two.  In the bed, where all is heaven, and almost unspoken, there we lie. The sun comes through the curtains and against that lifeless 80s wallpaper, makes all look golden.  We lie there in content, eyes open or closed, breathing softly together.

Or its what I used to say to Fry, when he was younger and he’s sad and flopsybunny, and thinks the world will go on forever and him too scared to take a part and thinking it will never come to him either – ‘oh sweetie, sweetie, it will be ok’, I say.  And if he’s with me, we curl up on the bed and watch some dire horror film or a comedy, and bond out giggly or grossed out way through all disasters of the mind.

Sweetie, sweet, sweetheart: this is the word that makes things feel better, that lets the love and the sweetness come through.

This is a doubled word.  It’s partly the word that is overused by fashion gurus as they gush their spittle of redtipped nails over their models; or Gok Wan convinces yet another curvy woman that her arse is really not that bad, especially 20 feet high over a public building, projected down for the gazes of surprisingly kind passersby.  (It does restore your faith in humanity, those makeover programmes – specially when they simply makeover how you think of your appearance – have been known to cry out loud and shed real tears while watching someone stop feeling fat and start to feel curvy and perfectly fine.) 

It’s a word that speaks of overdone praise, a word that creaks with the weight of Easter baskets and pastel covered goo; necklines that only skinny tall women like Nicole Kidman can wear, in adverts that last 30 seconds attempting to tell the story of stars overwhelming fall from mental poise, supped back in the eyes of a single strangers adulation: you’re gorgeous.  That ad was 2009, I think.

In the mouths of ordinary people, it’s a word for presents, that’s gorgeous; or a fur collar in the dead of winter white quiet – wow that’s lovely, it’s gorgeous.  It’s the love of me for boy, you’re gorgeous, and you’re lovely, my sweetie, my gorgeous boy…

Sounds like a cherry tree streaming with blossoms that you stand under like a shower and catch all the small pieces in your hair, a pink river breaks over your head and in your eyes, running in air, on streams of cool breeze, the smell of tiny sweet blossoms catching in your throat.  You sink to the ground and lie there, a snowangel of blossom all around you, and small dogs, other peoples, come to gallop up and smell you, little park eohippus’s. Cherish the pie, that Agent Cooper always paused to eat, before he was lost to his double and did not cherish anymore.  The tartness of cherries, the soft click of the fork against the plate as you push down on the crust and break through with a soft give, against the pastry and through to the cherries inside; the push out, oozing sweetness and the capabilities of cooks.  Somewhere, someone stands smiling as you break through that sugar crust, and they watch you as Maggie Gyllenhal watched Will Ferrel learn to love sweet things – glorying in imperfection and getting away from tax and columns.  Did you see that film?

Cherish the cherry pie, and streaming blossoms of spring.  This is your life.

This is Fry leaping from the earliest of ages.  When he was a tiny baby, this is him being held upright in my arms and trying very hard to jump up and down.  This is him being sturdy in the face of the storm that whipped his face when we were going home.  This is him jumping up and down to this day whenever he feels excited about something.  This is him jumping and then that Star Wars model of Stanley’s falls off the shelf and crashes sadly to the floor and looks like a dead body.  We are all gobsmacked and Fry lays sadly on the sofa and wants to go home because he feels so bad.  Stanley, being Stanley, gets over it quite quickly, when I promise to buy him another one when I can.  Fry jumping while I watch his vids and tell him he’s very good, smiling hugely and saying, ‘I feel like God!’ as I watch the latest one for the tenth time, because it really is very good.

This is 2 things.  Firstly, it’s a small Irish woman with her black hair in a loose bun, wiping the surface of her kitchen clear of crumbs, after her family has finished eating the freshly baked bread, still warm, that she served them.  Now her children are running in the countryside outside, squealing through the fields.  She finished wiping and sits in a slant of sunlight, by the table, smiling softly to herself, tired but full of contentment.  The next batch of bread raises in the corner, covered with a dishcloth; the last in the oven.

The 2nd thing is a catholic girl sitting quietly in a pew in church, her head bent.  She is covered with one of those little black lace mantillas.  Her head is lowered reverentially, her hands clasped loosely together before her.  Her mouth moves soundlessly and she fingers the rosary, beads flying past her fingers.  She is beyond a stereotype, she is a dream of a piety that someone somewhere wishes would exist.  In my mind she is the beginning, likely, of something dangerous and unthinking.  The little Irish woman in her kitchen is far beyond her in terms of what I consider grace.

This is the land of 70s childhood with Geoffrey and Bungle.  This is me wearing little orange trouser suits that my mother has sewn for me, and eating little bowls of frosties with a teaspoon (as I still do, except I eat crunchy nut cornflakes or Special K now – but still the teaspoon!). 

Its me dreaming about the first part of the Lands that I ever invented – where unicorns ran freely, in my secret valley, topped always, by a rainbow, sitting softly in the sky, over all, over the verdant greenness of the earth, turned always by the heels of the unicorn as they move through, always on their way somewhere before returning to the spot where they gather, whinnying, stroking each others necks with their noses.  Never scared at my approach and always happy to see me.

This is an old word – it’s the Fantastic 5, sweet mildewy smelling books from crumply and dusty second hand bookshops in Worthing.  Its old comics with Pow and Kapow and Kazaamm and lots of exclamation marks.  For some reason it’s the bracing early morning seaspray and a 5 year old running along the edge of the shingle, his little fists pinwheeling.  It’s a myth, a boy word.

My old first cat, an American sitcom I’ve never seen, springtime in film, springtime in life.  The walk we had one long ago Saturday that went through West Ham Park – a tiny park but sweet enough (after being used to Hyde Park and Kensington gardens it felt more like a very big back yard than a park).  Through to Green Street, which was like an alternative universe.  It got slummier and slummier – old houses falling down almost and everything dirty and uncared for looking.  People standing about looking unkempt in the middle of the pavement having patois pidgin conversations with others.  People walking slowly, lots of very worn or very unfortunate looking people, ugly and breeding.  Lots of contradictions – a girl with a very strict hijab hiding most of her top half as well as her head; then skinny of skinniest jeans, and red stilettos, swaggering – what’s the point, any modesty gained on the top half was lost on the bottom?!  Loads of brightly coloured clothes and sari shops – I was sad I didn’t have much money and wanted to buy lots of tops that I saw.  Beautiful whites, and leaf designs, sequins, but not garish.  Flashes of colours; the cheapest pashminas.  In one shop we stopped and Stanley bought paneer cheese, and a coconut water drink for me, that had little bits of pulp in it.  It was lovely, but Stanley wanted me to throw it away as he didn’t like it.  Kept showing me bins and saying, ‘throw it away, there you go’ and I kept saying, ‘but I’m not done and its lovely’.  He walked hand in hand for ages, very slow, strolling, and eventually got near home again.  I saw a tree in massive bloom and picked a tiny sprig of blossom off, for my altar.  When I got home, and we collapsed on the sofa, I remembered it, and got up and put it there, on my Robin Hood plate.

Hope is the name of a child I once had in my head.  She did colouring in while she sat in a small ball on the ground.  She was very self contained, in her little Aran sweater, all of four or five years old.  Little green cords, and small hands, colouring neatly in maroon and green – a big hippy sunflower – a joyful colour.  In the dream of the head, the patio doors onto the garden were wide open, and the breeze coming in lifted her soft fine hair, a gentle golden colour, tipped with red sheen.  She has the most perfect little skin and bones – she is all unbroken as yet, all unbroken and soon to be willowy.  But for now, she is small and untouched and she is waiting for dinner, but has forgotten about it.  I make scrambled eggs in the kitchen and watch her though the door, as she sits bent over the colouring, humming to herself some slightly tuneless song but which I vaguely recognize.  She hears a bird in the garden and her head cocks like a cat, but she doesn’t really look up.  It swings softly back to her work, and bends over it slightly more.  She is absorbed; it’s in the angle of her shoulders and the way her little knees are locked there.  The eggs are ready and I stand full in the doorway, smelling the air from beyond the garden.  It is coastal air, we are up on a hill, and down lower, glistening with all its cold and salty promise, is the sea in summer, waiting, always there and always patient.  I look over at the sofa, and see towels from earlier, when we went paddling.

This is an alternative life I never lived, where I am (where am I?) down in Dorset, or Cornwall, and I sing with the breeze in the mornings.  My man will come home soon, and I might be sketching in the garden, while Hope sleeps on the sofa.  He’ll come back mellow, because the work was satisfying, and he feels good about it, and that is usually the way for him with an absorbing project.  I’ll hear him come in, and I’ll try again to capture the line of the fence leading out to the meadow beyond, and for the thousandth time, I’ll think how lucky I am, how incredibly lucky I am.  We steal out of the room, to not wake Hope, and go and lie together upstairs on the bed.  We smile at each other and just hug.  Soon Hope wakes as we are just dozing off, and she comes and lies between us, and we smile at her and hold our arms over her; we all sleep, and soon the cat wanders in and twines herself around our feet too.

The day is dying slowly and hope ate her eggs.  It’s a peaceful world and we are charmed to live it.


Next part in this series - my list of beautiful words, and some freewrites on those.