Normal for Now

I was sitting in the bar area of the Barfleur on its way into Cherbourg, reading Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’ when I glanced up as we were gliding past the Irish ferry, ‘W B Yeats’.

I’d just reached the part in the novel where Trinity student Connell gets totally wasted during his summer break and is lured back to the flat of his former secondary school teacher where she has the intention of ravishing him [until the excess of alcohol precludes the act].

I got to thinking, then that I’m pushed to recall the names of any of my secondary school teachers. I can remember my very first teacher, Miss Hunter, who I loved. I can almost   remember the name of my next teacher, in the juniors, Mrs  Someone. We moved. I know who my next teacher in the juniors was because it was my dad.

I passed the ’11 plus’ and had the dubious reward of going to Wisbech High School, where our newbie form was ruled over by an austere and frightening Scottish woman whose name escapes me, but might have been ‘Miss MacFarlane’. I was anxious the entire time, for two terms. Then we moved again and there was a plethora of remote characters who entered classrooms, delivered their notes and left.

In the sixth form, studying English literature, among other things W B Yeats was on the syllabus. I developed a lifelong dislike of W B Yeats’ work and to this day I shudder when I hear mention of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. We were never given a chance to explore and enjoy the work; never had the background explained or saw how it related to Irish history and politics-let alone to my own, teenage self.

‘Normal People’ explores a teenage love story from more contemporary times. In the story Connell connects much more to the texts he is studying. As students, he and Marianne drink, do drugs, party in much the same way that I did during my 70s student-dom in London. How long ago it all seems now-and it is!

P1060995

Now here we are in Avranches in the warm sunshine of an April evening, having driven off the ferry to travel hopefully and with the relief of the Brexit delay wrapped around us like a snug blanket-for now. It is pleasant enough to sit outside in the square with a beer and survey the elegant decadence that is commonplace in French architecture.

P1060994

When we pulled into the ‘aire’ there were already French motorhomes in place. We reversed back just as a couple were leaving to walk the few hundred metres into town. They turned, smiled and waved in greeting and I realised I was almost holding my breath until this moment. Maybe, just maybe we are still as welcome as ever in the places we love and will always love to go…

Advertisements

At Seventeen

A seventeen year old boy has died at the Reading Festival this year. This is a tragic event for him-his young life ended just as it was beginning-and for his parents, family and friends. It set me thinking back to my life at seventeen.

Seventeen is an ‘in-between’ age, at once awkward, daring, angst-ridden and thrilling. You’ll be on the verge of leaping from childhood into adulthood, preparing for university or employment, marriage [as my mother was] or parenthood. Janis Ian’s heartfelt ‘At Seventeen’ describes the longing and the turmoil involved in being the age:

‘And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone’

As a seventeen year old and the youngest in our family I appeared to have been granted a lot of freedom for the time [the late 60s]. The hippy period was underway. I had a suitably Lennon-esque, guitar-playing boyfriend with a car. We roamed the county in search of music gigs, getting to see everyone from Fairport Convention and Family to John Heisman’s Coliseum and Chicken Shack. I wore long, trailing skirts and often went barefoot out of school hours. I went on camping trips in a group that consisted of all boys, trusted by my mother because the boyfriend and all the others were choirboys! Little did she guess…

We experimented with weed, drank more than we could cope with, spent long nights listening to entire albums [LPs as they were] by our favourite musicians. When I was left at home for many weekends while my parents went to help out with caring for my sick grandfather I either spent the days at the boyfriend’s, lolling about in his bedroom while his mother made meals for us, or holding impromptu, drunken parties in my own parent-free home. The aftermath of these drunken and weed-ridden bashes meant Sundays attempting to clean up and formulating explanations for broken items, aromas or stains.

At the watershed that was end of school and start of student life, Boyfriend and I went our separate ways, figuratively and literally-he to Sheffield and I to London. When I announced to my mother that a subsequent Boyfriend and I were to share a flat she astounded me by being outraged, spluttering ‘You needn’t think you are doing that in this house!’ Could she really have had no idea at all about my activities as a seventeen-year-old?

My own, post-Aids era offspring were of course more circumspect, more grounded and less wild. They grew up in the Margaret Thatcher, shoulder-pad years and without the benefits of student grants; with 80s music, Rubik’s Cubes and Angel Delight.

Parenting is tough. Kids can’t be sheltered forever. You have to arm them with common sense and knowledge of the facts, be there when needed and then let them go-with fingers crossed tightly behind your back. You might be horribly unlucky, as were the parents of the boy at the festival or you might be fortunate, as were my own, blissfully ignorant parents.

Walking Back to Happiness?

There is a movement afoot, noticeable in the media but not yet glaring. This may be due to the myriad, other news items clamouring for our attention at the moment, but still-

The movement goes like this: there is a stepping back into bygone decades, a nostalgia for the past. It is not confined to those of us who are of mature years, no; all age groups appear to be involved.

First there was a resurgence of vinyl records, believed to be of better sound quality [unlikely] and rendering listening an altogether enhanced experience. I remember gathering with friends as a teenager to listen to a new ‘LP’ from a favourite band. We’d lounge around in someone’s bedroom in total, inert silence and listen to it in entirety. It’s difficult to imagine today’s teenagers doing this.

Then there are books. Personally I’m still wedded to my Kindle; but the wave of paper book devotees has grown, their claims that they must have the aroma, the feel and the weight of paper outweighing the sheer convenience of storing thousands of books on a tiny device. I do have sympathy for the argument that bookshelves are a most attractive feature-otherwise I wouldn’t go back.

According to recent reports, many amateur photographers are turning to film for a more satisfying and authentic photographic experience. This is a strange one. Why? Film is difficult to store, expensive to buy and even dearer to process. Apparently having a limited number of frames prompts a more measured and careful photo. I’d be all for it if it eradicated the odious habit of the selfie, otherwise I’ll be sticking to my digital camera and discarding all my many photographic mistakes.

On to games. I’m right behind this one. When electronic games became a thing board game activity seemed to die a death. But so much of electronic gaming is solitary! Monopoly, Scrabble, Risk, Ludo, Cluedo etc-these are the games of my childhood, where we practised counting, adding up, reading and, best of all, turn taking. Now I’ve discovered that board game cafes are springing up-places where groups can go to enjoy some time together, which seems to me to be one of the best ideas ever. People may even begin to speak to each other, perhaps rather than spend their time together transfixed by their little screens.

The latest contributor to the bygone era crusade may be cash. Anyone interested in science fiction writing might be forgiven for assuming that in the future cash will have tumbled down into the slots of history but no, evidently there are those who are turning to comforting notes and coins in a reassuring bid to stave off penury. It does seem counter-intuitive, does it not? We are encouraged to cut our bills by using direct debit and protect ourselves by carrying less cash.

What’s next? Are these changes are a part of a more sinister world that is taking backwards, retrograde steps in terms of shaking off modern, enlightened liberalism? If so we’ll soon begin to see the reappearance of some of the rough justice, bigotry and xenophobia that I, for one had hoped would have disappeared forever.

It’s No Joke

The news that Terry Jones is suffering from dementia is terribly sad. What a miserable, cruel illness dementia is-swooping down on anyone from any lifestyle or walk of life. In Terry Jones’ case, [as in Terry Prachett’s], targeting a giant of an intellect-a genius with words and humour; a person who made his living from the spoken word, from comedy.

I was a teenager when Monty Python’s Flying Circus hit the small screen. The humour was fresh and surreal, unfathomable to our parents, which made it even more irresistible to me and to my friends. There had been a few attempts at this kind of bizarre comedy before, with shows like radio’s ‘Round the Horn’ and ‘The Goon Show’ or TV’s ‘Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in’ although it was American, but nothing that resonated with us on the scale of Python; nothing as zany, dreamlike, weird and downright hilarious.

In our teenage get-togethers, alongside gathering to listen to music albums we re-lived episodes of Monty Python, crying with laughter again as we recalled each episode and able to recall every sketch word-for-word. I adored ludicrous sketches such as the two frumpy women in a launderette earnestly discussing John-Paul Sartre or the cheeky ridiculing of Morris dancing where the dancers slapped each other with a dead fish. Then there was the device of bringing parts of one sketch into another. A scene outside a bank would include a long queue of people in rolled up trousers wearing knotted hankies from a previous sketch [‘I’d like to tax people what stand in water’].

Later shows sought to emulate the alternative angle. ‘The Young Ones’, ‘The League of Gentlemen’ and ‘Little Britain’ followed in the footsteps.

Otherwise, since that time, apart from one or two, longstanding, notable radio comedies [‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’, ‘Just a Minute’] there’s been very little laugh-out-loud comedy on offer. Sit-coms become ever more tired. The channels churn out contrived panel shows featuring the same worn-out comedians peddling the same, stale, clichéd patter.

I still laugh at slapstick comedy and am easily able to enjoy the humour in a children’s entertainment such as Punch and Judy, which probably explains what a simpleton I am.

Each generation has their own set of beloved, cultural icons from music, film, literature and comedy. My grandparents had Charlie Chaplin, my parents had Arthur Askey and Bob Hope. I’m sure there are young comedians around who understand the challenges that today’s young generation faces. I know there are new sit-coms and every season a whole raft of new comedy movies, although as I’ve written before, the genre of American rom-com does nothing for me at all.

I’d say we are ready for a new, fresh approach in comedy-to distract us from all the nasty world events, if nothing else. But in the meantime I’d like to thank Terry Jones for all the sheer, unadulterated pleasure he’s provided over the years. Bless you Terry-you are a genius!

The Pursuit

Here is a thing about ageing. I’ve noticed that feelings of excitement in the anticipation of events come less often and are less intense than when younger. This, I suppose is only to be expected, since when we are young we experience far more for the first time and all emotions are more intense. Teenagers, for instance have a tendency to overdo delight; hence the ‘Oh my God’s’ and flinging themselves at each other when passing exams or the Kevin-like sulks at being requested to join their family at the table for a meal or do some homework.

Excited anticipation tends, also to be destroyed by a long wait, or by a promise that doesn’t deliver. Think of the child who waits for an absentee parent to come and take them out.

We [that is Husband and myself] have been waiting an unaccountable length of time for a house move. The thrill of finding a property we liked has ebbed away like the flame in a dwindling candle with every passing week and been replaced by niggling anxiety or increasing weariness. I regret this to the point of resentment. To feel excited anticipation at my age is a rare gift which has been withdrawn.

Happiness is a fickle phenomenon. It alights at unexpected times or fails to materialise when it is due. You can prepare a surprise party, plan a holiday, go for a special meal, buy a long-awaited book or finally arrive at retirement only to find yourself mired in a slough of disappointment. Disappointments and anti-climaxes can be compounded by other people if in your anticipatory impatience you’ve indulged in sharing, like the time as a thirteen-year-old I arrived home early from having been ‘stood up’ outside the cinema only to witness my mother relating my misfortune to visitors. I’ve begun to wonder if ‘friends’ are taking delight in our responses to their enquiries as to whether we’ve moved. It seems crucial to take an impassive stance rather than reacting, whatever, although my fears of conspiracy theory may only be due to wait-weariness.

Sometimes though, a spontaneous moment provides joy-or at least a sensation of comfort and pleasure. A walk around my garden as it bursts into life-even if it is soon to belong to others-is a guaranteed spirit raiser. Coffee and a gossip with a friend, an evening of excellent music, a few hours in the enchanting company of a toddler are all happiness-making.

At a change of level, for those living in the hell that is Fallujah, happiness or excitement is probably brought on by getting something to eat, a few hours of silence or some clean water; for anyone coping with a debilitating disease a period without discomfort. It pays to remember that happiness and misery are relative, like everything else!

 

Travelling Hopefully on a Train

Unlikely as it may seem to many I have grown to like public transport. As a child in the fifties of course it was a great thrill to board a train or a bus. Trains, in particular were glamorous contraptions with long corridors and compartments with sliding doors. I loved tumbling into an empty compartment, fighting for a window seat and sitting on the prickly upholstery. The windows could be opened and bore only a warning not to stick anatomical parts out [especially in the approach to tunnels!].

When I began working life in London I endured a gruelling commute consisting of a 20 minute walk plus a train journey plus a tube journey plus another 15 minute walk. The tube, in particular was an unpleasant experience not unlike standing in a crammed cattle truck. There was never a seat but no chance of falling over due to the bodies on all sides. The station I alighted at, Vauxhall was a dismal, dirty drift of tarmac and I was delighted when I was able to change both my job and my place of residence.

Trains now have come to resemble buses-the utilitarian seats and the maximising of space to squeeze in as many travellers as possible in this age of too-many-people. Travelling jet-lagged and with that stretched feeling that not enough sleep bestows, we took a very early train back from the airport. Too tired to read I amused myself by observing our fellow passengers, most of whom were far more habitual train travellers than we are. They have long since become bored with the views from the windows. What do they do to pass this time they must endure each day?

A very large number indulge in eating and/or drinking. A woman with a number of bulging shopping bags withdrew one bag of sweets or crisps after another and set about each item with a determination that indicated none should remain, proffering the goodies to her companion opposite more out of duty than generosity.

Two teenage girls gossiped whilst one sipped from a giant, cardboard container of coffee and the other, her feet tucked neatly on to the seat beneath her arranged a fruit drink, a plastic container of prepared fresh fruit and a yoghurt on their table, working her way through all of this bounty with tiny bites of her perfectly white teeth and nodding at intervals while her friend talked. Does she do this every day? How can she afford it?

There is always, now, someone bellowing into their phone, unconcerned about the proximity of others whatever the subject matter might be. Others will be plugged into tiny devices to either listen to music or [and this astonishes me] watch films. As one who is barely able to see enough to text I wonder what kind of cinematic experience the little screen can provide?

We alighted at a provincial station where we were obliged to wait for the next train, stepping out into the freezing cold and back into 1950s Britain, where the comfort of a panelled, apple green waiting room provided warmth and an old fashioned café filled with an eclectic collection of objects served us a hot coffee reminiscent of the coffee of my childhood [ie nothing like coffee]. Long may these ancient, curious places remain!

How do you Sleep?

                      Sleep is featuring heavily in the news at the moment. It always amazes me that subjects that have been studied and analysed for so long and then put aside can yield new discoveries. Sleep is one of those subjects that people either think nothing about at all or it has become an overwhelming misery and an insuperable, life altering problem. I suppose I am fortunate to be in the former camp, most of the time. I have rarely experienced difficulty in dropping off to sleep, but fall into the category of not being a ‘morning’ person, preferring to stay up later and [particularly in the winter months] dozing until wakefulness becomes an acceptable state.

                    Often, once people become parents and have had to go along with the timetable of their new offspring they continue to rise at intolerable times through habit, even though their progeny have become teenagers and pursuant of a nocturnal lifestyle. My own parents were such paragons, rising early even in retirement. Myself, I regressed to sleeping in whenever I had the opportunity [weekends] as soon as my tots were able to tell the little hand from the big hand. As a proper working person, early mornings were a drudgery and a chore to be endured only with the promise of long lie-ins at weekends-and once the holidays began I’d catch up by sleeping for days and nights, waking only to eat.

                    Enforced sleep deprivation, such as long haul flights in economy or periods of stress induces nasty side effects such as cold sores in me. I get so far into the night and then begin to feel stretched, as if my skin is being pulled taut over my bones. When I retired I began by taking advantage of the situation and sleeping in every morning, until finally I achieved sleep satiation, after which I ‘bottomed out’ at about 8.30am.

                    Now experts are finding ways that sleep patterns influence our lives and seeking applications for such knowledge. Drugs such as cancer treatment are better, apparently, for being administered at night, in order to reduce side effects. The surprise here is that no one thought of it before! But the revelatory discovery that caught my attention was the one about teenagers, who are thought to make more academic progress when their day is moved later, giving them time to sleep in. This would have suited me. I loathed getting up for school and would habitually leave it to the very last moment, scrabbling up without much attention to my appearance [no change there] or to consume any kind of breakfast item, much to my mother’s frustration. She would call after me as I fled to the bus stop, ‘what about breakfast?’ or ‘You haven’t eaten anything’-a routine that was repeated with my own offspring further down the timeline.

                   Awake at night? Now I have the perfect solution-compose a story. I can guarantee you will have forgotten it by the morning.