Thursday, 27 July 2017

A little bit crap.

This evening, I exist in a state of extreme mortification. I have done something which has upset and worried someone I love and admire. What is even worse is that the kind person has been really gentle about it, when shouting and swearing should have been the order of the day. Worse than that, the thing was completely avoidable and happened because I was careless, thoughtless and lazy. That’s a revolting combination.
It’s all very well, doing the apologising, taking responsibility and promising it won’t happen again, but it should never have happened in the first place.
As I walked down to give the mares their supper, I pondered what to do next. Endless self-laceration is not helpful, although I do deserve a damn good bit of laceration. Making a good plan and making amends is the best thing, if I can pull myself out of the defensive crouch of the truly crap.

And then it dawned on me, in a rather shocking moment of revelation, that ever since my mother died I have been a little bit crap. My father’s death threw me off my stride for about a year and then I got back into the swing of things and started to behave again like a human being. But ever since my mum went, I have been absolutely hopeless. I’m always having to apologise to people because I have not returned an email or replied to a letter or because I’ve done something idiotic and stupid like the thing tonight. I can’t bring any semblance of order to my office, my work teeters on the edge of complete disaster, I forget to return telephone calls. I am, in fact, really, really annoying. If I had to deal with me I would be in a constant state of mild exasperation.

I kept thinking it was the menopause. I’ve never blamed hormones for anything in my life but people do say it is a thing. I thought perhaps it was because there were quite a lot of blows after the death, one damn thing after another, some of which are entirely insoluble and must simply be lived with. I thought perhaps it was worry about my sweet little bay mare who was sick and might not have survived. Every month I had to face the fact I might have to put her down. (She is much better now and we have hope.) I wondered if it was just a second phase of life thing. I even wondered whether it was because there was so much madness in the news, what with the Trumpsters and the Brexiteers, and every time I listened to the Today programme I thought we were all doomed.

Now I wonder. Is it a grief thing? Is this what happens? If you have two dead parents in five years do you just go a little bit crap for a while? I’m rather hoping that is the case, or I’m in terrible trouble. I like reasons for things. If a mind scrambled by loss takes a while to cohere again then I can get to work. If not, I’m going to have to change my entire personality and start again.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Irish the Pigeon

One of the great things in my life is Radio Four randomness. This is when I turn on the wireless at a time I don’t usually listen to it and find some extraordinary gem that I want to remember to my dying breath. Sometimes I come in half-way through and have to listen and listen until I understand what the programme is about. Sometimes it is so magical and unexpected that it makes me laugh and clap my hands like a child. There was a heartbreaking one about Violet Szabo’s daughter, Tania. There was one about a man who played the piano to elephants.

This morning, out of a clear blue sky, there was one about two men, some whistles, the Pitt-Rivers Museum and a pigeon called Irish. The very fact that there is in the world a pigeon called Irish makes me feel better about almost everything. But in a way, the two men were more enchanting. One was a very gentle, rather soulful musician. He had a smile in his voice, not one of those forced someone-told-me-to-do-it voice smiles that some presenters use, but a slow wondering smile as if he could not quite believe all the beauty in the world. The other was a gruff, wry Yorkshireman, with a self-deprecating sense of humour. You would have thought those two men would have been oceans apart, but Irish the Pigeon brought them together and they set up a glorious, comical, fond relationship which was most unexpected.

I think a lot about culture. Everyone talks about Britain and class but I’m not sure it is class so much that keeps people behind their barricades, but culture. The things that bind me to other humans are shared interests, references, jokes, even favourite songs. I have tribes – racing tribes, and horse tribes, and growing up in the seventies tribes, and Leonard Cohen tribes. Accent and background mean nothing in those groups, but culture means everything. Those two men came from diametrically different cultural poles, but they made a little tribe of two and there was something almost heartbreaking about it.

Sometimes, I think, all it takes is one pigeon. And especially a pigeon called Irish.

Friday, 21 July 2017

The glorious kindness of strangers.

I am heroically, catastrophically hopeless at getting things done. I can write a book in three months, which I have just done, but can I return an email or put my hand on a vital document or pay my bills on time? Can I hell.

In the heroic, catastrophic prairie of hopelessness where I live, my car tax came up. Because the little disc no longer sits on the windscreen telling me when it needs to be renewed, I of course completely forgot about it. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency politely wrote to tell me, but I simply saw DVLA on the envelope and thought, rather crossly: what do they want? I assumed it was some stupid new regulation and simply tossed the brown envelop onto the Pile of Doom.

Eventually, after I got the fourth brown envelope, I thought that perhaps they really did want to tell me something and discovered, to my horror, that I had been breaking the law for a whole month.

Now, if you are as catastrophically, heroically hopeless as I am, it turns out that you have to jump through a few hoops. If you are that late with your tax, specially numbers no longer work and you have to find the vital documents that I can never find. I tried the kind man in the post office, but he could not help, so, with my heart in my boots, I rang up the DVLA. I was expecting sucking of teeth, shaking of heads, and that sliding note of judgement that the catastrophic people get. Because the missing vital document would have to be replaced, I assumed I would have to take the car off the road for six weeks and then what would I do?

The girl – and she was a girl, very young, in her early twenties I would guess – did not suck her teeth. She did not judge me. She was funny and understanding. I explained about the vital document and how it could be anywhere. ‘You sound like my mum,’ she said, laughing. I laughed too, in delighted surprise. ‘Your mum is my soul sister,’ I said.

Even more wonderful, she had a solution. Yes, she could do this clever thing and that efficient thing and this instant thing. All would be done in the blink of an eye and I would be legal again and the horrid brown envelopes would stop.

I don’t know what bureaucracy is like in the places that you live, but in Britain, this is unheard of. I often find myself doing the nasty passive-aggressive thing of saying, ‘Well, what would you do in my position?’ And the person on the other end just changes the subject. When you get into tangles like I do, often that tangle is a Gordian knot and there is no untying it and that operative on the end of the humming telephone almost seems to be taking delight in the fact that there is no way out.

Not my DVLA girl. She was happy, she was blithe, she was brilliant. She had energy and kindness and generosity in her voice. I bet she’s a really good friend, one of those ones that her nearest and dearest turn to when they want a shoulder to cry on. She had a faint Welsh lilt to her voice and I could imagine her growing up in the valleys, getting up at dawn to help with the magnificent Welsh sheep. She took something I had been dreading, something that made me feel stupid and idiotic, something that dragged at me for the last twenty-four hours and made it easy and fun. She did not appear to think I was catastrophic.

That’s a gift. One complete stranger fixed me up and brightened my day. I bet she’s the kind of person who makes everyone smile when she walks into a room. I wish I had asked her name. I was so overcome with surprise and relief that I did not have time to think straight. I would like to have rung up her supervisor and said: give that brilliant woman a raise. I’m going to post this on Facebook and I have a slight dream that among my friends and friends of friends, someone will say: hey, I know lovely Anna who works at the DVLA. And then she will know how she transformed the day of one muddly, middle-aged woman.

I think it’s unlikely. I think my stuttering thanks will have to be enough. I think she will remain unknown to me. She’s going to be one of the George Eliot people, in Middlemarch. This is one of my favourite quotes in the world, and I’m so glad to be reminded of it. There’s another gift she gave me. ‘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.’

Actually, I don’t think someone as vivid and alive as that would ever had an unvisited tomb, but I think what Eliot meant is that the history of the world is written about the big people, the ones who fought the battles and changed the law and lit up the stage. They get monuments, and parks named after them, and statues in Whitehall. What she meant was that life is made wonderfully better by those ordinary people who don’t have grand memorials, who do lie in small, quiet Norman churchyards, whose names do not echo down the years, but who made their world a beautifully better place in their own small, delightful way.

Friday, 14 July 2017

The Thing.

I love the word thing. I use it all the time, far too much, because I am so fond of it. I especially like the expression ‘I did not even know that was a thing’. I think the young people use it, or perhaps it came from America. I’ve almost certainly heard it on the Rachel Maddow Show.

Anyway, today the thing rather overwhelmed me, in a most idiotic way.

There was a thing that someone else was going to do and then he did not do it so I had to do it. It’s a boring thing and normally I do it myself but because I had expectations that the thing would be done I felt a lunatic resentment. I rang the person who was going to do the thing and he laughed and said he hadn’t really done the thing and then he smiled, not in a ‘yeah, whatever’ way but in a ‘the sun is shining and what can it matter way?’ Clearly, to him, it was not a thing. In all senses of the word.
There is a third party who was also expecting the sanguine fellow to do the thing and I was so cross that I nearly rang up The Third Man to tell this stupid story. I asked my friend Sophie, who is five, what she thought. ‘Never tell tales,’ she said, solemnly.
Bugger, I thought. I’m going to have to be the decent person and suck it up. At this stage, I started feeling quite saintly. I am going to do the right thing and get on and not tell. A faint gleam glimmered off my halo.

And then I stopped. The thing is so small it can hardly be seen by the naked eye. In the world, North Korea is rattling its sabres and the Trumpsters are doing unspeakable things with random Russian lawyers and Brexit is going off the rails. My thing is not a heart thing or even a head thing. It’s not a family thing or a love thing or a grief thing. It’s one of those tiny daily pinpricks that live in the pincushion of life.

I thought: what is wrong with me? I’ve dropped my perspective down the back of the sofa and I’m so proud of my perspective. I have Perspective Police and everything. I loathe to blame hormones, but I am going through the menopause and however much red clover I take I do feel very peculiar at the moment. Is that a thing? Or is it just the middle of life and the dark wood and all those roads less travelled? I’m all Robert Frost just now; he is my consolation and my guide and my balm. The woods are lovely dark and deep and I have miles to go before I sleep.


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