Monday, August 24, 2009

It's either Dorothy Wordsworth or Elastigirl

I've never really been any good at that girly-girl stuff - not least because I can't imagine life without pockets. Where would you put all the usual nonsense that needs touting around?

Add two little boys into the equation and pockets are promoted from useful to necessary. They're repositories for way more than my needs - let's face it, I've never actually claimed to need a stone, a dollop of pre-masticated toast or a really long, really green bogey (especially one that didn't originate from my nose).

But I've been feeling vicariously cool these last few days, and it's thanks to Jonah and my pockets. Jonah, you see, is in his superhero phase.
I'm assuming it's a phase, anyway. It popped up out of nowhere, much like a superhero, and will doubtless vanish with a huge KAPOW!! when its work here is done, earthling.

Anyway, superheroes have capes, and therefore so does Jonah. It's a bit of a hassle, though, it turns out, to have to carry a damn cape everywhere - but fortunately, this superhero has a mother. And not just that, but a mother with pockets, for easy cape-stashing.

This sounds like the punchline to an extremely old joke, but keeping a cape in my pocket makes me giggle (and yes, I'm sure everyone's very pleased to see me). It also makes me wonder about all these orphaned superheroes and how the hell they managed their capes - is that what the sidekicks were really for, do you reckon?

It also, even though the subject matter is entirely different, keeps reminding me of the poem by Lynn Peters, Why Dorothy Wordsworth Is Not As Famous As Her Brother.

The first verse:

" I wandered lonely as a...
They're in the top drawer, William,
Under your socks--
I wandered lonely as a --
No not that drawer, the top one.
I wandered lonely by myself --
Well wear the ones you can find,
No, don't get overwrought my dear,
I'm coming."

is just like living with little boys. Bet Dorothy Wordsworth would've had way more fun if William had entrusted her with his superhero's cape instead of his quill and parchment.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Does quite a bit more than it says on the tin

Autumn's always been my favourite season even though, as I just remarked to a friend, in Ireland it's the difference between rain-with-boots-and-socks and rain-with-sandals. This year, autumn's giving me extra cause for "oh thank GOD"ness because it means the end of a very particular type of Infinite Summer.

Since June 21st, Dave and I have been reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (cult status in the US; "who???" status over here) alongside an online reading group. This isn't the post where I talk about the content of the book, not least because of the thousand (s?) of people reading it, I am (al)most certainly nowhere near the most coherent 10% in terms of discussing meta-anything, and it strikes me that to properly discuss Infinite Jest you'd need to meta yourself onto a whole new planet, Janet.

But reading the same book all summer is a bit like running laps. After a while, the muscles start to pump round by themselves and you get some time to ponder the activity within the wider context of your life.

An aside (me? never....): For me, the stated reason for running is to get some damn exercise already and offset the nightly helping of small-boy-supper I manage to consume in the name of "checking it's OK for them". But the side-effects, which are to an extent unintentional but are in fact equally huge benefits, include stuff like: I get 30 minutes, three times a week, to let my brain spin off on its own wee axis and see what's brewing in there (today's special: mixed metaphors, apparently). I convert my usual nervy energy into something a bit more useful, a bit like cow pats for fuel. Because we live on the edge of some gorgeous views, I get my nature fix without needing to make it a thing of its own - which is, after all, how I most like nature to be.

ANYway. Enough of a tangent, much? Here are the things that, in 780+ pages of reading, I'm realising I'm enjoying almost as much as the actual book itself, which, let's face it, has been bloody hard work at times.

Let's start with the two in the paragraph above, shall we?

1) I sometimes think I live my entire life as a tangent, and this book is so full of them it makes me feel like the die-straightest arrow ever to set point in a quiver. I've never minded the distractible-ness of myself, or my inability to function in a straight line; but it's still always nice to have company. Even though, of course, the book is fictional and the author had a plan, or at least found a way to make it make enough sense to keep going. Hmm. Let's hope I have one of those too.

2) I've never meant to do this, but I sometimes surprise people by not living up to their first impressions. So from time to time someone will announce that they'd thought I was going to be really quiet and shy (because I'm small and unprepossessing, I suppose). Or - given my background in literature & now publishing - that I will have wildly erudite reading habits, when it turns out that reading foreign literature to degree level left me with some pretty open-jawed gaps in the English canon. All of which to say that I don't read "hard stuff" as much as I could or should. I haven't commuted on public transport for 6+ years, so there's been no tube-reading; and by the time the kids are zonked, it's the least I can do to pick up anything, let alone a work of genius.
But being committed to reading IJ, if only in my head, actually*, means that I'm treating it almost like homework and achieving my allotted page count regardless of how much it makes my head spin to read such dense thinking at the end of the day or in 2-minute bursts, which is barely time enough for the average DFW sentence. And reading "real" books, after 4 years of pregnancy/tiny kids, is adding unfuring one more petal within my budding sense (sorry) of regaining parts of myself now the kids are old enough to be themselves.

The other, unexpected but really cool, thing, that I'm enjoying from this whole experience is reading the book alongside Dave. It's one thing to recommend a book to one's husband/wife/whatever and insist they love it, then have lengthy "wasn't that ace?" discussions thereafter. It's quite another, really, to take on the same heinously long-winded book-at-bedtime, simultaneously. It's a bit like co-parenting but with four-paragraph-long descriptions of bodily fluids in the place of real ones.

Anyway, 200 pages to go and if I'm going to finish the damn thing by deadline like the nerd I still am, I'd better sod off and read it rather than faff around here pontificating about it.

* (I'm still a bit nervous of being kicked out of online forums for laughing inappropriately or telling a long and involved story at the wrong moment - moi? Surely not)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Not such a glorious twelfth

I wrote most of this last year, but today would be an old friend's birthday, and it seems time to post it:

On Thursday, a group of my old friends will be meeting a few miles from where I grew up, in my (and their) beloved Forest of Dean. There will be pints, and stories, and more pints, and more stories. There will probably be laughs, and there will almost certainly be tears. Because before the pints, there will be a funeral. A funeral for our friend Tim, who, two days after his thirty-ninth birthday, set fire to his car with himself in it.

We’d been in touch recently, when Tim sent a change-of-address email. Although it was a good 5 years since we'd last met up, it was brilliant to hear from Tim, the way it often can be with people you've just run out of space to keep in your lives without meaning to lose touch. So when his birthday came around, I rattled off the “happy birthday” email with the standard blasé “thirty-nine forever” gag. Four days later, the phone call came. Nobody could really believe it.

I’ve been struggling for weeks now about whether or not to fly over for the funeral. In the end, the noes are winning, largely because of the English reserve thing. It seems entirely over the top to be swooping in from overseas when, in practice, I haven’t – shit, hadn’t – seen Tim in the last, what, six years? And so although it'll be in my mind all day, it seems better to stay put.

This group of friends has remained essentially bonded for 30 years that I’ve been witness to and several more before. And they were a huge, huge part of my formative years.

This is the struggle in terms of whether or not to attend the funeral. I may not have seen Tim – seen any of them – very much recently, but they meant the world to me at a time when my world was just starting to expand. I learned liking for liking's sake, and I learned fun, and I learned not to take myself so fucking seriously. Clearly that’s not a message that sank in very deeply, but hey.

Because of the less-intense-contact more recently, all my memories of Tim are from about 20 years ago. Just out of his teens, dancing to the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry”: head down, arms at his side, all the rhythm coming from shoulders. If I ever hear the song on the radio, I dance like Tim – can’t help it. Tim Watson, with the fabulous, freakish memory for trivia.

Tim, who stepped off the cliff the day we went home-made abseiling, only to find the brake wasn’t on the rope. A roar went up from those of us lying flat on our fronts on the surrounding cliffs, a plea to the “anchor guy” at the bottom: “BRAKE!!!!!!” And Neil, steady as ever, leaned into the ropes or did whatever the hell it was he needed to do, and Tim’s speedy descent came to an abrupt halt.

Tim, coming up with the rest of the gang to visit me in Cambridge, penniless, but with a wealth of one-liners that conned us into buying him the pints all the same.

And to go along with the memories my mind streams a photo, taken in 1989 at a friend’s 18th birthday party, when we were all invincible .Tim channeling James Dean: on a step, cigarette drooping from mouth. Leather jacket, long dark hair…and a pair of sneakers on his knees for reasons that escape us. Who knew it would become a way to remember him, 20 years later?

Happy 40th, Tim Watson. Wish you were here for it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Must have been the way I was queuing patiently on my own that gave it away

Even before we left for the US and what has turned into 6+ years of living overseas, I'd never considered myself particularly English. Maybe it's because I'm not; with Welsh roots from Mum and English ones from Dad, but growing up in a place that (proudly) considers itself neither one nor the other, at most I'm British.

Let me clarify; obviously, for census purposes and all that good stuff, I'm British. But I've never really been into wandering around Benidorm with knotted hanky demanding 10 pints of lager and a full English. Nor am I a Sebastian Flyte type, much as I wished I could be during my pretentious phase in my early twenties (and I mean my really pretentious phase, not the half-arsed version I drag out sometimes these days).

And yeah, obviously what's wrong with those comparisons is, as much as anything else, that I'm not male, I suppose - but the only female examples of insta-Brit I could think of were the Queen (for Christ's sake) and, I dunno, the Jade Goody, and they're even less edifying.

When we were in France in June, we spent a morning in a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere. We weren't in the overrun-by-the-English part of the country and had, in fact, seen no other foreigners all week - probably as much accident as design, but still.

We were walking back to the car after a great lunch of galettes and idle chat whilst the kids raced around the walled garden knocking each other over. On our way back, I paused to wait for Dave and Jonah, and crossed paths with two blokes, each with a pushchair and a small child waiting for their wives and slightly bigger children. Just like me, really. I smiled in acknowledgement of our mutual circumstances and the guy closer to me nodded and said, by way of greeting, "hiya".

After several years now in varying English-speaking countries, getting used to the vagaries of the English language as spoken by people who also claim it as their mother tongue, "hiya" jumped out at me as quintessentially English. It's halfway colloquial, it pretty much sets the parameters of a demographic, and it wouldn't be used by a non-British person, let alone a non-English speaker. So the assumption had been that I, too, was British.

Which is true, of course. But what interests me (since clearly life is all about me) is that, without speaking (and "revealing" my accent), wearing no clothes purchased in Britain, and in a country that isn't Britain, I'm still somehow identifiably English. I'm sure there's a blindingly obvious reason for this, and it's not like I think I've somehow become American or Irish (or, indeed, German or Austrian, if we want to take all my non-British homes into account). In a way, I find it pretty comforting. A true case of "you can take the girl out of the country...".

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to eat my Findus crispy pancakes in front of Fawlty Towers repeats....