July 28, 2009

This mess is so deep and so wide and so tall

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 3:00 pm

Impossible to do justice to the mess, so here's the doll instead.

Day after tomorrow I have movers coming. They have already shaken their heads at the sight of my stuff and sucked their lips and said it would be a lot cheaper if I packed myself and could I be sure my bed was fully disassembled before 8 am?

I want to have hired the kind of movers who will, without demure, pack up my breakfast and deliver a half eaten egg hours later at my new home.  

I don’t want the cold egg and I don’t have a new home.  But I also don’t want the alternative, which turns out to be examining every object I have accidentally acquired these 25 years and asking, Is it worthy enough to be moved?  Is it valuable enough to be stored? 

I worry that when the objects are gone I might forget to tell the stories, so like some capricious god I preserve a few and pitch away the rest.  Amongst the Saved are all the birthday cards from my elder son and the doll given to my elder daughter by a mad, middle-aged Japanese graduate student, former nun obsessed with Iris Murdoch’s husband.  I also preserve the crumpled school play programmes wherever I see the name of my younger son, all grown up and off to drama school, and a sweet, lumpy, spotted pig fashioned in clay by my Baby her first term at school.  I don’t think she is going to be a sculptor, but I expect she will forgive my semi-formed sentimentality, matching her pig.  It’s the thought that counts.

Meanwhile, books turn out to pose the greatest difficulty. I got rid of boxes and boxes of books (meaning I donated them to Oxfam) when I first put the house on the market in 2006, but it seems I have acquired more books since.  I ought to pitch them, but it’s so hard. I look at each book and think there is a possibility I might want to read that again.  Or I might want to give it another chance and read it a first time.  Or it’s a book no reasonable household should be without, just in case someone might want to put it in a footnote. 

And there are books that might actually be useful, like the London A-Z.  I need that a lot and often forget to take it with me, so I buy a new one.  I used to say that when I retired I would set up a used book store selling back editions of the London A-Z.  It would be a niche market. I’m a few years from retirement yet, but only found 8 copies today.  I thought there would be more.  Apparently I’ve got my work cut out for me.

Besides the A-Zs, there were 3 copies of The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins), probably not a best seller even in my retirement bookstore, and 4 copies of the same edition of The Aeneid, A New English Translation. 

I think my first book cull must have been incomplete.  I refuse to accept that I am accruing copies of the Aeneid, even in translation, at a rate of more than one per year.

So that brings me to today’s game.  Which books appear more than once on your shelves?  (optional: How many times?  Why?)  I am so disorganised that I am not even going to count books where I have merely two, but in better regulated households two is a quorum and eligible to play.

July 13, 2009

The parable of the floating boat: a modern, moral tale

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 2:37 pm

Now that I have finally rented (alas not sold) my house that I have lived in for more than 25 years, I am gradually moving my most portable stuff to Pangolin, the 62 feet long 6.5 feet wide narrowboat I bought not long after I put the house on the market. 

On Saturday I moved some cushions, a little oriental rug, two bags of wood and three candles to the boat.  It felt like progress, so I celebrated by hanging out at the Rock of Gibraltar and ordering a Greek salad.  The salad was small and expensive (£6.45) and the oil faintly rancid, but the pub is a five minute walk up the towpath, and I guess that makes it mine.

The next morning, as I stood on Pangolin’s stern deck drinking tea and checking my batteries, someone from a passing boat shouted that the one behind me had come adrift.  I looked up to see its bow floating across the canal.  Grabbing my shoes, I stepped outside and just about managed to reach the stern line as it drifted away.  I hung on and looked for help.

I couldn’t secure the line, because I couldn’t let go in order to fetch mooring pins or mallet or reinforcements or anything.  If I let go, the boat would be completely adrift.  The canal isn’t wide or deep, of course, but it is a nuisance to lose a boat, even so.  The canal is wet and cold and rats piss in the water.  You don’t jump in if you don’t have to.

The canal and the towpath suddenly seemed remarkably empty, but after a while a woman and child in a kayak – I think the boy must have been about 12 years old – paddled by. The mother asked if I needed help, and still hanging on to the rope of the drifting boat (which weighs about 17 tonnes), I admitted I did. 

The kayak mother hailed another passerby and suggested that if young Liam, who had now managed to board the drifting boat, could throw a rope, the passerby, a woman in her late 50s or early 60s, could catch the rope and guide the bow in while Liam manned the boat and I held the stern line.  The mother in the kayak would shove the boat and shout orders.  It sounded like a plan to me.

The passerby said our instructions were very unclear and she didn’t have time.  She needed to walk.  She shuffled grumpily up the tow path.

Nevertheless, the youngster on the drifting boat, his mother in a kayak and I on the tow path, eventually managed to get control of the heavy, drifting boat.  I secured the stern line first and then hammered in the mooring pin attached to the bow line that young Liam recovered from the canal.  Liam climbed back into the kayak and he and his mother continued on their journey.

An hour or so later I was all packed up and ready to return to the task of moving out of my house.  By chance, just as I was locking up Pangolin, the unhelpful passerby was returning from her walk. I told her that she ought to check out the story of the Good Samaritan.

I thought there was a good chance I was offering her useful information.  According to the morning’s religious reports, only 16% of the British public know that story.

Sometimes the Sunday news comes in handy.

July 9, 2009

A trouble to get and a trouble to get rid of

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 2:50 pm

That’s what my former mother-in-law used to say when my chilren were teething.  By the time we were married none of my ex husband’s family had their own teeth (except him), so I guess she knew what she was talking about.  Looking at my shiny, new, gummy babies, I was troubled by the inevitabilty.

But I know what she meant in a way, only I’m thinking about sofas rather than teeth.  Furniture is a trouble to get and a trouble to get rid of.  I confess I have never had a happy, adult relationship with an arm chair and now I am moving, I am once again oppressed by upholstery.

When I was a young bride, every time I thought I might acquire my own furniture my mother-in-law would find that she needed a new what the Brits call a “three piece suite”.  Since I was never really a grown-up in America I have little idea if such a thing exists there.  The British version is a sofa and two chairs all in the same fabric.

I was raised to believe that matching furniture was vulgar.  I was also raised to believe that waste was wicked.  Sadly, I worked out that the only thing that could trump vulgar was wicked. 

Before you could say Jack Robinson my in-laws arrived full of good cheer and second hand furniture.  (They also brought their own toilet paper.  I never quite understood this.  I think they were worried that their only son had married a foreign wife who might have exotic habits.) 

Each time, though, I chucked out one piece, despite the wicked waste.  A sofa and one matching chair was a misfortune.  A sofa and two matching chairs looked like carefulness.

Many years later I stood in a furniture showroom and wept. I was nearly 40 and had never bought my own sofa.

Some time around then, my husband and I acquired a flat in London.  I don’t think I can explain exactly how it happened that for several years it was empty except for a couple of foam mattresses on the floor.  I was – and am – terrified of driving in London and have never yet done it.  My husband drove, but he didn’t do furniture.  

When my mother came to visit one year we resolved we would somehow nevertheless manage to furnish the flat together.  We got the larger items (a sofa, yay! and a queen size bed) delivered, but the budget was tight and we realised we would have to move the smaller items ourselves, by bus.

One Saturday, my mother — then in her late sixties — and I walked the quarter of a mile from my house to the village bus stop with two ladder back chairs.  I had sent my elder son earlier with the other two chairs.  We would take the small dining table the next day.

The bus driver collected our money, and nodding at the chairs asked, What? Are you taking them on an outing?

In Oxford we changed buses for London. 

At London the station attendant looked really surprised when we stepped off with our chairs.  He said, It’s the strangest thing!  A guy this morning also got off the bus with two chairs!  Is there some kind of chair convention today?

Well, those chairs aren’t mine now and aren’t my responsibility, though when I recently visited the flat for the first time in nearly ten years (because, though it belongs to my Ex my daughter currently lives there) I saluted the chairs like old friends.

Meanwhile, and two sofas later, I finally have my own furniture to deal with.  I’m moving out, and I can’t keep this stuff.  In England I will only have a boat; in the US I have nowhere of my own at all, though I am still thinking a van is a good idea.  You can’t put a sofa on a van.

I fretted for a long time about getting rid of my hard and late won furniture: my dining table that seats 12 in a pinch where I served so many family meals, the solid maple kitchen table I bought with my book money, the sofa and two chairs that don’t match that I finally had when I was single again and all grown up.

Happily, my Ex is also about to move – he’s going into a new house and willing to take my furniture and keep it for me as long as I want.  I guess it might be forever, but I don’t quite have to say good bye. 

So not as much trouble to get rid of as I thought.  No novacaine required.

July 8, 2009

Brits look away now

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 3:18 pm

Because I am going to make a real hash of explaining the Ashes to Americans.

Today is the first day of the 2009 attempt of the Brits to regain the Ashes, and I don’t think we have begun all that well, although the BBC headline was “England Make Solid Start to Ashes”.  The score is 336 for 7 – apparently the Aussies took some late wickets.

If you are already confused, that’s because it is cricket: a sport where it takes five days to play the game (which often ends in a draw), where you play in sweaters though it is summer, and where part way through everyone breaks for tea and cucumber sandwiches.

We won the Ashes in 2005 after about 20 years, but next we lost them.  Because we only play in the summer, and we only play with Australia, and we play in alternating countries and our adversaries are in the opposite hemisphere  (have you got all that?) this is our first chance to win back.

I won’t explain the rules to you, because frankly I don’t know them, though I am charmed by the whole process, and especially the vocabulary.

There are Overs, and Maiden Overs and Wickets and Sticky Wickets and Leg Before Wickets, and Square Short Leg, Silly Mid Off, and the deeply sinister Third Man.   Also I swear all the umpires are called Dickie Bird, and they look up at the clouds and consult their light meters, and employ the Duckworth Lewis method in case of rain. 

The Brits invented the game, and taught it to the colonies, and these days, mostly the colonies beat us.

It wasn’t always so.  In 1882 England played Australia on English ground and unexpectedly lost.  (Remember that at that time Australia was still England’s penal colony – where we sent our criminals.)

The newspapers screamed that with this extraordinary loss, cricket was dead.  An obituary was published in the national news and the following year something (it isn’t clear what) was burned in a mock cremation in Australia – a ball, bail, stump or perhaps a lady’s veil – and an urn with the Ashes of Cricket was presented to the English team.

Since then we have competed with the Australians for the Ashes of cricket. It is one of the most important sporting events in the UK calendar, very like the American baseball world series – except it only happens every 18 – 30 month. 

It would be a long time to get the Ashes back, except it doesn’t matter.  We’ve declared the Ashes were a gift and the urn is too fragile to travel.  We always keep them, no matter who wins.  A bit like the Parthenon. The sun never sets and all that.  We’re not just a pretty face, you know. 

In this picture the Aussie captain holds a replica, as he is entitled to do, since they won, as usual, the last time around.  Never mind.  We’ve got the real thing, even if it is awfully small, and even when we lose (gloriously, of course). 

But it is funny how such a little thing can stop whole countries.

July 4, 2009

Who shot JR and other questions of cultural literacy

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 2:48 pm

On Sundays the BBC makes a point of having vaguely religious “news” and last Sunday morning’s wake me up story was how most of the population (more than 75%) say they own a Bible and it is “meaningful” to them, and yet only a fraction of those surveyed could list all 10 commandments, mention a single fact about Abraham or could tell the story of Good Samaritan.  One man noted the amazing coincidence of Jesus being crucified on Good Friday.  Another young women, an art student shown a series of nativity scenes, complained of sexism: all the babies in the pictures were boys.

Because last weekend’s other news was mainly about Michael Jackson and the Glastonbury Festival (Bruce Springsteen was playing for the first time),  I began to think about cultural literacy.   Would my mother understand this news bulletin?  Would my children?

A long time ago I had a high school teacher who said he couldn’t teach American literature any more because the kids didn’t know scripture.  He made us read a lot more than we wanted.  Later, when I went to college and took an English degree there were only two non negotiable requirements: Shakespeare and the Bible.

It’s coming to the end of Wimbledon fortnight in the UK, and I guess because Wimbledon is so perfectly British, it always reminds me of the first years I lived in this country.  I have written before about my second Wimbledon, when I had my tiny, first son in my arms and he and I dozed together to the gentle thwap thwap of tennis balls, barely visible on a little black and white tele while a commentator with impossibly clipped vowels murmured, “Oh, I say! Good shot!”

Though the broadcasters clung to standards, not all the players did; that year, for the first time the men’s singles champion, the young John McEnroe, was not invited to join the All England Club, because of his ungentlemanly behaviour on court.  (These days he is a great favourite here, though he is still teased and asked to repeat, “You can not be serious!” – that being pretty much the worst of his shocking remarks.)

One year earlier I had spent my first summer in England.  My friends, fellow graduate students at Oxford University, were as engaged with Wimbledon as Brits ever are, but the real television draw in 1980 was something else, a drama repeat just before each day’s tennis broadcast .

A friend explained, Of course everyone is watching the repeats in case they can spot a clue to who shot JR.

I asked, Who is JR?

My friend’s jaw dropped, and then he declared I must be the only person in the UK – and probably in the English speaking world  – who could be quite so ignorant. 

Bjorn Borg won the men’s singles.  I got pregnant and I got married.  My British husband filled me in on Dallas.  When our son was born my husband assured me that American cultural imperialism – of which that show was but a small example – meant I needn’t fear to raise good Americans anywhere where television reception was guaranteed.

These days I forget who shot JR and just about recall who Absalom is (the survey didn’t ask about him; he’s my bonus for extra points).   I can tell you quite a lot about Abraham, and am reliable, I think, on all the parables.  But tonight, at least, I could only manage 9 commandments.  (If you want to play this game with me I’ll tell you which one I forgot and which I remembered last, if you’ll tell me yours – no googling. Or we could play a different game where we think about what would be the best 10 commandments for the 21st century.)

As for cultural literacy, it is hard to know what counts any more.  I’m pretty comfortable in my BBC radio world, but if I read the internet I realise I don’t know a damn thing (oops that’s a commandment) that anyone’s talking about.

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