yammering

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a glimpse of maybellene’s garden

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bebside #2

‘The sun is God’

(Said to be Turner’s last words)

Debs and Angie both went down with Swine Flu this week. I began to think about the apocalypse again.  The birch seeds are blowing across my garden path and burrowing into the rubber seals of my car windows. Great dark swirls of lapwings have taken to the air above the fields along the beach road. Dozens of goldfinches are nervously harvesting the seeds from tattered windblown thistles along the fence lines that run inland towards Newsham and New Hartley. The days are closing in. Darkness is on its way.

Lily burst into the office. It must have been Tuesday. She strode across the room like a Valkyrie.

‘That bloody woman does my head in!’ she said. ‘I’ve had to walk out or I’d have killed her!’

Pippa, Jodie, Jules and Michelle all glanced at her briefly in a very matter of fact way. They said nothing. Lily does this sometimes.

‘Who are you seeing?’ I asked. I was nibbling on one of the Thornton’s Mini Caramel Shortcakes that Jules had brought in from home to save herself from excess or waste.

‘Maybellene Twichell’ Lily replied, throwing her long blonde hair back like a palamino’s mane and adopting a haughty but subtly self-mocking stance. Lily does this too sometimes. Her moods have a dramatic quality about them, like the weather in the mountains.

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘The Mouse Lady. So what’s up now – more evidence of spells and potions?’

‘No,’ Lily said, in a clipped way. ‘No. Polly has gone missing now.  That’s two down, one to go.’

‘So Penelope didn’t ever turn up, then?’

‘Of course she bloody didn’t.  Maybellene says that she saw next door’s tabby, Mr Bilbo, in her garden the other night and fears the worst. Of course she didn’t seem the slightest bit bothered by this possibility. If they were mice I’d be beside myself, wouldn’t you?’

I nodded. ‘So have you spoken to the cat yet?’

‘No, not yet,’ Lily replied, now suddenly distinctly more reflective. ‘I’m interviewing him tomorrow. But I can tell you now Mr Bilbo will have nothing to say on the matter.  My guess is Mr Bilbo will not have laid a paw on either of these mice. My guess is that Maybellene has already delivered them to childless couples for transformation. That woman makes my blood boil some times. She’s as slippery as an eel, that one. And oh so smug with it.’ Lily paused briefly and then asked,’ If Mr Bilbo says he didn’t take these mice, do you think we’ll have enough to start proceedings on Priscilla?’

‘I shouldn’t think so,’ I replied. ‘But why not run it past legal. You never know. How’s Pearl, by the way.’

‘She’s fine, I think. No fur, no facial or dietary changes.  In fact I think it may be that she is already her mother’s apprentice. It may be too late already for Pearl.’

Hmmm,’ I said, shaking my head thoughtfully, ‘that’s a shame.’

I emailed John Sultan and updated him on the disappearance of Polly. He replied tersely: ‘Okay. Thanks.’  John’s not a rich or nuanced communicator. This is pretty much the answer he gives to every email.

‘Hi John. The world’s turned to a strawberry tart.’

‘Okay. Thanks.’

‘Hi John. There are seventeen extraterrestrial beings in the office and they’re turning all the staff into small china teapots.’

‘Okay. Thanks.’

‘Hi John.  A shopkeeper on Woodhorn Road is buying new-born babies from strung out heroin addicts from North Seaton and feeding them to his pet tiger.’

‘Okay. Thanks.’

‘Hi, John. There are tanks on Station Road, bombers over Lintonville Terrace, and my eyes have turned to turpentine.’

‘Okay. Thanks.’

I drove through the silent regiment of traffic cones on the Spine Road and up the slip road towards the Laverock Hall. The light was grey and white, the fields were yellow and rust. Already leaves have fallen from the trees. I was listening to Richmond Fontaine’s latest album, “We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River”. It’s predictably excellent. Willy Vlautin is a songwriter with unusually sophisticated narrative skills. His work is sometimes described as Carveresque. These are songs of anomie and dysfunctional relationships; their narrators inhabit a landscape that is almost irretrievably post-traumatic. Perhaps at one level these songs map a psychological meta-narrative – the collapse of character against environment into character against self. Something tragic and dehumanizing has happened here, but yet there’s something about the sharing of this experience in a song that offers a remedy of sorts, a kind of humanizing openness.

When I got in I discovered Margaret was on the telephone to Brenda. I went into the kitchen. About half a dozen or so of her clocks were gathered on the kitchen table. A yellow duster lay beside them. De Kooning was sitting among them, like a slightly bemused black druid. I made myself a cappuccino and took him through to watch the six o’clock news. Nick Clegg was on. I wondered if I should go for walk before tea.

‘How’s Brenda?’ I said to Margaret when she came through with a cup of tea to watch the weather.

‘She’s troubled,’ Margaret replied. ‘She doesn’t think Tristan really wants to find work. He goes out every day and tells her he’s out looking for work.  He goes out every morning at nine, comes back every night at half five. He acts as if he’s working, but says he isn’t. Brenda doesn’t know what to make of it. She doesn’t trust him. She wants to support him but doesn’t want him to make a fool of her.’

Nick Clegg popped up again, like a robin on a Christmas card. I picked up my book on Ivon Hitchens and began flicking through it.

‘Tristan’s a creature of habit,’ I said.

‘Brenda thinks he’s seeing someone else,’ Margaret said.

Kettles and frying pans crossed my mind.

‘Who?’ I said. ‘Does she drive a bus?’

Margaret scowled. ‘She’s not sure who it is,’ she replied.

‘Ah.’

‘But she has an idea.’

‘She has an idea?’

‘Yes, she has. She thinks it might be a woman from South Beach Estate. One of her clients said she saw his van there on a couple of occasions.’

‘It wasn’t Mrs Byro, was it?’

‘It might have been, yes. Why?’

‘I just wondered. Which road was Tristan’s van allegedly seen in?’

‘I’m not sure. One of the bird streets, I think.’

‘Curlew?’

‘It might be, yes.’

‘Or was it Avocet?’

‘Perhaps.’

‘Or Osprey?’

‘Yes, maybe.’

‘Or Eider?’

‘I’m not sure. It might have been Dunlin.’

‘Hmmm,’ I said, wondering if perhaps Mrs Byro was the femme fatale herself and had lobbed in the South Beach idea to throw Brenda off the scent. It was an very odd thought. Tristan’s a Trostskyite.

‘It wasn’t Albatross by any chance, was it?’ I said.

‘No,’ Margaret replied. ‘I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that one.’

Lily interviewed Mr Bilbo on Wednesday, as planned.

‘How did it go?’ I asked.

‘Okay,’ she replied, in a resigned sort of way. She obviously hadn’t got much.

‘Did he talk to you okay?’

‘Oh yeah, he was fine. A really well mannered and polite little chap. Straight as a die too.’

‘So?’ I said. ‘Come on then, what did he say? Has he been in Maybellene’s garden or was she just telling porky pies?’

‘Yes, he says he’s been in a few times.’

‘Ah ha! And?’

Lily frowned. ‘Mr Bilbo says he feels uncomfortable in Maybellene’s garden. He says there’s something odd about it. He never stops there, but he has to pass through it to get to Mrs McMurdo’s garden. Mrs McMurdo lets him sit in her greenhouse and she has catmint planted in her border.’

‘So what does Mr Bilbo say is so odd about Maybellene’s garden? Is it full of dead mice, for instance?’

‘No,’ Lily said. ‘That’s the odd thing. Mr Bilbo says he has never seen any evidence whatsoever of even one mouse in Maybellene’s garden. He says it’s the only garden he’s ever been in that’s like that.  Don’t you think that’s strange?’

I nodded slowly. ‘It is strange, yes. But what does it tell us?’

Lily shrugged and shook her head.

‘Okay, so what else did he say? Has he ever heard or seen anything odd?’

‘He says he’s heard them singing.  At first he says he thought it was a Mahalia Jackson record, but then he glimpsed Maybellene through the kitchen window. Mr Bilbo says Maybellene sings a lot and that he can hear her even if he’s in the next street. She sings spirituals.’

‘Spirituals?’

‘Yes, you know – Go Tell It On the Mountain, I’m On My Way to Canaan’s Land, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, that sort of thing.’

‘Did Mr Bilbo mention those particular songs?’

‘Yes, he did actually. Do you think they are telling us something?’

I shrugged and shook my head.

‘So other than the Mahalia Jackson syndrome, which isn’t really that unusual, I guess, and the garden with no mice, was there anything else he mentioned which might be important?’

‘He said the garden smells strange.’

‘It smells strange? In what way? What does he say it smells like?’

‘He doesn’t know. He says it isn’t a smell he likes. He says it could be snakes.’

‘Snakes?!’ I said. ‘He definitely said that?’

‘Yes,’ Lily said. ‘He said the smell could be snakes.’ Lily looked sheepish.

‘You suggested that to him, didn’t you?’ I said. ‘You asked him a leading question, didn’t you?’

Lily nodded.  Her head drooped in shame, her long hair closng around her face like crematorium curtains. ‘Yes, I did,’ she said.

‘Lily,’ I said. ‘What on earth were you thinking of? That’s not like you.’

‘I know, I know,’ she said, looking up at me, wide-eyed and beseeching. ‘I know. But that bloody woman really gets under my skin. I know she’s up to something, I just bloody know it. I was so hoping Mr Bilbo would give us something.’

I was in Keswick last weekend. On Saturday I walked around Derwentwater and up over Catbells. It drizzled a bit around the middle of the day, but for the time of the year I couldn’t complain. On Saturday night I went to the Theatre by the Lake to see a production of an adaptation of one of P G Wodehouse’s novels – Summer Lightning. It was written in 1929. The characters have typically unlikely Wodehouse names – Percy Pilbeam, Sir Gregory Parloe-Parsloe, Galahad Threepwood and Hugo Carmody.  The men were all dapper and dandy – striped blazers, brightly coloured waistcoats, pastel ties, tan brogues and all that.  This novel was published just three years after the General Strike of 1926. Of course such events unfolded in a completely different universe to that inhabited by Wodehouse’s characters. The men who in those days worked (or didn’t) in the dirty dark world of the pits and shipyards of Blyth never ever dressed like this. I never saw a striped blazer in my granddad’s wardrobe. My grandma was never a flapper girl. But oddly enough I found myself taking a strange liking the style of the male characters. As soon I got back went on to the Veggie Shoes site. I really must get myself some tan brogues.

It’s been another good weekend weatherwise. I rode my bicycle over the fields to Bebside and then up the Heathery Lonnen to the Three Horse Shoes. There seems to be a unusually high number of berries on the trees and hedgerows this year, more than I can ever recall seeing in any previous year. I went up through Cramlington and Nelson Industrial Estate to Beaconhill and then down Arcot Lane, the broken track already littered with dry brown leaves. Sometimes the wind picked them up and swirled them into sudden vortices, like dogs chasing their tails. I went through Dudley and then back down to Seghill on the road, the wind at my back. I came over the fields to Newsham. It was feeling a little colder. Some kids had set fire to some trees and grass along the track that follows the route of the old railway line to New Delaval. The place is bone dry. It hasn’t rained much for weeks now. 

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eliza and the last day of summer

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Last Sunday I went to Keswick to see Eliza Carthy at the Theatre by the Lake. It was a fine day that had the feel of the last day of summer. I strolled around the town – which was surprisingly busy, I thought – and browsed in the outdoor shops. It’s sale time because it’s the end of the season and next year’s stuff is about to come in, and perhaps also because the economic slow down is having an impact. I sat outside at the Lakeland Pedlar with my elderflower cordial and carrot cake and gazed up at Skiddaw. The mountains were lolling in a loose grainy mist, benign and summery. I was wishing I’d brought my boots. But I hadn’t.

I wandered along the lake path from Crow Park down to the National Trust Centenary Stone at Calfclose Bay. On the way back I sat for a while on a seat near the Ruskin Memorial at Friar’s Crag looking out over Derwentwater. Perhaps his unquiet ghost sat down with me for a while. Places are made of memories. I was thinking about how double-edged they are, how the past perpetually constructs and reconstructs the present, and how the present constantly reconstructs the past. I gazed at the soft roller coaster ridge of Causey Pike and the snaggy peak of Eel Crag, like a lover gazing at a beloved he cannot reach. Memory is a landscape of longing and loss. The power of association is greater than Ruskin wanted to admit. But I wasn’t thinking about any of the many days when I’d walked these hills, any particular adventure or experience. I was just opened up somehow, peculiarly undefended in the face of the mass and texture of the place. I seemed to be somewhere beyond the particularity of events, but somehow there and then in a very particular moment.  I wished again that I’d brought my boots. I went past other walkers as if I was carrying a secret, as if I’d stolen one of the hills and it was in my rucksack, wrapped up in my black fleece. When I got back to my hotel room it struck me that I hadn’t taken a single photograph. Some days, I suppose, we must need to just let the moments be. Remembering, like art, is like an an act of love that sometimes feels like a violation.

I sat in my room near the window reading The Observer. But I wasn’t really paying attention. I wasn’t taking anything in. The articles floated by on the skin of my mind. None of them broke the surface tension or sank. I was preoccupied, wrapped in the paradox of being somewhere else at the very moment of being most fully here. It was probably beauty I was really wondering about, and how it had both immediacy and depth. The landscape of the Lakes is something that like most other people I experience as beautiful. There are paradigms of beauty we learn as children and find on every postcard. And yet while I knew that it was a common experience in its appearance and in its immediacy, I felt beauty must also be idiosyncratic and individual in its depth. Surely it’s more than a mere facade. Beauty is recognition. Beauty is knowledge of a kind. I was wondering if memory isn’t at its heart. I doubted that beauty could exist for a being without a memory. Beauty, I thought, in my Ruskinesque register, is a kind of angel of memory.

The articles in The Observer floated by. I was sounding a tad transcendental, I was thinking, a wee bit like a Platonist. A bit high-falutin’ and airy-fairy. Perhaps Ruskin’s ghost was still yammering inside me. I’d have to watch that. Beauty is recognition, but it is organic, material, iterative, cumulative, learnt, synthetic – I was looking for the words, the qualities to nail it down, to make sure it stays where it is, here in the real and ordinary lives of real and ordinary people. Beauty is not beyond us, not elsewhere, not the glimpse of another world. I was getting hungry. It was teatime. I was thinking that perhaps the study of idiosyncrasies of beauty must be like the archaeology or geology of memory. I was thinking I had wasted my money buying a newspaper today.

I had a quick shower and put back on the clothes I’d just taken off. I ate at Casa Bella, where the food is consistently good, much better than it ought to be for the price, I always think. I sat at a table near the window and watched the passers-by. I was feeling okay, I thought.

Eliza is lively and engaging, pale skinned and girlish, ordinary in a way. The intimacy of the venue suited her well and enhanced the sense of her being emotionally and personally close to her audience. This is probably particularly important for a folk artist, where being perceived as remote from her audience might be an unfortunate irony. The perceived distance between an artist and her audience is of course a key element in the experience of the performance. Eliza’s rapport seems utterly natural, as if it’s never had to be worked at. This is an illusion too, of course. She has a nice line in apparently spontaneous waffle, as she might call it, about things her audience of ordinary people know and can identify with, like boyfriends, mobile phones, families, babies, getting drunk, parties, rowing on the lake, and the pirate’s hook that happens to be hanging on the microphone stand. Tonight’s performance was ostensibly as much a conversation with the audience as a performance of the songs from her latest album. The conversation – in actuality a sort of monologue, of course – undoubtedly added context and thus depth to the songs and therefore altered and arguably enhanced them for her audience. The truth is that as entertaining and likeable as she undoubtedly was, I found myself at times wishing she would play a little more. There is depth and common experience – an inescapable humanity – about folk songs which is personal in any case and which can stand alone. I felt like a spoilsport at times, as if I was being a little churlish in my desire to hear her sing and play her fiddle more. And I was, because she is so personable and probably very genuine.

What I like about Eliza’s records – her music – is the intensity, the way the force of her music – rhythm, repetition, persistence, tone, texture, and what have you – ensnares me, wraps itself around me, possesses me. I like the way dark spaces are opened up- chasms – and the way the music is a kind of rope that swings and hauls me around spaces that seem simultaneously dangerous and safe, depraved, reckless and (ha ha – I’ve slipped this one past you once before!) sublime. I like how I’m made to lurch and stumble, teeter and soar, glide and fall. What I like is the palpable physicality of her music, how it reunites me with movement, with the dynamics or kinetics of being an animal in an animal’s world. Maybe this is one of the things the beauty of music remembers for us, the way the body moves, how we made and make the space where we find ourselves as bodies. I’d watched videos of Eliza on YouTube and she seemed to me to be also possessed by the physicality of her music. I had come to witness some of those moments. And I did. Eliza and her band are all strong musicians and seem to be deeply involved with their material. There were times when I got what I came for, the immediacy of Eliza fiddling and stepping and swaying around the stage like a distracted hobgoblin, driven to a dance that is as deep as we are, as deep as any of us can be, and stepping up to the microphone to fathom and release unfathomable emotions. Eliza surrenders her voice to her song, her body to her violin – that’s how good she is.

After the concert she came out into the bar and sat at the table with her CD’s. I bought another copy of Dreams of Breathing Underwater and asked her to sign it for me. She’s pregnant and I wished her good luck with the baby and she thanked me for that. Eliza wants to be the same woman off stage as she is on stage, I thought, and maybe she is, in some ways at least. But it would be a mistake to assume that a Yorkshire lass has any less of a secret life than Leonard Cohen.

The next morning I had intended to hire a rowing boat and go out on the lake for an hour. I was thinking I might drown the ghost of Ruskin once and for all. But it was raining steadily. I drove down past Thirlmere, over Dunmail Raise and through Grasmere in the quiet silvery rain and it looked very like the first day of autumn. I went to Ambleside and browsed around the outdoor shops there, but again bought nothing. I wandered around the town and spent a little while in the Old Courthouse Gallery looking again at the paintings of Libby Edmondson, which I particularly like and whose style in some ways reminds me of mine.

When I got back home there was only De Kooning in the house. I could hear the Napoleon still ticking in Margaret’s bedroom. De Kooning gave me a nudge with his head and I took him to the kitchen and gave him some prawns. I told him Eliza was good but asked him not to mention Ruskin. I went through to the conservatory as I checked my mail. There were seven large onions on the coffee table. The clatter and rumble of the Citadel men was relentless.

When Margaret came in I asked her if she’d wound the Napoleon up.

‘I have not,’ she said, emphatically. ‘I haven’t tampered with it at all. Brenda has advised me that intervening would not not a good idea.’

‘I didn’t know she knew about clocks.’ I said. ‘There’s no end to her talents, is there?’

Margaret rolled her eyes. She didn’t need to tell me that the awakening of a long dead clock would be regarded as a sign by Brenda. What it was a sign of was less obvious, of course.

‘Did you tell Brenda about my spider’s corpse theory?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ Margaret replied, tersely. ‘She said that such an explanation is so far fetched and unlikely that it can be safely dismissed.’

And yet the idea that the clock might start up again in contravention of the laws of nature and in doing so have a higher meaning, which might be of very great significance indeed, isn’t so unlikely, it seems.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Okay.’

On Thursday I noticed the clock was still ticking and I asked Margaret again if she had wound it up. Again she said she hadn’t.

‘Then someone has,’ I said. ‘Because even if we don’t know why it started, what we do know is it won’t keep going unless someone keeps winding it up. Perpetual motion isn’t possible.’

‘I haven’t touched it,’ Margaret repeated. ‘And I won’t. But let me tell you this – that clock may never stop again. Brenda’s right, everything happens for a reason, and that Napoleon is no exception.’

‘I think I’ll call the Greek,’ I said.

‘You can call who you like,’ Margaret said. ‘There are some things that even the Greek can’t explain.’

I rang the Greek. He said to be patient. Sooner or later the Napoleon will fall totally silent again.  But it hasn’t done so yet and it’s beginning to worry me. Imagine if the world according to Brenda just happens to turn out to be true. 

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Written by yammering

September 20, 2008 at 10:32 pm