Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Spirits and Places

I’ve been suffering lately from blogstipation. Not too dramatic an illness, and one that can be explained away by general ‘busyness’. Yet despite really having been busy, I’ve had a general sense of being sort of, well, stalled in some sense. Maybe it’s a seasonal thing, but despite trying to move things up a gear in all aspects of my life, I feel like I’ve been treading water instead.

Anyway, since it’s Hallowe'en, and to stop myself thinking about the dozen or so small children who are going to descend on me at 4.00 pm for ‘fun’ (I’m horribly unprepared, and will no doubt adopt my bad witch persona), I’ve been thinking about hauntings. Not ghosties and ghoulies, but hauntings of place, the sense of presiding spirits or genius loci all around us. I’m reading Sea Room by Adam Nicolson, (I know a blogging friend of mine is reading it too – I’m on the last chapter Mags!) and am captivated by his evocation of a place (the Shiants in the Western Isles) which, to us now, are on the limits of our world, geographically and politically. Of course remoteness is all relative, and for many people these rocks in a turbulent sea have been the centre of the universe. It’s a beautiful and imaginative and passionate book, and as I near the end I’m struck by how strongly the inherent spirit of these particular islands comes through the pages. Nicolson describes it as a tutelary, sometimes frightening, spirit in a place of inherent sanctity. I think we all have an innate sense of the spirit of a place, urban or wild, whether or not we think there is something external and unseen among us, or if we put it down to a sense of history, or a psychological reaction to landscape brought about by our own unconscious memories and feelings.

I remember being very aware of the link between landscape and feelings at an early age. We moved around a lot when I was little, and ending up, for a brief while, in Buckinghamshire, after the north east, I can still vividly remember the greenness and softness. I used to dream of a ‘greeny-white lady’, drifting through fields, something damp and wistful about her. No doubt I’d heard a ghost story which had stuck in my head. Moving on to London, as we did shortly afterwards, was less strange, in a way, as I’d already lived in a city and immediately recognised the pulsing energy, like constantly having a half-tuned radio on in the background. Suffolk is different again; I often think of a ‘Green Man’ here, something half-wild and shy living in the hedgerows, something ancient and fertile and linked to agriculture. On this beautiful green, gold and russet morning, late in the year, I’d love to know what others think, and if they think that a sense of place, a sense of presiding spirit, is important to them, on this day of hauntings. Happy Halloween.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Pets, Partings and Petulance

It’s been a week of small losses. The sort of week where you hold your breath, cross your fingers, and trust that the planets will re-align themselves, or the wind will change, or that your wicked alter ego, the one that slams doors and swears a lot and has a nice line in acerbic put -downs, will disappear. It started with a death, of a fat and contented and really quite fetching hamster (and I say this as one who hitherto hated all rodents). I guess it’s the lot of hamsters, to spend a really quite short amount of time crazily spinning on their wheels, then to shuffle off this mortal coil and so help our children to come to terms, in a not too horrifying way, with mortality. Well that was our general idea, anyway. We didn’t think he’d inveigle his way into our family, with his pink eyes and plump albino body. (My son chose him. He wouldn’t have won any beauty contests). And as is the way of things, the long expected event was more sad than we’d anticipated. My boy had been telling a friend, with great excitement, about his very own pet, and went to get him from his cage. It’s always a shock to find a little body stiff and cold, and the timing was bad – bravery needed in front of said friend. We gave him a good send-off though – a coffin lined with cotton wool and bedecked with flowers, a cross with dates engraved by my son, a garden candle lit by the grave. I do realise how cosseted my children are, in global terms. How fortunate they are to have only faced the death-of-old-age of family pets, how lucky to be able to give vent to their feelings and come to some sort of an understanding of death (or dull acceptance, which is all any of us really do, I guess), without their parents falling apart too, without the horror of human death leaving indelible marks of grief of their childhoods. Yet of course, as their mother, I wish they didn’t have to face it at all. I know I can’t wrap them in cotton wool, I know I shouldn’t want to, but sometimes I do. And sometimes, when my patience is at a low ebb, I want to stop answering their innocent questions, all too well aware that there will be future occasions when I’ll have to answer them whilst poleaxed with grief myself. My daughter, never one to be fobbed off, was instantly suspicious of my explanations, despite my reading and re-reading of the wonderful story ‘Goodbye Mog’ by Judith Kerr, which helped my son so much when we lost a cat. She wanted to go straight out the next morning and dig up the hamster, to see what had happened to him in the night. I told her that eventually bodies become grass and flowers, whilst the spirits fly off to heaven. She thinks that heaven sounds rubbish, and that the hamster must be bored and cross because he can’t be with her. Oh for the egocentricity of youth. My son just misses a little creature that shared our house for a couple of years. But he’ll probably get another one. And so it goes on. ….

We also lost a car last week, thanks to my husband wrapping it round a tree, and thankfully and miraculously, emerging unscathed. My daughter wanted another funeral for the car. But she didn’t get one. What else was lost? Well, my temper, I’m ashamed to say, on a couple of occasions, and my general joie de vivre, due to a whole host of small and irritating problems raising their annoying little heads. The wind will change though, and the planets will right themselves, and we will all be bouncy and Tigger-ish again. In the meantime, I will cheer myself up by writing down a list of my favourite novels, given that I was tagged by Jan, and haven’t yet responded. For those readers from Purplecoo, it will be very familiar, since we’ve been posting about our top books already, so do look away now, but since I am an inveterate list maker, here is my choice:

1.So many childhood favourites, from Little Grey Rabbit to Enid Blyton to Noel Streatfield and all those school and/or horsey authors. And Lucy M Boston … I’m cheating, I know, and if I have to pick one, I think it will be Teddy Robinson by Joan G Robinson. I still remember the magic of my mother reading me the adventures of this growly, funny, all too human bear, and the gorgeously cosy yet magical world inhabited by him and Deborah. A must for all little girls of about six, I would think, and there’s some really clever writing that made me alert, I think, to a nice turn of phrase.

2.The Owl Service by Alan Garner. I read it as a teenager, and was bewitched by the haunting atmosphere and ghosts of celtic mythology. A great writer.

3.The Catcher in the Rye. Probably my all time favourite. Just love it.

4.To Kill a Mockingbird. Loved the film too. A heartbreaking and heartwarming book, and Scout reminds me increasingly of my own hot tempered girl.

5.Emma. I came relatively late to Jane Austen, thinking it was all a bit mannered and precious for me. How wrong I was – I love the subtlety and humour. There’s something about Emma that gets me every time; so much that isn’t said but that we work out for ourselves.

6.The Code of the Woosters, PG Wodehouse. My Dad first got me into PG Wodehouse – again, I’d thought it was just farce. Well, it is farce, but genius farce. The above book never fails to delight me.

7.The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood. I love anything and everything that she writes, but this was the first one I read, and it’s one I go back to time and again. She has herself described it as an immature work, and it’s true that some of her later novels have more depth, but it’s so fresh, so funny, and so modern, despite the fact that it was written before I was born.

8. The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald. Sublime writing.

9.Wuthering Heights. Ditto. I love Jane Eyre too, but in the great debate, I’d choose Wuthering Heights. It’s got it all – the passion, the wildness, the grotesqueness, sometimes, of the characters contrasted with the lyrical and poetic writing – beautiful.

10.Le Grand Meaulnes, Alain Fournier. I did read it once in French, (I’m bragging now) but lately I’m only up to reading it in translation. A haunting tale of youth and dreams and loss.

So many more. I'm bound to think of another five that I should have included the minute I post this. But I'd better stop there.