A Nike Tick in a Black Man’s Beard

Saturday 21st January

I was sitting minding my own business, as usual, when I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye. And like those subliminal messages which one suspects are planted in adverts, but which are strenuously denied by the advertisers, I thought I had seen something.  It was only there for a second and then gone, something incongruous and unexpected, but strangely familiar.  And after a second I put away the book I was reading (1Q84 – Haruki Mirukami) which was getting a little repetitive, and looked at my fellow tube travellers.  Nothing really unusual – the same motley crew as one always gets mid-afternoon on the Bakerloo line.  But there, over by the door and looking away from me so that I could only see the back of his head, a black man, well of course, the back of a black man’s head, became the focus of my attention. What was it about him; he was early twenties with short well cut hair, a light brown leather jacket with an eight ball design, blue jeans and sneakers.  But I had seen something, I was sure.

Suddenly he was sitting opposite me, as if by some synchronicity; some fortunate alignment of the stars had worked in my favour and my curiosity was satisfied.  He had one of those neat little goatee beards that so suit black men, and do nothing for the white male, and at first it looked a bit lop-sided, but then it suddenly became obvious, he had it shaved into a perfect Nike tick, or swatch I believe the correct term is, right in the centre of his chin.  And it suited him, even though it marred slightly the perfect symmetry of his features, it seemed to fit well and sit well on his face.  I had often seen swirls and intricate designs that had been razored into black men’s heads, where the design is a millimeter or two indented into the tight curls, but never in a beard before.

He smiled confidently as if he knew it would draw attention and admiring looks to him.  I wondered how he managed to shave, but suspect that he uses one of those tiny little electric shavers with small interchangeable heads.  (Edward was a brush and lather and cut-throat man, but he took a plug in Ronson on holidays, but could never achieve the close finish he got with a wet shave.)  It must take him ages every morning I thought, and actually did he ever regret it, like someone who has their tongue pierced or a neck tattoo, you can hardly hide it, though in his case, despite being a walking advert for footwear, he could shave it out in a moment.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They

Friday 20th January

As well as being a pop-song, (which was quite unlike a pop song – and a one hit wonder for some band I forget the name of – they were that memorable), this was also a film.  A wonderful film too, from that Golden Age of Cinema 1969.  It was made by Sydney Pollack and starred Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin.  It was a story of a killing, but more a mercy killing than one in any sort of anger. The two characters were drifters in 1930’s America who happened to enter a Marathon dance competition.  This was a particular sort of evil, thrown up by the desperation of the depression.  People would go to dance halls to watch couples dance and dance until there was only one couple standing.  A sort of exhaustive Britains got Talent of yesteryear.  Every so often a new twist would be added, such as having the exhausted couples race around the dance hall and the last couple getting eliminated.  These desperate kids and actually some older couples too, were so hard-up they would spend weeks getting nothing but their food and drink just to try to win a few bucks.

Our hero and heroine were not together at first but found themselves each without a partner and out of desperation became a new couple and were allowed to continue.

And Jane Fonda was magnificent in this, her self-loathing and misery on display for all to see. Michael as the bewildered and disillusioned kid is brilliant too.

I cannot quite remember how it ends, except that he shoots her – I think she asks him to too.  They lose the prize and both realise they have absolutely no future.  When he is apprehended and asked why he did it he replies “They shoot horses, don’t they?”

It made a big impression on me when I saw it in the late seventies on BBC2.  It is the kind of film they should show again and again so that the kids of today can learn from it, but like so many classics of only 40 years ago, they aren’t shown at all nowadays.  Thank heavens for DVDs.


That inescapable moment when your toenails cry out to be cut

Thursday 19th January

We all cut our toenails I am sure, though there may be some who do not, some tramps I suppose may simply wait for them to split and crack as they get too long for their shoes. As a child I can remember Grandma cutting my toenails, often after a bath ‘when they are nice and soft’ she used to say. At a certain age I took over this task myself.  And at another certain age I may have to surrender to another toenail cutter again.   Let’s hope that is a while off.

As I said we all cut our toenails, but what prompts us to do it.  I cannot imagine keeping a spreadsheet, or making a diary entry, a circled TN on the first of each month.  But I find that there is always an inescapable moment when my toenails are crying out to be cut.  It is invariably late at night, I may have been watching TV, barefoot, and as I am beginning to make my way to bed they start crying out to me, “Please cut me Catherine; it is time for those old nail scissors again.”   And I find I can never refuse their siren call – I simply have to go to my make-up bag and retrieve my dainty little nail scissors and no matter how tired I am I snip away.

And they are so thankful, my little toesy-woesy, they simply glow with satisfaction.

I am also one of those finicky people who like to collect their clippings into a little pile.  I can’t miss even one, as they jump out across the rug, trying to bury themselves in the deep pile.  I line them up by size on the arm of the sofa, amazed at the tiny flexibility of the baby ones, and the incredible thickness of my big toenails.  Into the bin I scoop them and walk free and easy again.  At last my feet can breathe, and I flex my toes in their new-found freedom.  I couldn’t possibly have gone another minute with those long nails.  And I never see it coming; I have no itchy warning signs, no cramped feeling in my shoes; no clues at all.  One minute I am all contentment, and the next those nails are just crying out to be cut.

You don’t often get to see a sunrise

Wednesday 18th January

Sunsets everybody sees, not all the time, but enough for them to be considered commonplace.  But sunrises usually take place before we are awake, except in the winter, but even then you have to be in the right place and the right frame of mind, and of course to have the time; most of us are too busy scuttling to work to notice the beauty all around them.

I stayed over with my friend Barbara last night on the Isle of Dogs. (which of course is no island at all, though it probably was once) I was up before everyone, and partly to avoid the bathroom and breakfast chaos, I let myself out and went for a walk by the river.  You know on Eastenders, the map that slowly revolves. (actually I haven’t seen it in years, and assume it still does) That bulge in the river – that gloopy plum that hangs down into South London – that is where she lives towards the eastern side.  As you come out of her house onto the river you can just see the Excel centre in one corner and Greenwich Naval College in the other, and the sun comes up bang in the middle.  The south bank here is semi-industrialised with a  couple of cranes and chimneys and small hills of aggregate.  At first the sky was dark indigo with the crescent moon still hanging, fading to an almost white pale blue towards the land, black as coal and silhouetted, and the river a bible blue and blacky grey.  There were a few streaks of cloud, a bit like jet trails in straight and chaotic lines but mostly it was cloud free, and then it started.  The few strung out clouds turned from black to the palest of pinks imaginable, then slowly the sky lit up, getting pinker by the minute, as the blue lifted layer by layer becoming a richer fuller blue almost like Mediterranean skies.  Then the clouds seemed to thicken and widen and for a minute or two there were parallel bands of pink and blue fading at the edges and bleeding into each other.  Gradually the pink filled the entire horizon before in its turn turning a pale white shade of blue as all hint of darkness disappeared.

A truly spectacular sight.  And I am reminded that long before mankind first set foot on this precious planet, and long after we have gone, this sun will rise and fall every day creating its own wonderful display, totally oblivious of our desperate little scamperings.

And it was okay actually

Tuesday 17th January

Yesterday I was so nervous about the writing group, you know, irrational fears of meeting new people, which were, of course, totally unfounded.  And it was all right.  No, I really mean it.  There were three or four regulars who had been on the course before, and two others beside myself who were novices.

Rosie was very welcoming and put us all at ease by insisting that we didn’t have to read anything out at all, if we didn’t want to.  And she also told us that her job was not to criticize but to help us to write a bit better.  We had a couple of little exercises; to write a short piece on a suggested subject, not such a hard task, and fun in a way.  Then Rosie talked about getting started with writing, and then nearly everyone read something out.  I had prepared a short bit of a story which hadn’t gone anywhere, and a short poem.  I wish I had chosen the poem actually as the piece I read seemed flat as I heard the words out loud.  No worse than anyone else’s at any rate, so not such a bad start.

But why do I get so nervous of new things; is it because for so long I did everything with Edward?  Or have I always been this way?  I don’t think so, I was always a bit reserved, not one to push themselves forward, but quite prepared to join in once I knew the ground rules.  I think it is a product of ageing, where once you were the dominant generation, now you are so often ignored.  Where once you had no hesitation, now you are more careful. Where once you took life in your stride, now even the smallest steps appear to daunt you.  Where once you didn’t question yourself, now you question your place in the world, and life itself.

Anyway, the group has helped me a bit, it has given me some focus, which I feel I needed.   I am not alone any more, there are several idiots out there scribbling away like me.

I am joining a new Writing Group

Monday 16th January

I am full of trepidation, nerves and qualms.  I have been invited to join a writing group by Rosie Furber, who I met at a party over Christmas.  She is an established writer, well, I presume she makes some sort of a living from it, and has published books for children as well as an adult novel and several books of poetry.  I have actually met her a few times now, and she has read my book, and said some kind things about it.  She gave me a book of her poetry where each poem consists of just seventeen words, quite clever and I have dipped in and read a few.  More snippets of wisdom and reflection then actual poems, but the discipline of having to write concisely is a good one.  One of my constant self-criticisms is the amount of verbiage I write; I seem to pad things out unnecessarily.

I have actually started the new venture, and very different it is too from Catherines Story.  I have decided to approach this a bit differently from my earlier writing, and not edit as I go along.  I am going to take Haruki Mirukami’s advice; well the way he describes the writing of one of his characters Tengo in !Q84.  Write a whole section, then go through and edit ruthlessly, paring back any and all unnecessary bits.  Then rewrite a third time, slowly looking at each sentence and maybe adding back here and there to make the story a bit more readable.

In other words, just write as it comes out the first time, and don’t worry about the mistakes.  But thoroughly edit at least once and then re-write again as a whole.

We’ll see, but my first problem is just getting over the threshold of this new group.  I really do not know what to expect, I just have to assume that there will be some there better than I, and some worse.  I am hoping to get a bit of encouragement; and maybe some advice on writing in general.  One part of me is looking forward to it, but the other Catherine is sh.. scared, I am afraid. I will take along my book, but keep it in my bag unless others start boasting about what they have written; at least I managed to get the thing published.  As Rosie says when she tells people she is a writer, a lot of them say that they have always wanted to write a novel, as if that qualifies them in some way.  Well, at least I have actually got the damn thing published, whereas they haven’t even written theirs down yet.

And it seems to be getting a bit colder here too

Sunday 15th January

I must say that my heart warms a few degrees whenever I see that map of Great Britain on the weather covered in blue.  There is a great big fat dollop of high pressure sitting over Britain at the moment, and apart from the Celtic fringes we are all a bit colder; but in a funny way a bit warmer for it too.

I once heard an interview on Radio 4 with a few ex-pats who had moved to Southern Spain.  Apart from missing HP sauce and ginger nut biscuits, and the fact that they couldn’t get a real British Sausage for love or pesetas (it was a while ago), their biggest regret was strangely enough the weather.  The very thing which had attracted them in the first place, that imagined vista of never-ending blue skies and warmth had turned into some sort of featherbedded and comfortable, but inevitably boring and depressing, nightmare.  Just imagine waking every day to no real change in the weather; the English are famous for moaning about the weather, but I think it is something different actually.  I think that we are conscious that in these blessed isles we do have a lot of weather – in fact it is usually quite changeable.  The most common summary on ‘the weather’ is sunny with occasional showers, or its opposite, which actually means more or less the same thing, overcast with occasionally sunny spells.

It is quite often the case that we get four seasons in one day, and no matter how rainy it is in the morning, by lunchtime, the sun can have come out and it turns out  quite warm, but then again it is just as likely to become overcast again later on.  And I think that secretly we like it like this.  We all talk about and long for a few weeks away in the sun every year, but actually living like that with constant sunshine must be quite miserable I think.  And likewise these last few weeks of nothing weather, neither cold nor wet or warm or dry, just a bit overcast, as if the weather somehow couldn’t make up its mind, have been a bit of a disappointment.  It was quite wonderful this morning to stride out over frost covered grass, leaving one’s own trail of slightly darkened footsteps behind.  And though it was hardly cold, there was enough of a nip in the air to remind you that it was actually winter.  Not that I really want weeks of snow either, just a few cold and chilly mornings like today.  Like the bulbs in he ground that need that touch of frost before the warm weather tells them to start germinating, I too need a cold spell, to get me ready for the spring.

The Anniversary of Scott of the Antartic

Saturday 14th January

It was just one hundred years ago (almost – the seventeenth actually) when Scott discovered the South Pole.  Though, of course, it had always been there, he thought he was the first human to get there. The tragedy was that he wasn’t; a Norwegian, Amundsen, had beaten him by just over a month, but apart from discovering the Norwegian flag and a letter to him, he had no way of knowing.  Imagine that, in this age of instant news and mobile phones; they were so cut-off that although they knew Amundsen was attempting to reach the pole too, they didn’t know he had already beaten them by a month. The letter was asking Scott to inform the King of Norway of Amundsen’s achievement, in the event of Amundsen not returning.  Was this a gentlemanly thing to do, or a sophisticated cold-handed slap in the face for Scott, who already exhausted from the attempt, now had to trudge back to base empty-handed.

I have always been fascinated by this story, and in fact by all the Edwardian Arctic explorers like Shackleton.  The amazing resilience, the courage and the determination of these quite untrained and amateur men is heart-rending, especially the end for Scott.  All of his men were slowly starving, (he had underestimated the rations needed and had to continually cut them down) they were also suffering from hypothermia, frost bite and most probably scurvy too.

As the men slowly died they continued their pointless plodding homewards.  We were all taught at school the story of Captain Oates, who realizing he was slowing the group down and suffering from acute frost-bite exited the tent with the famous words “I am just going outside and may be some time.”  Of course he was deliberately walking to his certain death, hoping to give the others a better chance,  We were taught that this was the ultimate sacrifice and somehow an example of English gentlemanly behaviour.

Well, brave or not it was actually pretty pointless, as the three remaining men only lasted a few more days before they too died, huddled in their tent in the middle of a howling blizzard.  The real tragedy was that they were only 11 miles from a depot where they would have found enough supplies to get them back safely.  Scott’s last entry in his diary was “We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more.”

It was only one hundred years ago, no time at all.  And now almost every year some other group, young teenagers, women, over seventies – you name it, manages to get to the South Pole.  It won’t be long before Richard Branson has holidays there.


The Death of Madamoiselle

Friday 13th January

In the small town of Cesson-Sevigne in Brittany they have officially forbidden the use of the term Madamoiselle.   The argument is that women should no longer be delineated by their marital status, and in terms of equality with men this is a no-brainer; nobody even wonders whether Monsieur is married or single, but the term Mademoiselle automatically confers on a female the label ‘unattached’ or ‘available’ or even worse if she is of a certain age ‘unwanted’.  I think that the derivation can be traced back to ownership; a woman was literally the property of her father ‘ A Madamoiselle’ until she was handed over to and became the property of her husband ‘Monsieur’.  Often a dowry would accompany her, and her reward for becoming the chattel (and object of sexual gratification) of her husband would be that she became ‘Madame’.  This would obviously have some advantages; her husband would be economically responsible for her, she would gain a degree of respectability in the community, and would be deferred to by shopkeepers as an important person in her own right.

But enough of History, what about the here and now.  Am I the only one to mourn the loss of such a beautiful word, one which incidentally was one of the first which Grandma taught me back in Cyprus?  At the time I am sure I only thought it only meant young lady, but then it was more specific than fille or jeune fille, and did I ever question why there was only garcon and Monsieur, and no equivalent term for an unmarried man such as Madamoiselle; probably not.  It was just the way things were. But derogatory or liberating (take your pick) as a term, it is still a pretty word, as is the English equivalent of Miss, though Mistress has mysteriously disappeared from our vocabulary too, both far nicer than the awful Ms.

A couple of my friends always notice if a woman is wearing a wedding ring, something I never really pick up on; though apparently for predatory men this is an automatic red signal, or for some – actually a green light.  I wonder if in this brave new world of equality the wedding band will go the same way as Mademoiselle and eventually I am sure the term Miss; will a woman simply become a woman, and any connection sanctified by marriage or any other relationship with a man become irrelevant.  I hope not, and for the time being I will still use the term Madamoiselle, if only in my thoughts.

What a mild winter we are having

Thursday 12th January

What with the financial crisis, the credit crunch and now the sovereign debt crisis, I don’t suppose anyone has any time for the whole global warming issue.  Too busy trying to prop up the whole edifice which got us here in the first place.  But of course it hasn’t gone away at all.  Just because no-one is talking about it, doesn’t mean that it isn’t still the greatest problem facing mankind.  A few years ago it was all over the papers and the television, and I can remember the sense of relief when Kyoto was signed up to by, well nearly everyone; and it only seemed a matter of time before even the Americans would wake up and smell the methane.  And now it all seems to be unraveling, all the major polluting countries are refusing to play ball; if they stick their heads any further in the sand they won’t even get their bottoms sun-burnt.  And every now and then another piece of devastating evidence slides into view and the world just collectively shrugs its shoulders and tries to think even more short-term.   Last year they managed to circumnavigate the North Pole itself, the famous North West and North East Passages finally discovered – and no-one cares.

And of late, most people I find are becoming quite skeptical about the whole argument, just as almost the whole of the scientific community is finally agreed that it is happening and even faster than first thought, it is as if it is all just so much hot air, which it is.

And I wonder if this so mild winter has got anything to do with global warming too.  I cannot remember such a warm start to the year, and add to that the hot October, and the mild November and December and it really seems as if we have had no winter at all.  There is still time yet but somehow I suspect it won’t really happen at all this year.  And will that bother anyone?  Will anyone, except the tiny ski resort industry in Scotland really care?

The real fear I have is that we will be leaving it all until it is too late, and it will take some real disaster and great loss of life before anything changes.  Oh well, happy days (till then).