All posts by adrian

Life does not have to end in failure

Wednesday 12th October 

Now that does seem a dismal subject doesn’t it?  But I do not mean it to be.  We should not regard the end of life as a failure at all, except in the obvious sense – of it being the result of a failure to continue living. I once met an Indian gentleman, and gentleman was exactly the word to describe him.  He was helping us out part-time in one of the hotel accounts offices I was working in.  He taught me more about life in the few short conversations I had with him than all the self-help manuals ever written. Mr. Meehra his name was, I never discovered his first name, and it was so long ago he must be long dead by now.  Basically he was saying that you have to live your life like an epic poem, riding the highs and lows, experiencing the gut wrenching pain of disappointment and exhilarating in the happiness you find; it is only by enjoying the extremes to the full that you can appreciate anything at all. And he had a few words to say about those two imposters, success and failure, how they were both illusory and incredibly transient.  So, we should enjoy what we might term as success, for example, when people congratulate me on the publication of the book, but realise that this success will not last, usually only until they turn around to speak to someone else I suspect.  We should also not be downhearted by what others consider as failure, as this too is only momentary, and should rather be judged by one’s own sense of accomplishment or satisfaction rather than the approval, or lack of it, of others.

There comes a time in all our lives when we look back and try to asses things, weigh our achievements in the balance, so to speak.  Often this coincides with retirement, as so many of us consider our working lives to be the area of most success or failure, but I retired many years ago, but feel as if I never have, as now I have my second (or first all along really) career as a writer to sustain me. And though I hardly dare ask my publishers how the book is selling (if at all), I know that I should not be seduced or down-heartened by this really silly measure of success.  The success was completing the task I had set myself; to write, what I consider to be, a reasonably good story, to try to get to the heart of the thoughts and feelings of my heroine, who co-incidentally shares the same name as me. If I had failed, and not written what I considered as good, you and no-one else would be reading either the book or this blog now. It is always flattering when people say they have enjoyed it, but that was never the point of writing it.

And now, whatever happens to the book, however high it flies, or low it sinks, I will not consider it a failure. For me my life, far from over I hope, is now at last, becoming a success.  Strange, when I had what so many envied, a nice home, a house abroad, a good income, that for so long I had thought of myself as a bit of a failure.

Seven Deadly Sins – Sloth

Tuesday 11th October 

Isn’t Sloth a wonderful word, not only is it almost onomatopoeic, (especially when spoken slowly) but it has a wonderful old-world and of course biblical feel to it.  And it has rather fallen out of common usage, I mean, who uses the word at all today?  But it expresses more than just idleness or laziness, slothfulness is in a whole other dimension.  And even that last word slothfulness is simply overwrought and unnecessary. Just plain old sloth will do, and says it all. It is that hopeless state of inactivity and pathetic uselessness that is not just the result of a moments’ depression, but is a state of being, almost a lifestyle choice.

It is the first song in Seven Deadly sins by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, and the sin (encapsulated by their lazy ne’er do well family) which the twin sisters Anna escape from in their journey across America.  If you ask most people what they would consider to be the seven worst sins I doubt very much if sloth, or even idleness, would feature in their answer. I wonder how many people would actually understand the concept of sins; crimes, character failings or errors of judgement they would be happy to embrace, but the concept of a sin is a bit harder to pin down in these irreligious days. It is far more about how you judge yourself than how you are judged by others; a sort of inner reckoning, or even a matter of conscience.

But let us get back to sloth itself, the reason it is a deadly sin is that it is so debilitating and such a waste of an individual’s potential.  It brings to mind the couch-potato who is unemployed and sits and wastes his life watching dvds or cartoons all day.  But I believe it describes far more of us than that, those who settle for the easy option every time, who never push themselves, who have no idea of their own potential let alone attempt to achieve it.  I know that we cannot all be successful, but it is not about material success so much as a feeling that you have actually done something with your life. We live in a society where people just expect to have everything laid on for them; spoilt as children, where whatever they want is given to them  they rarely have to struggle, everything comes to them without really trying and they settle down to a life of easy contentment.  Theirs is also a form of sloth, of just going along with it all, never questioning the world, or their part in it.  And now with the internet available to almost everyone there really is no excuse. There is a whole world out there to discover, whatever age you are. Personally, I feel I still have lots to achieve, some days I feel I have only just started.

So to all of you out there who are tempted to settle for a life of easy choices, don’t become a slave to sloth, get off your bottoms, and try something different, learn a foreign language or  maybe try an open university course, or become a part-time volunteer, or even try writing a book. If I could do it, so could anyone.

Waiting and keeping others waiting

Monday 10th October 

People can be categorised in many ways; by gender, by wealth or by intelligence but the world can also be divided into those who keep people waiting and those who are constantly kept waiting.

And I seem to have fallen reluctantly into the being kept waiting pile.  I pride myself on a degree of punctuality which appears to be rapidly falling out of fashion.  Is it me, or has the rest of the world adopted a new definition of the English Language; when I am asked to meet someone at twelve I assume that they mean twelve o’clock, not half past or far nearer to one?  But it appears that people are not only surprised but can be become quite annoyed if you actually turn up at the specified time, as if you have done it deliberately to annoy them, or by inference as some sort of criticism of their own tardiness, which inadvertently it may well be, though this is entirely of their own making.  You can hardly be criticised for being on time,though this is no longer seen as a virtue, but almost as a vice, as if it is really was stupid of you to actually interpret a generalised time frame of say eight, as being in any way specific.

So, I am constantly kept waiting, I who am invariably on time am often left kicking my heels in some financial consultant’s office, or at the dentists’, or at my publishers’, who seem to work in a constant muddle, and cannot even find letters I have sent, or corrected proofs when I have deliberately gone to the trouble of sending them by recorded delivery.  And while we are on the subject, why is it that nobody ever phones you back; they promise that they will and meticulously take down your number, and your mobile in case you are out, though as I point out I have an answering machine so they can always leave a message, and they so rarely do.  And then when you ring back they are so surprised that no-one has called you back, as if such a thing were unthinkable.  So again I am kept waiting; and the person you first spoke to is never available so you have to repeat the whole rigmarole again to a new person who promises to call you back and your heart sinks as you know that as sure as eggs are oeufs they never will.

I have learnt at dinner parties to arrive ten or fifteen fashionable minutes late, or again you are met at the door with amazement, as your half-dressed hosts stare at their watches, as though they had no idea that you were expected at all.

But worst of all are those who have absolutely no shame.  Barbara and Bill, old friends of ours have a grown-up daughter Charlotte – we stayed a few days with them up in Edinburgh a few years back.  We were all leaving the house to visit some other friends and we had to wait over thirty minutes while she put her make up on, (though she knew exactly what time we were leaving).  There we all were with our overcoats on, waiting at first by the front door and then in the sitting room, and she so nonchalantly kept us waiting without a care in the world.  Bill kept looking at his watch and was sighing in exasperation, in the end Barbara made us a cup of tea while we waited, but from Charlotte not a word of apology, as she merrily kept us all dangling.  Talk about her Royal Highness, and she just behaved as if this was the norm, that everyone should sacrifice their own good time waiting for her.  Maybe she was right, and the rest of us wrong, who knows.

You cannot improve on nature

Sunday 9th October 

Growing up I was always in love with nature, not as some reflection of God’s creative powers I hasten to add, for we were quite irreligious in our household, but rather for the sheer beauty of it. I can remember nature rambles as a junior girl at St. Marys’ where the whole class would decamp, usually onto Barnes Common or sometimes to Richmond Park – and we would observe “Nature”, you know the flora and fauna along the riverbank, that sort of thing. I think the teacher was always more interested in cataloguing and counting different species rather than just watching in amazement as an iridescent blue dragonfly manages to stay exactly still hovering above the water, it’s wings a blur as they spin so fast, and wondering just how on earth they  do it. Or the reflections on the water itself, the duplication of the trees above, and the shadow of the fish gliding under the surface, and the water boatman’s legs splayed wide, carefully reading any fluctuations in the surface tension, and all of it totally oblivious of me, the observer. And the thrilling secret knowledge that all of this existed eons before we, mankind, ever stooped to observe it, and will continue long after we are gone.

And then we got the television and I started watching all those nature documentaries, with David Attenborough my own personal guide showing me how diverse and spectacular nature was.  As I started to learn about Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection it all started to fall into place; how we must have evolved from apes, and they from monkeys, and so on right back to those one-celled creatures in the soupy sea.  And I came to the conclusion that you simply cannot improve on nature, nature was perfection, the result of millions of years of evolving, of perfecting such mechanisms as eyesight or the sonar which whales and dolphins use, or the incredible complexity of the chemical reactions going on in each and every living thing.  I preferred to think of this as a series of chance improvements, each one building on earlier improvements, rather than any intelligent hand guiding it all, my rational mind rejecting any suggestion of “God’s plan” of the creationists.

And then along comes Genetic Engineering, the manipulation of DNA itself, to produce better yields or disease resistance in crops, and beyond that to grow drugs in living organisms, or to learn how to make human stem cells grow into new bits of ourselves.  The more you think of it, the more incredible it seems, but at the same time, the more possible.  And one part of me says, well, why not?  We have been selectively breeding dogs and horses for generations, and the cows and sheep we see romping in the fields are a far cry from those depicted by Artists only a couple of hundred years ago.  I can appreciate the arguments for bio-diversity, but that is maybe more a problem of the way farming has become so globalised and would be happening whether the crops being sown were changed scientifically or just by the older fashioned methods of selective hand pollination.  So the old idea that you cannot improve on nature is seriously being challenged, but is it; are not all of these merely modifications on earlier designs?  It will be a long time before we actually create a new form of life altogether, and I wonder if it will ever come close to the beauty of nature as we know it.

Childhood Remedies

Saturday 8th October 

Of all the childhood remedies Germolene was my favourite, and I still love that comforting smell.  It comes now in small squeezable tubes, but back in the fifties it was only available in flat little tins, cream with blue writing.  Grandma only had to start unscrewing the tin, (or actually sliding it a bit and lifting, as it was a close fitting but not a screw tin) and I would begin to feel better.  Ah the remarkable healing properties of that wafting aroma, almost instantly the grazed knee or the sore spot would begin to heal, and I would watch intently as the blob of unreal pink slowly congealed and faded in intensity as it was absorbed into the hurt place. Sometimes I would insist it still hurt, just to repeat the process, and intensify my pleasure.

Quite a few things came in flat little tins back then; shoe polish, with that annoying little metal twist opener on the side, which if it broke meant you had to break into the tin and could never lock it again, and would be forever chasing a hard nut of polish round and round with your “putting on” brush.  Nowadays nobody really bothers to clean their shoes anyway, but cleaning everyone’s shoes was my daily task; between breakfast and leaving for school I would clean not only my own shoes but Grandma’s court shoes and sometimes even my mother would leave a pair of her flat lace-ups out for me. Then there was real toothpaste; before the invention of tubes filled with an emulsion of chalk and bleach, toothpaste came as a dry solid block which you wetted with your toothbrush, worked up into a little paste and brushed away, I cannot really remember what it tasted like, but it was pretty gritty if I recall. Furniture polish came in round tins too, and you would always have a bit of torn up old blouse or sheet to use to rub it on with, and a soft duster for buffing up. No spray on Pledge for us, elbow grease was the order of the day.

The other dreaded childhood remedy was TCP, a foul smelling and even more disgusting tasting cure-all, brought out for any sore throat, or even a sniffle of a cold.  Gargling with TCP was akin to a punishment, and I would deliberately hide the fact of my annual winter cold just to avoid TCP.  Then there was Hills Balsam, a tincture added to a large bowl of hot water on the table, you then had to lean over and a towel would be placed over your head enclosing you, the bowl and the fumes.  This was meant to clean your tubes and assist in all sorts of respiratory problems, and under the towel the effect was certainly claustrophobic, I was always gagging to escape. Vicks Vapour Rub was applied liberally to your chest before going to sleep, again to try to clear the airways and ensure a good nights’ sleep.  And then there was always Grandma’s favourite standby, Beechams Powders, which came in a neatly folded paper package which Grandma delighted in opening and carefully tipping into a small glass of water.  It barely dissolved and was really bitter tasting. “If it tastes awful, it must be doing you some good” was the belief, and really it is a wonder so many of us actually made it into adulthood given these amazing childhood remedies.

An Apology

Friday 7th October 

I should really learn to control my anger better; this ridiculous and irrational core of anger I have about my oh-so-negligent parents.  And even after Grandma (who had been my rock and surrogate parent), did eventually betray and hurt me so, as you will read in ‘Catherines Story’, it is my two absent parents I reserve my real wrath for.

But I find on reflection that I really should apologise to my mother, especially after yesterday’s letter, which of course was never going to be sent, but it did allow me to vent some of my spleen in her direction.  So I find that I must apologise to her, again in writing which she will never see.  I haven’t told her about either the book or this blog, so she won’t be reading either, and (thank goodness) she has never owned or shown any interest in computers or the internet at all. And in spite of what I wrote yesterday at least my mother never absolutely abandoned me, she was a part of my life, reluctantly maybe on my part, and though she was but a poor shadow of a mother, maybe I should offer her a hand of forgiveness; maybe she really had no choice. Grandma had so usurped my mother’s role when we were living in Cyprus that maybe my poor mother, not the strongest of characters at the best of times, never really stood a chance. And because of Grandma’s dominance over me too, maybe I cut her out of that role too; you cannot really be a mother if your child refuses to recognise you as one. I probably played Grandma’s little game a bit too well, and then when Grandma was no longer around we couldn’t even begin to recognise each other as mother and daughter. A sad state of affairs; and in my own way I have tried recently to be a better daughter, perhaps it was a bit too late in the day but I have tried.

Maybe I should even be apologising to Grandma too, was she really guilty of anything more than stepping into the void, and above and beyond everything else, she surely did love me. Strange way of showing it sometimes mind you, always too quick to criticise rather than praise, a fault I find shared by many women.

My father?  Oh yes, that is another story altogether.  Maybe I should have reserved my anger for him too, for his persistent negligence of me is hard to explain, although again this is a far too common trait amongst men who are separated from their children, they somehow manage to put  their emotions in a box and shelve them away for years.

Another time maybe; enough of this anger, it all happened a very long time ago. So, to all of you, for your real and imagined sins, I apologise.

A letter to the mother I never had

Thursday 6th October 

I have been thinking about my mother, she has been rather poorly of late and I have been over to see her a few times in the last week or so. It is her hip, and really I think she may need a replacement at some point soon. I have offered to help out and can arrange for her to see a specialist privately, but she says she cannot be bothered; she is too old now, can still get around and cannot see the point.  There is a degree of stubbornness about her that really annoys me. I had hoped that with seeing her more often our conversation might be a bit deeper, as it once threatened to become, but trivia seems to be the order of the day; we chat about the weather and the price of things in the shops, but never about the things we should be talking about, things we have never resolved about the past.  I feel that it should be her who wants to talk to me about it, but as she obviously does not want to I have decided to write her  a letter, though whether I will ever be brave enough to give it to her I do not know.

Dear Mother,

Funny that, I naturally think of you as Mother but can remember calling you Mummy as a little girl, but it was never in that confident caring and loving way which children call their mothers Mummy, was it? It was never that kind, soft and overflowing word; no, with me, it was just your name, I might as well have called you Margaret like everyone else did, (though Grandma would never have sanctioned such familiarity I am sure).  Why was that? Was it just the over-riding influence of Grandma, who so dominated my horizon as to leave no place on it for you, or were you in some way complicit too? Did this arrangement, of Grandma assuming all the maternal duties, including affection, really not suit you too?  Or had you simply given up by then, because that was what I thought of you when I was growing up; that you had given up on everything, and especially on me. You were like an extra passenger we were carrying, but in no way were you rowing the boat with us.

I would just like to know what was going on in our family and specifically in that closed up little mind of yours all those years, or do you too have no idea either?  You see, even in a letter I feel I am getting nowhere.  And you are right Mother; these things are best not discussed at all, better to just concentrate on the few things we can do well rather than all of this raking up of the dog of a past it would really be best to leave asleep.

So, I will make the appointment with a hip specialist whether you want me to or not, and I will take you there myself in a taxi, and you will have the replacement and be back on your pins in no time, and don’t worry I won’t be giving you this letter either, it was only ever meant for me to read.

Love from your daughter Catherine

The Seven Deadly Sins – An introduction

Wednesday 5th October 

One of my very favourite composers is Kurt Weill, and my best loved work is The Seven Deadly Sins.  He wrote this in 1933, with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, actually the last of these collaborations and I think the best; while there are some beautiful songs on Mahagony and The Threepenny Opera, the whole song cycle of Seven Deadly Sins works so beautifully.  I first encountered Kurt Weill in a circus tent of all places; on Barnes Common again, but no circus at all. This must have been in, Oh 1981 I suppose, and a poster I saw on the way home caught my eye.  The Bubble Theatre company was performing Happy End, a 1929 early collaboration.  I went along out of pure curiosity, and was delighted, both by the performance and the music, with such memorable songs as the Bilbao song and Surabaya Johnny.  I straight away tried to find a recording, and couldn’t find any; there had been a couple of German recordings but all sadly deleted, so I bought a collection of Kurt Weill songs, many sung by his wife Lotte Lenya, instead.

Later I caught a recording on the BBC of The seven Deadly Sins and it just thrilled me. The unique aspect of this work is that it was called a ballet-chante, and is a combination of ballet and short opera.  It tells the story of twin sisters Anna I and Anna II; Anna I sings while Anna II interprets the story through dance, and although the lyrics are all about my sister and I, you understand that they are one and the same person. Anna (and her sister) set out across America, from the Mississippi via Philadelphia and Los Angeles and end up in San Francisco, and encounter along the way the seven biblical deadly sins.  It is supposed to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of a decadent capitalist society such as America, but is actually a delight both to watch and to listen to.

I have several recordings now, as the music of Kurt Weill had made a bit of a comeback of late, and even one by Marianne Faithfull of all people; I had read about some of her escapades with the Rolling Stones in the late sixties, but had forgotten all about her until I saw her CD in HMV; yes, the very same store I had visited so many years before with Adrian, and so I bought it.  It is really rather good, her voice of course is not operatic, but somehow I think that this allows her to be a bit more expressive than really good singers like Ute Lemper; the piece takes on a sadder and darker shade with Marianne’s interpretation.  I have since discovered that she has made quite a few classical recordings, several by Kurt Weill, and I have started collecting them all.  I even bought a CD of hers called Broken English, which I occasionally re-visit; although in a rock and roll style, the lyrics are amazingly frank and honest, and her voice just rasps its’ way into your heart.

But it is the Seven Deadly Sins I return to time and again. It is well worth a listen; there are even bits of it on You Tube, so go ahead and learn to enjoy it as I have all these years.

My introduction to computers

Tuesday 4th October 

When I first started working in that little engineering firm in Putney everything was completed by hand. Stop a minute and try to think about that, not only were there no computers and spreadsheets, but no calculators or adding machines either.  You had to add everything up by hand, and as this was pre-decimalisation, this was pound, shillings and pence, not forgetting ha’pennies and farthings, so it wasn’t simply adding in tens; it was twelves and twenties.  At least we had stopped using guineas by this time, as that was one and one twentieth.  The trick was to add things up in two ways, cross-casting it was called, you always added your rows into a final column, and all your column totals into a total total too. I still do this with spreadsheets, even though I have never known a spreadsheet to add up incorrectly I still like to cross-check.

By 1972 we were using adding machines; you had to punch in each number, which was printed on a ribbon, and then pull a big handle for it to add up and print the total.  Then we had a Burroughs L400, I think it was called, into which you placed ledger cards for each account, the machine would read the balance, by a series of punched holes in the side of the card, then you would post the next entry, by again punching in your numbers, (this time there were about ten rows of numbers one to ten, vertically in rows) and the machine would print the new number and the new balance on the card.  You still had to manually repeat the opposite entry on another card, and reconciling all the cards took ages at each month-end.

The first computer arrived in the early eighties.  A huge box and even bigger bulky screen that took up half your desk, (what am I saying, it had its’ own desk and there was only one in the whole office) the screen was black with green writing on it.  I was introduced to spreadsheets, that I had formerly laboriously written up in large lined books by hand, and shown how to write the formula (at first simply to add a whole row or a column) in each cell, and even how to copy and paste, so you didn’t have to type it in every time.  It was amazing and so fast, or so we thought, and you had to save everything on big four-inch floppy disks, and label up all your spreadsheets and lock them in the safe until the next time you wanted to work on them.

We’ve come such a long way, what with e-mail and networks and now cloud computing too, and we are now so sophisticated that we remember nothing, and if we want to know when Waitrose opens on a Sunday, or how to get rid of a wine stain on a table-cloth, or what that irritating itch might be a symptom of; we automatically log on and look on the internet.  And don’t we just get furious when it takes more than a couple of seconds to open an e-mail or if we get that message “Microsoft Word has encountered a problem and will have to close”

And when I look back I can remember the very first calculator; Eddie, my boss, had one and it cost a fortune, and the display was a series of light bulbs, with separate filaments inside for each number in red, and it weighed a ton, and only he was allowed to use it.  Now calculators too have almost disappeared, as will all the computers we use today, as in the future we communicate instantly with the display projected directly onto the surface of our eyes from the microcomputers located somewhere deep inside our heads.

A bath or a shower

Monday 3rd October 

A bath or a shower, that is the question, and maybe you are wondering, dear reader, whether Catherine has gone completely off her rocker this time.  Growing up it was always a bath; we did not have a shower at the house in Putney.  Actually we did once have a grey rubber hose contraption that you had to fit over the bath taps, and try to hold over your head.  This was meant to be for washing your hair, but it was completely impractical, firstly, as you had to hold it with one hand this only left one hand free, and trying to undo the shampoo bottle, squeeze a little shampoo onto your  hair, replace the cap and the shampoo bottle and then wash your hair with one hand, was a feat I could never master, and secondly it was impossible to control the temperature; the slightest increase in either hot or cold resulted in a blast of icy water or a scalding.  After only a few attempts I returned to washing my hair in the bath, and rinsing it thoroughly with a green plastic jug in the sink.  I noticed soon after that the wretched thing was hanging behind the bathroom door gathering dust, and eventually it disappeared.    The strange thing was that the green jug never did get replaced in all the years I was at Putney, the same green lime-scale stained old jug remained. I know this because I discovered it when I was last at my mothers’, there in her untidy bathroom by the sink was the same wretched, by now more than fifty year-old, green jug.  I am sorely tempted to buy her a replacement for Christmas, though what a tawdry present that would be.

The other thing about the bath at Putney, was that you were only supposed to fill it with about three, or maybe if you were brave four inches of water. “That’s plenty of hot water Catherine; I never have my bath any deeper than that.” As soon as I moved out I took great pleasure and have done ever since in luxuriating in a bath filled almost to the brim, testing out Archimedes theory to its’ limit as the water laps gingerly at the edges of my elegant roll-top bath.  But I also love a shower, now that I at last have one; I love that feeling of being pelted with a hard stream of very hot water, little darts of water hitting your skin, and the top of your head.  There is nothing quite as invigorating, and so speedy if time is short, you can literally shower and towel dry your hair in the time it takes to draw a bath.  So, I have never quite resolved the question, a shower or a bath?  And even now, when I have all the time in the world, I tend to shower daily and take a long leisurely bath on a Sunday evening, as if preparing for the week ahead.

So the answer is of course both, though I am sure that I could manage with only one quite happily if push came to shove.