The History of our Times

Saturday 27th August   

When the history of our time comes to be written, I wonder what they will say.  Will they commend our good sense, our tolerance, our understanding of the world we live in, or, more likely will they condemn us for our lack of foresight, our greed and our stupidity. And, of course, we just don’t know. When one looks back a mere one hundred years the world the Edwardians (and Grandma of course as a young woman) lived in must have seemed very secure and surely nothing was about to happen to upset this ordered and civilised world.  They were living on the very edge of World War One, and I am sure that very few people were able to predict what was about to follow.

What concerns me most, I suppose, about the way we are conducting ourselves at present is that we are forcing Western Values and Western Culture on everyone.  Will there simply be one culture in, say, one hundred years time.  With the instant dissemination of ideas on the internet, and the seemingly unstoppable globalisation of business, what will happen to people’s cultural identity?  Will it disappear altogether or maybe become entrenched in different, more subtle, ways.

And will there be some new invention, which will make computers look stupid.  Maybe that dream of science fiction writers of Artificial Intelligence is about to be realised.  Maybe humans will not be the only things capable of clear and rational thought; if they ever really were.  And will the world in one hundred years time be run by machines which never make mistakes, leaving humans to exist peacefully with each other. We all know the answer to that one, don’t we? Or, in the words of one of Grandma’s favourite songs…. “Que Sera, Sera, Whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see, Que Sera Sera.”

Paris revisited

Friday 26th August   

Well, despite my earlier experience in Paris, when I let my naivety and perhaps my curiosity get out of control, I have revisited Paris a few times.  It is not however my favourite part of France, I prefer the countryside, the small towns and villages, especially in Burgundy, La Bourgogne. But Paris does have a special allure too, the wonderful wide boulevards, the art-deco Metro stations, but most of all the street characters you only seem to see in Paris; the bohemian arty types, complete with blue Gitanes packet in hand, the chic Parisienne women with their elegant clothes and little white dogs on pencil thin leads, the teenagers who seem to have buckets more style and individuality than you see in London, and the whole jazzy feel of the place which is unmatched anywhere. Whenever I go, I like to do one of the cemeteries, Montparnasse or Saint-Denis or Pere-Lachaise; I love wandering down the rows of little crypts, and gazing at the statues or reading the inscriptions, it’s always so peaceful and still, right there in the middle of bustling Paris. I have also explored again and again the Art Galleries and Museums, though I have never managed to do the whole of the Louvre, it is just too big, and whatever time of year it is full of tourists. My very favourite though is almost a secret – it’s hardly mentioned in the guide books.  Nestled by the river in the Jardin des Tuileries  is L’Orangerie.  It is quite small, and has only a few exhibits which seem to change quite often, except the reason for its existence in the first place.   It is the home of, and was chosen to house Les Nympheas by Claude Monet, the Water-lilies.  And nothing can prepare you for them.  You go downstairs, and there in two huge elliptical rooms are the most incredible two paintings I think I have ever seen.  All around the walls in one continuous three hundred and sixty degree sweep are the lilies, floating on a deep blue green lake. And you have to just sit on the benches in the middle of the room and stare in wonder at them.  Close up, you can see the wild brushstrokes, full of greens and whites and pinks, but stand back and the whole thing calms down, and comes to a different sort of life altogether.  And no amount of description can come close to being there.  It is the main reason I return every few years and I never revisit now without going there.

On a bus to Oxford Street

Thursday 25th August   

I am on a bus to Oxford Street, and we are stuck in a long queue of traffic in Park Lane, so I have got my little note-book out, and I have decided to write.  This is not my usual routine at all; normally I compose myself, and have been thinking on and off about what to write all day, so am quite prepared.  That doesn’t stop the mind and the fingers on the keyboard wandering off a bit, as I am sure you have noticed, but I generally have a theme, at least at the outset.  The bus isn’t moving at all, and one or two people have gone up to the driver to ask him what the hold-up is, or if they can be let off before the next stop.  Our driver just shrugs his shoulders, and no, he cannot open the doors anywhere but a proper bus stop.  How I long now for the old Route-masters, which you could hop on and off when they stopped at the lights, or when they were passing an interesting shop – you got up and stood on the little square platform and just waited until the road was clear and the bus was just crawling along, and there, in an instant you were off.  Nowadays you have to wait, patiently or otherwise, until the correct stop, and then backtrack to try to find your destination.  I suppose it must be a lot safer, but not half as much fun.  And now we are at the bus stop, and there is an altercation.  A rather loud and pushy woman is insisting on getting on with her double buggy and two rather dirty and screaming offspring strapped in.  But there are already two pushchairs in the space available.  Both of the occupying mothers are Muslims, with the full hijab, or whatever it is called, on with just a little portcullis for their eyes to see out of, and they seem completely ambivalent and unconcerned at the fracas further up the bus. I seem to remember mothers had to fold pushchairs in the old days, and they were stashed in a little cubbyhole under the stairs. The woman trying to get on, who is white and overweight, and is really beginning to upset everyone, with her overtly racist comments, is not giving way.  The driver shrugs his shoulders again and turns round to announce that unfortunately he is terminating the bus here due to circumstances beyond his control.  After a minute or two of bemused silence, we all, old and young, hijabs, pushchairs and all, obediently troop to the front of the bus and squeeze past the woman who caused the problem in the first place.  An immovable object, she still glares angrily at all and sundry. I am rather glad to be off the bus anyway, and head into Hyde Park, and the nearest bench to complete this little piece.  Another day’s blog completed.

A slight scare

Wednesday 24th August   

I must now make a small confession.  Everything has not been so wonderful in Catherine’s world of late. I have been worried about my health and have at last decided to do something about it.  I have always had a slightly irrational fear of cancer; I am not really sure why, because nobody in my family has, to my knowledge, ever been diagnosed with it.  Even Grandma, when she had her illness a few months before Paris, before my fall from grace, never had cancer.  I was quietly fearful that that was indeed the cause, but old Doctor Winterton assured me that there were no signs of it all.  He put it down to nervous exhaustion, a frankly unscientific diagnosis, but he was sure she would recover.  And, as you know, recover she did, though never with quite the same vigour, never the same sureness, as she had before.

And my mother, who during my childhood, seemed to suffer from so many ailments, is remarkably fit.  I sometimes think she will go on forever, whereas I have been feeling really rather poorly of late. I don’t want to divulge the symptoms, but they did scare me somewhat. So I have been to my GP, and have had all number of tests, and am awaiting the results with more than a little trepidation. The rational part of me tells myself that I will just have to go through whatever fate has in store for me, and if I come out the other end, okay.  If not; well I would rather not think about “if not”, thank-you very much.  When one is young one hardly thinks about one’s mortality; old age, let alone a serious or debilitating illness are so far away on some distant horizon, that they hardly figure in one’s thoughts at all.  But suddenly that horizon zooms in on you, and you are quite alone with your worst fears.  I suppose that a lot of my agitation is to do with Edward, but he was a heavy smoker in his youth, whereas I have never smoked at all.  Still, the fear is there, and I cannot quite shake it off.  I will be getting the results through soon, and my doctor says I really have nothing to worry about at my age.

So, at what age should I have to worry about it?

Going with Grandma to the grocer’s shop

Tuesday 23rd August   

Going with Grandma to the grocer’s always seemed an adventure.  Maybe because I was at school most of the time, so I only accompanied her a few times a year.  And do I hear you saying to yourselves “What is so remarkable about going to a grocer’s?”  Well, this was way before the advent of Supermarkets, and looking back one wonders how on earth we all managed without them.  Let me set the scene for you.  Ray and sons was in Putney High Street, and I am sure that Ray was the surname; today’s familiarity of shop names was unheard of in the mid fifties.  The shop was really quite large, but was arranged totally differently from today’s serried aisles straining with everything under the son.  Ray’s sold food only, and not even fresh vegetables, you got those in the greengrocers, or meat, which was only available at the butchers. Every high street had a full complement of food shops; one would never have imagined them all under one roof.  Despite this the shop was really quite large, cavernous, I seem to remember. Everything was in different sections; teas, cheese, bacon and tinned goods all had their departments. Grandma would present a list to the floor manager, who would walk around the shop parcelling out Grandma’s orders.  Grandma would be sitting in a high backed wicker chair to one side, occasionally being called over to adjudicate on the size or quality of the wedge of cheddar that was cut for her with a cheese-wire.  The tea was made up to her own blend – two parts Ceylon and one of Earl Grey, stirred and poured into a tea block, where a small sheet of brown paper had been folded to make a paper box for the leaves to be poured into, and sellotaped over to seal it.  The bacon was sliced to her preferred thickness, and weighed in front of her. Each department would scribble sales dockets and pop them into little cages that were transported by some sort of pulley system up the walls and across the ceiling on a network of wires to the cashier’s office where the bill would be totted up.  A small army of shop assistants had beavered away to prepare her weekly order.  The bill paid we would head for home and a small lad would peddle furiously past us, (not forgetting to doff his cap) with our groceries in a cardboard box balanced in a frame in front of the handlebars, as he wibble-wobbled his way to our house, where we would find the box on our doorstep.

The first supermarket opened on the High street sometime in the early sixties. I can remember the excitement of actually pushing your own trolley around the store; picking your own goods; loading it onto the conveyor belt, and carrying it home yourself. Rays closed down a few months later, of course.

Reflections on the passing of time

Monday 22 August   

And another week has gone by; they just seem to fly away these days.  Everyone says the same thing, but I wonder if it is just our perception.  Maybe people always felt that time was going too fast, that one week was beginning again almost before the last one was gone.  One glances at the news and yes, the wretched football season has started again, so we know now that the summer is almost gone already.  Not that we have had that much of a summer this year, what started with such promise in April has fizzled out into cloudy, warm and squally days. But I don’t expect that that will stop the Met. Office, or whoever compiles these statistics’ these days, to gaily announce in January of next year that actually it was again one of the hottest years on record.

Possibly the complete saturation of our lives by news and media, means that everything that happens every year, in itself, and purely because it has happened again, becomes news, and we are reminded once again, that the first cricket test has started, or that a bank holiday, with its’ unavoidable traffic jams is soon to be upon us once more.  Or whatever the news organisations choose to fill up their ever-expanding schedules with, in itself, because it is “on the news”, becomes a reminder of the passing of time.

And can you remember this feeling as a child?  No, everything was new and vibrant then.  Christmases and Birthdays seemed ages apart; and almost took us by surprise, although we had been anticipating them for weeks. And the idea, the very notion that we would one day be grown-up, seemed impossible.  Could we ever wait for that length of time?  But before we knew it we were adults, and the lazy innocence of being a child was behind us, and we were finally of our time, on time for everything and constantly aware that we didn’t have enough time, and that time itself was going faster and faster.

And even when one really has very little of importance to do, the days helter-skelter by, and one finds oneself again with that Monday morning feeling.  So cheer up now, in no time at all it will be Friday and your working week will be behind you, you will be another week older, and in no time at all you will be in your sixties and then in your seventies, and looking back and wondering where on earth the time went.

Reflections on writing

Sunday 21st August   

A couple of years ago I attended an event at the South Bank, it was a sort of “meet the author”.  And one of my very favourites was the subject, Kazuo Ishiguru.  I had first got into him and his immaculately written novels with “The Remains of the Day”, the novel of which was far better than the film which followed, as is usually the case.  I then read backwards his earlier works, and although he writes slowly and there are large gaps between his books I have followed him ever since. My very favourite is, of course, “Never let me go”, which again has recently been turned into a film, which I think I will pass on, unless it comes on the television at some point, but as I do not subscribe to Sky that may not happen.

Kazuo, a surprisingly young looking Kazuo, and immaculate speaker, was promoting a small volume of vignettes he had just published, “Nocturnes”; actually I found these tedious and disappointing, but that is another story.  Kazuo read a couple of excerpts, and then there was a question and answer session with the audience.  No, I didn’t ask a question, none actually occurred to me at the time.  But I was rather struck by one of his answers. He was asked for any advice to aspiring writers.  You can imagine how my ears pricked up; I was indeed aspiring, and was about a third of the way through Catherine’s Story.  Kazuo’s answer, after at least two minutes of silence while he constructed his answer, was that the aspiring writer had to decide whether they wanted to write, or to be a writer.

At the time I couldn’t quite get it, surely they were synonymous, or as near as damn it.  But lately I have been thinking about this. I have always, though sporadically I must admit, written, and I have always longed to be a writer.  But I am not sure if that desire was more a desire to be known as a writer than to be a writer by profession, or rather needing to be a writer, regardless of the end result.  And I think that that was what Kazuo meant.

Easy for him to say that now that he is famous and generally acknowledged as a great writer; far harder for me to answer, of course.

Just finished reading another Le Carre

Saturday 20th August   

I have just finished the latest John Le Carre, “Our kind of Traitor”.  Well, to tell the truth, although he is a consummate writer, and can conjure up characters and plots with ease, I was left disappointed by it all.  And it had started off so brightly, very cleverly, being told almost backwards was intriguing.  But about three quarters of the way in it just seemed to get too bogged down for its’ own good.  And the ending was nothing less than awful.  I really don’t mind the habit of certain modern novelists to leave things hanging a bit.  Supply your own ending if you like, sort of thing.  Or the false ending, which you can see through, and realise that that isn’t the ending at all; you have to go back a few pages to see what the author was really letting you know, I can admire that sort of cleverness. But this ending just left me high and dry, without a clue as to why.  Or actually far too many clues, far too many possibilities to actually care.  And now I realise that although the story was well told (you can at least rely on Le Carre for that) I hadn’t been caring for the characters at all.  I had started off caring, but somehow he lost me.  And there were too many unresolved issues, too many characters that you were left wondering about, and especially the one character (or two if you count the man) who were not part of Le Carre’s brilliantly imagined underworld of spies and criminals, who were ordinary people who had somehow blundered into this murky world.  Where did they go from here?   And just as importantly where did I, as reader, go from here.  Well nowhere I am afraid, and I might just be a bit more circumspect before I buy his next one.

Next up, if you are interested is “The Eustace Diamonds” by that most wonderful of Victorian novelists Anthony Trollope.

I am really enjoying writing

Friday 19th August   

I find that I am really enjoying writing at the moment.  This blog, I mean.  This daily little message from me to you, well, to how ever many of you there may be out there reading it.  And that is part of the excitement – the not really knowing if anyone is reading.  When I was writing the book, Catherine’s Story, I was so engrossed in the making a thing out of it, you know, a real story, that it was actually almost hard work.  I used to get up quite early around five-thirty and with a pot of black coffee, would carefully re-read yesterday’s writing.  Then I would start to edit yesterday’s piece slightly, not really changing the meaning, just a bit of punctuation.  Watching that not too many sentences started with an and (a bad habit of mine), maybe exchanging a word that sounded a bit too hackneyed with something a bit more original, sometimes getting rid of a whole sentence, or expanding one slightly.  Then a third re-read or a fourth until I was happy.  This also managed to get me into the “zone”, I became focused enough to carry on and write some more.  But I was always conscious of the need to carry the story somewhat, I couldn’t let my characters wander off, I had to keep them and especially the me, the Catherine of the story, corralled.  I also had to think a chapter or so ahead all the time, and try to steer events that way. So, although I was creating it, it also was controlling me to an extent too.  I could never really relax with it.  And the anxiety, the worry of what people would think, whether I would actually finish it, and the biggest fear of all, of course, was it any good?  Because foremost of my concerns was always that it should be good, or reasonably good, at any rate.  Oh, now that it is published I can see so many errors, I wish I could sit down and re-write the whole wretched thing, but it is too late for that now.  Far too late; it will have to sink or swim on its’ own now.  Hopefully you will throw it a friendly life jacket or two before it slips under the waves.

Now, with this blog, I can write whatever I like, and it doesn’t matter.

So, blibbity-blibbity-blob to you!!!

Sorry, I’ll try not to be so skittish tomorrow.  Promise.

The first time I visited Biba

Thursday 18th August   

As you know I had been quite impressed by the wallpaper in Adrian’s little flat. He told me that it came from Biba, a new shop I had started to notice popping up in magazine articles and had even been mentioned in the Evening News a couple of times.  The wallpaper was a rich dark chocolate brown with large swirls of fine gold lines running through it in great loops and arcs and, the effect was amazing.  It was like nothing I had ever seen; completely contemporary yet with an almost antique feel at the same time.  I was intrigued; I had heard that the shop had some brilliant new fashions, but was completely unaware that it sold wallpaper and paint too.  We decided to visit and took a couple of buses to Kensington. The shop was almost opposite Derry and Toms that I had been taken to year after year to buy my clothes in as a child. But Kensington was fast changing from the staid Edwardian shops I had been accustomed to; it was now a hodgepodge of sixties psychadelia and full of tie-die T shirts, and tiny shops with joss-sticks burning in profusion.  Oh, and loud music too, lots of it blaring from every doorway.  It was quite intimidating, but Adrian felt quite at home here, as if this was his milieu, his spiritual home.  Across the street the large department stores were still catering to the upper and upper middle-class ladies that Grandma purported to be, and right opposite and almost squeezing them out was all of this, well, hippie stuff I suppose; a very disconcerting mix.

The shop itself was amazing, it was on about four floors with a sweeping staircase like some cornucopia literally spilling clothes and hats and coats along its banisters.  The walls and the ceiling were all painted in loud colours; bright yellows and greens and sky blues, and there was some sort of bubble machine too, making huge wobbly bubbles that floated in the smoky air, because almost everyone was smoking, hopefully just tobacco.  I was too star-struck to really look at the clothes, but they were again a strange mix of the very modern, bias-cut and outrageous hard colours, along with floaty-drifting silks and chiffons and full-length dresses that shouted out “thirties cocktail bars” at you.  And all the assistants were stick-thin and elegant and had masses of make-up on, especially eye make-up, looking like smudged panda’s with sharp cheekbones.  It was really the most amazing shop I had ever been in, and I would return many times just to marvel at the ever changing scene but I don’t remember actually ever buying a thing there.