Monthly Archive for March, 2008

Intercity musings

I had the depressing experience of travelling from Durham to Oxford – yes, there and back in a day – last week, the travelling equivalent of waiting on death row.  I waited for trains that were late, dirty, crowded and in one surreal moment, a train that didn’t exist at all.  Because I knew it was going to be a very long journey I took a a copy of Alice Munro’s short stories but I’d finished this before I’d even passed through Birmingham.  On the last interminable leg of the journey when I considered it would be quicker walking back to Durham, with nothing to read and nothing to do, an equally harassed passenger sat next to me, a man with lovely hands and who smelled of French cologne. Train travel is surprisingly intimate especially in second class which is all I can ever afford (make that, ‘barely afford’).  Our elbows had a brief wrestle on the arm rest, fighting gently for a little space but I like the fact he didn’t, as some men have done, shove me off unceremoniously.  And then his beautiful hands open up a copy not, mercifully, of the Daily Mail but of Robert McFarlane’s ‘The Wild Places’.Is it possible to fall in love with someone on a train on the basis of their reading material, I wonder, or has ten hours travelling across country robbed me of all reason?  I wanted to tell him how beautiful I thought the book was but I know that if someone began talking to me when I’d just sat down and started to read I would have been murderous.  So I stare out at the dark night and imagine the words on the page floating through his head transporting him out of this cramped, noisy hell-hole and up into the mountains, the sunshine and the sweetness of birdsong.

Showing your knickers in public

 When I was about eight a girl in my class, Michelle, took the opportunity to jump up on the table, lift her skirt and show her bright red knickers to a rapt audience.  When the teacher, who’d momentarily left the room, re-appeared our faces were as red as Michelle’s knickers.  I told my mum when I got home and she said, “Hmmm – she’s always been a show-off.” Showing-off was about as bad as it got in my mum’s eyes. I have never forgotten the scorn etched on her face when she said the word “show-off” as if it was the first step to prostitution.  But when I became a teenager I discovered that showing-off meant pretty much anything that didn’t follow the pattern that everyone else followed in the family and that meant reading.  To read was to be idle, to put yourself above everyone else, to say publicly that you had an inner life that needed nourishment.  It was the worst kind of showing-off was there was and so I had to do it in secret. I still haven’t lost, although I have spent the last thirty five years trying, the guilt involved in sitting down and reading.  It’s something I do only when everything else has been done, hardly auspicious for enjoying and retaining words.  I think it’s with me forever now, along with guilt about escaping for long solitary walks, my increasingly frequent gazing at beautiful young men and an addiction to swimming.  But I think now that perhaps that a bite of guilt might add to the satisfaction and not sour it. Books giving me guilty pleasure at the moment are Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’, ‘The Goshawk’ by T.H White and ‘The Haunt of the Black Masseur’ by Charles Sprawson, sadly not quite as louche as it sounds but an account of the history of wild water swimming.  

A black cat in winter sun

My daughters persuaded me to adopt a cat from the Cat’s Protection League a couple of weeks ago and so now, next to my computer, lounges Ruby a pure black moggy who may or may not be pregnant. She is a terrible distraction from work. I am supposed to be researching a radio programme the deadline of which keeps me awake at night but in truth I’d far rather be watching her. It’s been a long time since we had a young cat in the house and I’d forgotten how engaging they are. Every so often she lazily leans over and bats my fingers as I type – more alarmingly she suddenly takes flight and runs across the keyboard sending the computer into a paroxysm.I’ve always been fond of animals. ‘My Family and Other Animals’ by Gerald Durrell was a book that kept me sane one summer when I was thirteen and my family, as strange as Durrell’s, was imploding all around me. I’m now reading it to my youngest daughter who has the same fascination with insects and injured birds that the young Gerald had, bringing beetles home in matchboxes and broken-winged birds in her cupped hands. I then read Gavin Maxwell’s ‘Ring of Bright Water’, the story of how Maxwell brought home a young otter from the Marshlands of Iraq – yes, really – and hand-reared it in a remote house on the island of Skye. I once went to the bay on Skye where Maxwell lived and watched an otter play with its young in the kelpy waters.But probably my favourite book of animal writing is T.H White’s ‘The Goshawk’, a book so beautifully written that when you have finished reading it you want to pick it up and start again. White was a Professor of medieval history at Cambridge (he wrote the famous book ‘The Sword in the Stone’) in the 1930’s and 40’s and when the second world war broke out he retreated from the horror of the world and lived alone with only a recalcitrant and implacable goshawk for company. Goshawks are notoriously difficult to train and White pits his considerable intellectual skill against this bird and is found wanting. It is ostensibly a book about training a hawk but is actually about a man trying to stave off a nervous breakdown induced by the violence of the twentieth century. If you haven’t come across this book I really urge you to read it.The cat is now luxuriating in the winter sun falling across the kitchen table, this gorgeous weather a further distraction from work. And everyone thinks working from home is such an easy thing to do! It would be if there weren’t all thesexchtynothyoouuuu – the cat has decided to edit again.

Richard Kelly pictures