May 27, 2010

Death is a low chemical trick played on everybody except sequoia trees*


I’ve been on a train all day, going to visit an ailing friend—a probably dying friend—a friend who, just by the way, the world can’t do without, let alone my private feelings on the matter.  I am not in a good mood.  Blood, spit and damnation, but this system sucks.  I want to speak to the management.**   The subordinate mortal bureaucracy is clearly run by idiots.

            I’m also frelling shattered.***  I give the ME credit:  it pretty well held off all day† and even more or less let me drive home†† but the moment I fell through the door ††† . . . farewell voc . . . vocab . . . vocabula . . . words.  Farewell walking.  Farewell sitting upright in a chair. . . .

            So what do you do under emotional duress?  I haven’t got time for the pages and pages and pages in the private journal option (or, probably, the intestinal fortitude).  But there’s still poetry.

            This is the one that came immediately.  It’s funny, I was a late convert to Emily Dickinson‡‡;  she was much too niminy-piminy for me.  I never made the mistake of thinking the emotions weren’t there, I merely felt she had put frock coats and antimacassars on them—trammelled the hell out of them.  But there are times when putting your personal scourge in a frock coat is the best plan you’ve got.  There are a lot of terrific poems about death, but most of them are on to untrammell the hell out of you.  Today Emily is just what I want:

 Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

And, even odder that this should force itself on me, the following.  I had to study this in school, and haaaated it.  I’m an island!  Don’t you talk to me about clods!  I came to John Donne backwards, by his love poetry‡‡‡.  But this one, to me, is a prime example of how true things become clichés.  This whole poem (except it’s not a poem, it’s a meditation arranged to look like a poem) is one long (or really one rather short) duh.  

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

And last, Robert Frost’s Death of the Hired Hand, which has nothing to do with the case, except that it’s a poem about death, and I love it, and . . . find it consoling, even when it has nothing to do with the case.  And when I don’t have any friends actively dying at the present moment.  If you don’t instantly recognize it by the title, it’s the one with the famous line ‘Home is where, when you have to go there,/ they have to take you in’ from the skeptical Warren, and the kinder Mary replies:  “I should have called it/ Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

 I hope you’re all home and safe and warm.§ 

* * *

 * J.J. Furnas

 ** And no, Luke isn’t doing very well either, although they’ve patched him up as well as apparently they can and will probably send him home soon.  Three bleak cheers for the National Health Service, because he will (probably) need round the clock care, which his family wouldn’t be able to afford. 

*** I did get most of two books read during my long exile from on line.^  One of them is fabulous and will duly make an appearance on these virtual pages.  The other one . . . well, I suppose the author might still pull her plot structure out of a closet and snap it up like an umbrella—whing—and finally begin protecting her shivering readers from the cold rain of credibility.  But while the writing is lovely and creepy and atmospheric the story makes no sense.  This bothers me for some reason. 

^ Zowie.  Gotta get that iPhone.+  The poor old RaspBerry is just not up to coping with on line.  We struggled through finding another connection on the British Rail site when I caught an earlier train from Mauncester, which certainly beat sitting helplessly and fretting, even if the information turned out to be wrong, but cruising or working or even [blush] tweeting?  No way. 

+ Mwa ha ha ha ha ha 

† Although I could hear it drumming its fingers impatiently 

†† Although it’s a good thing Wolfgang knows the way.  See, this is one of the reasons I don’t want a new car.  I don’t want to have to teach it where everything is.   And what if my next car is the internal combustion engine version of trying to teach Chaos to pick up his feet to have his harness put on? 

††† Where I was greeted by hellhounds so ravaged by despair that they had eaten their lunch for the dogminder.   Clearly I should go away more often.  Hmmmmm

‡ It’s not all bad.  I’m much too tired to do any tidying up. 

‡‡  It may have all started with A Narrow Fellow in the Grass:  I like the whiplash unbraiding in the sun—which then wrinkles—even better than the ‘Zero at the bone’ which is the famous line. 

‡‡‡ ‘Thy selfe must to him a new banquet grow’—a line from the no-nonsense-ly named ‘The Brides [sic] Going to Bed’.  He wrote a whole series of epithalamiums and never mind the holy vows and all that, they’re all totally about getting laid.  Or of course the famous poem, To His Mistress Going to Bed, which gave the Mary Whitehouses/Tipper Gores of his day spasms: ‘ . . . Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering/  But a far fairer world encompassing . . . To teach thee, I am naked first:  why then/ What needst thou have more covering than a man.’ 

§ Not too warm.  But we’re back to woolly jumper/pile of hellhounds weather here in Hampshire.

Hail and farewell


Did you know that Peter Porter died?

I am nowhere near as good on modern poetry—hell, on poetry, full stop—as an unrepentant English major* who dotes on, oh, say, Yeats, Auden and Frost, to name the first three that drift to the surface, should be.  And an awful lot of Porter is, well, hard.  But I think either of these ought to make you want to read more:

And down at the bottom of this page, Sleeping with the Alphabet:

Because I’m usually sitting down at 11 pm or so pretty well mind-blown and urgently fishing for details of the day just past that I can ridiculate** in a blog entry it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to salute the passing of even a great poet.  But as it happens my Peter was playing bridge tonight*** so when I got in from bell ringing† I turned radio three on although it was 9:15 which meant Invisible Talking Heads.  Peter will put up with classical music but neither of us will put up with the other’s talking heads (Peter listens to a lot of radio four when I’m not around).  And the Friday night arts programme was doing a tribute to Peter Porter.  And they read this poem aloud:

I don’t myself think it looks like much lying cold and still on the page—for one thing it makes all of us raised on poetry that rhymes and scans start to hunch our shoulders and snarl a little—and if your eye scans ahead too easily, as mine often does, the satire will look blunt and awkward, and you’ll spoil it.  But get someone to read it to you and it’ll give you gooseflesh.††

            I’m sorry he won’t be writing any more of his gnarly, difficult, surprising, funny, wounding poems.  And I’ll probably do that useless thing now of going back to reread him, having been reminded of how good he is by his death, by his going away from us. 

* * *

* Well.  I’m pretty repentant about the years wasting my time and first the taxpayers’ and later my own money in a series of so-called educational establishments.  But I’m not repentant about what made me an English major.  I am what made me an English major.  

** I don’t mean ridicule—or mock, or tease—I mean ridiculate. 

*** First time since he’s been ill.  Yaaay.  He came home exhausted.  Not so yaaay. 

† Yes, you’re all dying to hear about my first tower practise as Ringing Master, aren’t you?  Well, nyaaaaaah.  I’d been sweating this a bit^, trying to decide what I might reasonably manage to hold together, depending on what troops showed up, or didn’t.  Basically all you have to do is order people around, and let them do all the work, but the point about Ringing Mastery is that if there’s any fallout, you as Ringing Master have to catch it and clean up after it.  So you shouldn’t call for Bristol Maximus if you’re only ringing plain bob doubles yourself. 

            I had a very tentative plan of action^^, and was nervously hoping that people wouldn’t turn out in force as a gesture of solidarity, which sort of thing ringers are quite capable of:  we have a few rotten cads and arrogant swine, but mostly we’re ludicrously supportive for sheer practical reasons. 

            And then we had a frelling Bristol Maximus^^^ evening.  The first few of us had just about got the bells up—under my constantly-deferring-to-Vicky guidance—when all these accidental, non-local Amazing Heroes and Heroines of Ringing started pouring up the ladder—GAAAAH!  I’M NOT GOING TO TELL THESE PEOPLE WHAT TO RING!!!!—and the moment Edward’s head emerged through the trap door I fell on him feverishly and asked him to take over. 

            Which he did. 

            And I got to ring a touch of Grandsire Triples with a minder, whom I needed, and a plain course of Stedman Triples . . . and I did not get offered the treble for Cambridge Major^^^^ but I kind of wish I had. 

 ^ When I had the opportunity.  Computer Man B+, let’s call him Gabriel,++ was here for almost three hours.  This computer is still fatally, blood-thunderingly, whimsically slow, and it’s a three day weekend and therefore Computer Men won’t be back till Tuesday to Try Stuff.  However . . . my newly snorting, ground-pawing, souped-up RaspBerry is working . . . but only because I had the paranoid, life-saving notion to have a Computer Man around when I put the new SIM card in.  You break it out of its little cardboard frame, you open your phone gizmo of choice, you take out the old SIM card, you put the new one in. . . .

            Okay.  Here is an terse, abbreviated list of what went wrong:

            The phone didn’t work.  The internet connection worked brilliantly.  But the phone—the reason for the upgrade, so I never had to worry about leaving the phone on all the time and Peter could press his speed-dial button any moment day or night and the thing would blast me where I sat/lay/crawled/hurtled.  The phone didn’t work.  You got a robo voice saying, This number is not available right now.  Please leave a message . . .

            Upon application to the paperwork, it was observed:  The SIM card is described as not needing to be activated.  You don’t have to do anything but stick it in the phone.            

            They spelled my name wrong.

            They spelled my address wrong.

            They got the phone number wrong. 

            Both customer service numbers on the paperwork were wrong.

           When I finally got onto a human being, she immediately dumped me—because of course this was another wrong number—back into still another robo system.  This one insisted that I enter my phone number before it could possibly begin to aid me.  I did this three times—using the phone number on the paperwork that came with the new SIM card—because no, I do not have my mobile phone number memorised because I never use the thing, and this one looked all right.  It was close.

           It wasn’t close enough.  Each time the robo voice came back on and said, this number has not been recognised.  Please enter your . . .

           After the THIRD time, I didn’t do anything.  USUALLY a robo system under these circumstances will give you a human being again.  Not this time.

           After about twenty seconds’ silence, the robo voice cleared its throat and said coolly, We cannot continue this call.  And frelling hung frelling up.  FRELLING.

            At this point I was screaming words even I didn’t know I knew.  And Gabriel, fortunately, being made of True Heavenly Steel Or Something Like That, took the (landline) phone away from me, rescued the RaspBerry from being hammered to death against the floor, chained me to a convenient ring in the wall+++ and got out the brazier and the magic herbs.  From where I hung, yanking on a link occasionally to see if there might be a weak one, I had the opportunity to discover that the phone number on the new paperwork looked quite reasonably familiar—it was out by one number.

            Gabriel eventually ensorcelled a human-like being to talk to him.

            The SIM card needed to be activated.

             They have me listed as having some other contract than the one I agreed to over the . . . the phone a week ago.

             And . . . I having said, a week ago, I can keep my old number, can’t I, and the then-I-thought-nice-friendly-helpful-woman-but-whom-I-now-understand-is-a-foul-member-of-the-forces-of-entropy said, of course . . . Gabriel fortunately had the presence of mind to check and . . . no.  Down at the bottom of the label on the throw-away small plastic bag that the SIM card came in—it is NOWHERE ON THE ACCOMPANYING PAPERWORK—in little tiny almost illegible print except that my secret weapon is that when I take my glasses off I can see how many angels are dancing on the head of a pin as long as they’re no farther than .0000001 millimetre away from the end of my nose—is the new phone number.  Which Gabriel then politely requested them to change.

             The RaspBerry’s phone now works.  On the old number.  But I’m a century older.

 +Computer Man A was obviously correct, the operation to separate them was a success.  Neither of them even limps much.

 ++ He has mentioned reading this blog occasionally so I think I’d better move away from my great joke of calling Computer Men after demons.  So we’ll make Computer Man A Raphael.  Asmodeus, by the way, has moved on to conquer larger empires.   I believe he was last seen wearing a crown and heading west. 

+++ Makes you wonder about the previous owner, doesn’t it? 

^^ Defer constantly to Vicky 

^^^ My little bitty joke.  We have eight bells.  Maximus requires twelve bells.  But we had twelve ringers capable of maximus. 

^^^^ I’m learning Cambridge minor inside.  Six bells.  Eight—major—is a whole new world.  Like Grandsire Triples (seven bells with tenor behind) from Grandsire Doubles (five bells with tenor behind).  And I’m so gruesomely out of practise after the last few weeks I’m very glad we did not want to waste our extra ringers on a Cambridge minor band.

††  It’s probably read aloud on YouTube somewhere, but in this computer’s present insalubrious condition I’m not going to make myself rampantly crazier trying to find a video that runs well enough to decide it’s a good performance or not.

Tirra lira


. . . by the river, sang Sir Lancelot.*  I hope he has a better voice than I do.  Elizabeth Moon @emoontx and I have been having a little fun on Twitter about singing—those of you with long memories** may remember that it was a long comment from EMoon about having a voice lesson from her choir director that tipped me over the voice-lesson edge last summer, the difference being that she evidently has a voice worth developing and I don’t.  I just have a strange lust for humiliation.  Well, and voice lessons are doing what they’re supposed to do—they’re giving me a greater and more flexible understanding of what singing is.  Whether this is going to have any real effect on my song-composing . . . feh, who knows? ***  But I’m having a good time, and that counts for something.

            My voice lesson today was way more fun than I was expecting.  I went in there absolutely prepared for disaster.  I’ve been thumping myself with the Evening Hymn and didn’t seem to be getting ANYWHERE.†  My best guess is just that I haven’t tackled anything this early before and there’s more difference in mindset than I had realised.††  One of the surprising things is that the breathing is not (much of) a problem.  Almost everything else is, but not the breathing.  I said this to Blondel and he said, your breathing has revolutionised since you started last summer.  —Yes.  That’s even true.††† 

            But while today I was still horribly dependent on Blondel illegally playing my line to keep me on it I have some hope that by next week I’ll be able to let him play the accompaniment and twiddle away on my own.  Just like James Bowman.  Well, sort of.  And we have to get back to Finzi.

            But . . . oh gods I have to sing for Oisin on Friday. 

* * *


Okay, sue me.  I love The Lady of Shalott.  I’m reasonably sure that I read the poem first;  I was always reading reading reading when I was a kid, and it was years before the concept of pictures that other people had already painted for you—that you didn’t have to make up for yourself—really registered.  Then, of course, like millions of other soppy preteens I fell horribly in love with the PreRaphaelites^ . . . and the truth is I’ve never really recovered, although I’ve stopped apologising for it.  During my black leather Harley Davidson jacket phase I had so many chips on my shoulder some of them had to fall off^^, and the PreRaphs—and Tennyson—were among them.

            But now I’m old^^^ I’ve stopped apologising for thinking Tennyson is a great poet too.  This evening I have had the delicious experience of wanting my Collected Tennyson . . . and going into the sitting room and immediately laying my hand on it~.  I needed to check on the spelling of tirra lira and was, predictably, immediately ensorcelled into rereading the whole damn poem.  I then compounded this error by spending most of the next hour rereading Maud.  Anybody else out there Marked for Life by Tennyson’s Maud, long before Night of the Living Dead, let alone Blair Witch?~~  It’s an extraordinary piece of work, and scared me silly when I was nine or so, not only because I couldn’t follow half of it.~~~ 

^ :  yes, the Waterhouse one that is, I believe, one of the best-selling posters of all time.+  But much as I love that painting, for representations of the Lady of Shalott I prefer this one:  Generally speaking I’m not a big Holman Hunt fan, barring that he’s a PreRaph and I’m therefore obliged to dote;  I think his colours are garish.++  But I like this one for the energy of it.  She’s pissed off and she’s not gonna take it any more.  Reading masses of Victorian literature at an early age probably did me a lot of harm in terms of believing that a girl can grow up to have her own adventures—all those drooping heroines, GAAAAAH—and the PreRaph Brotherhood+++ were no help.  I tended to fall on anything that looked like it might be an exception with a desperate glee.  It is a combination of the Holman Hunt painting, the Loreena McKennitt++++ song, and the original poem that will, some day, produce Red Sonja of Shalott, which is still festering in my back files, and emerges to bite my dreams occasionally.  But first there’s RATPEG and then there’s ALBION and after that . . . I’m not sure.  But it’s on the list. 

+ I have it on a kitchen magnet. . . . 

++ The Awakening Conscience?  Ewwww. 

+++  Yes, I know.  And if you type in ‘PreRaph sisterhood’ on google you get a sheaf of sites.  But that is now.  This was then.  


^^ Despite the added width those black leather shoulders gave me 

^^^ I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again:  the wrinkles and the sags and the slowings down and the weird aches in places you didn’t know had the equipment for aching and the loosenings and losses are a big drawback, but everything has drawbacks, and being old beats hell out of being young.+  Penelope and I were talking about this yesterday.  The chief drawback, it seems to me, is the lack of future.  When you’re young you get to look forward to being old.  When you’re old . . . well.  It does focus the mind.  If you’re going to try it do it now.  Voice lessons, say. 

+ Some restrictions apply, of course, like the guarantee says.  You can really screw up, or you can have incurably bad luck.  But for the rest of us, old is better. 

~ Bless you, Fiona, Queen of Alphabetization and the Rendering of Heaps. 

~~ Neither of which I’ve ever seen, perhaps partly because I was early Marked for Life by Maud by Alfred Lord Tennyson. 

~~~ Still can’t.  I always assumed Maud herself died, as well as her revolting brother and the fruit loop narrator’s dad, whose gruesome end begins the poem (‘I hate the dreadful hollow behind the little wood . . . ’) and warns you that this isn’t one of your hearts-and-flowers Victorian ballads+  But it doesn’t really say one way or another.  I think.  Our nutter just sails off into the Crimean (?) sunset there at the end to an unknown fate. 

+  A great deal can perhaps be explained by my not being prepared, at a tender age, to encompass both the original poem and the fact that someone managed to excerpt a bit of it and do this to it.  Don’t go, Maud!  He’s a nutter!  —Although your revolting brother did strike the first blow.  ‘. . . . And he struck me, madman, over the face . . . And a million horrible bellowing echoes broke/ From the red-ribb’d hollow behind the wood/ And thunder’d up into Heaven the Christless code/ That must have life for a blow . . .’  I’d forgotten that the brother, dying:  ‘ “The fault was mine,” he whisper’d, “fly!” ’ . . . which our poor nutter does, though little joy it gives him:  ‘. . . And my heart is a handful of dust/ And the wheels go over my head/ And my bones are shaken with pain/ For into a shallow grave they are thrust/ Only a yard beneath the street/ And the hoofs of the horses beat, beat/ The hoofs of the horses beat . . . . I thought the dead had peace, but it is not so;/  To have no peace in the grave, is that not sad?/  But up and down and to and fro,/ Ever about me the dead men go . . .’ 

** Who clearly need something better to be using them for 

*** What I am uneasily aware it’s also doing is making me a terrible snob about other people singing—professionals, I mean, not chumps like me.  Which is a self-indulgent rant for another post.  But . . . it is also a way of developing your own from-the-inside-out experience of music, which is a good thing too. 

† I’ve been reduced to listening to Alfred Deller on YouTube because he sings it almost a minute slower than anybody else.  Not a big Deller fan I’m afraid.  But his notorious laggardliness is a boon to the feebler student. 

†† That and the frelling 3/2 time signature.  By the way, you guys who said ‘coloratura’ to me about the Purcell twiddles . . . Blondel started to say today:  this is almost colora—  STOP, I said.  I AM NOT READY TO HEAR THIS. 

††† Yaaay Blondel. 




 I was awakened by agonised howling at about 6 am.  Staggered downstairs to let them out and then–don’t ask me how, but I’m sure the 6 am comes into it–I managed to tread in some of it in the process of picking up what I could and hosing down the rest.  Didn’t discover this till I came indoors again . . . so it was kind of a while before I could go back to bed.  (Hellhounds of course came in, heaved a happy sigh of relief, and crashed out again immediately.)

            And I feel like death on soggy toast.  I feel a whole hell of a lot worse, indeed, than a couple of missed hours of sleep can explain.  Siiiiiiiiigh.  And I was remembering How It All Began:  I’m a classic ME case.  I had the regularly recurring glandular fever (mononucleosis) for two years, which I refused to take seriously, and every time I had it and got over it I thought ‘okay, finally, it’s gone now’ and of course it wasn’t.  And after two years of this the ME said ‘we did warn you’ and nailed me.  To the sofa for eighteen months.

            Even the glandular fever was classic:  I had flu, but it came with a sore throat that was like knives, which is not how I get flu, and I remember having a furious argument with Peter about something which I had to WRITE my side of because I couldn’t speak.  I remember slashing through the paper . . . and laughing (silently) because it’s very difficult to keep up being furious when you’re ripping it out in illegible shorthand, so Peter would pick it up and say,  ‘”and your mother wears”- what?  I can’t read that bit’.  But the flu kept coming back.  I had it for a week or two or three and it seemed to clear up, and then a week or two or three later it would come back.  And with it came this weird exhaustion.  Being ill does make you tired–it’s your body’s way of saying shut up and lie down–but this had all kinds of strange resonances.  Which have since become only too familiar but they were novel and alarming at the time.

            After about two months of this I took my saggy self off to the doctor.*  And while there isn’t an incontrovertible test for ME there’s a perfectly good blood test for glandular fever.  I’d indeed had my suspicions, because I’d had glandular fever–which is to say mono, because I’d been in the States then–twenty years before, and while I didn’t remember the quality of the tiredness I remembered there was a weird exhaustion involved.  And, lo and behold, the test came back positive.  And I, poor fool, was relieved.  Glandular fever is a big stupid nuisance but it’s not fatal, it’s quite real enough to rescue you from any accusations of either madness or malingering, and eventually it does get bored and go away.  Last time, you know, it did go away–it didn’t thump and bludgeon on the rest of the way into ME/CFS.

            Peter, who didn’t know any better either, was amused at my relief, as he brought me champagne and whippets on the sofa, and he wrote me a poem.  I’ve had it on one of my office bulletin boards ever since, including through the eighteen months of sofa time after the ME’s dramatic arrival and a traumatic house move, and I still read it and it still, absurdly, cheers me up.  Some time this last month while the ME has been such a menace I pulled it off its bulletin board and started carrying it around with me, because I was going to post it for you.  Today’s the day.**



Ode to an Ailment


For weeks I have felt like an under-achiever.

I have lacked all the bounce of a golden retriever

And moped round the house, a mere groaner and griever.

Though in orthodox medicine I’m no believer,

I went to the doctor.  Was she a reliever!

She said, “Dearie me, you have glandular fever.”


I have a disease!  Not a husband-bereaver,

But a dear little, mild little glandular fever.

It is real.  So I am not a sympathy-thiever,

Not a weakling or a wimp, not a self-centred diva***

Nor a hypochondriacal fantasy-weaver.

No more at my desk I will toil like a beaver,

But lie on the sofa and watch Ralph the Riever

And really enjoy having glandular fever. 


(All right, yes I know it is called Ralph the Rover

You can tell me all that sort of thing when it’s over.)


And now I’m going to go lie on the sofa with hellhounds for a while.  And Peter can bring me chocolate and champagne.  And then I’m going to go to bed.  Really early.

* * *

* This was the doctor I would stop going to see, and pretty well swear off all doctors as a result of the last-straw comment of, two years later when she said ‘Oh, I don’t believe in ME.  Some viruses just take longer to get over than others.’

** You won’t find this one in Peter’s poetry collection The Weir either.

*** This rhyme works perfectly well in British English.

† Well.  Buffy and Deep Space Nine.  But they don’t rhyme.


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