Part of the problem is that I don’t know what to say to you—to the blog. The Blog Persona, already crumbly at the edges since Peter’s first stroke, disintegrated when he died. It was based on a few simple facts including that I was married to a lovely mad Englishman named Peter. You yank a cornerstone like that out from under a house—even a fairground funhouse*—and it goes down with a crash.
I assume I will bolt together a new Blog Persona out of scavenged fragments of the old—like Peter building the kitchen at the old house out of bits scrounged from the tip and the side of the road waiting for dustbin pick up**—although the broken funhouse mirrors may be a problem. But while both blog and I are a trifle moribund . . . it’s hard to know what to say, to demonstrate signs of life. I don’t much want to hammer you with my bottom line, which is I go to bed every night bewilderedly aware of not having seen or told Peter about my day, and that I’m not going to see him or tell him about my day tomorrow either, nor twist his arm to come to the opera with me, or say that I’ve discovered a new tea shop and we should give it a try. I never come home from any outing without wanting to tell Peter about it, and I still haven’t managed to stick a sock in the instinct that says, as I’m riffling through the local paper or reading the notices outside the village hall, oh! Peter might enjoy that!***
It’s not just the idiosyncratic, not to say aberrant, I that writes the blog. All of I doesn’t feel like myself any more. None of me feels like myself any more. I feel like someone else. Someone I’d rather not feel like. I didn’t realise the fairies went in for late-middle-aged changelings.
And just by the way I still can’t read his books. I was granted a stay of execution while we were pulling the memorial service together but since then just looking at a favourite dust jacket gives me the wombles. I’m probably going to have an interesting time when I can finally spare Atlas from building shelves at the Lodge and hacking back the jungle at Third House† and he can put up the shelves he’s already built on the One Remaining Blank Wall at the cottage, which is due to contain as many of my copies of Peter’s books as a single wall can hold.
But all of this is not to say there isn’t life-continuing stuff going on, it’s just that it’s all going on through a filter of Peter.††
For example, long term readers of this blog, who are therefore well aware that I think SHAKESPEARE IS OVERRATED, will be fascinated to hear that I signed up to read a sonnet at the Shakespeare Sonnet Gala this past Saturday the 23rd of April 400th anniversary yatta yatta yatta, run by some muscular local poetry society that puts on festivals and generally makes iamb pentameteric trouble in the area. I can’t remember how I happened to fall over the web site advertising that they were looking for 154 ordinary members of the public to read 154 sonnets but I did. First I laughed a lot and then I thought, you know, even though it’s Shakespeare, I like the idea of involving the hoi polloi with high literature, especially because one of the things that makes me a little crazy is that Shakespeare was writing for the hoi polloi, will you stop making him some kind of ornament to academe? So I signed up.†††
This epic occurred at the big central library‡. They cleared out the fiction section‡‡ so we were plonked down in the middle of everything with stacks on one side of us and the café on the other, and people streaming back and forth along the usual passageways, which is the way live poetry events should be, you know? It wasn’t quite a flash mob but it was maybe a close relative.
Most of us readers were okay. I was okay. If the RSC had a talent scout in the audience I was not on his/her short list but I was okay.‡‡‡ I didn’t have to go home and drown myself.§ I left during a break, and while I was stuffing my KNITTING back in my knapsack a woman came hesitantly up to me. Are you Robin McKinley? she said.§§ Yes, I said, blinking in surprise. What are the chances that in a group of thirty or so random British readers one of them would know my name? Dismal.
I just wanted to tell you I love your books, she said. And so does my daughter.
Suddenly, standing there clutching my knitting, Shakespeare seemed like a really great idea. You’ve just made my day, I said to her. I’m glad I came.
* * *
* Not the frelling TV show, which is way after my time.
** ARRRRRRGH. MEN.
*** What age I’m remembering him at varies. I almost immediately reverted to thinking of him when he was young and lively—so ahem about the age I am now ahem which is not young AHEM and at the moment significantly unlively as well—when I’m just thinking of him—sorry to be unclear, any of you who’ve been through it^ will know what I mean. My cornerstone Peter is the young [sic] one. The one I talk to in my head is the young one. But a lot of the looking-for-outings instinct is recent, and immediately after the, Peter might enjoy that!, is the, can I do it alone or do we need a third person to come too in case the ground/parking/seating/gargoyle raids are worse than I expect?
^ It being not merely the death, but the hideous decline and death of someone so inextricably and intrinsically mixed up with your molecules that you can’t really imagine living without them, even if you are, somehow, breathing and so on.
† Which is still not officially on the market, although it’s occasionally being shown unofficially, but we’re getting there which is to say it’s now cleared out enough that I’ve rung the housecleaning service . . . which is not getting back to me, festering festering festering ARRRRRGH.
†† Also . . . the ME is well beyond mere ratbaggery and has plunged into the flamingly demonic. As I keep saying to people who want to know how I am, I don’t have good days and bad days I have good minutes and bad minutes and I never know when I’m going to be in the middle of a sentence and my mind will not merely go blank but shut down, lock itself up and pull the plug. Or that I’m out hurtling over the countryside and not merely have to stop to lean against a tree, but sit down, put my head between my knees, and wonder if I’m going to make it back to Wolfgang. Or if I care. No, wait, the hellmob would care. One of the first things I did after Peter died was stop carrying Pooka with me everywhere because why? Being attached at the hip to my iPhone was a Peter-related emergency thing which was no longer an issue. But I’ve started taking her with me again^ just in case I am an emergency one day. Grief with ME: avoid.
But this whole quadruply-cursed journey of the Effect of Grief and Trauma on Physical and Mental Health deserves a post all by itself. Short form: I’m off ALL SUGAR AND ALCOHOL. No CHOCOLATE!!!^^ NO CHAMPAGNE!!!!!
It doesn’t bear thinking about. So mostly I don’t think about it. Pity I can’t instruct my mind to shut up and lock itself in a cupboard on demand.
^ Erm. When I remember.
^^ So, please note, you kind people who keep giving me chocolate . . . the monks are delighted.
††† If you’re interested, they gave me # 101. I went for snarky, since himself is being snarky, and I can relate to being snarky at one’s dratblasted Muse.
‡ Where Peter and I used to go every week. Our best, most reliable regular outing. Sigh.
‡‡ And stashed it in the theatre. Snork.
‡‡‡ The best reader I heard—I listened to about thirty sonnets, I think, whilst knitting frantically^—was a tiny little old lady who wandered up on the dais like she was thinking about her next cup of tea and sauntered through her sonnet like having a conversation with a friend. It was one of those moments when what all those rudely mechanical actors are prating on about How to Perform Shakespeare suddenly comes to life. You really can make Shakespeare sound like a conversation with a friend. If you’re really good. Which, just by the way, I think most professional actors, including the Famous Shakespearean Ones, are not. They eat the scenery unforgivably and make me want to throw things and scream.
^ The kid’s due NEXT WEEK. I’m not going to make it. I’m four-fifths done! Plus the frelling sewing-up, however, which is sure to manifest unpleasant surprises.
§ I did however have to sit through the cream-faced loon of an introducer saying how nice it was to hear people with different accents doing Shakespeare. BITE ME.
§§ This is not as nuts as it sounds. I had signed up and was on the list as Robin McKinley Dickinson, not only because I have no idea what I’m going to do with my name in the long term but also because Peter was the Shakespearean in this household.
§§§ And if I’d had my wits about me I’d’ve asked her^ what else she’d been reading lately that was good. I’m always in the market for books to read like I need more books. Like I need to go to the library every week and check out more books. Still. I would have asked her if I’d thought of it in time.
^ Because she looked nice. Like someone you could have a cup of tea with and a good wrangle about books.+
+ As anyone who has ever been to a book convention or belonged to a book club knows, further common ground cannot be carelessly assumed with someone who merely happens to like the same books you do. Or possibly that you wrote.
# Although of course I wanted to go home and tell Peter. . . .
So last 7 September Peter had a second stroke.* And he was clearly much weaker than after his first, and while he did regain some strength, he stayed very frail. He moved to Rivendell. There were some discussions between us and among the family about bringing him ‘home’ with 24/7 care; I was against this—as Peter knew—I way preferred having him somewhere with 24/7 medical care on the premises** and also the constant relentless cycle of staff shift changes*** is a boost—a pathetic boost but still a boost—to morale and energy levels. You know that all that professional cheeriness is professional but it still has an effect. I was nearly as depressed as Peter, even if I could stand up and walk without a steadying hand†. And Rivendell has big open well-lit corridors suitable for people in wheelchairs or walking frames and Third House . . . doesn’t.††
I also felt that while the fashion lately seems to be that people should stay in their own homes if at all possible, coming back to Third House where he used to be able to live independently and wouldn’t be able to any more would be a complete downer—and while the focus is on Peter, the ‘complete downer’ part would include me too.†††
I did suggest day visits back to New Arcadia and Third House but he wasn’t enthusiastic—I assume for some of the same reasons that coming ‘home’ with 24/7 care was less than attractive—and the twice (? I think) we tried it were not a success. A nice sticky cake at a tea shop was a much better outing.‡
If it had been entirely up to me I would have put Third House up for sale immediately and get it over with. But—ahem!—I may be slightly known for rushing into things. I was talked into keeping it a little longer and seeing how things went. And, okay, miracles have been known to happen.
Miracles, as we know, did not happen.
But I wanted to be able to take Peter somewhere that wasn’t professionally run, whether it was Rivendell itself or all the tea shops within Wolfgang’s and my limited driving range. I couldn’t take him home to my cottage; there’s a steep half-flight of stairs up to the front door. Even if I cleared off the thick accumulation of plants in pots on the steps he’d never manage it. Also, assuming that I would later if not sooner sell Third House, I needed ground-floor access for my piano.‡‡
MEANWHILE, the little house, not yet christened the Lodge, had been on the market most of last year. Real estate is funny. This is a desirable area and another house within a thirty seconds’ walk of me went indecently quickly for way too much money recently. And we’re all getting slavering come-hither notices through our mail slots from estate agents saying ARE YOU THINKING OF SELLING YOUR PROPERTY? YOU SHOULD BE, YOU KNOW, BECAUSE WE WANT TO SELL IT FOR YOU. PLEASE RING AT EARLIEST CONVENIENCE SO WE CAN DO A VALUATION . . . which will be for a lot more money than the house finally goes on the market for but they don’t mention that and ruin their jolly frolic. But the Lodge is really rather small and most people want at least enough room to swing a hellterror.‡‡‡
I have a bit of history with the now-Lodge. The woman who lived there when I first moved into my cottage was very kind§ and I liked the house itself on sight. When she died I even tried to buy it. McKinley the Real Estate Magnate. Only I failed. But that turned out to be a good thing because I bought Third House later instead. Sigh. Full circle time, bleagh. Spinning in circles just makes you dizzy till you throw up.
So: tiny house. Diagonally across the street—the twisty, potholed, one-lane-wide-with-close-crowding-brick-and-flint-walls-to-emphasise-this-feature street—from me. Barely a second house at all.§§ It’s more the summerhouse at the end of your garden with a full kitchen and occasional traffic problems and not nearly enough rose-bushes. I talked it over with Peter. And he agreed to loan me some of the money from the sale of the mews—remember the mews?—so I could buy the Lodge before someone else woke up and bought it out from under me (again), and I could pay him back after I sold Third House.§§§
Then he died.
I was by then committed to the sale and I don’t know if there’s a ‘compassionate withdrawal’ option in the TOTALLY perverse and screwed-up British property law. But I still wanted the house, to the extent that I wanted anything at that point. My cottage is blinkety-blankety well jammed, never mind that I couldn’t get my piano up the stairs or past the chimney breast, and I was going to want to keep more of Peter’s gear than a whippet-shaped paperweight and a bottle of champagne, which meant I needed somewhere to put it. So I stumbled along, signing my name wherever someone told me to sign my name, and bought another house. Which is why I presently, unwillingly, own three houses.
And this blog post is now at least twice as long as it should be.# I don’t know that I was ever going to get on with clearing out poor Third House toward selling it very quickly but under the circumstances that I am obliged to do it## it’s been going very slowly indeed—rather like getting this post written. But spring is trying sporadically to arrive and it will make all of us feel better, right? That’s one of the things spring is for. Doodah doodah. And I am coming to the end of the clearing-out.### And I will get on with my life.
I keep saying I’m going to post sooner next time. One of these days I’ll be telling the truth. . . .
* * *
* ::starts crying:: It’s not corn-cracker crumbs^ that’s going to do for this laptop, er, ultrabook, it’s being cried on.^^ My tear ducts are going to need replacement soon too. Or a medal for loyal service under intolerable circumstances. Or both.
^ Maize and rice seem to be the only cereal grains I can eat without risking dire reprisals. And I don’t LIKE rice crackers.+
+ Note that I didn’t eat any of Ruby’s high tea. Scones? Clotted cream? Instant Death. But I can still admire.
^^ Crying makes your eyes blur. So you lean forward. Over your keyboard.
** 24/7 care furthermore which has had at least theoretically enough sleep each shift to be able see what they’re looking at, or hear a client buzzer go.
*** See: have had enough sleep
† And there were days when a steadying hand would have been a good thing. Or at least taller dogs.
†† Also . . . I worried kind of a lot about getting one of those 24/7 live-in home-care people that Peter and I could bear to have around TWENTY FOUR FREAKING SEVEN.^ At a place like Rivendell, a staff member you don’t much care for, hey, she’ll be off in a few hours and you may not see her again till next week. Or he, but the staff is mostly female.^^
^ Also—for any of you who haven’t been through this mill—they’re not 24/7. They get at least a couple of hours off every day which isn’t a big deal in your schedule—I spent increasing amounts of time running around doing stuff, Peter’s last two years, out of despair and helplessness, but I was still at Third House more than I was at the cottage—but it’s a big deal in your sense of responsibility. Also your standard, even-remotely-within-budget 24/7 home care person has no more medical training than you do. This would not have done anything good for my already chronic insomnia.
^^ This might make me testier except that most of the admin are women too.
††† Like putting up with the 24/7 carer would be an issue for me too.
‡ And for some of the same reasons as Rivendell was a better choice: because of all that public professional bustle and chat. At Third House the walls tended to close in. Peter and I were/are both introverts which is only a good way to be when you’re not depressed out of your tiny minds and having to resist the urge to crawl into your hole and pull it in after you. That last two years, resisting meant Peter played a lot of bridge. I went out and joined stuff.
‡‡ And SOMEWHERE to put a gazillion boxes of backlist, both mine and Peter’s. Not to mention all those other, other people’s books that are accustomed to being out on shelves. The shelves at the cottage are FULL and we’re not even going to discuss the piles on the floor. I’m tallish and thinnish and have long legs for my height . . . I can negotiate.^
^ The hellterror is a bit of a problem. Her little bedspring legs certainly can take her cleanly over book mountains. She just doesn’t see why she needs to do it that way. It’s so much more dramatic to approach these obstacles in bulldozer mode.
‡‡‡ The hellterror is also in favour of this. She likes the view from my arms because the hellhounds are a lot shorter than she is.
§ It was also amusing, after having lived in a nine-bedroom etc house, to have a visitor who thought the cottage was large. Her stories of my predecessor were even more amusing.
§§ People keep asking me, puzzledly, why I don’t sell both Third House and the cottage and buy one house that is the right size? The short form is that the cottage has been my increasingly-necessary bolthole for the twelve years we’ve lived in town and I couldn’t bear to leave it now nor any time in the foreseeable future. Also I like the Lodge and the hellmob and I walk past it a zillion times a day and it feels like part of the family.^
The slightly longer form is that I won’t find that house in the centre of New Arcadia where I am now. In hindsight I lucked into the cottage because the previous owner wanted to sell and it needed some updating^^. And real estate in little old Hampshire villages has gone completely nuts—or even more nuts—in the last dozen years. A quiet cul de sac^^^ just off the frelling centre of frelling town? How perfect is that? I’m keeping it. And while the Lodge does front on the main road it’s end-of-terrace because of the cul de sac, which means I have one wall that is not common, to put my piano on^^^^ and to sing at.
^ I keep having to remind myself that it now is part of the family.+
+ The house on the other corner of the cul de sac—so opposite the Lodge—has also recently sold and that makes me very sad because it’s part of the family too and I was friends with the humans who lived there and I will miss them and I don’t know if I’ll be friends with the new inhabitants or not. I never had any delusions of buying it however—in the first place that family had lived there forever and you don’t think about people who have been somewhere forever selling up, and in the second place it is LARGE. Even if I wanted all that space, which I don’t, I couldn’t begin to afford it.
^^ Which I haven’t done of course. Fresh paint on the walls and I’m in.
^^^ Although there are going to be problems with the Lodge’s common-wall neighbour’s little mega-yappy frelling hysterical dog. I’ll worry about that later. Or maybe I’ll just let the hellterror eat it. —Dog? I’ll say. You’re missing your dog? I have no idea.
^^^^ Yes I know you’re not supposed to put a piano on an outside wall. It’s better than being AUDIBLE. When my piano tuner comes I will ask him if I should do something like hang a RUG on the wall behind the piano. I still have lots of rugs from the nine-bedroom country house with the gigantic front hall, despite several of the family gallantly adopting a number of them.
§§§ I wish I could tell you even some of the saga of The Buying of the Lodge. It is full of excitement and suspense . . . and morons. Especially morons. Morons who might conceivably take umbrage^ if I told my version even though it is the true version.
Well, here’s just a teaser: for various reasons, including the fact that I was out of my mind for about six weeks from the beginning of November to the middle of December, the whole rubbishing business of the sale went on and on and on and on and the moron-to-person-possessing-at-least-semi-functioning-brain percentages were not in the non-morons’ favour.
Peter had wanted to see the new STAR WARS and since I’d been sure it would be booked out weeks in advance I’d bought the tickets yonks before, for the two of us and some random family members. The tickets were for Christmas Eve Eve. I declared I was going to go anyway because I didn’t want to blow off the last thing scheduled that I was supposed to do with Peter, and Georgiana said she’d keep me company. We were going to Peter’s and my favourite restaurant afterward for supper and to raise a glass.^^
The film was the film was the film.^^^ Georgiana and I both dove for our iPhones as soon as we were sitting down in the restaurant—having ordered our fizz—because this is the modern world and that’s what you do, and because I was expecting the confirmation of the sale and the news that I was now the proud possessor of three houses^^^^ and Georgiana was worried about one of her in laws who was in hospital.
I had a phone message. It had arrived at 4:58 pm on the 23rd, so just as everything shut down for a week over the holidays. And the message was that some creepazoid farther up the ‘chain’ [see: capricious and degenerate English real estate law] had thrown all his toys out of the pram and declared he wasn’t selling after all, the chain, therefore, had disintegrated and my purchase of the little house was off.^^^^^
And Georgiana’s relative had just gone into intensive care. We got through kind of a lot of fizz that night.
^ I can’t actually imagine any of them reading fantasy authors’ blogs, but you never know.
^^ I don’t have to tell you that this glass would contain fizzy liquid, do I?
^^^ Not a rabid STAR WARS fan, sorry. And it kind of lost me in the first reel-equivalent when the English-rose complexioned sweetie was presented as living as a scavenger in a desert. Although I did like it when that—ahem!—iconic object came roaring up out of a sand-dune [NO SPOILER! NO SPOILER!] when she and her new confederate are trying to escape.
^^^^ And heavily in debt for the privilege.
^^^^^ I believe that everyone else involved—they let me off, which was kind of them, since I wasn’t really up to the full screaming, kicking and punching thing—went to this guy’s house swinging long lithe bits of heavy metal in a significant manner and told him you want broken chains? We can show you broken chains. However it was arranged, the sale was back on in the new year.
# For symmetry it should probably be three times. Um . . .
## Including that I now owe the estate the repayment of that loan.
### Of the house. Then I have to start on the garden and the shed and the summerhouse. AAAAAAAUGH. But the estate agent can start showing it as soon as the house is clear and the heavily-armoured cleaning service has been around obliterating all traces of humanity. And caninity.
Nor are we going to discuss the unpacking of the Lodge. At least I’m good at jigsaw box-and-furniture arrangement, and Atlas, who is building the bookshelves, is used to me.
When I started writing this Radio 3 was playing Beethoven’s Fifth. About a week ago a bunch of us handbell ringers sloped off after practise to go hear some fire-breathing orchestra detonate Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. They played some other stuff first—very well too—and I noticed that two of the six double bass players were small, slight women* but mostly I had my head down over my knitting. Knitting is my default these days.** And it was (mostly) okay. Change of air. Change of scenery. Change of people. All good things (mostly). My three companions were chatting away cheerfully about music during the pauses while I went loop-wrap-pull, loop-wrap-pull.***
And then the orchestra went dah dah dah DAAAAAAAH and I . . . lost it. WHAM. Small intimate train wreck. Wept copiously all over my knitting. Swallowed one hand and half a box of tissues in an attempt not to sob cacophonously . Wanted a bag to put over my head so as not to blind everybody else in the theatre with the dazzling redness of my eyes.
I don’t even know why Beethoven’s Fifth. It wasn’t Peter’s favourite or anything. But (several of) Beethoven’s symphonies have been somewhat guilty pleasures for me for most of my life. Beethoven’s symphonies—maybe especially the Fifth—are so . . . obvious. I love, oh, say, Messiaen, but I have to be feeling like a grown-up to listen to him. Small children and dogs like Beethoven’s Fifth.† I first fell under its spell when I was a small child†† And I think what happened is that I found myself staring down the long††† unravelling skein of years during which I have listened many, many times to Beethoven’s Fifth and . . .
I know this is a Stage of Grief. I hope it will be over soon. The grief won’t be over soon—you don’t get over the loss of someone you loved, that’s a no-brainer—but this not being able to go out in public without being frelling likely to make a scene is a colossal bore as well as a vicious circle since the more you don’t go out the more likely you are to melt down when you do . . . and the more likely the depths you will plumb while you’re sitting at home staring at the walls will get depthier.‡
So I do go out. I’m going to see a live-streaming LA TRAVIATA this Thursday. It’ll be great. I can cry when she dies . . . .
This is a Stage of Grief. I know this.
* * *
* I assume they have finger, and possibly arm, extensions to get around the half a mile of those strings.
** It’s certainly my default in public.^ My default at home is mostly a milling hellmob wanting to know when something interesting is going to happen. Now that we’re spending all our time at the cottage^^ which has very limited floor space due both to original square footage and the whole Things in Corners When There Are No Corners and the Rooms Are a Lot Smaller Than They Were Before There Were Bookshelves on All the Walls etc, this question is more urgent than it used to be.
^ WHAT AM I GOING TO DO about that frelling frelling FRELLING Jesus is my totally creepy boyfriend Modern Christian Worship NOISE? I got through church this past Sunday for the first time without suffering comprehensive disintegration followed by bolting for the door and sitting in Wolfgang in the dark till I could frelling drive.+ But it wasn’t a good or a holy uplifting time. GAAAAAAAH. Sermons about the glory and beauty of life are bad enough but the singing . . . . The long view is that I want to get back on the singing rota—St Margaret’s have no standards, fortunately and would be happy to have me back—because even before 16 December++ I’ve found the power ballad to God thing a trifle testing, and up on stage ‘leading’ cough cough cough turns it into a performance and I can flip the ‘performance’ switch+++ and the emotional manipulation factor is thereby dimmed. BUT I need to reach a tipping point of self-control before I risk it. The performance apparatus will stretch, gouge and support only so far. It’s maybe like a hammer to thud a few nails further in. But it won’t abracadabra a frame to clamp you together. ++++
+ I can’t remember now if it was last week or the week before that it was helpfully raining so I could sit in Wolfgang with the wipers going and nobody could see me chewing on the steering wheel.
++ Although I effectively stopped going to church after 7 September. I was at Rivendell on Sunday evenings, like every other evening, and I still can’t get out of bed in the mornings when most people go to church. Well, I can get up, but I can’t get sane and plugged together enough to drive a car, even a very well-mannered# car like Wolfgang before noon. Two or three in the afternoon is preferable.
# which is to say lacking in youthful pizzazz and top end precipitancy
+++ Just so long as there’s at least one guitarist to hide behind
++++ MIXED METAPHOR ALERT. And now I’m going make it worse by telling you how the necessary planks are still holding up bird’s nests back in the forest somewhere. I am trying to tell you I am nowhere near the tipping-back-into-prudence-and-rationality# point.
# Not perhaps that prudence or rationality were strong points before.
^^ Oh, and?, she tosses off lightly, have I mentioned that I’ve bought another house? A . . . you should forgive the term . . . third house? I have spectacular cash flow problems that may result in a failure to buy dog food soon+ BUT I OWN THREE HOUSES.++ Briefly. Poor Third House goes on the market as soon as I can finish getting it cleared out. New House needs a name. Second Third House? Fourth House Minus Two? Daughter of Third House? Seventh Cousin Twice Removed of Third House House? Numerical Confusion I Never Could Count House? Gwendolyn?
+ This will delight the hellhounds of course. The hellterror, not so much.
++ It’s a long story. Next blog post.
*** I’m not going to say clickety-clack because I don’t clickety-clack. I use wooden needles, not metal, and I’m slow so I might as well be silent too.
^ Not that this saves me from, for example, the stitch I dropped and then picked up again incompetently when I was knitting in bed one night and heard . . . the unmistakable sounds of a member of the hellmob downstairs throwing up. There is now a HOLE.+ I will sew it up during the seaming stage which, as we all know with McKinley knitting productions, never happens.++
+ In the knitting. Not the hellmob. Or the kitchen floor. The hellmob are all remarkably resistant to being left in a box by the side of the road. They tend to climb out and follow me home again.
++ Which will be embarrassing in this case because it’s the latest in my attempts at a baby blanket. ONE OF THESE DAYS I’LL ACTUALLY FINISH ONE. Before the kid goes off to uni.#
# All right. Before the kid goes off to uni may be too much to ask. By the time its first baby is born perhaps.~
~ But I still won’t have seamed it up and woven the ends in.
† The hellmob prefer LA TRAVIATA. But they’re okay with Beethoven’s symphonies.
†† And doubtless I was a dog in a previous life.^
^ I know Christianity doesn’t do reincarnation. WE DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING.
††† Long long long. One of the tangential horrors of the current presidential-election follies is that these bozos are my age.^ These scary creeps are my generation. Forty years ago my generation were going to SAVE THE WORLD, especially from the politicians—and the politicians’ policies—of our parents’ generation. Same old same old same old I DON’T NEED ANY ADDITIONAL REASONS TO BE UTTERLY DEPRESSED.
^ Ted Cruz is an infant.
‡ Also you are so unlike the self you used to be or thought you knew, blither blither quackety quack quack, and this current self is so exasperating and unseemly and difficult to manage^ that you, or anyway I, do find myself trying to ‘manage’ it/me like you might manage any other intractable problem. What frelling works? Avoidance? Confrontation? Drugs? Handcuffs and a soundproof dungeon? Chocolate? I haven’t found what works yet.
^ And liable to mood changes so supersonically fast, as you might say breakneck, you give yourself whiplash.+
+ It’s not that there aren’t good minutes#. There are just so many more bad ones.
# Getting sworn in as an ornamental laic doohickey by my monks was a good minute. Actually it was several good minutes in a row. Even if they did occur at EIGHT FORTY FIVE FRELLING O’CLOCK IN THE SUPER-FRELLING MORNING.
That’s the end of the memoir bits. You had mine first, which came last on the day, followed by some of his poetry, and the grandson with the amazing voice sang Linden Lea* and then it was over except for the champagne and fireworks.**
And then all of us left behind stumbled back to our lives. It’s funny what catches you out.*** Up till this week when it turned suddenly cold at last† it’s been insanely, unseasonably warm†† and all kinds of plantlife has been shooting out—my snowdrops are going to be over before they usually start—we had purple sprouting broccoli in November instead of February, and I’ve just been shelling my first broad beans of the year . . . broad beans? That should be like . . . May.†††
Broad beans were one of my early revelations about life in England. The only big fat round green bean I knew were frozen limas—preferably as succotash—and while they were fine the earth did not move and rainbows did not explode behind my eyes when I ate them. But broad beans . . . yowzah. YOWZAH yowzah. They are so spectacularly awesome they are worth the incredible faff of shelling the beggars. Those of you accustomed to this task will know whereof I speak. They grow in these massive great pillowy pods and you pick one up and think, YES! Big fat broad beans! And then you grapple your way into the thick uncooperative husk‡ and discover it’s mostly the plant version of bubblewrap and you have to lever out the few beans embedded therein. ARRRRRGH. Only the fact of the essential divinity of broad beans keeps any rational person at this desperate activity.
Peter derived some amusement out of my naïve horror at the process. And I did get used to it. Greed helps. But the thing is . . . it’s something we did together. We certainly did it literally together back at the old house, podding our very own broad beans out of our very own sweat-of-our-brows garden‡‡ And even since we moved into town and our broad beans come by organic-grocer delivery we at least had each other to moan at, whoever did the actual shelling that meal or that week or that season. Hey! the one would say to the other, shaking a pot with a modest layer of broad beans spread across the bottom. It took me forty five minutes to shuck that many!
Not this year. And telling the hellmob just isn’t the same.
* * *
* Peter had eccentric tastes in music as in most things. He would tell you he ‘wasn’t musical at all’ and didn’t care for music, or didn’t care one way or another about it.^ But if you put the wrong CD on you would hear about it and there were certain things he did really love, Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings for example.^^ I still wasted quite a bit of time believing that he didn’t care for music and, for example, originally assumed that the mum in SEVENTH RAVEN was a cellist because he needed her to be something, not because he was susceptible to a well-played cello. Oh. Anyway. He was sufficiently unmusical to like listening to me sing, and I’d been learning Linden Lea shortly before one of Percival’s visits. Peter certainly knew Linden Lea; I don’t think you can live on these islands without having some vague idea about King Arthur, Stonehenge and Linden Lea, but I don’t think the last had particularly registered with him before I started doing my dying-pig routine with it. Percival is always happy to take requests and he knew Linden Lea. Golly. So while Linden Lea was introduced at the memorial service as one of Peter’s favourites it might be more accurate to say it was one of his favourites for about the last year of his life.
^ And long-term blog readers will recall that he did the loyal-husband thing and accompanied me to many operas although this was not his idea of a fabulous night out and he usually complained about the libretto. Well I complain about most librettos. Any story-teller who doesn’t complain about opera librettos is an alien from the Crab Nebula only pretending to be a human story-teller. Well, a human story-teller with any pride.
^^ Which I learnt to pay attention to and then to love because Peter thought so highly of it. I wasn’t a Britten person when I moved over here; I knew his operas a little because I know most standard-rep operas at least a little, but their emotional reality is mostly too real for me. There’s no dazzling melodramatic catharsis at the end of Britten’s tragedies the way there is at the end of Verdi’s. And, just by the way, if I never hear the four sea interludes from Peter Grimes again, my life will be a little brighter. I should think Mr B would be rolling in his grave at the idea that something he wrote has been essentially turned into a frelling lollipop. Although I think he was the one who turned them into a concert piece in the first place. We all make mistakes.
** Well, prosecco. But definitely fizz.^ And yes, fireworks. Advantages of having a memorial service in January, generally speaking a quite depressing enough month in the northern hemisphere without any help: It gets dark early for fireworks. I’ve been saying that we blued the estate on the send-off. It was worth it.
^ I had two glasses and could barely walk. Maybe I should have eaten something. They even had a plate of gluten-free and I saw it like once before it ran away and hid in the shrubbery or under the piano or something.
*** No it’s not funny. It’s not funny at all.
† And I found out again how many frelling gazillion geraniums I have when I had to bring the suckers indoors to save them freezing. I had visitors coming and the sitting room floor was suddenly wall to wall to bookshelves to sofabed with geraniums. I spent a day that might have been better spent cleaning the house^ hacking and repotting and wedging, got the floor clear enough to open the sofabed and the windowsills JAAAAAAAAAMMED . . . and then there was a family crisis and I have a nice clean sitting room floor and no one to admire it but me.
^ I lost the will to live on the subject of the kitchen floor of the cottage several muddy months ago. Now I know the hellmob do walk into the little garden courtyard to pee and so it is not surprising they come back in again mired to the elbows but I SWEAR the flaming mud can jump. I’m standing in the doorway just making sure that no one with a high-angle aim pees on a rosebush and the mud makes a sudden lightning raid and gets all over the bottoms of my house slippers. Arrrrrrgh.
†† AND WET. AND MUDDY.
††† Not that I wouldn’t be glad to have May’s daylight. This time of year, bad weeks the hellmob and I barely see the sun.
‡ The how-tos tell you blithely to run your fingernail down the seam and split it open. LIKE HELL. The how-tos, which have obviously never podded a broad bean in their lives, neglect to tell you that you have a better chance of seaming one open if you start at the rear end rather than the stem end, but even so, at least one pod in three disintegrates in nasty messy little spiral flakes as you claw at it. Think about running your fingernail down a line of bubble wrap and expecting it to pop open. Ha ha frelling ha.
‡‡ Note however that I personally did almost nothing in the vegetable garden. I was flowers^ all the way. Our broad beans were the sweat of Peter’s brow. I admit however that I’ve started surreptitiously growing a few broad bean plants in pots in my little garden. I get about one good plateful from them, but they’re not fussy as plants, it’s only when you’re trying to extract the frelling beans that their depravity manifests.
^ Hey. Only about 85% roses. Okay maybe 90%.
Writer and Seer: Peter’s literary works*
Now, for this next piece I need you to imagine that I’m voicing over the sound of a typewriter. It’s coming from up a stairway or behind a study door, and it sounds like this:
Chack-chack-chack-chak. (Pause for thought.) Chackchackchackchackchackchack…
Peter did not have typist’s hands. He said his fingers were like a sculptor’s, thick and stubby**. He typed from the elbow, two fingers, hitting the keys so hard that he could break them in ways that the repair people had never seen before.
He wrote books, but not only books. He wrote scripts for plays: amateur productions that we performed with our friends the Stuart-Smiths at their house at Serge Hill***; and for the highly-talented children’s opera group who performed in St James’ Church in London W11†. He wrote a screenplay for a TV series called Mandog, and drove our little Morris Minor as an extra in one of the chase scenes.
And he wrote poems. When he was re-roofing our large and leaky house at Bramdean††, he wrote poems about it on slates and hid them under the tiles for future generations to find. He wrote a clutch of painful little poems after the tragic death of Mary Rose in 1988, and more when Robin crossed the Atlantic to join her life with his. Many of these are in his collection The Weir.
But his books were the main thing. He would write two a year, one adult mystery, one children’s fiction, like a farmer rotating the crops in his field. Often he’d start with just an idea, and no notion of where it would take him. He said he could write a third of a murder novel without knowing who had killed whom or why.†††
His imagination was bold, far-reaching and quirky. He would follow a story set in a Scottish Loch with one in sixth century Byzantium. He wrote about the near future and also about the dawn of humanity. He did light romance in the General Strike and science fiction in an apartheid Britain where some skins were green. He loved to set his stories in country houses like this one.‡ And if when you’re looking around you see a drop of fresh oil on a weapon in a display case – that’s the clue!
His characters were complex, his prose rhythmic, his ideas tantalising. He would do nothing obvious or cheap. For him, all worthwhile moral questions were complicated and ambivalent. But he did not want to lecture his readers. He took them round the byways, through the wild woods of imagination, and if they came to ask themselves the sort of questions that he was asking – as it were, by accident – that was all he could hope for.
He kept it up, for over sixty novels. That’s a gravity-defying career by all standards. They’re all still available – just go to Open Road Media – Peter Dickinson or find his website Peter Dickinson . [Fixed – Blogmom] (Here we (*&^%$£”!!!! go again: I can’t make the suckers live. Time to call in Blogmom. Apologies.] Some of them won prizes. Tulku and City of Gold won the Carnegie in consecutive years. Others did not, but his quality was always high. Have you tried The Last Houseparty? Ah, you should.
Phil and Polly remember accompanying him to Crime Writers’ Association dinners and rubbing shoulders with the greats like Harry Keating and Dick Francis.‡‡ James and I remember our excitement when he fell into a correspondence with Richard Adams (I think Peter was less than excited about this, actually). He served as Chair of the Society of Authors. He went on lecture tours, he was awarded the OBE for services to literature. But he was no highbrow.
He won prizes, he said, because his books were the sort that adults thought children ought to read.‡‡‡ He was ambivalent about that. He told an Exeter conference in 1970 that the danger of living in a golden age of children’s literature was that “not enough rubbish is being produced.”
And he added:
“Nobody who has not spent a whole sunny afternoon under his bed rereading a pile of comics left over from the previous holidays has any real idea of the meaning of intellectual freedom.”
Back then that was fighting talk, and he had to defend it. Which he did. It wasn’t in his commercial interest, but it was what he believed.
So we thought we’d give you a bit of Peter’ essay “A Defence of Rubbish”. Here he is, the writer’s writer, the librarian’s favourite, up and fighting for children to be allowed what the hell they liked, even if, to the adult eye, it contained no value either aesthetic or educational.
…Third, I am convinced of the importance of children discovering things for themselves. However tactfully an adult may push them towards discoveries in literature, these do not have quite the treasure trove value of the books picked up wholly by accident. This can only be done by random sampling on the part of the children, and it is inevitable that a high proportion of what they read will be rubbish, by any standard. But in the process they will learn the art of comparison.
Fourth comes a psychological point. Children have a very varying need of security, but almost all children feel the need of security and reassurance some time. One can often tell how happy or insecure a child is feeling simply by what she is reading. And sometimes she may need to reread something well known but which makes absolutely no intellectual or emotional demand. Rubbish has this negative virtue, and I would be very chary of interfering with a child who felt an obvious need of rubbish.
My fifth point is more nebulous. There is no proof, or even arguing about it. But I am fairly sure in my own mind that a diet of plums is bad for you, and that any rational reading system needs to include a considerable amount of pap or roughage—call it what you will. I know very few adults who do not have some secret cultural vice, and they are all the better for it. I would instantly suspect an adult all of whose cultural activities were high, remote and perfect.
I have to take the podium again to make my confession here. I spent a fair amount of my childhood re-reading football comics. I was probably aware that I was being allowed to get away with it. I had no idea at all that I owed it to his faith in intellectual freedom.
Books, Peter said, are like leaves. They fall from the tree that made them and for a little while they lie golden on the ground. But very soon they are buried by the next layer of books, which of course are doomed to be buried in their turn. It’s a melancholy but realistic reflection on how much of a monument a writer can expect from his own works.
But of course, the monument is not really in the book at all. It’s in the readers who found that treasure trove and were touched by what was in it. Even if they can no longer remember the title or the author’s name. And sometimes they do. A few years ago I met a young writer who said: ‘Peter Dickinson? We had one of his books in the school library when I was twelve. It was called The Gift. I loved it.’
The Gift. Ah yes. Thank you, Peter. For that one too.
* * *
* by Peter’s son John, yes, that John Dickinson: Books by John Dickinson
He has a blog and a website, but they have been a trifle neglected: he says himself that do something about this has been top of the list for . . . er . . . quite some time.
And here is a BBC interview John did about Peter right after he died: Peter Dickinson OBE
The bit about Peter starts eleven minutes in. Several people have told me it’s good. I haven’t listened to it—I can’t bear to—so don’t talk to me about it.
** Peter had gigantic hands. My hands are big enough I can only get into size large dishwashing gloves but he could swallow one of my hands in one of his. Walking down the street holding hands we had to do it palm to palm like you do with a kiddie: if we tried to lace our fingers together I’d dislocate my knuckles. I’m wearing his wedding ring on a chain around my neck.^^ I could almost wear it as a coronet.
^ Trying to find dishwashing gloves that would fit him was epic. The holy grail was nothing on trying to find dishwashing gloves for Peter.
^^ Sigh. . . .
*** Hertfordshire. North of London.^
† Notting Hill. Next to Holland Park, as previous.^
^ . . . apologies to my English readers. But the majority of this blog’s readers are American and I’m making the assumption that they don’t know any more about English geographic niceties than I did thirty years ago. About the Europeans, Australians, Asians, Africans, Antarcticans and Martians who read this blog I will not hazard a guess.
†† And he did a VERY GOOD JOB. It DID NOT LEAK in my era.
††† I’m pretty sure I’ve told the blog this story: Peter lived with me in Maine for a couple of months while I finished DEERSKIN before packing up to move to England (eeeeeeeeeep). He borrowed my old manual typewriter [sic] and started typing (as above: CHACK CHACK). After a few days he gave me the first chapter of what would become THE YELLOW ROOM CONSPIRACY. Since it’s the first chapter it’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that it ends with the two main characters saying calmly to each other ‘I thought you murdered so and so.’ I looked at Peter with very large eyes: Wow! What happens? Who did it? —I have no idea, replied Peter.
‡ Avington Park, where the memorial service was held, and which is so much more fabulous than its web site makes out. Some day when I’m feeling jolly and expansive I’ll tell you about finding it.
‡‡ I met Harold Pinter at one of these things. I didn’t take to him. But then he didn’t take to me. Harry Keating was a sweetie.
‡‡‡ Ahem. He also won prizes for his murder mysteries. Ahem.