Birling Gap yesterday. I left my camera in the car so I will tell you. I carried a washbasket (containing wetsuits, towels and dry clothes: a selection), a picnic bag, an additional picnic bag, two net-on-sticks and a large bag of wood down to the beach. This is a climb. Fortunately there are stairs. We found a hole in the bottom of the cliff and we distributed blankets and I made a fire with the wood. The kids went down to the water with their nets. The sea is milky with churned chalk at Birling Gap. Strangely, this makes it appear warm. We cooked our lunch which included asparagus from our friends’ garden and strawberries from a shop.
And for family and those interested: here are pictures of Pascal’s latest creations. Until the other day, for a month, his room had been unnegotiable because there was a very complex airport and shipping arrangement everywhere. We had to kiss him goodnight in the hallway because only he could pick his way to his bed without destroying some delicate crane mechanism or precarious tower of tiny crates ready for loading on some paper, cotton and blu-tak vehicle.
And then one morning it was all gone, packed tidily into boxes outside his room. And very soon this took its place:
This was before the roof was completed, after which there was no adult access. I wish I could show you inside. It was a home for the Teletubbies. There were beds and internal walls and all kinds of detail. You could only get in on your tummy. It was rather wonderful.
Meanwhile the trains continued to be assembled, many at a time, until we had this many:
And then they went on a fire.
Friends were invited, marshmallows, sticks, logs gathered and so on but the point was that they had to be burned. And soon after, the Teletubby house was burnt in a similar ceremony. Internal walls with pictures and light switches and decorative shelves which no-one had really seen except Pascal himself and his fleet of soft toys – all gone. There was dancing, screeching and a large cardboard structure alive with flame toppling where it shouldn’t.
Jonathan says: “If you want to get a small child’s attention, start sawing a piece of wood.” All three boys have got involved and the kitchen is a shed.
Even though I worry about where we are going to put six-foot rockets and the nine-foot dragons (really) and it is on some level a relief that Pascal has built into his building routine a little light immolation, I am sad about these things as they are carried down the garden to the bonfire. A friend of mine who is a photographer was pretty horrified about the sacrificing of all this artwork. She blogged some of his Dakotas here. Pascal is patiently building the entire vehicular cast from the Duxford Air Show in stiff card and sellotape.
At The Factory we are working on an adaptation of The Odyssey, I am loving it and confused by it. How do I process that story through my Western, contemporary, feminist, Judeo-Christian story-telling filter? What do I make of it and how do we tell it without telling things about it? I am also nearing the end of a book I am writing and as I get closer to the end I find myself increasingly caught up in how good it should be. I want it to be really, really good. I want it to be admirable. This is about as constipating a position as it is possible to find. Could I write an entire book, admire it for a bit, then throw it on a fire to clear space for the next one? Could I give it away without my name on it and never know how it was received?
By coincidence, not long ago, Pascal was also learning about Greek Myths. I didn’t really believe Greek Myths could possibly take his fancy. I was thinking what does the autistic mind do with a story like the Odyssey, when he came home with his own version – a cartoon about Agamemnon. I have to find it and scan it but until I do you have to know it was rather wonderful series of photographs of a clay Agamemnon and a ship and assorted Greek characters. The final frame was Agamemnon lying on the ground at the foot of a sticky, plasticine cliff.
And after we read his Agamemnon story through and he had showed it around proudly he went back to putting windows on his GNER 225 HST and he said: ‘I don’t want to die. I want to be alive. I don’t want to be like Theseus’ Dad. I would get dead. If I jumped off the cliff I would get dead. I want to be… (and he looks at me very cheerfully with his eyebrows raised) Yes? I am just alive.’
I thought it was a great speech.
I have been reading a lot at the moment because the book I am writing is enjoying a rest and I am finishing another thing and it is Christmas which is a busy time, too busy for writing much but I can read. As long as the book fits into my jeans pocket I can read. This means that currently I am reading Skippy Dies by Paul Murray which fits on my bedside table and also Goodbye to All That which fits in my pocket.
By a very strange coincidence these two books turn out to be brothers, which is not unusual. Read any two books side by side and they will talk to each other. Any book you read will talk to what you are writing too. This I find to be true often. However, Skippy Dies refers to Goodbye to All That – directly – often – which is more than just a little chatty. It is as though they are old pals.
I use some bloggy software called Ecto so I can write for the blog offline and also because you get into all sorts of difficulties if you export from Word (I believe). On this I have the beginnings of many blogs and I am going to offload some of them.
Here is the first one:
Some of us are balanced and secure enough to accept disappointments with a smile and a little sigh. My friend Olivier suffered a Major Disappointment recently when, 2 hours, 10 minutes and 21 kilometres into his Alpine ultra-marathon, a race he was running to raise money to support trafficked children in Africa, the weather turned bad and the organisers, fearing mud-slides, cancelled the race. Over 2000 runners from around the world found themselves without accommodation at 2 in the morning in a small village high in the Swiss Alps.
My brother drove from Geneva to assist many of them maintain their dignity in a local bar.
In a similar way our home-grown cucumbers were disappointing. They were bitter. This came as a surprise. So I peeled, salted and washed a bowlful to see if they got better. We made some crepes. We mixed chopped cucumbers with yogurt and dill. And it was good. Not disappointing. I wouldn’t have bothered if it had been the usual condomed cucumber from the supermarket.
Take my friend Emma, who has won a medal for her preserves. People clamber over children to get at her piccalilli which is as near perfect a pickle as you might wish for. Emma’s piccalilli is crunchy, but not demanding, and has bite enough to be assertive, without being impolite. The bits are the right size – substantial but not invasive. Emma’s Soft-Set Strawberry and Balsamic Jam is, no truly is, the kind of jam you hide from guests. It is Epic – bordering on a religious experience.
Really, this woman has a gift.
A few of us were having a chat about marketing Emma’s Incredible Preserves. None of us having this chat knew much about marketing but we knew the aim was to stand out from the crowd. But when the rest of the crowd is jars of Christmas-ready deliciousness grown on Mrs Earthy’s farm, Granny-stirred and made from Great-Auntie Whatsit’s special recipe, it’s hard to come up with appropriately competitive copy.
We gave up.
But the next day at a Foodie Fair where she had a table, Emma ended up in a St John’s Ambulance van after being stung by a wasp (no, two wasps). Apparently the St John’s Ambulance guy said reassuring things like, “You’re not what I’d call ‘severe’,” while Emma gasped for breath and her entire arm, chest and head went up in flames.
Poor Emma was unable to drive herself home and had to suffer the indignity of friends and rescuers being sent out to collect her and her car (and her preserves). One of the friends and rescuers came back with a Tupperware box of jam which had been laid out as a diversion. There were wasps inside. The wasps were quite noisy and the Tupperware box is still down the end of our garden.
This has not solved the branding issue.
My sister likes how I tend to gather the loose strands of my blog posts into one final meaningful pith. I am not sure if I am not actually a bit moralising, or worse at times, in my quest for pith. So take the above as a picture of our year. Some adventures, some ventures, some disappointments, most of which end up having at the very least, a poetic value.
This is the first half of a little slice of the Philippines.
On our way back to the UK from Australia, Rob and I visit my old school friend, Jo, in Manila. She has lived here for years. We are her first visitors outside her family. She has four children and lives in a tiny house with no air-conditioning, no garden and a rabbit. Manila is hot and poor and polluted and noisy. All the white people have drivers and ‘help’ and live in gated areas. Except Jo. She drives their nine-seater family van on roads without lines or laws and they live in a Phillippino area.
The cars here drive in shoals. There is a complete and total lack of order and calm. You cannot even be sure which roads are one way until a truck comes towards you.
Four children. And white. I spend three days with Jo witnessing the most impressive, stoical and acrobatic act of Extreme Parenting I could imagine. Her children are immaculate, creative, articulate and so, so happy.
In Manila, Robbie has to take his top off at every opportunity. He is skinny, like a little raw bird. We go for a swim at the apartment block down the road. We stay most of the day at the pool. He spends more hours in that pool than he has spent in water in the last six months. Including baths. When he needs a rest he finds a warm spot on the concrete beside the water and pillows his head on his arms. I remember that day-by-the-pool pose. That is a happy, restful, sun-filled position – your body on the hot concrete, your arm hanging down, your ear at water level, the rest of the world a general quiet roar away in the back there. The tickling drops of water collecting on your spine and down your chin. The drying bits and the wet bits. The cool on your front when you peel yourself away from the ground to go and find a lounge chair or the heat building up til you to tip back into the pool. The terrible, laughable shock of the cold water. The close silence and distance of having your head under – the distance from everything else.
We leave the pool at the end of the day, the kids are comparing wrinkles when Robbie starts skipping – hopping and zig-zagging all over the road. I have taught him so carefully about roads. ‘Rob! It’s a road! Rob!’ I use my big voice.
As it happens, there are no cars anywhere nearby. There is, however, a principle – so I shout.
Rob is skipping about madly.
‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’
‘Rob not in the road – get off it!’
‘It’s hot! Ow! Ow! Ow!’
Then Jo and I shout ‘Head for the grass!’
He had no idea where to go – the asphalt has been exposed to sun for about 12 hours now. The temperature is in the mid-thirties somewhere – perhaps higher. Even the Philippinos call this hot. I wouldn’t even think of walking barefoot on this road. I didn’t notice he was barefoot. He leaps onto the tiny patch of grass and giggles.
Two weeks ago in Australia he refused to take his shoes off. My sister, who will brook no opposition, muttered, ‘I’ll get him barefoot.’ She succeeded. But it was only two weeks ago and Australia is pleasantly autumnal. Here in Manila you can chew the heat.
‘Why is it so hot?’ He is shocked and laughing. How can a road get hot? A road is a road.
I have spent this last month with him in Australia seeing things he has never seen before. But I am stupid and slow about adjusting to the difference. The road will be hot. You will need shoes. You only need to learn this kind of thing once. I need to learn that it is not enough to know these things – I should also be able to say them.
True, the Pacific might be pacific out in the middle of the world there. It very well might be the featureless, endless, stagnant mill-pond that tortured the ambitious circumnavigator, Magellan and his thirsty, starving crew; but here, it is just noisy.
Crash. Shuck. Heave. It is bloody tireless.
These beaches are beaches that have you shout.
You are twelve (or nine… you’re small) and you have been swimming alone in a combative sea, you could call it “body surfing” but actually you are just fighting to breathe occasionally while the ocean practices casual violence on your freckly body. At last, you have timed out in the shallow foam, exhausted. You stumble up the beach to flop, shivering, beside the Esky.
You are me.
You didn’t see a shark or a ray today, so that’s something. They hang around sometimes, at least that’s what your big brother says and he goes out past the head on his board where they are – no touching the bottom there.
Lying on a hot towel, you can hear the sandy world trickle away under your head and the slow march of the Pacific as it throws down on the beach again and now again. The tall bush around is whispery and cool. The sun is insistent.
Your little brother is digging nearby and has got up to his waist; he chats continually to himself, and makes explosions occasionally with his spade. Your sister has gone “back up” for a driving lesson or to make a phone call or sunbake in the carport.
It’s all quiet. You dig your hands on either side down into the sand there. It’s almost too hot to touch but you can flick it about a bit. So that’s you.
Grains of sand can be as large as 2mm, so says the geologist, but I know sand can be so small it is actually dust – to a geologist, this is silt. Silt is a clogger, a blocker, a temporary but effective geographical constipator. This sand is barely coarse enough to make a gritty noise in the fingers, though it squeaks a little under pressure.
Later, much, much later – and if I told you, you wouldn’t believe how long you are to live before you touch snow – you will discover that snow makes the same squeak. It is the noise of holiday. And sand – whether it is in shoes, the bed, sandwiches or between toes – is geology made summer.
On the other side of the Esky is my Dad, asleep. He has nine toes because one of the outside ones got chopped off by a mower when he was little. He has hairy nostrils and ears and, now they are older, so do my brothers. He wears a tie in the garage and calls my Grandfather, his Father-in-law, Mr. He is very good at fixing and making things. In fact he is a regular Joseph in the shed. He was born on the land. He should have been a farmer.
In Australia in 1970 the aboriginal gets to vote – the truth is he was allowed to vote way before even any white woman – but no-one told him and he had no means of knowing. In 1970 it was at last made more than theoretically possible. 1970! That’s two years after the hourglass of my life was upturned. I felt hot with shame and anger when I learned that, reading John Pilger like a hungry person, many years after I left the country.
At the beach and the poolside Dad wears a pair of speedos that have been in the wash too often; they are bobbly and have a little skirt which is supposed to hide his cock. He sleeps on the beach with his arms folded under his head in the pose of that famous photo: The Swimmer.
Sand is, let me generalise, silica (SiO2) and has a “glass melting point” of over 2300 degrees C. I try to explain to my kids that that is more fire than we could possibly make. No window is going to magically appear on the beach floor after we have swept away our barbeque.
And that’s us, we are all lying around variously in heat serious enough to affect our eyesight, but we are all of us, and maybe we get it from my Dad, a long way and probably always will be, from glass melting point.
Of course I can see the sea. I can see the sea from my window. Sometimes it is lost in a sky but there is still a gap in the hills where I know it is. I wake to gulls. I can see the sea.
My six-year old gets weepy before bed. His brother is asleep beside him. He talks through chokes and gulps. His deepest wails are silent, that is how he cries when it is dark. Some nights those silent cries wake me up.
We have little dark, huddled conversations about the differences and the not going home. He is searching around – wondering what he should be worried about. He knows only that he is disturbed like a room after a burglary when nothing has been taken.
In the daytime it is like this:
“I want to go to America.”
“We might one day.”
“I want to see that big lady. That statue.”
“The Statue of Liberty.”
“The Big One. Really Big.”
“The Statue of Liberty.”
“Liberty is like freedom.”
“What is it for?”
“I don’t know what it’s for… she was the first thing that lots of people who left here, Europe, after the wars – she was the first thing they saw when they got to America. And lots of them were sad because maybe their parents or their family had been killed in the war. They were going to America hoping they could be happy and not be poor any more. Many of them were very poor in their countries. And the Statue of Liberty showed them that they were welcome in America and that they might be happy there.”
He is skipping, happy with that explanation – now he is ready for a day at his new school. We walk into his playground and he stumbles up the steps to his classroom because some classmate is hugging the new boy as he tries to climb the steps and they are both being pretty stupid as I walk away but he manages a giggling thumbs-up.
When I think of Ellis Island I see patient queues of people, forlorn and stoic as children. There’s something – what is it? – about the prevalence of suitcases and the tik-a-tik-tik of the arrivals board.
Still with Trudy and her container of Small People… cont.
For the second day running Bland Neighbour had tipped out of the container with a biro in one hand and a notebook in the other. Trudy had let it pass the first day. She was caught up with Older Chap’s Silver Surfer session at the local library. Amusingly, that had ended in an uncomfortable situation involving what turned out to be his daughter’s online avatar.
Trudy was always drawn to a combination of dark and comic. The neatness of this common paradox was somehow digestable. After all, she had been brought up on a diet of stories which ended: “and the moral of the story is: never X when you Y a Z.”
On this day Trudy watched Bland Neighbour writing what looked like a letter – she could see it was a letter by the shape of the words on the page. The letter was the size of half a stamp – or less. (My, but these people were small.) His pencil was thinner than a pin. Although she could not make out the words, she could see them trace a shape – heavier on the left and bulkier lower down the page.
She could also see that Neighbour was writing with unmistakeable intent.
Trudy was unsure how to read her own feelings about this mysterious absorption. She thought she might disturb him a little to see what happened. She tickled him with her pencil. The pencil passed right through his body.
She started. That was odd. She licked the pencil and tried again with the eraser end: prodding and pushing, carefully at first, until she was finally stirring the space where he sat with a whizzing motion.
He was air.
Her pencil was useless. Her Man a tiny illusion: solid until she touched him, oblivious to his mastery of his own existence, his attention and whole world a tiny dirtying, square.
She stopped. It occurred to her that she might have a problem getting him to leave.
Perhaps she ought to have the breakfast she had missed this morning. (Tuesday was PE Day for two children and Show and Tell for one, so the day had had a febrile start.)
Now Trudy noticed a woman perched on a phone book above him, tear open an envelope and pull out a page. Behind her, a boy turned away to read from a similar piece of paper, holding it with two hands as though it weighed a stone. Over on a sunglasses’ case others were also frozen, reading from single pages.
There on a mousemat edge and there astride a paperclip, still more. Objects dropped from hands, envelopes were scrunched and thrown aside, fingers ran through hair and drew strands between open lips as the people read.
In the stillness, the Neighbour stabbed emphatically at the bottom of the page and looked at it for a second before folding it in three and slipping it nicely into an envelope. He stood up, placed it into his back pocket and walked over to the edge of the desk.
Then he vanished.
And Trudy noticed the silence he left behind, how the people re-read their pages, how they did and undid and did again their shirt buttons, how they pulled at ears, hair and chins – lost in tiny, tiny unreadable words. They stood like this for a long time.
No-one seemed to know he’d gone. And neither had he thought to let them know.