It's been a funny old few weeks. 'Funny' in the Emo Phillips sense of strange or bizarre. We've been pulling down the house, was the first thing, or at least a false wall that the previous owner had built to encase the monumental fireplace and chimney that graces our living room. We expected to find human remains, but all there was was a spider evidently dead of boredom. During this demolition, surrounded by stepladders and tools of all persuasions, I had a clever idea which finally turned out as usual to be a suicidal manoevre. At the end of this clever idea I fell flat on my cervical vertebrae. I suppose I was lucky: two people I know of who did the same sort of thing are now quadriplegic. But the results are still with me. For one thing, I can now only walk with the aid of a stiff drink.
But that was long ago. Last week turned out to be the most bizarre of all.
First there was the Queen Spree in London which I watched from afar, while wiping away a fugitive tear and a fugitive spill of scotch.
The rest of the week is a sort of ABC. That's all I can think of to characterise it - sorry I put an 's' there instead of a 'z'. I'll try to do better.
A is for Auden (W.H. of that ilk).
Tomorrow, Mimi is off to London to visit her son. Rather now than in a month, since he lives within the epicentre of the Olympic Games. She is going by Eurostar, and therefore is going under the Channel. This has her white-lipped and trembling. I have tried to reassure her that the tunnel is in a part of the planet,: "They didn't tunnel though the water, dear, but through the rock." That does no good. For Mimi the Channel Tunnel is a wobbly sort of tube resting on the seabed.
But anyway, I shall be waving her off at the Gare du Nord which pleases me no end. I love railway stations. I love them to death. I would prefer a lot of vapour and a steam-whistle, but those days are gone, Marjorie. I'll make do with what there is. I love just looking at it all - the crossroads. And what does all this have to do with anything? Well, for a month or so, I've been reading a lot of poetry. I read poetry when the writing isn't going too well or just isn't going, when it seems to have a cleansing effect, rather like that stuff you use to unblock drains. Auden has been one of my favourite poets since I was a teenager. I don't know why. Perhaps it's the imagination coupled with a talent for the common touch.
In 1938 Auden spent some time in Brussels where he wrote some of his best shorter poems. 'The Musée des Beaux Arts' is one that I'll bang on about some other time. My all-star favourite is 'The Gare du Midi' which has always fascinated me, because it is a short mystery story, or at the very least the start of one. Everyone probably knows it by heart, but I like writing it out.
Gare du Midi
A nondescript express in from the south.
Crowds around the barrier, a face
To welcome which the mayor has not contrived
Bugles or braid: something about the mouth
Distracts the stray look with alarm and pity.
Snow is falling. Clutching a little case
He walks out briskly to infect a city
Whose terrible future may have just arrived.
You just know that on a certain day in 1938, Auden sat in a station cafe and saw something - a person - that disturbed him and stayed with him. Since I first read it, I've been trying - and we're talking decades here - to write the story that Auden began . And there must be other poems like this somewhere. Does anyone have another?
B is for Bradbury.
By a sad coincidence, on the morning of the 5th, I pulled out a copy of Fantasy and Science Fiction - October 2000. I often pull out this particular magazine to read a Ray Bradbury story called 'Quid Pro Quo'. It's a story that involves time travel but it's not about time travel, if you get me. But I don't read it just for the story, but for the author notes, which accompany it.
In the notes, Gordon Van Gelder, ( for I take it to be he) writes this:
"One of the things Ray Bradbury takes seriously is the matter of using one's talents. When asked years ago what the Eleventh Commandment mmight be, Mr Bradbury repeated Polonius's advice to Laertes: " This above all: to thine own self be true."
"To neglect God's gifts to you," says the great Mr B., " is one of the greater sins."
Furthermore, the manuscript bore this gentle warning from its author: "Reader, beware. If I ever meet you and ask you what you have done with your genetic talent and you give the wrong answer, I may throw you down the stairs."
This little passage has always made me very very uneasy. And never more so than when the writing gets too difficult and I seek other easier tasks. I have been negligent in the past. Less so now. But whenever I am tempted to persuade myself that rolling and smoking a cigarette to smoke under the Big Parasol and listen to the sparrows holding a rowdy class reunion in the forsythia is a worthwhile activity, comparable to sitting down and doing the writing, I feel the cold breath of these words on the back of my neck. The words of one of the greatest teachers of Writing and Reading we have ever had.
C is for Christie.
Last week, I decided to try again. Agatha is not my favourite. We do not get along. We rub each other up the wrong way. So last week, I had another try to see whether, with advancing age, I could see my way to finding some good in there. And I can already feel the shudders of revulsion and loathing. ("Someone doesn't like Agatha Christie! What sort of a world are we living in? Isn't there some sort of therapy for these people?")
I didn't read 'The ABC Murders'; that would have been way too neat. I read 'Mrs McGinty's Dead'. And I have to say, it didn't take. I simply don't like her. That's all.
But I didn't come out empty-handed. Because I realised that I had a quiz question. I know it is more Rob Lopresti's or John Floyd's flower-bed than mine. But I have no shame.
Neil Schofield's Big Quiz Question:
Can you find the connection between Agatha Christie and Ray Bradbury?
Clue: Think North of the Border.
Either pathetically easy or fiendishly difficult. You pays your money…
No prizes for a correct answer. Except the knowledge of a job well done.