Life lessons

So, Charlie-with-the-broken-leg is now out of his cage and under house arrest. It’s been a week so far and I can see him getting stronger every day: he’s gone from limping a little and being uncertain about some jumps, to bounding wherever he feels like. He got out one night by going through an open window and down a sheer, 8 foot wall. A couple of hours later, at the sound of the snack packet, he came racing across the lawn to me.

He’s got another 10 days in the house before he’ll be back at the vets to have the pin removed from his leg. Then normal life will resume. I’m looking forward to that, as he’ll be so much happier being allowed outside; but he’s taken to following me around and I’ll miss my little shadow.

Meanwhile, my other cat barely comes in the house because she no longer recognises Charlie. When I do lure her in, usually with food, she’ll tolerate him for as long as it takes her to eat, then resume growling before making for the nearest exit. I’m hoping the trade off for seeing less of Charlie will be that Belle feels comfortable in the house again.

With all this cat care going on, I’ve been at home a lot more. I haven’t done any overnight stays away and I’ve been working from home as much as I can. I’m at my laptop by 8am latest, but as everyone who gets to skip their commute knows, you get to sleep in, do a fuller day’s work and still have more of an evening. So for me, despite working longer days, it’s felt like something of a holiday simply because I only recharge by being at home.

I hadn’t realised the extent to which I had gotten into the habit of looking at the various locations ahead of me during my week and thinking ‘Just got to get through it.’ Or the extent to which a constant low level of tiredness and stress was delimiting my ability to relax in what felt like very limited time in my house. The balance was off and although I knew some of the negative effects, I hadn’t appreciated all of them. There’s a pretty long list:

  1. Not getting time for lunch at work, so 3pm lunches of popcorn and granola bars, plus too tired to cook proper evening meals.
  2. Not drinking enough water
  3. Drinking too much tea, I think, and therefore over-caffeinated and twitchy
  4. Plus tired and unable to concentrate properly, so too much time on my phone
  5. Therefore internet shopping and then wondering where my money goes
  6. Not enough exercise
  7. A bit of not-exercising guilt
  8. General sense of should be doing something but failing to tackle any of the above because tired and lazy

And the big one, not feeling as though I had any time. Which is different to not actually having time: if I had any time at all to read Popsugar then I certainly had time to make decent food or practice yoga. It just didn’t feel that way because I had trapped myself in an apathetic circle of lethargy.

Now, I am definitely busier when I’m commuting, and I had been spending a couple of nights away a week. So it wasn’t all perception. But the situation wasn’t as bad as I thought it was, either. It’s just taken a bit of critical distance for me to be able to reassess the situation. I’ll have to get back to a more normal working pattern, but there are still steps I can take to keep some balance:

  1. More driving, fewer hotel stays. Not that more miles on the road is ideal, ideal but it’s the necessary swap for me to be at home where I can relax.
  2. Less time on my phone. I don’t think it’s a smartphone addiction, I think it’s a lazy habit (I can stop any time). Right now, I’m not sure where my phone is, but it’s definitely not within arm’s reach.
  3. Yoga. I’ve found a great yoga studio about half an hour away, and I’ve been trying to go to at least one class a week. I’m going to try to start a home practice, which is something I’ve never been successful with before.
  4. Water. I don’t understand why I struggle with this one so much. I spent Monday with a self-induced dehydration headache and it’s still hovering in the background, waiting to come back if I’m not careful. I can drink tea by the bucket but even with a water bottle on my desk, I can fail to take a single sip. I know all the benefits, I know from experience that I feel better if I’m hydrated (no shit, Sherlock) so why am I punishing myself? Argh.

So that’s kind of my promise to myself. Nothing huge there and yet, in small ways, life changing.

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In which I go to a gig on my own

Yeah. Not the original plan, but at last minute the arrangements didn’t work out, so my choice was pretty much go or don’t go. So I went. It was Miranda Lambert at the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham (which was much, much better than the vile and never-to-be-returned-to O2 in London) and as luck would have it, the on site food was a faux diner.

Well, when in faux Rome… I had a burger and fries and a Budweiser. I don’t drink beer, but in England Bud doesn’t count as beer and anyway, I wasn’t going to chance the wine list. The diner was pretty full and I could see several other people who were definitely Miranda bound. You could tell by the hats and the cowboy boots, and one of the women sitting next to me at the counter had a Miranda Lambert cap on.

It probably would have been easy to get into conversation with someone, but yeah. No. I read my book and ate my food, and the diner gradually emptied around me, which gave me some indication that the support act were probably on. So, eventually, I toddled out into the Friday night rain and found the right door and was shown to my seat by a grumpy man. It was a little way into the Ward Thomas set, and the rest of the row stood up to let me pass.

Ward Thomas were pretty good and I read my book again until Miranda came on, and she was great and I was glad I was there. And partway through, I realised with a bit of surprise that this was the first time I’d been to a gig on my own, but it just felt normal. I thought about it some more, and I’m not sure there are any ‘things to do on your own’ left on the list: movies, dinner, theatre, holidays, living, weekends away, drinks, parties, weddings. I’ve got the set.

Isn’t that great? I started off going to movies on my own in my teens, and sure I felt conspicuous but then I’d forget about it while watching the film. All of those things where you don’t have to engage with other people are easy. I sort of drift through them, feeling comfortably invisible in my own head. Parties and weddings are harder, because of the forced engagement with other people, but they don’t really take more than a thin veneer of fake sociability. And, no one notices when you leave early.

I think I owe a big thank you to teenage me. If she hadn’t faked feeling comfortable standing in the queue at the cinema on her own, while hoping that none of the school couples would show up, then I probably wouldn’t have been at that gig on Friday.

The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, Enid Blyton

Really, I was looking to wrap up reading about the O’Sullivan twins at St Clare’s, but Blackwells didn’t have the next volume. But I’d been thinking about the Cherry Tree Farm and Willow Farm books, although I now know I was mixing them up in my head with another book/series that I can’t remember the name of.

Anyway. Who knows how long ago I first read these, but it just goes to show how formative and influential one’s early reading can be. I was brought up on Enid Blyton, from The Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree, to Mr Galliano’s Circus, finishing up with The Famous Five, Malory Towers or the aforementioned St Clare’s. I read them again and again and again, probably long after I was technically too old for them. I always read a lot and I never had enough new books, so I got very familiar indeed with the old favourites.

I desperately wanted to go on an adventure with the Famous Five and I also desperately wanted to board at Malory Towers. Enid Blyton introduced me to the solid, middle class, mid 20th century life that I definitely wasn’t living. There were lovely Mummies and jolly Daddies, bustling cooks, scary but essentially kind teachers. Her books are easily challenged these days on the grounds of reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes, being xenophobic, racist and privileged, and I’d be hard pushed to defend them. Then again, a fairly wide swathe of literature from the 30s onwards shares some similar traits, so are we supposed to stop reading all of it?

From Enid Blyton, I did learn about some good, solid values. Anyone who wasn’t quite the thing learned the error of their ways, whether they simply wouldn’t try at games or were too boastful, or stole sixpence from the mantelpiece. The important thing to do was to own up and take responsibility for your actions, whether you’d left the farm gate open or almost burnt the whole place down. I also learned about the countryside, a place that up until my 30s I thought was somewhere that you occasionally visited rather than lived. So the countryside was exotic, exciting, a little bit intimidating. I wasn’t quite the city child who had never seen a cow, because when I was 9, I was lucky enough to participate in the Farms for City Children programme and spend a week at Nethercott House. But most of what I knew was gleaned from books like the Cherry Tree Farm series, my first experience of nature writing.

They are very straightforward, plunging straight in with liberating four London born children from their unhealthy city existence into the robust healthfulness of the country. The children’s parents have to go to America (children’s books of this time always seem to pack the parents off to America – see also The Children Who Lived in a Barn) and so Rory, Sheila, Benjy and Penny are sent to stay with their aunt and uncle at Cherry Tree Farm.

They have to learn to help out on the farm at a point when farming was still only beginning to get mechanised, and at least in the Blytonsphere, was still profitable. So they feed chickens, bottle feed lambs, milk cows by hand, churn butter by hand (so that’s how you make butter!) All of this was completely alien to my own experience, of course, but when you’re  young there is so much that’s new that you can take a lot more of it in your stride.

This still leaves the children plenty of time to become friends with the ‘wild man’, Tammylan. Despite living in a cave in winter and a tree house in summer, Tammylan is locally respected for his skill with and knowledge of animals, so the children are given the all clear to spend time with him. Ah, more innocent times.

It’s Tammylan who gives the children the important first lesson of not littering the countryside, when they allow their sandwich wrappers to blow away after a picnic. Subsequently, over the course of the books, he introduces them to a hare, rabbits, a red squirrel that Benjy gets as a pet, and a fox. He shows them a weasel, teaches them to distinguish between a grass snake, an adder and a slow worm and is very clear that bats do not get into people’s hair. It’s down to Tammylan that I found out that hares live in a form; that stags grow their antlers every year and that the covering their new antlers first have is known as velvet. Without having ever seen either, I know how to tell the difference between a stoat and a weasel:

‘The stoat is easily told from the weasel/ By the simple fact that his tail is blacked/ And his figure is slightly the bigger’.

It’s probably down to Tammlyan that I’m anti fox-hunting, because, in one book, a tired, old fox takes refuge from the chase in his cave.

Of course, now I re-read the books I can spot the thin plot lines, lack of exposition, recycled characters and the bits where Blyton is just running out of steam. Even the familiarity is distant, grasped at, a memory of a memory. But there was a little girl, 30-40 years ago, who didn’t hear anyone calling her name because she was reading.

In which there is a missing cat, a cat chase and a hopeful outcome

On Friday night, I called Charlie in from the garden and he came sprinting across the lawn to me, neatly avoiding Belle as she launched at him from the side. Later, there were odd scuffling noises in the night, which turned out to be Charlie scratching at the laundry basket as he nested amongst the pegs. So far, so normal.

I saw him in the basket in the morning, petted his head, and trotted happily off to London. Some few hours later I had three missed voicemails and a text: ‘You need to call me. Charlie has hurt his leg and I can’t get to him’. It turned out that Charlie was holding up one of his hind legs in a way that boded no good, but was so resistant to further examination that he’d run away to hide in an old outbuilding in the field next to the house. Outbuilding 1 is on the boundary line between our garden, the field and the neighbour’s garden. It doesn’t seem to have a door because it’s not in use, but it does have a cat sized hole in the rusted corrugated iron. And there Charlie stayed, just visible through the hole.

By the time I got home, he couldn’t be seen, so had either removed further into the outbuilding or moved on somewhere else. Either way, he wasn’t giving us any signs of his presence and there wasn’t much to be done but hope that he’d come in overnight.

He did not come in overnight. I’m all for the cats having some independence and some time to walk by themselves but I’m also in favour of them eating. We went to look for him and finally found him in Outbuilding 2, which did have a door. He had curled himself up on an old cement bag, and was looking very unhappy indeed. He ate a few bits of Whiskas, leveraged himself up and walked unsteadily away for some privacy and a bathroom break. I had the basket ready to put him in… and as soon as he saw it, he adopted a surprising turn of speed and bolted straight back into Outbuilding 1.

So we took the side of it down. This still left some fairly solid corrugated iron at the bottom but there was enough of a gap to get in, slide down some rubble and hope that either Charlie would run back out of the hole (and into the waiting cat carrier) or realise there was no escape and sit mildly. There was another hole at the far side of the outbuilding, but up a slope of rubble and surely a three legged cat couldn’t…?

Oh, but he could, and went to ground in the neighbour’s garden. They were out. I fumed inwardly at the English obsession with gardens, privacy and trespassing and we went home to wait for the neighbours’ return.

The neighbours came home and we trooped round, with the cat carrier, a large towel, and a pair of gardening gloves in lieu of gauntlets. Charlie had ensconced himself behind their large pile of grass cuttings and beneath a web of sticks and branches. I carefully moved the wood away, stroked him a bit to calm him down. And he legged it through the wire fence behind him and into yet another garden.

You would not think a three legged cat could be so agile. It’s amazing what fear and adrenaline will do. On to the next garden, by which time Charlie had managed to jump up a few feet back into our garden, where we finally trapped him without anyone losing a limb in the process. Though all this, Belle was nearby, keeping a watchful eye on proceedings as though making sure no more harm came to her brother.

Now he’s spending his second night at the vets, after being diagnosed with a broken femur and biting a nurse’s finger in gratitude. We have no idea how the break happened, but he has no other injuries so it’s unlikely he was hit by a car. This morning, he had his leg pinned and plated, and tomorrow he’ll be home. The vets have all been great. Charlie is actually doing well but they’re keeping him in to monitor his pain management. He’ll spend three weeks in a crate (which we’re renting from the vets) and then, hopefully, he’ll be out wreaking havoc on the local wildlife again.

The Crimes of Winter, Philippe Georget

This is the third Inspector Gilles Sebag mystery, and I have to say, I was worried. (Here be spoilers, so don’t read on if you don’t want to find out if his wife was cheating on him.)

I was worried because I’m tired of the usual middle-aged, miserable, hard drinking, loner detective thing. Which is not to say that I’m not still partial to a bit of Rebus, but even Rebus has a dog and a girlfriend these days. Sebag has seemed to buck the trend and go happily home at the end of the day. But alas, in book 2 (Autumn, All the Cats Return) he suspects Claire has had an affair, and at the beginning of this book, that’s confirmed by a text message that Sebag intercepts.

So Sebag goes off the rails a bit, keeping  cheap whiskey in his desk drawer, sleeping in the office, racked with jealousy. His partner guesses but, in a rare and expected display of tact, Molina doesn’t say anything. It’s terrible timing that the cases Sebag has to deal with are all concerned with infidelity, reflecting his own situation back at him. A mysterious ill-wisher is contacting cuckolded husbands with photos of their wives with other men. In one case, this provokes a murder, when the jealous husband shoots his wife; in another, a suicide as the betrayed husband kills himself. A third incident is avoided, when Sebag manages to talk the man down from setting fire to his wife, his house and the neighbourhood.

With all this going on, what’s mostly occupying Sebag’s mind is the future of his own marriage. Oddly, or perhaps, Frenchly, there’s not a whole lot of moralistic debate going on. The novel avoids the banal simplicity of whether infidelity is right or wrong by acknowledging that marriages are not that straightforward. The more interesting question is what happens afterwards. The book presents various alternatives, from the violent to the accepting and by the end, Gilles too has found a way forward that he can live with. And caught the bad guy, of course.

So I’m relieved, because I hope for more Gilles Sebag novels and he’s more interesting as a happy family man than a bitter sot.

 

Slightly later than mid-year reading roundup

After  a rocky start to the year when I thought I’d try not buying any new books for a bit and promptly read nothing, this reading year hasn’t gone too badly. I’ve read/listened to 59 books so far and there’s been some good stuff in there. So, in no particular order…

Best re-read/listen

A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell. I mixed this up so I could read a volume, then listen to a volume, which worked really well. For fans of Audible who also have long drives, this sequence is a great listen. Although I’ve just looked up who some of the characters are based on, and I’m somewhat distressed to find that St John Clarke is based on John Galsworthy, because I really like The Forsyte Chronicles. I hadn’t realised, either, that X Trapnel is based on Julian MacLaren-Ross. Anyway, I don’t care who Widmerpool is based on, he’s too monstrous.

Best new translated fiction

Summertime, All the Cats are Bored and Autumn, All the Cats Return, Philippe Georget. These are French police procedurals, set in Perpignan and starring Inspector Gilles Sebag and his sidekick, Molina. Sebag is a good detective who is madly in love with his beautiful wife, Claire, but begins to suspect that she is having an affair. His personal concerns then run alongside his investigations. He’s mildly tortured by his doubts about his marriage, but beyond that he’s a good cop so not another hard-drinking, rebellious outsider. They are not about cats.

Best Australian novel

The Dry, Jane Harper. I listened to this but I’d be tempted to read it as well because it was proper gripping and astonishingly accomplished for a debut novel. The brutal murder/suicide of the Hadler family in the small town of Kiewarra draws Aaron Falk  back there. Luke Hadler’s family want him to investigate, because they don’t believe their son murdered his wife and children, then shot himself. Luke was Aaron’s boyhood best friend, but Aaron himself was run out of town 20 years ago for a supposed murder and has hardly seen Luke since. As Aaron gets drawn back in and starts to investigate, all the old secrets and tensions start cropping up again.

Best book about the madness of WWII

A Good Clean Fight, Derek Robinson. I’ve previously read A Piece of Cake, which introduces Hornet Squadron, but I hadn’t immediately realised this was a sequel of sorts. The squadron is now in North Africa, being sent out on ridiculous missions to try to lure the German airforce out by strafing low level targets in Libya. The tactic doesn’t work and the squadron gets shot to hell, but their batshit commander, Barton, keeps sending them out.

Meanwhile, Lampard of the SAS is leading near suicidal missions across the desert, behind German lines, to blow up aircraft while still on the field. There’s an horrific scene where the Germans, attempting to follow suit, set out in motorised vehicles across the desert but are so totally unused to its ways that vehicle after vehicle launches itself from the top of a sand dune and crashes on the other side.

What’s always so startling and depressing about military novels, and in fact military history, is how character driven it is. Which is fine when those characters are sane, sensible types and not so fine when they’re megalomaniac nutters who absolutely don’t care about the men whose lives they hold in the balance. A Good Clean Fight is heavy on the megalomaniac nutters, as I suspect WWII was in real life.

Best action hero

I am so firmly on the Jack Reacher bandwagon that I am glued to my seat. I’ve read Die Trying and Tripwire so far this year and I doubt that’ll be the end of it. Reacher has only been out of the army for a while, he’s travelling around, living off his savings and whatever work he can find, but trouble keeps finding him. He doesn’t talk much, he’s built like a brick shithouse, handy in a fight and a sharpshooter to boot. You’d think trouble would know better. Fortunately for my reading future, criminals and low lifes are dumb-asses, so there’s plenty more Reacher ahead of me.

Best novel that everyone else is recommending as well

I’ve written separately about The Power, so I’ll go with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman. This was a real journey as I got to know Eleanor. It’s written from her perspective and she’s weird. Not defiantly weird, but she lives a life of such solitariness that she simply doesn’t understand normal human interactions. She is incredibly lonely, although this is something she has to realise for herself as the novel progresses and her realisation and reaction to that is utterly compelling. At the beginning of the novel, Eleanor has no reason to comply with social norms because she’s simply not aware of them, or of any acts of transgression. But this means that her responses are often very funny, particularly because she’s intelligent and articulate. She is gradually revealed as a joy of a character.

In which I’m supposed to care about stuff but I don’t

There is a shed load of shit out there that as a woman, I’m automatically supposed to have an interest in. I can tell this, because when I’m looking for gifts for my female friends, it’s all the tat that is specially selected to be ‘Just what she wants’. I don’t know who ‘she’ is, but if I ever meet her, I’m going to bitchslap her for being such a god awful stereotype.

If I weren’t me and I faced the constant barrage of bullshit from websites and TV and magazines, I’d be thinking the problem was me. As I am me, I think the problem is the constant barrage of bullshit. Anyway. Here is a list of stuff that I don’t give a rat’s ass about.

  1. Matching tableware or glassware – because shit gets broken. That’s part of its raison d’être.
  2. Looking younger – and hence, wrinkles/crow’s feet/fine lines/redness. I’m supposed to be spending a fortune on repair creams to fix all that damage. Because, why? What possible difference will it make to my life? It might conceivably make anyone who is looking at me a bit happier, but surely one of the joyful things about being in one’s mid-40s is that no one is looking at me? It’s an introvert’s dream, so I’m not particularly minded to fuck with it.
  3. Pleasing people – so, look. You can’t keep everyone happy all the time so why bother trying? Also, some people are far too high maintenance, so why bother trying? Much better if you just sort of accidentally keep a couple of people happy as you go along, purely by doing whatever you were going to do anyway. That way, it’s serendipitous.
  4. Whatever the latest box set is – it’s the investment of time thing. I simply can’t commit hours and hours to watching television and however good it is, it won’t be as good as a novel. It just won’t. No, not even that series you really loved, unless possibly you have just caught up with either Buffy or Brideshead.
  5. Diets – I think they’re all bollocks. Just aim for not too much of anything, cut yourself some slack if you had say, chips and wine for dinner on Friday (ahem) and don’t obsess about it. End of.
  6. Expensive scented candles – I’m never going to spend £40 on a candle. Sorry, Jo Malone. If I want my house to smell amazing, I’ll bake a cake and make some coffee.
  7. Personalised anything – I can still remember my name. So I think we can leave it a few years before I need it emblazoned on everything I own.
  8. Magazines – not entirely true, I do subscribe to The Economist.  The Economist is not big on celebrity tell all stories, sex tips, beach body tips, beach makeup tips, Christmas party wear tips or Christmas party catering tips. Thank fuck.
  9. Cooking/recipes – I’m increasingly less interested in cooking because I have increasingly less time and therefore I don’t want to fritter it away faffing around with food prep, cooking and clearing up. Bring on the roast veg or avocado on sourdough. Job done.
  10. Interior design – oh look, big empty wall, stick a book case on it. Add one reading chair and a decent lamp. Sorted.