Mr Litlove and the Animals

A little while back, Mr Litlove and I were in the study chatting, when a look came over his face that I recognised very well. In translation it reads: Oh. My. God. Do I tell her or not? If there should be any confusion in those who know me over the correct response to this question, the answer is: YES, TELL HER NOW. But knowing my husband as I do, I simply leapt off the sofa where I had been sitting and put some significant distance between myself and it. Just as well; scampering gaily over the back, mere inches from where I’d been moments before, was a spider the size and heft of a mouse.

Quite what happened next, I’m not sure, maybe I blacked out. But when I was fully functioning again, the spider was gone. Mr Litlove had wrestled it into submission and chucked it out the front door, without having indulged in his usual fun trick of dropping it once to give it a sporting chance. St Francis of Assissi could not have been more efficient.

This is something I admire tremendously about my husband: he is remarkably fearless about animals. We put this down to our upbringings in very different locations. Before we were married, Mr Litlove used to say that the distinction was perfectly exemplified by the headlines of the local newspapers in our respective counties. While his paper would say something like: ‘W. I. Triumph In Jam At Local Fête’, my local paper would read: ‘Body Of Gangland Killing Found Dumped Off A12’. Suffolk and Essex share a boundary, and we lived about five minutes either side of it, but even so, I felt very much the urbanite compared to his rural location. But what the newspapers didn’t say was that Suffolk had more than its share of carnage; the war was, however, between man and beast.

Mr Litlove grew up in a large house in the countryside where nature ran rampant. His family had always had cats whose job it was to keep the vermin population down. Occasionally they would get ambitious and take out a few rabbits as well. One of my fondest memories of my much-missed father-in-law is of sitting at the breakfast table with him by my feet, wielding the dustpan and brush and saying ‘Don’t look down! Don’t look down!’ as he removed the remains of whatever creature the cats had consumed as a midnight feast. (My favourite cat story from that time is of the whole family sitting down to tea at the kitchen table when the fridge door opened and one of the cats fell out.) To stay in the house was to feel very close to nature; always something rustling in the eaves or scuffling around the skirting boards and there was often the patter of eighteen toes behind you. In the brief period when my mother-in-law had no cats the house was inundated with mice. She bought a humane mousetrap only to find in the morning that its captives had eaten their way through it to freedom.

So anyway, Mr Litlove grew up removing half-eaten carcasses, and chasing out the lucky ones that got away.

We don’t have much of a mouse problem where we live now, but we do look out onto the village pond, a reasonably large affair with its own share of wildlife issues. We have a large population of ducks, who sometimes take it into their heads that all they want to do is cross the road (obviously some evolutionary rivalry with chickens). A couple of weeks ago I was working at my desk and noticed a woman had stopped her car, holding up the traffic, in order to get out and herd a few wayward ducks back onto the bank. The next time I looked up, I saw one had been too foolhardy; its crumpled body lay in the middle of the road.

Mr Litlove walked in at that point and said: ‘Oh we can’t just leave it there like that.’ And he went and found a plastic bag and took it away for a more decent disposal. I couldn’t have done it myself, but I was so glad that he did. Perhaps, by comparison, it was less upsetting than the discovery back in summer of not one, but two dead rats (or what remained of them) in our shrubbery. At the time, we looked at our cat, who returned the gaze levelly with his usual withering scorn. ‘Nah,’ we both said, ‘not likely.’ We’d seen our cats with mice before – they were fascinated but clueless. (Harvey was too lazy and Hilly was even spooked by butterflies.) Still the unenviable task fell to Mr Litlove again to do the necessary with the corpses.

His finest hour, however, was undoubtedly with a whole, live bird. Every day a casting line for a Hitchcock movie sits on the apex of our roof, throwing a very entertaining shadow onto the road below. Once in a while – drunk on autumn berries, or after a bit of argy-bargy up there – it so happens that a bird falls down a chimney. In the past they have been small enough to fly out into the room and, eventually, out of an open window. But one autumn, on a day when my son was at home recovering from an illness, we heard the heart-wrenching sounds of a bird fluttering in panic behind the brick walls. At first it was a distant scrabbling, scratching sound, but as the bird made its wretched way down the chimney, the noise grew louder and louder. It was awful, and I wondered how we’d put up with it until it finally died. But when Mr Litlove came home from work, he listened for a moment and then went and found a tea towel which he wrapped around his hands before fearlessly shoving up them up the chimney. When they emerged, they (and the teatowel) were wrapped around an enormous pigeon that struggled a bit with the indignity of the situation, but allowed itself to be taken out the back door and set free. ‘I thought it had to be sitting on the ledge up there, wondering what had happened,’ Mr Litlove said, a little out of breath from the exertion.

My son watched with wide eyes. ‘And that,’ I told him, from my safe distance away, ‘is one of the reasons why I married your father.’

Of False Correlations

I’ve been trying to think what’s been happening around here lately to tell you all, and can only come up with events that involve unusual modal tenses.

There are things I ought to have done but haven’t. For instance, several months back I was invited to chair an author event at the local bookstore. I did that thing where you look far ahead at a blank calendar and think, oh I shall be so free and well-rested in those empty days! And agreed to do it. After all, I used to chair a great deal, back in the university era. Well, I quite liked the idea of it for a good six weeks or so, and when I had a chronic fatigue relapse I thought, I’ll doubtless be fine when the time comes. I even bought a new pair of boots (any excuse!). Then, when we got to a couple of weeks before the event, I began to feel the stirrings of horror. Did I really want to have to stand up before an audience and talk? I always did have stage fright, but there was a time when I was very stern with myself about repressing it. Plus I was practised then and knew I would do the performing stuff well. I reminded myself that this was a local event which would probably have no more than twenty or so people in the audience, half of whom would be related to the author, half of whom would have wanted to come in out of the cold. But still I trembled and the chronic fatigue was settled in for the duration; knowing your body can give out on you at any moment is a fun thought to take into a stressful situation.

Preparation is the key, I told myself, and so I went to the bookshop and asked whom I should talk to, in order to have a look at the space we’d be in and familiarise myself. I was a little surprised to find the bookseller had no knowledge of the event. And when I looked at the advertising posters in the shop, it clearly wasn’t on them. I went home and checked the internet, nope nothing on the website either. See, I told my chronic fatigued self: this will be the best event ever, because it’s going to be just you, the author and the publicist! You can all go down the pub! But I was still chronic fatigued and easily stressed and I began to think that finding someone to take my place might be the best idea. But wasn’t it unethical to hand an event over to someone else, knowing as I did that it was going to be…well, intimate?

Just as I was getting tangled up in knots over the various strands of worry involved, I received an email from the publicist telling me the event had been cancelled due to ‘poor ticket sales’. I’ll say! It’s hard to sell tickets to an event no one knows about. Through the immense relief, I felt a stirring of sharp curiosity to know what had happened. Had the event been cancelled before I went in the shop or after? Was there someone in a London office somewhere tearing at her hair and yelling ‘Christ, I knew there was something I’d forgotten to do!’ or was it more the case that no one had the heart to disappoint that poor blogger, who was probably gagging to appearing in the real world rather than the virtual one? Either way, I was just relieved, and it was a good reminder to myself that my public speaking days are over at the moment. Just because you were good at something in the past doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it.

Then there have been things I wonder whether I shouldn’t do but am still doing. The cancellation of the event meant I felt able to commit to writing another chapter of the book I am STILL working on, knowing it would be a tiring thing to do. Since I began writing this book in the early summer of last year, there has been a string of disasters, some acute, some chronic, all unpleasant, that make me wonder whether the universe is not on the side of this particular project. Despite my best efforts, I cannot help but read omens and portents into the world around me, and maybe these scare tactics of fate are a way of saying: Give up! Do something different! And still I stubbornly trudge along, churning out stuff that probably no one will want to read out of some cussed conviction that what I start I ought to finish. Of course there is a line of theory that suggests life is random, and cannot be interpreted as if it were a narrative whose end is obscured by future time. But given that every part of my life has been bound up with stories one way or another, what sense would that hold for me? Surely a refusal to interpret would go against everything I have ever held dear?

Mind you, away from these mental minefields, there has been some straightforward stuff, too. My capacity for comedy accidents continues to astound me. On the way into the funeral last week, walking in the slow, solemn procession into the crematorium, I suddenly realised my forward progress had come to an abrupt halt as the heel of my shoe got stuck in a grating. The line of mourners snarled up behind me as I struggled to hoick myself out, and I wondered for a moment if I’d have to walk in barefoot. To the kind woman behind me who said in a most sympathetic voice, ‘That sort of thing happens to me all the time,’ thank you.

And then yesterday I noticed as I headed out to my car that an industrious and quite substantial spider had constructed a large web across the garden path. Ha! I thought, and avoided it by walking over the lawn. Yes, sure spiders are great, but not on me. When I returned, I remembered the spider and carefully walked around it again. And then, mid-afternoon, I realised there was a book in the library I needed and I thought I would nip out quickly and collect it. You know what’s coming next, don’t you? I really hope my next door neighbour was not working in his garage as there was rather a lot of squealing. And I did a little raindance, too. Proof that troublesome as my brain may be when it’s working, not much good comes of switching it off entirely.

 

Why Childish Pleasures Are Best Left Alone

frank cottrell boyce Going to lectures by childrens’ authors is not something I normally do, but I have a good friend with an eagle eye for these events, who is writing children’s fiction herself, and then the speaker was Frank Cottrell Boyce (henceforth FCB) whose books Millions and Framed were favourites of my son. The lecture is an annual event held in memory of Phillipa Pearce, who wrote Tom’s Midnight Garden. At the book buying/signing shindig afterwards, I felt pretty sure I had never read that book and so – naturally in the interests of supporting the event – bought a copy. Though Mr Litlove wasn’t impressed: ‘It’s got ‘worthy’ written all over it,’ he said.

The lecture was, by contrast, all about the intense pleasure of reading and FCB made some rather good points. As well as being a prolific screenwriter and children’s book author, he is also involved in an organisation (and dammit I missed the name and can’t track it down in my internet searches) that promotes reading aloud to people in dire situations – children with extreme special needs, prisons, drug rehab centres, that sort of thing. FCB believes that being read to is a magical situation, that listening to a story, you are both highly alert and yet entirely without anxiety. If you know nothing is being asked of you other than your attention, you fall into a state of keen and agile acceptance that can have powerful consequences. Several of the anecdotes he told us concerned reports back from readers who witnessed attention deficit kids sitting still for fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes when engrossed in a story, and of prisoners experiencing an entirely different way of thinking.

tom's midnight gardenHe was also talking about another power of storytelling – that of unpredictability. He read us several excerpts from novels by Phillipa Pearce using them to demonstrate how intriguing unpredictability could be, how audacious on the part of the author, to whisk the reader off in a direction s/he never saw coming. This idea of unpredictability fed into another line he braided into the talk – that of memory. He recalled in particular the moment on Christmas day many years ago when his grandmother woke up in the middle of the Morecombe and Wise special and started telling him about his grandfather, a man who had died before FCB was born. This was, he said, quite unprecedented. His grandmother didn’t like television, she didn’t like radio and she didn’t like conversation. He had spent far too much time with her as a child in a room full of clocks whose every tick marked the plucking of a hair of time, in what he termed a depilation of death.

His grandfather had been born with a caul over his head, which was supposed to indicate good luck, and indeed, he’d been an extraordinarily lucky man. He’d spent his life as a merchant seaman and had survived the battle of Jutland and the Second World War. The one night he’d got drunk and missed his boat, it had hit an offshore mine and gone down with all 700 hands lost. And then, it seemed that his luck ran out on the day that he died. He’d been a stoker, feeding the furnaces, and in the late 50s, when his boat was in Cardigan Bay, it happened to hit a mine leftover from the war. The mine exploded against the boiler room and his grandfather was the only man to lose his life. He shouldn’t even have been there but he was covering the shift for a friend.

millionsWhat on earth provoked this memory from his grandmother, he wondered? It was a story of unpredictability that seemed itself to have sprung from nowhere. We were all entranced as he told it, feeling for ourselves that suspension of the world that happens when we listen closely. And this was what his talk was like – a series of dramatic scenes that were vivid and fascinating but there seemed to be no coherent argument, just a hopscotch between the ideas of listening to a story, memory and unpredictability.

But then he drew them all together in an intriguing image. He told us about the formation of coal, how algae soaked up billions of summers on an empty planet, sinking down into the earth until the heat of the sunshine was compressed and compacted into rock solid matter. And then a hole was opened up and the coal extracted, where it burnt with the energy retained from those billions of unseen sunny days. And he said that stories worked this way in the mind. That they took their energy and brilliance down into the mind and lay there for a long time, decades, perhaps, until suddenly, a shaft opened up and that story came back, its splintered images emerging unpredictably but just when you needed them.

FCB said he worried that the way stories are taught in schools, particularly with young children, destroyed their power. He said he often went to read in schools and he’d be introduced by the teacher and the kids would be really happy at the prospect of listening to a story. ‘And we’re going to listen out for when Mr FCB uses his ‘wow’ words,’ the teacher would go on to say, ‘and afterwards you’re going to write them down and make some sentences from them…’ At which point, FCB argued, the power of the storytelling was lost. If you turn listening to a story into a transaction, you rob it of its value. All the energy of the story is dissipated. Not least because the pleasure was spoiled, and pleasure he argued, is a profound form of attention, one with alchemical properties.

I thought that was extremely interesting. The talk also reminded me how much I missed reading to a child. I loved bedtime reading. It felt like a rare time in the day when my son and I were both doing exactly what we wanted to be doing. During questions, FCB was asked about his favourite books as a child and he said he couldn’t distinguish now between the ones he liked and the ones he’d enjoyed reading to his own kids. But he did single out the Moomins, particularly Moominland Midwinter, when Moomintroll wakes up while all his family are hibernating. It was, he said, like someone had asked Kierkegaard round on a play date. A line I have savoured ever since. If Tom’s Midnight Garden turns out to be too worthy, I might remind myself what the Moomins were all about instead.

moominland midwinter 2