So Where Were We?

Goodness, how time passes! The last update I wrote on this blog, we were putting our house on the market and were all set to start a new venture somewhere that we could have a bigger workshop for Mr Litlove and possibly some sort of writing retreat or artists studios for me to run, yes?

Well, none of that happened.

So let’s go back to where we were last summer, with an unnaturally tidy house (‘Did you stash it all in the car?’ the estate agent who came to take photos asked us. ‘That’s where most people put their stuff.’) a grand plan and, in actual fact, a criminal bear in the boot of my car. In retrospect, August probably wasn’t the best time to put the house on the market, and an August in the run up to Brexit was even less promising. We did have some people come and look, but for the most part they were what Mr Litlove termed ‘tyre kickers’. Showing your house to strangers is an awful business, and we also had two new kittens who were brim-full of curiosity and wanted to do the showing for us. This problem was summed up in the moment when I was making small talk with one woman while Dexter edged in and started to lick her toes. How cute, I thought, until I saw the woman’s face and had to drop kick the kitten gently into the garden. I was having a bad day that day in any case. I’d managed to chat gaily about my son having thrown over his chemistry degree in favour of training as a counsellor to licked-toes woman’s husband, who turned out to have been a chemistry professor all his life. But for me the epitome of house viewing awfulness was the elderly Chinese man who came in complaining about the road outside our house. We live opposite the village green, and the main road through the village passes in front of us. We have a queue of cars at the lights at 8 in the morning and 5 in the evening, and the buses to town go through, but it’s just a village, and so mostly it’s quiet enough that children from the school and ducks from the pond wander across it. Anyhow, this man came in saying how busy and loud it was and weren’t we bothered by the noise? As we were standing inside the house in my study, I asked how loud the noise seemed to him. At which point he threw his hands in the air. He was hard of hearing, he told me, how should he know?

So August rolled into September and the estate agents said, ah now the market will pick up again after the summer holidays. But what happened was the complete opposite. We had no viewings whatsoever in September. And it didn’t seem to be just us – the same story was happening across our region. First houses were selling, and houses over the million mark. But all of us four-beds in the middle of the market were stagnating in the economic uncertainty. By now we had had too long to think about the house we’d been wanting to buy. Mr Litlove was very unsure about it, and there was no certainty we’d get planning permission for either his workshop or my retreats. By the middle of October, we’d only had one more viewing, and by a family who thought they ought to downsize but didn’t really want to. We were starting to feel very uncomfortable with the process. Neither of us could get on and do any work because we seemed to be waiting all the time for this miracle to happen, a buyer to arrive, and there was no sign that one would.

One day I said to Mr Litlove, why don’t you have the car port? If we incorporated the car port into the garage, you’d have double the workshop space you have now. So we got an architect in to discuss it, and it seemed viable and the thought of being out of the range of the circling dementors of a stagnant housing market was so tempting. Plus, it was killing Mr Litlove to be that tidy all the time. With many a mixed emotion, we took the house off the market, and the saga of building the workshop extension began.

But you’ll be wanting to know what happened to Big Beery, right? Well to begin with I kept forgetting that he was in the boot of the car, until I popped the trunk to put the supermarket shopping away. Then there he lay in all his disreputableness, as other shoppers wheeling their carts past threw us strange looks. So I moved him into the back seat of the car, which was nicer than the boot, but increasingly cold as winter approached. When Mr Litlove and I got into the car together, we kept having the same old argument. I’d say, couldn’t we move Big Beery back into the house for a bit? It seemed such a shame to leave an old bear out here in the damp and the cold. But Mr Litlove was adamant. ‘We were only supposed to be housing him while he got back on his feet,’ he’d say. ‘If you let him back in we’ll never get rid of him’ I’d protest that it was hard for him, when even the charity shops wouldn’t take him. Then Mr Litlove would complain that he wasn’t even trying and all he did all day was sit drinking cans of Stella from the Co-op in the village. About this point in the conversation Big Beery would often attempt to defend himself with his own brand of lobbying, and Mr Litlove would reply that wherever we were going, we could go past the council tip on the way there. That would shut us all up.

As I write this, Big Beery remains in the back seat of the car. If you listen carefully, you can probably hear him belch.

Also I don’t think I’ve told you about our new kittens, Dexter and Deedee. They came from different litters but they might as well have come from different planets. Dexter is a big, fat, fluffy bundle of schnuggles, a laze in the sun cat, a beautiful tabby with kohl-rimmed eyes but oh so dumb. Deedee is a whippetty black ninja with crazy golden bat eyes and relentless curiosity. They are very bound to one another but in an odd, mismatched sort of way. Now the days are lengthening they love the early evening hours when they head out on cat business in the neighbourhood together. Deedee scampers ahead, gesturing wildly and talking nineteen to the dozen about tactics and strategies, while Dexter plods alongside her, saying every now and then, ‘But Deedee, I don’t want to fight him.’

However, it’s not just Pogo, the big marmalade tom, whose animosity has been aroused. Our next door neighbours, who professed their pleasure that we were staying, are probably changing their minds now, as unfortunately, the cats have taken to using their garden as a toilet. It’s a lovely garden and if I were obliged to go outside, I’d probably choose it too. But our elderly neighbour was incensed when, having risen at five one morning, he looked out of his windows only to see Dexter squatting serenely in the middle of his vegetable patch. Just the other day he came to fetch Mr Litlove to complain to him about an especially awkward discovery. I remember that he’d paid quite a lot to have his driveway gravelled in such a way that the little stones are thinly glued to the surface, providing an easy upkeep version of a raked zen garden. Well, one of the cats had done a poo smack in the middle of the driveway and had evidently been surprised while scratching to find that the gravel did not shift to cover it as they expected. Mr Litlove said that he did feel a bit guilty about that one. We’ve provided earthy areas and shady areas in our own garden for the cats, but if you’ve ever owned one, you’ll know that they do not take instruction well. Personally I think our neighbour has missed a trick by letting the cats know that he is so displeased. Disapproval is, for them, an open invitation to ever more provocative acts of defecation. The only thing he could do is, I think, to beam appreciation on them and tell them they are behaving exactly as he wishes. That can sometimes cause a u-turn in feline policy.

Well, look at me rambling on. This post is already too long and I haven’t told you half the news. And the next one must be a review I have promised.  I will cross my fingers that my eyes hold up well enough for me to post a bit over the summer. In the meantime, if you’re reading something really good (that’s available on audiobook), do let me know.

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I Will Embrace Self-Help, I Will

When the kind publicity assistant sent me a copy of Physical Intelligence by Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton, she probably had no idea she was sending it to two of the sorriest specimens for self-help you could imagine. I was really keen to read the book, which claims that ‘the active management of our physiology – the ability to detect and strategically influence the balance of chemicals in our bodies and brains’ is within our grasp. This sounded like good news to me. The approach of menopause has hit me hard and my CFS has been back to the level of nuisance it was a decade or so ago. I’m clearly doing something wrong. In fact, my dry eye syndrome has been so awful that I had to ask Mr Litlove to read the book to me, and Mr Litlove and self-help… well it’s not the most obvious combination. Mr Litlove is fit and healthy and if a parallel universe existed in which he sang karaoke, he’d be up at the mike belting out Gloria Gaynor’s immortal line, ‘I am what I am and what I am needs no excuses.’ So the two of us together would have every experienced teacher rolling her eyeballs – one student eager but hopeless, and the other competent but deeply resistant. Would the book be equal to the challenge?

The book’s basic premise is that our responses to daily life are governed by a cocktail of eight chemicals, each of which has a signature feeling. We’d probably all recognise adrenaline and its feeling of excitement or fear, testosterone’s feelings of power and control, serotonin’s happiness. But there are others that are equally important and less well-known – oxytocin, for instance, which gives us a feeling of belonging, DHEA which governs vitality, and cortisol which creates the feeling of anxiety. The authors argue that the right combination of diet, exercise and CBT can be used to manage these chemicals as they ebb and flow according to the situations we find ourselves in.

The book is organised into four sections – strength, flexibility, resilience and endurance – with all kinds of different exercises designed to promote these vital qualities. So for instance, in the section on flexibility, there’s an exercise called ‘Relationshift’ which frankly every person in the UK ought to be made to undertake before we have to hear another thing about Brexit. Where this kind of loggerheads conflict occurs, the kind that has coagulated into a battle of wills, it’s important for both parties to be able to see the other side – such a shift reduces the sense of threat that has immediately been triggered, and sets in motion the chemistry of trust which can heal the breach. Name your emotions, the authors suggest, and be specific about the physical feelings that accompany them, breathe to stabilize emotion, and then consider what exactly is under threat here (they suggest possible threats to control, ownership, achievement, harmony, security, certainty, freedom, creativity or status, which is the sort of list one ought to carry around all the time because it explains a great deal). Then shift your perspective and imagine standing alongside the person with the opposing viewpoint and see how it looks. From this point of view, you might be able to come up with solutions or suggestions that benefit you both and meet the different needs. It’s not as touchy-feely as you may think, because thinking through a problem like this actively reduces cortisol (threat) and increases oxytocin (belonging). Minds, bodies and behaviours are all tightly linked.

So you get the idea. Unsurprisingly, there was much I struggled with. In the strength section, the authors suggested cheerfully that crunches, planks and squats were all you needed, which are the kind of exercises that even when I was in full health I would have considered a form of sanctioned masochism (one of the authors is a dancer and choreographer and yeah, proper dancers love that sort of stuff). And the exercise that I was hilariously bad at – in Mr Litlove’s estimation – was one called the ‘winner pose’. where you stand with arms and legs outstretched like a starfish. Apparently this builds confidence and power and should be used after any achievement to prevent the chemical high sort of collapsing in on itself. Well, I just can’t seem to manage it. I could do a sort of jazz-hands-by-my-face thing, but anything more brought about a feeling of such intense absurdity that I couldn’t keep it up. Mr Litlove, who has way more testosterone than any one person needs, would throw himself into winner pose every single time our paths crossed in the house, yelling ‘C’mon, Litlove!’ I pointed out that the authors of this book did not envisage their exercises being used by husbands to taunt their wives, but alas that did not prevent him from telling our son when he visited over Easter. And our son, who is training to be a therapist, immediately began asking why it was that I should feel silly? And did feeling silly matter? There’s nothing quite like one’s family piling in with the advice to make the appeal of self-help grow stronger. Some things are best done alone.

Some people, however, cannot be helped. I am sorry to say that Mr Litlove did not see the light. He read the section on procrastination out loud – and goodness knows he could use some advice here – while mentally singing la la la la la. I could see him doing it. You know that fur men grow in their ears as they age? I’m coming to think of it as a kind of enchanted forest designed to prevent any alternative point of view from entering. But the authors of the book had evidently seen us coming. They sensibly suggest that you should devote a month to each section of the book, picking out a few of the tips and exercises and ‘habit-stacking’ them, or trying to attach them to other habits you regularly practice.  And even Mr Litlove found one exercise at which he nodded approval and said it was really good. This is an exercise for when something dreadful and undesirable gets thrown at you. You begin by feeling the force of your resistance and saying – shouting if you want, punching the air – I won’t! I won’t have this! I don’t want it! And when that energy is worn out, then you start saying, I will take this on. I will handle it. Could there possibly be an allegory in this for Mr Litlove’s relationship to self-help? Ah well, time will tell. But I will definitely be keeping the book within easy access as there was much intelligent support to be found in its pages.

The Adventures of Big Beery

Mr Litlove is a man who works in insidious ways, and so I can’t recall how he first brought up the topic of moving house. All I can remember is being in the middle of a discussion – well a fantasy session really – in which he was painting a picture of a wonderful house surrounded by land, in which he could have a bigger workshop with an apprentice and I could have a couple of artists’ studios and/or a writing retreat to hire out. Alongside our little artistic community there would be an orchard and a kitchen garden. I think Vaughn Williams may have been playing in the background. In any case, I was feeling enthusiastic and less mindful of the hellish process that is simultaneously buying and selling a house..

I last moved house twenty-one years ago and at the time I swore never again. There were very good reasons for this. I’m not sure what the situation is in other countries, but here in the UK, moving is something that only happens despite the caprice of the buyers and the best efforts of estate agents, house surveyors, land registry officials and conveyancing solicitors. It is wildly expensive and fraught at all stages with distrust and uncertainty. I had my eyes wide open and will no doubt come to regret it. But Mr Litlove reeled me in with a killer persuasive phrase. ‘We’re ready for a new chapter,’ he said. ‘We need one.’ And I knew what he meant.

Now I love my house and so I wasn’t quite ready to be fully on board until we’d found somewhere that was right. After six weeks of looking we did find somewhere that was pretty much right. That meant putting our own house on the market (whilst worrying that some other buyer would come along and snap up the one property we’d seen that we loved). And that meant removing 21 years’ worth of clutter and tidying places we hadn’t even looked at since we moved in. I have collecting genes in my family line, and Mr Litlove has hoarding genes in his; this was going to be a major operation.

Naturally the photographer was scheduled for the end of the hottest week of the hottest summer since records began. Mr Litlove and I toiled away, cleaning and scrubbing and throwing out, feeling boiled alive in our skins. Mr Litlove is so untidy that we have designated areas for him to inhabit in the house and most offered problems so complex and shaming that we simply closed the doors on them. Not an option for the utility room, however, whose counter tops I hadn’t seen in over a decade, thanks to Mr Litlove’s collection of tins containing useful half inches of leftover paint, the gardening equipment and woodworking tools that were vacationing in the house ‘en route’ to the workshop, and all the other bits and bobs he’d bought at Screwfix without yet using. But by the end of ‘Furnace Friday’ as the papers dubbed it, the utility room was so clear that it was almost aggressive in its nakedness. The whole house was unnatural in its tidiness. Then, when the photographer came. for the first time in more than six weeks it began to cloud over. A spattering of raindrops fell. The photographer dashed outside to shoot pictures of the garden and the front of the house and when I next looked out of the window it was on scenes that could have come from reportage of a typhoon in the West Indies. The village green was obscured by driving horizontal rain, the howling wind lashed the trees, and inside the house we ran around shutting all the windows and doors, forgetting alas, the skylight in the conservatory through which water poured. It was positively biblical.

Unsurprisingly, most of the photographs had to be done again. But it did give us a chance to see how the original set came out and to make some alterations. One obvious problem was in our son’s bedroom.  We have a photo of him, aged about eight, standing against his bed and hugging Goldie – his favourite bear – under his chin. Behind him towers a magnificent mountain of cuddly animals that dwarfs the two of them. He clearly inherited both the collecting and the hoarding genes as those cuddlies were still there, under his bed now rather than on it. I’d rather dreaded doing the cull as I feel tender about stuffed toys and don’t care to have their beady, accusatory eyes pinned upon me in silent reproach. Mr Litlove is ruthless, though, as I’d already witnessed from his own soft toys in his childhood bedroom, all individually bagged in plastic and stored in a cupboard like a furry kapok-stuffed version of the film Cocoon. We set about the holocaust using the movie principle: if they didn’t have a name or a back story, they were sent to the black bin bag. Our old cats liked to sleep under that bed and it became clear that coated in cat fur was also a criteria for disposal. Being lippy didn’t help. At one point Mr Litlove passed me a small, grubby chick which I binned. When he found what appeared to be the same chick a few minutes later he was completely nonplussed. ‘How did he escape out of the bag?’ he asked. I fished about in it and brought out an identical chick – evidently there were twins. Unfortunately one chick turned to the other at that moment and cheeped: ‘We’re surrounded by morons.’ Neither saw the light of day again.

Surviving that original cull, however, was Big Beery.  My son in his youth was a very enthusiastic car boot and jumble sale attendee.  One year on holiday with his cousins, they had been taken on foot – and therefore unwillingly, bitching and moaning the whole way – to a nearby car boot sale.

Once there, our son homed in on a huge, ugly, disreputable looking brown bear and insisted on buying him. As unlikely as it seems, his cousins also found a huge teddy (in better nick) and all three returned home with the bears slung over their shoulders, skipping and singing as they walked.

Big Beery & Lustleigh

Heading home from the car boot sale

 

This was the arrival of Big Beery, a bear who looked like all he needed was a hand of poker in one paw and three fingers of whiskey in a cloudy glass by the other.

Although he was always very tight-lipped about it, one look told you that he had definitely had a past, and it hadn’t been kind to his fur. When we hauled him out from under the bed, Mr Litlove acquired an expression of distaste, but I rooted for Big Beery. After all, he definitely had a back story and apart from anything else, he was way too big to fit in the bag.

When those photographs came back, however, all you could see, despite our best efforts, was a still-huge collection of cuddlies. There was going to have to be a director’s cut, and it was fairly obvious that Big Beery wasn’t going to make it.

‘But what are we going to do with him?’ I wondered.  The rest of the toys had been taken to the charity shop where they had been warily accepted. But no one in their right minds would take on Big Beery.  I just couldn’t bring myself to throw him away and a car boot sale with him as our lone stock was out of the question. We could have stuck him up in the loft but a bear of that age has his dignity and – who knew? – maybe his underworld contacts to come and get him out. In the end, we put him in the spare bedroom while we thought it over, Big Beery propped up on one side of the bed, dropping ash on the nightstand and cracking his knuckles nonchalantly from time to time. ‘We’ll come up with something,’ Mr Litlove said.

Of course, by the time the photographer was due again, Big Beery was still there. We flew back and forth past him, scooting the rising tide of objects out of sight. In the end, he was our last outstanding problem. ‘I’ve got it!’ i finally said. ‘Put him in my car.’ This was a satisfying conclusion. I could picture him, a chunky silhouette in the back seat, waiting for darkness to fall and his driver to come and take him to the wharf.

So the photographer came and the photos were re-taken and after a bit more hassle our house was finally on the market. And it was…. August. The deadest month of the year apart from December for selling houses. So this is where you find us, scarcely begun on the process and already doubting its feasibility. I feel like a small miracle has to occur to create the extraordinary synergy required.

I forgot about Big Beery until a few days ago when I was considering taking the car into town. ‘Where did you put him?’ I asked Mr Litlove. ‘Not in the driver’s seat, I hope?’ I was imagining the journey into town with Big Beery hanging out the passenger window and declaring ‘Just off to get some bear necessities, mate!’ at passers-by. Mr Litlove looked a tad shamefaced. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘he’s in the boot.’ Big Beery was in the boot! I was shocked and a little apprehensive – what kind of state would he be in when we got him out? But then I thought about it, and in a strange way, the trunk of the car had a certain… appropriateness for him. But every time one of us drives out, I can’t help a scenario from forming in my mind in which we are pulled over by the police and invited to leave the vehicle while they search it.  ‘You appear to have the body of a bear from the criminal fraternity in your car, Madam,’ they will say. ‘Can you explain it?’ And as I look over their shoulders, Big Beery will catch my eye and send me a sly, disreputable wink.

Hot Milk or What Kind of Critic Am I?

When I began this blog way back in the mists of 2006, I was a proper academic literary critic, which meant that I read books according to a number of non-negotiable rules. I still think they’re pretty good ones, if you want to get the most out of the reading experience. I accepted everything that happened within a story as being necessary to that story. I understood that every scrap of information available about the story was contained within the words of the text, so that in consequence, what the book meant had to be consistent with all I’d been told – there was no place for wild speculations, misplaced prejudices or readings that failed to take account of key elements of the narrative. And I was humble in the face of the story: it was not my place to say, effectively, I wish you were something other/different than you are. My job was to hold the story up to the light to show others all the internal workings, and to mine it for the most interesting things it had to say.

Over the course of the blogging years, this process has changed. Slowly, and almost imperceptibly, but to notable effect. Questions that had made no sense to me before – such as ‘Do you like this book?’ and ‘Are you enjoying it?’ – now became much more urgent. I not only recognised that I had certain quirky tastes and hopes for a book, I also gave into them and began to consider them something I should satisfy. And I began to read stories more literally, more superficially, with questions of motivation and plausibility paramount in my mind. In short, the culture of goodreads began to get under my skin, and I let it.

All of which brings us to Deborah Levy’s latest novel, Hot Milk, a book for which I had high (probably unreasonably high) expectations. A few years ago, I read Levy’s short memoir, Things I Don’t Want To Know, which was her response to George Orwell’s essay about why he became a writer. I was absolutely blown away by this memoir, which was one of the finest pieces of autobiographical writing I had ever come across, as well as an affecting and sophisticated account of the creative impulse. I hadn’t read any of Levy’s fiction before, and I thought the premise of Hot Milk sounded intriguing.

It’s essentially the story of a twisted mother-daughter relationship that has kept Sofia Papastergiadis a slave to her mother’s hypochondriac needs. Rose – whose Greek husband left her long ago – is a stubborn, proud Yorkshire woman who has developed a perplexing condition. Sometimes she can walk, and sometimes she can’t. Having exhausted all other routes of medical inquiry, she and Sofia have come to Southern Spain to the clinic of alternative guru, Dr Gomez, to whom they have paid an astronomical fee in the hope of finding a diagnosis and a cure. Of course, in this land beyond the boundaries of tried and trusted medical science, all might not be as it seems. Dr Gomez is a mercurial trickster, kind and attentive to Rose at one moment, taunting and testing her the next. His approach to Rose’s condition is certainly directed as much towards her controlling nature and her fantasies of victimhood as it is towards laboratory testing.

In the meantime, whilst Rose is occupied at the clinic, chronic under-achiever, Sofia, is left to her own devices. Inattentive to her own needs and safety, Sofia manages to get repeatedly stung by jellyfish in the sea and to hook up with a strange couple who live nearby, the potent Ingrid and her boyfriend, Matthew. Through a slightly torturous friendship, Sofia is made to understand her own unquestioning submissiveness and to explore her desires (which include sleeping with both Ingrid and the beach hut attendant who deals with jellyfish stings, Juan). She flies to Athens to meet up with her estranged father and his new wife and child (which doesn’t go particularly well), and she starts to disobey rules and conventions, stealing a fish from the local market and obliging the diving-school owner to unchain his howling dogs. And all of this takes place in a jagged and discontinuous narrative, spiky and surprising in its emotional ups and downs, and often ascerbic in its humour.

More than any book I’ve read in a long time, it challenged and complicated the way I was reading and made me wonder what kind of critic I am these days. I found myself looking at it with a kind of odd double vision that was not comfortable. So, for instance, on one of their earlier meetings, Sofia, who has just bought herself a pizza, offers the box to Ingrid. Ingrid frowns at it with contempt, picks up the pizza and throws it on the ground. No one comments on this.

Critical reading: Sofia is so downtrodden by her mother that she simply takes this kind of bullying behaviour without batting an eyelid. In fact, she is hypnotized by it, partly because her mother has kept her in place this way for years, partly because such behaviour inevitably contains a repressed part of her self that she can no longer access any other way.

Ordinary reading: Who even does that? It is so incredibly rude and impolite and why on earth does Sofia stand for it? Oh no, you are not going to make friends with this person are  you, Sofia? For crying out loud, run, run to the hills and never look back!

Another instance: Ingrid, who earns money from sewing, gives Sofia a suntop she has made for her, on which is stitched the word Beloved. Sofia gets a certain amount of thrill from this and her low self-esteem is briefly boosted. Until she puts the top in the wash and realises that the word embroidered on it is not as she thought Beloved, but instead, Beheaded.

Critical reading: Sofia is so desperate for affection that she projects her need for it out onto the world in an indiscriminate way. What she gets back from the world, however, is emotional violence and hostility, which she often fails to recognise for what it is.

Ordinary reading: Why would anyone stitch a word like Beheaded onto an orange silk suntop? (Is Ingrid psychotic?) And how could anyone make such a mistake when reading it? At the very least, our heroine most certainly should have gone to Specsavers.

I intended to finish this book, but at some point about the three-quarter mark I put it down and failed to pick it up again. As you may imagine, my feelings about it are conflicted. I think there’s much to be said in its favour. There’s clearly a profound exploration of the mother-daughter relationship going on here, and I also enjoyed straightforwardly the scenes with Rose and Dr Gomez in the clinic. But it just strained my credibility too far in places, and stylistically was too choppy for my personal tastes. Given that my favourite writers are Colette and Willa Cather, everything else is going to have to be perfect for me to put up with choppy prose. But if you can read this book through the lens of artistic critique, then I salute you wholeheartedly and think you’ve got the best chance of making the most of an often intriguing story.