Of Workshops and Kittens

So ages ago, I promised you the saga of Mr Litlove’s new workshop and now that he is finally in and preparing for Open Studios once again, I think it’s safe to employ hindsight. In the last episode of Tales From Litlovia, we had decided not to move house but to extend the single garage where Mr Litlove works. We found an architect in the village who drew us up a plan and said he knew a builder who was semi-retired but liked this kind of groundwork job. Let us call him Dave. We were now in, ooh let me see, early November? And Dave apparently had no trouble working over Christmas, in fact he loved to work over Christmas! So, terrific. I had fantasies of calling Dave in from the garden to have a spot of Christmas dinner and Mr Litlove, with great reluctance, started emptying the contents of his garage in readiness.

Never before had I understood the extent to which my husband is a pack rat. I mean no disrespect, after all, I myself have a handful of books about the place. But the amount of stuff that came out of that single garage was mind-blowing. Mr Litlove filled the entire conservatory to eye level and still it kept coming. Every stray piece of wood or metal that had ever passed below Mr Litlove’s pretty little nose had been squirreled away ‘just in case’ and we were looking at the fruits (or nuts) of twenty-one years of dedicated squirreling. The wood piled up on the lawn and was propped in great stacks against the garage wall. Mr Litlove was even surprising himself. But eventually the flow steadied and ceased and December came and the garage was empty and ready, and of course there were no builders.

Dave turned out to like working over Christmas so much that he went on a long and lovely Mediterranean holiday until a few days into the New Year. And then January came and went while they were working on a tricky job elsewhere. To look back now and think we were fussing about whether or not he’d ordered the steel in January. Ha! Finally towards the end of February the builders arrived, just as we were looking into the possibility of finding someone else to do the work. The first day they came there were three of them, likely lads one and all, but by the end of the first day they were reduced to two. Apparently, one had been sent home for having ‘too many opinions’ which was quite fascinating. Was it really the quantity of opinions that was the problem, or their content? I would have loved Mr Litlove to find out, but Dave was a talker and Mr Litlove was already drowning under a tide of anecdote. They went through Dave’s complicated romantic and medical histories and moved seamlessly into a chapter on Great Exploits. This featured, for instance, a story about Dave seeing off a burglar with stealth and one of his collection of sword sticks. I was admittedly cynical. But at least when I lay in my bath in the morning and heard the dulcet tones of Dave’s voice floating over the garden towards me, I knew it was a good day because the builders had turned up.

Because of course, they hardly ever did. See you Wednesday! Dave would say cheerily, by which he really meant, see you next Monday. Maybe. And when they were here, I had never before seen a wall rise so slowly. Dave placed a brick at a time as if arranging jewellery in a shop window. The plants in the garden were growing quicker. Where are Polish builders when you need them? I would wail, and then amuse myself by sending emails to friends in America, telling them I’d found the perfect crew to build that Mexican wall of theirs. March came and went.

Now March was an interesting month on many levels. I think it was the first ever month of my life in which I had to enforce a news blackout because watching it was beyond painful. i did some stockpiling, mostly the heavy duty eye gels that get me through the day, all of which come from Europe. of course. But also tinned tomatoes and sardines and loo roll because Annabel said it was a good idea. Little did I know then that it was all a rehearsal for next October. Brexit seems to me to be a problem caused by insufficient reality checks, and the inevitable outcome of trying to push through a bad idea whilst pretending it is a good one. You know when you were a kid and you told a lie to get out of a tight spot? Only the lie just made the situation worse and worse until you knew the truth was going to come out and then you really didn’t want it to? Well, that’s pretty much where our politicians are now. The overinflated fantasy of Brexit is going to run around on the uncompromising rocks of reality at some point, and there’s a scale from bad to apocalyptic along which it might land. Well, my friends, reason and compassion are the only things that can save us in this life. However much people might love their outrage and anger and hatred, they get us precisely nowhere.

But on a brighter note, we did find one solution to a vexing problem.  You may remember that we had new kittens last spring? Dexter and Deedee. Well, last summer Deedee developed an alarming health issue.  She began to scratch great wounds in her fur and to develop odd swellings – in her eyelid, on her cheekbone or a paw. The two seemed to be related but we weren’t sure how and at first there were all sorts of frightening diseases that might have been its cause. When she was old enough we sent her for blood tests, and these fortunately came back clear. There is always amusement to be had even in worrying situations. I will never forget the moment when the vet rang up and, on Mr Litlove answering the call, asked cheerily, ‘Am I talking to Deedee’s daddy?’ This threw Mr Litlove somewhat, but once over the first shock of paternity, he took to the role quite willingly.

Deedee the fearless adventurer

So after all this, we understood that the problem was an allergy of some kind, but what it was we couldn’t discover, and regularly Deedee would puff up with what the vet called her ‘comedy leg’. Well, finally at the end of winter we made her a ruinously expensive appointment with the consultants at the vet school in Cambridge. They initially prescribed a special diet – kibble made of pea and venison, if you please which had Mr Litlove shaking his head in disbelief. In Mr Litlove’s cat philosophy, Whiskers is the food of the devil but any other cheapo options really ought to be fine. Now of course the cats adore this kibble and refuse anything else. But that didn’t do the trick. Finally, Deedee had a course of steroids, and these cleared the problem up immediately and – I am touching wood fervently here – so far she hasn’t had it back. Will we ever understand what happened during those ten months? I doubt it, but I can’t tell you the relief to see her fully-furred and normal shaped again. She is such a darling little cat.

And so, thus distracted, the workshop crawled towards completion. Finally over Easter towards the end of April, Mr Litlove could get the electrician in and, the great moment he’d been waiting for, his new machines arrived. This turned into a lovely party, as the lorry driver’s tail gate bust and he had to hang out with Mr Litlove and the electrician all morning until his brother turned up to fix it. The lorry driver had voted Brexit but was going to live in Thailand later that year with his Thai wife. I just mention this in passing. Finally by the end of April Mr Litlove had his new workshop and was very pleased with his expanded space. In fact, I fully expect curtains to appear at the windows and a little plaque with the number ’10A’ upon it. Oh, but of course there was one more thing – the new bi-fold doors that are to go on the front. Mr Litlove swore blind to me that there was no way he could order them until he had the exact measurements to send. He finally got around to doing that in May.

We’re still waiting for the doors.

 

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Real Hope For Dark Days

It’s a sore trial living in the UK at the moment. After three years of the shambolic Brexit debacle, in which zero progress has been made, we’re now forced to witness a leadership contest that showcases the most dismal collection of candidates – more of a police line-up than a beauty parade. Worst of all, Boris Johnson is supposed to win, which makes me feel like I’m living in a piece of Dadaist theatre except they tell me it’s really happening. How a man who has been sacked twice for lying, who caused chaos in the Foreign Office and wasted millions as Mayor of London, who basically has no principles and is known to be lazy, self-serving and ready to give up at the first obstacle can possibly become Prime Minister beggars belief. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t sat here laughing at Trump all this time. Anyway, enough. It’s just depressing to acknowledge what the plausible leaders of our country now look like.

It’s just as well, then, that books can offer genuine hope and solace. If you have inadvertently glanced at the online comments on the Guardian website lately and lost all hope in humanity, I have two books that will restore it. Growing Pains by Dr Mike Shooter and Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy are both non-fiction accounts of lives spent helping children to find their best and most promising selves. Mike Shooter is a child psychiatrist in the NHS, Kate Clanchy teaches English in a multi-cultural comprehensive, and they have brought much joy and inspiration into our house lately, with narratives that are a patchwork of fascinating case histories.

Growing Pains is the story of Mike Shooter’s career listening to adolescents (and their families) in crisis. He begins the book with an honest account of his own depression and his early work in medicine. It’s one particular encounter, at 2am on a terminal ward that changes the course of his life. He is following the Senior Registrar – ‘aloof, taciturn, straight-backed’ – to check on a Mr Dobbs, who is dying of an aneurysm. They find, as one might expect, a terrified man.

Simon sat on his bed and asked him if he was frightened. Mr Dobbs nodded; he was beyond words. Then Simon, straight-laced, Simon, the man we thought more suited to a brigade of guards than patient care, took him in his arms and rocked him to and fro like a baby, while Mr Dobbs sobbed into his shoulder.’

The next morning, Simon is absent and Mike Shooter is asked if he’ll talk to Mr Dobbs instead. He is so afraid of the prospect that he goes to see the Dean of the Medical School instead, to tell him he’s quitting. But the Dean, a wise old soul, says no he isn’t; he’ll make a good doctor one day, but he’s depressed. ‘And the worse you feel about yourself, the harder you work to prove you’re wrong. You’ve been fighting against what you really feel for years. This was bound to happen. Mr Dobbs was just the final straw.’ The Dean arranges for him to see a psychiatrist, and over the course of the next few years, the treatment Mike Shooter receives makes him realise that this is the field he wants to dedicate himself to. The ability to ‘see beyond [the] patient’s symptoms to the human being behind them’ was the rule he wanted to follow.

Well by now you might be able to see beyond the words of this review to the readers behind them – the only problem we had with it was that it kept making Mr Litlove cry. And if Mr Litlove cries, then I cry, that’s just how it goes. I need to stress that these were not tears of sadness, but the more complicated throat-tightening tears of beauty and humanity. And I should also stress that this is not at all a manipulative book. Dr Shooter never dwells on any part of his story and in consequence the narrative was not harrowing, despite the subject matter. It was inspirational, in the most grounded and humane ways. One of the stories that stays with me still concerns another middle of the night emergency call that summons Dr Shooter to a household in crisis.  An eight-year-old child, Danny, is threatening to kill himself. When the doctor arrives, the child is on the landing, his pyjama cord around his neck, the other end tied to the banisters, and his desperate, angry, fearful parents are hypnotised by the situation. Mike Shooter’s response is to come in as if everything were normal, exclaim at the lateness of the hour and express a strong need for a cup of tea. He asks if Danny would like a snack before bedtime, and the spell of craziness is dispelled by the autopilot of ordinary hospitality. Everyone comes and sits around the tea tray in the middle of the living room where it becomes apparent that the man is the mother’s new partner whom Danny is rejecting and that ‘they all wanted to change things but didn’t know how to do it without tearing each other apart’ A problem with which I imagine we are all familiar, and where salvation can come so much more quickly with someone calm, kind and firm to help.

Kate Clanchy’s book also focusses on individual students as they struggle and triumph on the battlefield of education and the stories she tells are just as fascinating, whether it’s the way the word ‘gay’ has signified in classrooms across the years, or what the parents of excluded children are up against when they try to get their kids a fair educational deal. Kate is also a poet and her poetry club becomes one of the major features in her stories, as she finds it can be a real liberation for all kinds of children, including those who have English as a second language or who suffer from dyslexia. She tackles knotty subjects like selection in schools – both streaming in classes and the nightmare parents face when trying to decide what school to pick for their children. And she talks about the pleasures and pains of teaching English.

There are so many stories I love, I don’t know which to tell you about. But just off the top of my head, there’s Allen, a large, capable boy more suited to open spaces, but bright and interested in English literature. He was that mythical beast, an adolescent boy willing to talk about emotions, and as such he stimulated real class discussion. It just so happened that this class was one in which Kate could exercise her own judgement to some extent and choose the books that would best inspire her students (not something that happens these days). Twenty-five years later she looks him up on Linked-In and finds out that he runs an engineering business and is a self-made millionaire, He in turn remembers her lessons as a place where ‘I learned who I was.’ ‘English:’ Clanchy writes, ‘the lesson where you laugh about sex, and argue about war, and talk about jealousy. English: where you grow up.’ The problem is that English, like poetry, does not ‘WALT’ well. WALT stands for ‘We Are Learning To’ and has become the staple of ‘formative assessment’ which the government likes a lot. It comes from the best of motives, Clanchy explains, the desire to open up a learning process that might appear hidden or opaque. But what works well for a science lesson is altogether harder to pin down in the arts and humanities. The consequence has been that WALT dominates lesson plans and the non-WALT aspects of education, like artistic creativity and all that nebulous maturation process get left out of the curriculum.

The stories in both books inevitably bump up against politics because both authors are working on the cliff edge where the vulnerable and the economically-nonprofitable clash with government funding. But these are not polemical books. They are about thoughtful people who are really good at their jobs understanding the pressures on all sides and doing their best for children, however that shakes out. Listening to these books has made me think a lot about what’s wrong with the world today, and for my own part I think it boils down to an insufficient engagement with reality. I blame the media mostly, for their two-note grizzles of sentimentality and outrage, emotions that reliably sell papers, but which have made us all happy to be ignorant. It takes terrific courage to face the truth of our lives, and mostly we are invited to side step that reality and find someone else to blame. Or we end up letting ourselves be sold ideals of perfection and purity that are equally dangerous.

What I loved about these books is their authors’ readiness to talk about getting things wrong. Clanchy produces such an admirably nuanced description of Cheyenne, a poor working class child who spent her time pushing Kate’s middle-class buttons and stalking her children, whom Kate could not truly like. And I loved the story in which Mike Shooter is called to deal with a psychotic break in an adolescent who has been wrongly placed in the adult ward. Hassan escaped his nurses and ran around the grounds of the unit, talking in Somali and scooping mud and grass into his mouth. Shooter thought it possible that he was just terrified and involved in some kind of prayer ritual he didn’t understand, so he called the Somali elders from the community to come and advise him. After a few minutes they turned on him. asking how he dared call himself a doctor and telling him to get the boy some medication. It’s not about mistakes – if you’re a human being engaged in something you care about, you will be making mistakes. They are inevitable. What these stories show is that it’s about the process – the process of finding out what’s wrong and of learning and becoming more self-aware in consequence, possibly the most important process that we are called upon to practice on a regular basis and which we avoid and fumble and foul up out of embarrassed pride or some weird, punitive notion that it ‘shouldn’t happen.’

These have both been terrific books, loved and admired equally by myself and Mr Litlove. They have made us laugh and cry and feel deeply in touch with both the difficult business of growing up and the authentic hope embedded in the care of people like Mike Shooter and Kate Clanchy that we might actually make it. For they have a lot to teach adults too, as a quick glance around the political candidates for Tory party leader can tell us. They’ve made me want to have a completely different kind of identity politics, one in which gender, skin colour, race, religion, none of these thing matter, but where the identity is question is that of a grown-up and it’s an identity to which we all aspire.

Decades of capitalism have encouraged us to stay children with the goal of becoming spoiled children. I think it’s given us very complicated feelings about people who are able shamelessly to make a fool of themselves in public, and that sometimes such people can be used to assuage us about our insecurities. This is an indulgence – something that makes us feel better in the short-term but worse in the long-term. What we need is to admire the grown-up again, the sensible, grounded person who doesn’t make a fuss about things, but who won’t sit passive when they could offer help. The sort of person who, currently, says the wise, placatory thing on social media and is totally ignored. We need the kind of grown-up who has a strong moral compass and a great deal of compassion, who has emotional intelligence, self-awareness and the courage to look reality in the eye, even when it is ugly. The kind of grown-up who can sit with people in emotional distress and not make it about themselves. We need more Mike Shooters and Kate Clanchys, basically, and the fact that they have written these books shows that such people are out there, it’s just that we so rarely get to hear about them. For me they’ve been a properly optimistic antidote to everything going on in the news, and the embodiment of an aspiration that is as difficult as becoming rich and famous but infinitely more desirable.

 

 

Blood Out of a Stoner

I don’t quite know why I’m writing this when I have completely lost faith in this kind of blog post, but Mr Litlove and I have discussed Stoner and its problems so much he said he’d be interested to see how it came out. So, for what it’s worth, these are the processes of thought that occurred to me over the course of the past couple of weeks, as Mr Litlove read John William’s novel, Stoner, to me, and the book turned out to be so very different to my expectations. All I knew about Stoner was that it had had a massive rediscovery somewhere around 2011 and been hailed as an unjustly forgotten masterpiece. I’d seen loads of rave reviews in which it was called beautiful, gentle, moving, sad. I was in no way prepared, then, for how much it would annoy me.

The story is indeed simple: William Stoner grows up on a farm in the Midwest of America, but when his father sends him to college to study agriculture, Stoner has a revelation and a change of heart. He falls in love with American literature and carries on at Columbia as a teacher for the rest of his working life. He makes a disastrous marriage to a neurotic harpy who seems determined to ruin any chance of domestic happiness, and he makes a dangerous enemy of a neurotic colleague who becomes Head of Department and impedes Stoner’s career progression.  Stoner remains stoic throughout these trials, maintaining his passion for literature, or maybe just putting one foot in front of the other, it’s hard to tell in John Williams’ masterly style which I came to think of as: don’t show and don’t tell.

For instance, Stoner’s epiphany and his conversion to literature come in a Shakespeare class in which he is asked the meaning of a sonnet. All Stoner can get out is ‘It means….’ in a sentence he simply cannot finish. And that is all we’ll ever hear about Stoner’s passion for literature. Mr Litlove felt that this was deeply unsatisfactory. He came to think that Stoner loved literature because work on the farm was so hard, so awful, and by comparison an English degree was a doddle. I didn’t think that; I could believe that Stoner loved literature, but I wondered then how Stoner could be so unable to articulate himself, despite that prolonged and profound study in how language is used to describe and shape life.

The real problem for me began with Stoner’s marriage. He falls in love with a young woman, Edith, who happens to be staying for a few weeks with relatives who are connected to the university. Stoner sees her and falls in love with her and then he lays siege to her. Their relationship is from the get-go awkward, embarrassed and without a trace of love. They aren’t even friends. But Stoner persists in desiring marriage and Edith seems to go along with it. Then we get to the honeymoon which is always going to be difficult with two innocent and stilted people. So far, so plausible, and we can all wonder how any of our ancestors managed life prior to the availability of the internet. Then Williams takes us right into the marriage bed:

When he returned Edith was in bed with the covers pulled up to her chin, her face turned upward, her eyes closed, a thin frown creasing her forehead… For several moments he lay with his desire, which had become an impersonal thing, belonging to himself alone. He spoke to Edith, as if to find a haven for what he felt; she did not answer. He put a hand upon her and felt beneath the thin cloth of her night-gown the flesh he had longed for. He moved his hand upon her; she did not stir; her frown deepened. Again he spoke, saying her name to silence; then he moved his body upon her, gentle in his clumsiness. When he touched the softness of her thighs she turned her head sharply away and lifted her arm to cover her eyes. She made no sound.’

And the next line is: ‘Afterward he lay beside her and spoke to her in the quietness of his love.’ Now John Williams can load up this passage with all the pity for Stoner that he wishes, and he can try to insist on his gentleness, but this is still a brutal act. He forces himself upon a deeply unwilling wife. As I had Mr Litlove right there to represent the male gender, I asked him what in pity’s sake made a man keep going under such dreadful circumstances,when every indication from his partner was bad?

‘Well,’ said Mr Litlove thoughtfully. ‘He’s been brought up on a farm and so he’s seen animals mating and that’s all he knows.’

‘Yes,’ i said, ‘but what about instincts? Surely he has some basic human instinct that this is NOT going well and that he ought to hold back, maybe even ask a few direct questions?’

‘Hmm,’ said Mr Litlove. ‘I guess it’s being brought up on a farm.’

So much for male insight. But as I realised that this was something that Mr Litlove didn’t understand either, I began to see an answer. Oh you can say this was a different era, when men and women didn’t have a clue and men’s conjugal rights were a thing of law. But it bothered me so, that ability of Stoner’s to persist against all odds, to keep going when he ought to try and have at least a full conversation with Edith first, on any topic, before attempting to have sex with her. And it occurred to me that intimacy was the missing factor here.

‘I said to Mr Litlove, ‘Isn’t it the case that men don’t need intimacy to have sex, whereas for a woman, sex without emotional intimacy is an insult, a violation.’

‘Oh yes,’ said Mr Litlove. ‘But after all, farmyard animals….’

In these few moments the full extent of men’s capacity for blindness to the quality of intimacy was brought home to me as never before. If they don’t need it, they don’t need to know they’re missing it, and so they may have no conception of it. So what happens next in the Stoner household? Does Stoner realise the error of his ways and attempt to get to know his wife as a whole human being? Of course not. He takes to having sex with her when she’s asleep and less resistant and he can almost pretend to himself that she quite likes it. By this point, I felt that whatever Edith might do to Stoner in the future, he deserved it.

Well, Edith decides she wants a child, but when Grace is born, she develops a kind of chronic fatigue that makes her unable to look after her. So poor old Stoner, thanks to his misunderstood, emotionally abandoned and sexually abused wife, has to work AND do the childcare. Outrageous, no? Not to mention the fate of most working mothers to this very day. A few years later, with Edith more or less recovered, and Stoner shut away in his study with Grace all the time he’s at home, Edith makes a bid to take back power of parenting. She does it in an ugly way, clearly intent on exerting the control over Grace that she has lost over her own body. Stoner has an attempt to talk to her, but by now a spell of atrophy has taken over Stoner’s common sense and the rule of ‘nothing can change’ has overwhelmed him. He fails to make Edith see reason and, fearing reprisals on the child, abandons them both to each other. If I’d been angry with Stoner before, now I was absolutely furious with him. If one parent has gone a bit crazy, you do not start abandoning your child to them because you lack the backbone and the moral fibre to stand up to their poor behaviour. But Stoner’s busy grizzling because he’s lost the space he used to research in and can’t write his book. Oh poor, kind, gentle Stoner! All he suffers!

But never fear, because no white male author will deprive his white male protagonist of what he really wants. Into Stoner’s life comes a mistress, Katherine Driscoll, a talented graduate student. Katherine is Stoner’s soulmate and wants lots of sex, which is great because then Stoner doesn’t have to learn anything about creating and maintaining relationships. They’re found out, of course, but Stoner carries on, seemingly unbothered by guilt, until his department nemesis is hellbent on causing trouble for Katherine. Now this is a shame because despite himself, Stoner is learning something about love: ‘he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.’ Now this is good stuff, hopeful and illuminating. This is a big step for mankind as represented by Stoner. But when it comes to it, and they either have to make a break for it together or split up, well, you can guess by now which Stoner chooses:

‘Because in the long run,’ Stoner said, ‘it isn’t Edith or even Grace, or the certainty of losing Grace, that keeps me here; it isn’t the scandal or the hurt to you or me; it isn’t the hardship we would have to go through, or even the loss of love we might have to face. It’s simply the destruction of ourselves, of what we do’

I’ve read this sentence many times now and I still don’t understand what Stoner means. Is he saying that they are too moral? Because that would be weird, given the public nature of the affair. Is he saying they wouldn’t get work? Because Katherine’s subsequent career refutes that. The only thing I can think of that really fits with Stoner’s behaviour is that he would have to accept change and loss, both things he has never done, except for that one moment at the start of the novel when he chose literature over the farm. It’s as if a rock has fallen in love with literature and this is so extraordinary that one can expect nothing more from it – any more would be blood out of a Stoner.

And there is nothing more to expect from Stoner. He suffers the loss of Katherine, he ages prematurely, he dies. I was left wondering to what extent we were meant to feel sorry for him. The narrative is full of compassion for Stoner, it portrays him as perpetually wronged, as being unfortunate and unlucky. But whenever I looked closely at that text, Stoner seemed to get exactly what he wanted. Throughout the novel he denies and rejects the possibility of change, choosing instead to remain with the comfy and familiar, and in doing so he denies happier lives to Edith, Grace and Katherine. And I wondered so much, oh so much, how come this novel had been so widely acclaimed in the 21st century when it is fundamentally the story of a would-be gentle man who doggedly perpetuates gender rancour?

The thing is, for me Stoner embodies white male privilege, and we endorse it if we feel sympathy for him. Stoner has been little more than adequate in everything he has done; do we really think he deserved more than he got? If Stoner’s is a sad, unjust life, then we must believe that he should be given rewards for minimal exertion, that he should not have to make sustained, prolonged effort for what is good in life, nor engage in complicated, difficult negotiations and compromises. Life is cruel, yes, but not especially so to Stoner, whose real tragedy lies in his overwhelming passivity and his inability to speak his emotional truth. Stoner has no curiosity about the emotional life of others – his own is a mystery to him – and so he has no idea of the care he might give, of the potential generosity of spirit he might embody. Instead he choses minimal responsibility and emotional cowardice, and this is what life looks like under the auspices of such choice.

 

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.