How The Wind in the Willows saves your life…..

This is from chapter two of Killing Hapless Annie; a section I am editing at the moment. It concerns how reading can ease unhappiness and loneliness: it’s a cornerstone, I think, for many: I know it was for me. x

Annie had overheard mutterings in the kitchen; she heard phrases such as personality disorder, manic depressive and psychosis. She heard the voice of Uncle John, saying of his keening wife,

…And mother, I did think when I married her she might have been a sociopath, but she was cheerful enough then.’

Annie thought, ‘What’s a sociopath? It sounds cheerful anyway. Kind of chatty.’

So a curious but normal Christmas break and Annie went back to school with the customary sense of being just a bit separate. To get away from mad women (who lived in depressing slapdash-mortared bungalows, which after all weren’t interesting in a pointy, Gothic sort of way and where there was no hint of left-behind Caribbean heat on the top floor), she furiously and hungrily read and re-read that bit in The Wind in the Willows  -it’s at the end of ‘Dulce Domum’ if you care to look – where Rat manages to make a cheering little feast for Mole and the field mice who have come to sing carols at Mole End. For added reassurance, she read ‘The Wild Wood’ , with particular emphasis on the moment when Badger opens his front door and the two animals tumble in out of the snow. There are hams hanging from the ceiling, a big fire, the plates wink in a kindly, anthropomorphic way and when the famished animals are fed and ready for bed, their sheets are coarse but clean and smell of lavender. To Annie, a hybrid of the two chapters connoted Christmas; the word cosy; a wafting amorphous thing which some might have called happiness. And best of all, no baby-in-the-bucket. Here, Hapless Annie could stay away because her host didn’t need improvement and could just slough her off and relax. It’s ok, baby girl. It’s ok. Because in The Wind in the Willows, the creatures veritably fall upon one another in a riot of being pleased to see you, which felt like an unfamiliar construct beyond the books. Well, with the exception of how Hazel made her feel, but Hazel was gone, with the wedding ring – and possibly the dog – to a grave in December Gateshead, leaving a shelf of books in French to Annie. Oh la la! Annie thumbed the books and missed her so much in a world that made fuck-all sense.

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Three belated short non fiction pieces for Fourth of July

Amtrak with my baby

Washington. New baby in arms. The Capitol, Smithsonian; half smoke hot dogs in the park. We caught the New Orleans train and I remember the baby, lying on his back with his arms held up high, as the view liner train went through the night and on into Virgina. I woke early and saw that we were in Georgia and that the earth, just by the track, was red. The baby was still asleep, the train rocking him; my husband beginning to stir on the bunk above mine. He raised his head: ‘We in Georgia yet?’ I had had a restless night; I was full of wonder, as I always am, at being on the move, but we were home, six months after 9/11 and home felt different. The previous afternoon I had seen The Pentagon, under repair; I saw it before on television, back in Britain, in the first footage: I was heavily pregnant and worried what world my first born would enter. I worried during the night, but the train rocked us and lulled us and its sonorous horn was the sound I had heard in dreams or reveries late at night: it was the sound of frontiers, of distance, of aspiration – and hope.

In the dining car early in the morning there was  a shower of ma’ams and y’alls and a shower of hands for the baby. We had grits and eggs and crisp bacon, with Crystal hot sauce. There was scalding coffee to further wake us. The creepers and the red earth gave way to the suburbs of Atlanta and we were almost there. I’d always enjoyed the hoardings of the city as we approached it from Hartsfield airport: Free at Last Bail Bonds! Chicken Breast Strips Meal only $2! Here, from the train, I saw just flashes of garden, then creek, then more red earth. Still the kitchen staff dandled the baby while others poured us endless coffee and we were content. I remember that my husband told me to get ready. I hadn’t combed my hair but I put on some lipstick because I wanted my steel magnolia to think well of me when we arrived. Silly, really, what with the baby being the show, not me. I remember that he was dressed in a bright red all in one we called the ‘firework suit.’ We were there. Bright red baby; rich red earth of home. And momma said, ‘Hey.’ And everything had changed but everything had not because the earth was the earth and we were loved and the train bade us goodbye and surged on.

The house in Flatrock, North Carolina

The house was really a wooden cottage; in another setting it might have been made out of gingerbread. It had window boxes full of red impatiens, still a thick fall of leaves on the ground from last autumn and the sound of a creek below it. Inside, the finds and hauls of a family over almost thirty years. A family escaping the city or sheltering from the storm with books and jigsaws and a making things drawer and a small radio. That night they drifted off to the sound of a small North Carolina radio station playing Cousin James (McMurtry) and were proud in half-sleep. It was early summer and there was a storm. Earlier, he had told her the storms in the South come in with a faint whooshing sound, a whisper at first. A shift in the tenor of the air. She woke to it. And felt its warmth before the explosion of thunder and lightning. They were sleeping in the loft of the house and they felt themselves being shaken by the storm outside and she wondered if one of the tall trees all around would fall. The children crawled into bed with them, shaking and sobbing a little: ‘I’m frightened.’

Morning found the house still, intact and the air clear. The children ran in pyjamas to the creek, burying their toes in the mud and slipping over the wet rocks. A small and sleepy snake reared its head from the shallows, gave a half-hearted hiss, showed its fangs briefly and nestled back into the mud. Strangely, no-one said anything. Inside, coffee was brewing and the radio station was on again. Mom was up and doing, immaculate as always, and making bagels with cream cheese to eat on the screened porch. The children’s father was still asleep, a half smile playing at his lips. Their mother would sit on the swing seat to eat breakfast; she would not wake him yet. Simple really, but there it is.

Johnny Cash, in a lift, in Dallas, Texas

 “I was told that when Bob Dylan met John – I think it was at the Newport Folk Festival – he circled John, bent slightly forward and smiling up at him with pure admiration.”1

When he was ten, my husband happened to be in an elevator in a hotel in Dallas, Texas. In walked a tall man; the boy looked at the man’s shoes. From there, it was a long way up, but look he did. The boy saw that it was Johnny Cash. No, he must be wrong. But hang on, Johnny Cash must have had to ride in an elevator sometime, so he looked again. He nudged his little brother: ‘Hey Curtis, I think it’s Johnny Cash.’
Maybe the man heard him; maybe not, but he smiled and grinned a broad grin and nodded, ‘Hellllllllo boys.’ A low, slow, warm voice. The youth was starstruck and cannot remember if he said hello back; little brother was possibly unmoved, being too young to understand that, maybe, Johnny Cash was not to be seen riding in an elevator with you any day of the week. Upstairs, or maybe it was on another occasion, he learned that his mother had gone into labour with him (in Georgia) while watching Johnny Cash on a television show. Now, these little links; they kind of went in deep. Plus Cash was, like him, a Southern man. As an adult, he would listen and feel at home.Cash was flawed, both powerful and weak. He had struggled with addiction and insecurity, gone on a journey from the cotton fields of Arkansas to a meeting with a luminary – maybe the the President. He had faith that was both angry and beautiful and music that haunted. So why not share? Well, that’s what our grown up boy from the elevator in Dallas did. Best of all, he shared American Recordings, which was played again and again in the house and, for a quiet moment when no-one knew what to do  – while he suspected that Johnny Cash would have shrugged off the fact of their doing this – ‘Down there by the train.’ Now, there was a song that could still a room or a nervy individual with its invocation to meet him if you had, ‘taken the low road’; if you had, ‘done the same.’ ‘There’s a place I know’, sang Cash – a place where he saw ‘Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth.’
So, if you dear reader, especially you dear British reader, have not taken a look or a listen, may I suggest you go back and listen again and get to know him a bit?  Not that I’m putting him on a pedestal, or nothing.’ *************************************** Notes: American Recordings. Genius. 1. The Man Called Cash by Steve Turner (London, Bloomsbury, 2006). This was the first authorised biography. Quotation from the foreword by Kris Kristofferson, p. ix.

Hanging out with the Holy Rollers

Below (when I’ve finished wittering on) is an extract from Killing Hapless Annie. I think I can get away with offering it here! This bit’s about the attempts of its protagonist to find God, or at the very least to find a church. I have refracted my own experience (but not necessarily events at which I was present) through its description of a religious encounter. But I want to offer a counterpoint, drawn directly from my own experience yesterday, to this.

For reasons that shall remain opaque, or at least seen through a glass darkly, I spent this Sunday with Benedictine monks in their monastery (well, obviously; it’s where they live). That will probably sound like the scenario for a ‘Carry On’ film and you would be partly right about that, because they actually were quite saucy when they got going. I watched them as they conducted and participated in their Sunday service; there were only six of them, but they filled the chapel, devout and hands extended. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They were brimful of joy. That is what they were.

After the service, I saw that prayers for my family were listed in the nave and I had to face the wall because, from within, came a big wall of cry. It was the sort of cry that I could not have stifled.

I wandered around their gardens – beautiful places, with the vista of open fields beyond; in the long grass were red campion and snapdragons: it was, to quote W.B. Yeats, a ‘bee-loud glade.’ As I’ve said before, I see metaphor in everything; sometimes, I look at the natural world around me  and I wonder if I am missing its language: that in front of me is the biggest metaphor of them all. Everyone, I think, wants some sense of meaning; at some point – or at multiple points – perhaps everyone experiences what is commonly referred to as an existential crisis. I might be wrong. For some, meaning is in no meaning; that is a meaning in itself, I might argue. Why should an atheist not use the language of grace?

At lunch, not today in silence, they laughed and didn’t stop; they had laid a camelia by the side of my plate, just for me – not because I was special or important, but because they noticed things. And Father Christopher (not his real name) said, ‘Beauty and happiness. Those are the routes to faith. And I am mad for beauty.’

It can’t be an easy life in some ways. The Benedictines’ life is founded on stability, but that means a repetition and, potentially, a lifetime enclosure – which is its own challenge. But I am coming to think that the state of happiness rather steals upon you. Perhaps it isn’t about searching for its roots, but about letting the sense of our demanding individual self slide away. I loathe with some uncertain passions those recycled ‘New Thought’ books, such as The Secret, with their emphasis on levering things towards oneself; with their drive towards consumption, with their anti-intellectualism which insists that the universe exists only to be bountiful to us as individuals. I wonder whether we find ourselves when we let go; when we surrender our greater selves. And that is where we find faith.

I say, I wonder. That is what I am doing. Wondering. This is no conversion on the road to Damascus.

And anyway, I can’t live secluded. I swear way too much. Below, I’ve got from conversion scenes, to orgasms with Albert Camus, to cake-making…..Here’s the extract from Killing Hapless Annie: it’s from a chapter called, ‘Hanging out with the Holy Rollers.’ PS: the bit about writing to Tony Benn and Glenys and Neil  and making rock cakes for CND protestors – absolutely true.

HANGING OUT WITH THE HOLY ROLLERS – FROM KILLING HAPLESS ANNIE

When Annie was fifteen, she struck up a friendship with a boy in a Christian fellowship. They used to have what she considered were extremely dry romps in the back of his Ford Escort and he was a great fan of the Conservative party, which Annie, writing a Christmas card to Tony Benn every year, asking Glennis Kinnock for advice on politics and boys (Glenys said, ‘Neil and I advise sticking with Labour and only courting the Welsh lads because they’ve got fire and sense. Tidy.’- which was fine by Annie) and making rock cakes and mufflers for the women protesting at Greenham Common, instinctively had a hard time reconciling with being, well, of God. It meant instead, ‘I am a wanker and I don’t care.’

The boy’s parents were kind and thoroughly respectable but had an unsteady relationship with immigrants, gippos, lefties and feminists, all of whom they tended to besmirch over a Sunday Roast. But the boy – let us call him Ichabod – and his respectably fascist parents brought her along to the Sunday morning gathering.

Now, Annie really tried, but then, as now, she is repulsed by Christian rock, being more of a fan of the censer, the dirge-like hymn and the furiously non child friendly service. It is like a phrase of Mrs Doyle from Father Ted: ‘I don’t want to go on a pilgrimage to enjoy myself, Father: I want to have a miserable time.’ This is exactly what Annie wanted from a church: to be penitent; uncomfortable – and for it to be very very long and with clouds of incense. She thought that all the twangy guitars and baggy bass were simply too joyful: it sounded like a Bon Jovi concert, but it was less funny and entirely lacking in camp and Jon Bon Jovi’s tight arse. And as for ‘Kum ba yah’ with an acoustic guitar! The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end – and not with pleasure. There was much groaning and mumbling from the congregation, however, so Annie launched herself into the song, feeling sick but still wanting, in some way, to feel the same happiness the others seemed to feel. But it didn’t work.

The service worked in crescendo and diminuendos and with each ascent and descent, arms were raised, tears were shed, sometimes a body writhed on the floor and had to be helped up and everywhere people were speaking in tongues. To hear the language, if we call it this – a gift of the spirit – excluded her. She had no sense that she would ever ever be able to do such a thing. She plucked up the courage to ask someone about it and was informed that this gift could come to her if she truly believed. Like a child she screwed up her eyes and willed herself to, but no: week after week, nothing. Ichabod took her to his pastor, who sat her down on the velour sofa after tea and custard creams, with more Christian rock gently and painfully playing in the background and said,

‘Prepare, sweet child, to receive the Holy Spirit, as Ichabod did.’

All Annie could hear was the traffic outside and all she could think of was the fact that the velour sofa was a bit slippery and a bit squeaky and also that she had sat on a rather damp dog toy and it was digging into her arse.

Opposite her, above the gas fire with its fake stone fireplace, there were several wooden ornamental Name of Jesus jigsaws. Annie knew, in glancing at them, that the jolly little wooden ornaments irritated her. It wasn’t their fault: what she would have preferred, rather than this bright and optimistic room, with its zealous central heating, was a sepulchral cold and damp: a hard seat and some properly Catholic pictures of Jesus bleeding from the crown of thorns and holding up the stigmata. Pine Christian knick knacks and all the rest of the twee God stuff just didn’t hold or enthuse her in the same way, but she found it hard to discern whether that was owing to an aesthetic predilection or a spiritual one. Perhaps Santa Maria had been right about the baby-in-the-bucket: because her daughter now entertained this ungenerous kind of thought.

‘Who do I ask? What can I do?’

Annie had a brief conversation with Dante; he had rejected her before, but she asked again,

‘Who will be my guide? How will I go and what will I see there?’

And up came Dante into the stuffy room, gently telling her to make the journey and come back through her weird Annie and Hapless Annie world to glimpse something else,

‘Yes I am here! I give up! If you will leave me alone afterwards, you can borrow Virgil; he will guide you. Remember these words, Annie, as you go’:

‘To get back up to the shining world from there

My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,

And following its path, we took no care

To rest, but climbed: he first, then I – so far,

Through a round aperture I saw appear

Some of the beautiful things that heaven bears,

Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars…’

Then suddenly, with Annie thinking of how it would be to see something beautiful and know that it is ok for you to look at it, Dante was gone and the hand on her arm was not that of Virgil, but of a pastor – sweating; urging and mouth breathing heavily like the nasty dentist of her childhood:

‘You might feel it like heat, or get a buzzing in your ears. But feel it you will.’

There were no stars to see, no hidden tunnel to find and access or aperture to behold as the pastor spoke tongues and hissed all over her. Annie shuffled on the sofa and tried to shift the dog toy from under her left buttock and wondered if the pastor was making the whole thing up. The tongues sounded more like Esperanto than, say, Hebrew or what she imagined Aramaic might have sounded like. But she felt mean for having the thought and tried to dismiss it.

‘I know you feel it. I can see it in you. I am your guide; your conduit. Do you feel faint, loose limbed or dizzy? Ohhhh Spirit we welcome you.’

It sounded more like the séance she had once been to after a village show in The Land beyond the Sea, the Ohhhhh recalled the orgasms she’d seen on forbidden late night telly and tried to emulate with Albert Camus behind the sofa. Now Annie was getting restless (plus she was suppressing a snigger). So she said,

‘Yes to all those things’ as the glasses shuffled on the sideboard and the pastor announced that the Holy Spirit had been in the room with her and had entered her and we must all now rejoice.

The pastor laid her hands firmly on Annie’s head again and announced that again she might feel a kind of heat – or maybe the buzzing thing. Then she abruptly released her hands and it was all over, with a lie. Well, she had been very hot but that was because the central heating was jacked right up.  On the way out, verily skipping with the Spirit’s presence, she recalled painfully a particular section from Philip Larkin’s ‘Faith Healer’ and walked home, feeling lost and all the way there dreading a holiday, to begin that night, in The Fucking Caravan. She wished that hands would come, ‘to lift and lighten.’ Annie became acutely aware that this early adventure with the Pentecostal church did nothing to dull the ache she felt. It was the same lonely thing that had her scurrying for the bookshelf and The Wind in the Willows when she was younger or, for that matter, tracing through adequate space between the objects on the colour table in her bedroom. The impulse had been the same:

‘In everyone there sleeps

A sense of life lived according to love.

To some it means the difference they could make

By loving others, but across most it sweeps

As all they might have done had they been loved.

That nothing cures. An immense slackening ache..’

Later, in attempts to understand and feel what the others feel, Annie tried regularly to go to Church of England services, but there was a sense of a club; a group of people with whom she could at best flirt and acquiesce. Some of them were terrifying and territorial women who didn’t like her children. Or possibly just didn’t like her. She tried with a powerful but ultimately impotent insistence to be one of them: to feel the presence of God. But it never came. She tried to understand The Bible from an intellectual and theological perspective; she met immeasurably kind true believers, but nothing shifted the immense slackening ache; at its best it was watching the comfort derived by others that kept her trying – but were they deluded? Just desperately clinging to something that Camus would have suggested you slough off – and that after terror, there should come liberty and so Virgil, with Dante smiling kindly alongside, as he wrote him, would show her the firmament?