‘Come at me from a new direction, find me by surprise’ I said to it, taking to my French box-bed and pulling the duvet under my chin. This is on a bank holiday and I’m not even tired, just tired of walking about with the same thuggish head on my shoulders, and tired of the options it monotonously offers. Bed is my way of saying no to all of them. It is my head I am talking to, or perhaps more accurately, my mind. I have after all, carried this same old mind about for over sixty years; it seems totally unappreciative, gives me no thanks. It never leaps up with a new idea or puts a posy on my pillow; those that appear new, on analysis, are simply re-assembled from older reclamation. I recognise all the components however painted over. I could do with a change. I’ll find a way to shut it up.
So I try to recover my old skill at meditation to put it in its place, imagining my muscles turning to stone like a weighty Henry Moore nude welded to a plinth and impervious to drifting leaves in some anonymous park. Mind protests.
‘You think it’s that easy huh?’
It feels rather more like weighting a tablecloth with odd pebbles, so insistent is the flapping of windy thought. Ok then, I’ll conquer you with a book until sleep defeats you utterly. My mind gives me the two fingers.
The choice within reach is limited; the best thing on the locker this rainy noon is Virginia Woolf and her seductive solution; that all one needs is five hundred a year and a room of one’s own. I have both, but what she left out was the mind to go with it. If you were continually thinking her limpid, clear running-water thoughts which refresh every rock they flow over, you might even do without the five hundred. Anybody who can turn prunes and custard into a philosophy should be an alchemist.
‘I could do that, if I wanted to. It just never seemed worth it; I mean who cares?’ says Mind.
I pretend I cannot hear. I can’t quarrel with Virginia on any matter, not even her sly suggestions about George Eliot’s constraint and bitter social constipations- although George Eliot has always been hailed as our family’s most illustrious connection- the only orchid amongst our African daisies.
‘That’s why your pretentious Aunt decided to fly solo and give away that autographed first edition of Daniel Deronda, (destroying all the evidence just to collar all the glory.) I tell you something else; Daniel D was probably discreetly flogged to pay for a new catalogue for the smiling librarian, since Rhodes in the Eastern Cape is hardly on the George Eliot walkabout’.
This is the sort of monotony I’m talking about; tracking through arid claims without fresh water, hoping that some new succulent will sprout a flower. I already knew all that. I can’t forgive anything that hammers a point.
‘You’re a fine one to talk…Now no doubt we’ll get on to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’ says Mind yawning ostentatiously ‘can’t you leave it out?’
I could but I’m damned if I will. It’s their influences that have brought me to this point. The real reason I value whatever connection I have with George Eliot is the same as I derive from Elizabeth Barrett Browning-(Grandmama being a lesser Barrett, not that ‘lesser’ was a word she understood)- simply that they both ran off to do their own thing, in their metaphorically divided skirts. Wedlock was a serious one to pick in those days. Elizabeth, from her Italian roof-garden had it about right, but she probably started my rot of dreaming too insistently…‘What was he doing the great god Pan/ Down in the reeds by the river?’
I know Mind will interrupt if I give it half a chance. It’ll say that originality never needs to quote, but that’s only because it can’t be bothered with the storage problem. Mind is an insubordinate secretary, who refuses an in-tray and prefers to clear the desk daily. It has never bothered to even file the archive that blows about in any gust under the cellar door. Going back to those two women; they were models not in the literary sense (that came later but never seemed to help), but in the ‘don’t expect to depend on a man’ sense, the mantra in a family consequently bereft of men. I took it much too literally; discounting the possibility that any man was any use at anything. You begin to see the difficulty. Mind, full of seductive rags, makes only heavy quilts in repetitive patterns, under which one takes refuge on a Bank holiday.
‘Nothing wrong with that. You need to remember Victorian thrift and candle light. What’s the hurry?’
Sod off. I do want to make clear I start at the opposite end of Virginia’s arguments about women weighted down by the superior authority of men, and struggling to be born, shedding skins like snakes. Men were simply posturing fools playing at soldiers, in one sense or another. So it proved.
‘I could have persuaded you otherwise. You just never listened to logic or mastered statistics’
All the men I took up with or married laid down their scythes, pens or hammers and took to pouring wine or raiding the biscuit tin. The only part they seemed to remember was how to father children. My homes were littered with offspring. Although I had set out to do whatever was to be my thing, I have spent sixty years doing theirs, which brings me back to my bed.
My mind, if it had properly applied itself, could have saved me all that. Instead it opted out and is now a clutter of architect’s drawings, incompetent water colours, law suits, and anxieties about the idiocy of all my daughters, who have taken up with tedious men, seemingly contented in defeat. Now my once incisive mind can find no escape from the circular search for the one elusive knot or pen knife that will sever the tangle of single socks and bits of string into a coherent justification for my chaotic ill judged life. I have not much time left for the grand sort out…that’s why it occurred to me to offer a mind swap. That’s what I am here to consider…
‘I think I ought to be consulted.’ Mind seems a shade anxious. Good.
You will be, in time, but right now this is merely an option under consideration.
‘Just don’t offer me on Ebay. Okay?’
I’m serious about this. If I were to advertise and be honest, how would I sell it? As one might a house? It is, after all, the house one occupies; so starting from bottom up. ‘Solid foundations, built on multi-cultural (very pc!) strata. Components: Dutch, Irish, English, with a faint rumour of Russian aristocracy (Purchaser to validate by independent survey).
‘I can’t remember any of that. Must have been before my day.’
Early indications of designs influenced by African simplicity, ochre and rust in colour, wide skies offering unparalleled views, and exposed to the four winds of every influence blowing. Materials used in construction limited by local enterprise; basic education somewhat lacking in the sophisticated arts, but reliant on books, and conversations with the travelled and travelling. Long periods of neglect and isolation.
‘That’s a bit rich. I was always at work, even when you weren’t attending.’
Later accretions; not always wise, were influenced by travel and a few paltry words wilting and seldom watered, notably Portuguese (relating to food) Italian (limited to music) German (on occasions needing emphasis) and Afrikaans (reserved for frivolity).
‘That’s why I express myself vehementally; I’m not yet tamed to gentle innuendo, or softened by climbing subordinate clauses. I’ve never had much respect. Maybe that’s why I shout.’
At its age, it is in danger of subsidence but rescue may not prove expensive; perhaps re-pointed by liberal reading of the Classics and European novelists, however verbose, and modern poets, however acidic or evasive.
‘Boresville. We could try erotica. You’ve never let me loose on that.’
That train only travels in one direction; don’t you talk about Boresville.
Usage has been tidal. Debris remains. Spring cleaning prior to exchange will be undertaken…
‘What will you clear out? You usually regret any disposal. It’s not like A level files anymore…’ This Mind is incorrigible, so self-serving.
I suppose I should address its defects. I don’t want to deceive anybody and potential, which is what this photograph captures, is never what you find when you get there. The glossy pictures prodded with an awl, tend to crumble. As agent for myself I am in a tricky position, but this is one sale I cannot delegate.
What are my mind’s less fortunate qualities? There is certainly a sense that an initial coherent design has surrendered to a make do, anything to hand, take-it-on-the-wing, Heath Robinson quality.
‘Who’s hammering the point now?’
This has shown inventiveness but a lack of discernment. Much should be burnt. Also there is an over-riding sense that time is not on the side of mature pace. A desire to play a stringed instrument does not translate into scales and studies but an all out assault on Bach, as though he will yield like wheat to the scythe of determination.
‘That was never my doing. If you are going to blame me for all your arrogance and your quick fury with cloth-eared stupidity, (particularly your own) and impatience with the slow-witted needing elaboration when the point is nailed home, then maybe you should just display me in a car-boot sale. Make sure you tell any purchaser not to expect calm or sunlit terraces, until we all settle into forgetfulness and surrender to dilapidation. Oh yes, another thing; you should add Warning: This mind can seriously damage your peace.’
That’s mine done. What do I advertise for? What mind-set could I occupy instead? Please take note of the sulky silence prevailing. Here there is a problem obviously. If I sort the sale particulars with Mind’s impatient, dismissive faculties I am going to be a very choosy viewer. I shall collapse the already overflowing waste basket with rejects.
‘I see it clearly. So let’s go. I won’t say a word. Let’s view all those three by four metre minds, painted in magnolia; with their concern for the views of the neighbours, built out of sight of a contrary opinion, incapable of a risky or provocative statement; all those tidy routines of pub lunch and baby-sitting, and the worrisome barking of the dog, or the problems of Christmas again… Oh you’re going to lead a rich fulfilling existence!’
Mind is really fighting this off; seems to think it has a veto. Since it is so little appreciated in this skull you’d think it would happily take itself elsewhere. If I signed the contract without looking, then might I be happy, fulfilled by removing a stain on a carpet?
‘Have you seen those faces in front of those minds? Do they look fulfilled passing the salt?’
‘Perhaps behind that ennui with chips they are off with the fairies…
‘They are. Their fairies will take Caribbean cruises, or consider whether the Thompsons or the Ridleys deserve this year’s joint spell in Costabomb …’
It is clear I shall have to knock on doors myself. Mind clearly is planning to sabotage this enterprise.
I do believe Virginia Woolf’s would have suited nicely. I would have welcomed her sardonic disbelief that any woman of intelligence could have allowed herself to let-go so. I think that myself. We could have agreed on something. I could have taken her mind for a daily walk and looked through those clear unswerving eyes, and sucked on those balanced sentences like sherbet. I am sure her mind would have had no truck with half formed hypotheses; she would throw them out like an efficient matron. Her economy would have whisked away kernels of truth, laundered and starched them for future use and stacked them with hospital corners.
‘You reckon? Her mind was harder work than you think; just as ambitious as you are. You think in no time your cupboard would resemble a pantry for a remaining winter of content, and you would write, as she did, in a fluent beautiful hand, sipping Chablis.’ I know it’s trying to stay; but sometimes Mind comes up with persuasive images.
‘Decent of you to admit it’
There is an obvious flaw in this argument. If we swapped minds, even for the duration of clutter sorting, she would be lumbered with mine. Off she would stagger to pick her way through rusty polemic in search of a worthwhile idea, while I would go mad having all her silver tarnished by daily exposure to cross examination and doubts. I would probably only end up writing limericks, or mocking epithets like Dorothy Parker. Short of a slow graft, which is rather like a sex change, one cannot know what an endless Virginia Woolf world would be like, until it was too late.
‘Why not let me loose with my mate Imagination? Give us the bus fare and a fortnight off; we could show you a thing or two…’
Suicide is another thing we have in common, thoughts of, attempts at, attraction for…Success at, only she knows. That’s interesting because what I now have to recognise is that even with her perfect lucidity, or perhaps because of that lucidity, life was not worth living. There’s a kernel to tongue. That might be the missing pen knife if I polish it up. It was only a pile of stones that she pocketed, she in her hat at the river. Now I feel I might be getting somewhere.
Okay Mind. You can do this part. You examine the contents of her cupboard; see what you come up with. Children? None. Mess? I doubt. House-building? No need. Friends? In towers, or running off pursued by brace of husbands, or recluse in tweeds, with briar pipe and regular habits. Husband? Ruminative, otherwise occupied, or travelling. No wonder she wrote crystal clear, mote perfect, to and from light-houses, and back. Who couldn’t, given her education, her dining circles, and the unmarked sand to print? She had the time to paddle in warm wavelets, take luncheon, reflect and be reflected. Somehow her light has the clarity of Constable’s light, for all the occasional storms. Clouds usually sharpen the spectrum if they promise to go.
Mine never promise anything of the sort. They won’t until I dispatch them like Zeus in the corner with cheeks billowing, puffing wind. I must try harder. Virginia had no children, what would she have made of mine?
‘She would have been a briefly indulgent aunt; tea at Fortnum’s and cool enquiries about what they were reading. If you had had the sense to limit it to that, would that have helped?’
A lot, I think. I would have recognised at once the futility of struggling to seek scholarships, curtail expenditure, or contemplate University for Enid Blyton addicts. Think of all the violin lessons and daily practice that would have saved me, not to mention Urtext scores, for concerti to come, all laid waste. Virginia would never have made the mistake of imagining her ducks were swans, as I did. That’s quite a chunk ditched already.
‘You can’t blame me for any of that. I gave up arguing with your heart long ago’
House building? Well here I have to admit it was all tied up with children, poverty and the Mother Hubbard syndrome. No Sissinghursts, Long Barns ad libitum for us. Too much Dornford Yates and Edwardian fictions about endless summers on shuttered verandas; too many boat shaped perambulators, with sun in the eyes and babies smelling like dew. All dreams infected by hopes for better days, certain outcomes. Dreams never consisted of certainty, why did I ever imagine they did, or that labour could create them? Labour is now all that is left, grass cutting, window painting, and five hundred a year is not enough. Virginia was spared the dreams that accompany children, theirs and yours. Living with dreams is very time consuming.
Her cupboard was pretty bare; no wonder she could find things.
‘You realise you’ll be limited to writers. How else will you know the kind of mind you’d rather have than me? They’ll all be obsessional…what will change?’
Fair point; I give you that. Maybe Jilly Cooper finds time to grow parsley and ride.
‘You can-not be serious!’
I’m not. Starting with Virginia, (emancipated merely by money): She makes the point that of the nineteenth century women novelists, only Jane Austen sat comfortably on the stick back chairs of domesticity, and mastered the views they afforded without striving to bolt. Strangely, Virginia seems to approve of such docility; that Austen is at ease in her small marriage market, sharp eyed, sharp tongued, never missing the smallest inflection, clear eyes, simply recording. Her world was out of the rain, confined to parlours, kitchens, embroidery hoops, and the occasional accompanied walk. Rather like Virginia’s really. Where would Virginia have found her players in my ménage? She would have had to get used to being answered back, or being hated for being right.
‘She would never have got herself into that sort of mess. Give some attention to genetics, neither of us had any say over that.’
I can see what Mind is up to, busy making excuses; but suppose I had done any of the things my mother wanted instead, entered the Law, or studied Medicine? There lie recipes for stridency, and hard shove. Success at push and shove makes for poor fiction; turns like milk to smug. I never thought the male world was denied me- or any woman- so I’m not referring to battles waged against the odds. I’m talking about the mind’s debris whichever way it goes. Feminism was never my bag, never somehow necessary.
‘You fooled quite a few on that score.’
Only because they mistook necessity for choice; wet mortar, and filthy overalls, and climbing about roofs was a temporary detour, never a final destination. Okay, so I’m not one of those successful career women with impeccable nails and hard mouths, who somehow make everybody feel that, however rewarded, theirs has been a life of sacrifice. In writing, such disappointment is a harder master to dispel, it creeps, whines, finds its voice in every turn of phrase. I should have said at the beginning. Writing was always the intention for which living was the preliminary stock-pile. Only the living took over.
‘That’s your interpretation. I have never found the living, as you call it, a problem; it saved me hours of fruitless work. If you had not been so busy living I would have had to invent pointless stories that would never have been published’
‘Ah! So you admit you’re not much good?’
‘On the contrary. I admit no such thing. We’re not discussing fashion…’
Oh dear this is going nowhere good. I thought I was beginning to crack it.
Virginia could have saved her condolences for the domestically confined, if she’d bothered to go on living. A woman could now write War and Peace, but what Virginia never had to consider was the curse of women once truly emancipated. It was all very well holing up in Bloomsbury with the door closed. That’s not emancipation. To remain a woman and susceptible to dreams… therein lies the problem. She limited herself to the bare boards of shadow-less parlours, and articulated all she found there, in Oxbridge college dining halls, in country houses, stepping between the violets with buttoned shoes. Too refined for motherhood? Too frightened? Just the odd wild and I suspect un-inhaled cigarette.
I, emancipated from birth, have nothing to blame but my sex for leading me into half light, half truths, half hopes, and the other halves un-noticed. As similar other halves were denied Virginia’s careful exclusions. A writer is then undeniably determined by their sex. No escape.
‘What about a graft instead? I admit some need for refreshment. What about a tandem mind? No doubt I’d do the peddling. I see it very clearly. I shall be in plus fours on the axle; she behind in cool linen taking notes. She might not wade into the Ouse, and I might save some of the babies in the bathwater you have been so recklessly discarding. I might persuade her of the merits of George Eliot’s anger, and that it’s okay to lob the odd grenade…’
‘And how long before you brought up the hypothetical possibilities of Miss Austen’s fling with the visiting valet, and what might have changed in literature if she’d lost the baby?’
‘Give me a little credit! Per-lease!’
Come to think of it, I have found a quarrel with Virginia. Her criticisms of Charlotte Brönte and George Eliot lie precisely in their failures of ‘cool’. Well! On one hand she pretends to offer every sympathy with the oppression, confinement and disparagement of women in the world of men, she admits that their subjects for literature were limited and then denies them the literary expression of those chafing bonds; hence her approval of Austen. Tolstoy can wine, womanise and stroll about the Battle of Borodino and write War and Peace. Bully for him
George Eliot cannot be strident or angry, pacing the prison yard of rejection while watching Mary Wollstonecraft firing off cannon. She could not join in for fear of her reputation contaminating the war she wanted to see won. Charlotte Brönte comes in for the same long nosed admonishment, and the recipe that all she needed was a room of her own and five hundred a year. Out goes the governess, necessitated by pride and poverty; out too, I imagine, the dark longings for a Rochester. Given the men Charlotte could see in clear light, allure would surely lie precisely in such smouldering dark uncertainty. Instead we have ‘come in Girton, step this way Mr Forster and look Charlotte what a privilege…let me introduce’. Virginia was as intolerant as I am, but about different things.
‘So you admit this bi-pedalled ride through the lanes of Oxfordshire is looking less attractive by the minute? What about a painter? Why not try the frenzy of Picasso, or I know, let’s go for Salvador Dali?’
Now Mind is being frivolous. I feel an appetite for a good argument instead, but for that I shall need not only my mind entire, but all my vehemence. I don’t fancy a quadrille of pared points and sliced distinctions. I have little taste for the conditional tense, or the qualifying adjectives which cloud the water.
‘Not many women share your appetite for argument, men are better at that; those who do not consider it beneath them to spar with a woman. They can work up a mental sweat and then laugh and pour another glass. Most women end up in a sulk, re-powdering their noses; they seem to feel that to disagree diminishes them. Ever thought of inviting in a man?’
Alan Bennett has much to recommend him…
‘The less is more and more and more merchant; the male Jane Austen milking the minutiae of social distinction? You’d swap your galloping herds of wildebeest for the back streets of Leeds, and his family stepping over cracks in the class paving stones?’
If you could turn the wildebeest into his kind of art, and chew it forever like nourishing cud, I wouldn’t be thinking like this at all. Okay, maybe not Alan Bennett, much as I envy him his confident eye; he’d bring other problems I haven’t time to resolve. I can’t afford the parallel universe of sexuality, which would invite what it could never satisfy. That would apply to any man, even Garcia Marquez, so back to women: My quarrel is not with the literary giants among brave women, least of all those with vehemence to match my own, but with those quailing lace-capped dociles who suffered subjugation without a fight. There are lots about even now, who pepper their novels with sex, and curtsey to male publishers, or who escape by concentrating on crime which is usually too busy for sex, or food. One further uncomfortable thought… I rather think Virginia Woolf was precisely such a woman, too English for her own good, denying herself outrage, fury, longing, despair, (except during the intervals between scripts) or really much enthusiasm. Hers was no lace-cap, but a bonnet of crisp certainty permitted certain outings. She offered opinions like tablets, ‘take two at bedtime, they will give you a sound night’s sleep’. Only in the end nothing was good enough except eternal sleep amongst the reeds of the river. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had got there first.
Yet half a beast is the great god Pan
To laugh as he sits by the river
Making a poet out of a man
The true god’s sigh for the cost and pain
For the reed that grows nevermore again
As a reed with the reeds of the river….
‘So now you realise how easily Virginia seduced you half an hour ago, she and her lucidity? Lucky you didn’t pick up Mrs Gaskell, or Beatrice Webb. You’d be forever sorting jumble, and you wouldn’t need a mind at all. I could go to sleep’
I must have been very low on firepower. Somehow it did not occur to me to consider an exchange with a man. Imagine being shut in with D.H. Lawrence and all that heavy breathing, or Proust with his cloying aromatic nostalgia. Exhausting, endlessly trying to open windows and let in some air.
Thanks mind. Not bad. You set a good pace.
‘Maybe you’re just learning to drive…’
I think I can get up now, and get on. For the time. Being.
Philippa Rees has published two works of poetic narrative, one fiction (A Shadow in Yucatan- a portrait of the sixties through a story set in Florida) and one she believes is non-fiction (Involution-An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God- offering an alternative Evolution as the encoding of memory and science as that memory incrementally recovered) Five short stories have been recent finalists in Narrative Magazine and the Rubery Prize. Her dominant interest as an author is the conflicted encounters between the maverick and the orthodox. Her websites can be found here: philipparees.me and involution-odyssey.com