Déjà vu

These are notes for what might become an essay one day. It’s a big theme and I’m not sure I will ever write it up properly. The elements are:

  • Chapter 12 of Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: ‘In oval mirrors we drive around’: on experiencing a sense of déjà vu;
  • My own experiences of revisiting, after an interval of three(?) years, the half-remembered city of Lecce (‘I went in there—I’m sure I did—and there’s something to see in there, something quite grand, I think …’);
  • A visual illusion—an infinite regression—caused by two not-quite-parallel mirrors (see photo), which in turn reminded me (déjà vu!) of …
  • The downstairs front room in my grandmother’s house, long ago: the ‘shop’, as it was still called, though it hadn’t really been one for years—where there was just such an arrangement of mirrors, endlessly delightful to small children, and presumably also, though in a quieter way, to the ladies of Abergavenny in former days as the fit of their tailored costumes was altered (Granma with a mouthful of pins, measuring, tugging, adjusting with a confident hand—as she still did for us as children, though I never saw her with her paying customers).

In memory of Muppet

The morning fanfare is the first thing that comes to mind. As I descended the stairs she would swirl around the corner from the sitting-room in a flurry of huge fluffy tail, calling out at the top of her voice, in unmistakeably cheerful tones, a very distinctive greeting: two syllables, rising in both volume and inflection. It sounded a lot like “Hel-LO?!”, and she used it only to mean that (she had different calls for other purposes). I always intended to record it.

My other special memory is of a typical evening at home, watching the television. We’d hear the cat-flap go, and a few moments later she’d appear. Usually she’d come to me first, step carefully and politely onto my lap, pause as if considering her options, and then proceed to her master’s. Where she would circle around through 360 degrees, always in the same direction, swirl her magnificent tail round after her, and settle herself tidily, and rather smugly, down. Sometimes it would have been necessary to displace his laptop or newspaper in order to achieve this. Once established she would stay for hours so long as she was undisturbed. Sometimes he would reach for a comb and groom her fur, which she submitted to with a reasonably good grace (occasionally whinging but never biting or scratching). If he was not around she made do with my lap instead, but it was clear from her demeanour that this was second best.

The name was my idea—I was thinking of one of those cute fluffy monsters from The Muppet Show—and of course I regretted it later. I first heard the word used in its modern sense by Ed Grundy (a streetwise young character) on The Archers just a couple of months after we’d named her. We considered changing it, but it had stuck, so she was stuck with it.

She quite liked other cats. Darcy, who doesn’t, was a disappointment to her as a companion. Muppet’s attempts to start a playful rough-and-tumble were usually misunderstood. The few occasions on which we found them sharing a bed or a sofa were so rare and delightful as to inspire an immediate dash for a camera, so the photographic record is distorted in this respect.

We chronicled some episodes from her life in our Christmas circular letters:

2001


We acquired two new cats. Their names are Darcy and Muppet.
Muppet is Andrew’s cat. She is large and has a tail of great magnificence.
Darcy is Sarah’s cat. She looks like a fragile and elegant little creature, but in fact she is an ardent adventurer who goes out in all weathers.

Muppet contemplating a winter sunrise

2002


2003

What we did on our holidays

Mostly we sat on the sofa on the boat while it went along. Sometimes we sat up inside the porthole instead. This is particularly rewarding when moored in Ely, where lots of people walk past and they all stop and say “Ah”. (Why do people do that?)

We experimented with walking around the outside of the boat while it was going along, but there was a bit of a mix-up when we were trying to get past each other on the gunwhale and Muppet ended up in the river.

Fortunately she turns out to be a very good swimmer, but the master and mistress made a huge fuss about having to climb out onto the bank to pick her up. We don’t understand why, as it was only a thicket of nettles, thistles and rusty scrap iron. They are weaklings.

– Darcy & Muppet

We like to spend quite a lot of time upside-down because it is good for the brain

That year, Muppet also appeared on our Christmas card. She was very well insulated from the cold, and quite happy with snow.

Deep and crisp and even

2004

The feline year

We continue in joint domination of the Water Street area, or at least this bit of it.
There was a serious challenge over the summer from two very uppity young intruders – one night they even invaded the bedroom that we allow the master and mistress to share with us – but they proved no match for our superior running-away-and-hiding skills and they eventually had to persuade their people to move house so as to save face.
– Muppet and Darcy

2006

We were very pleased to see the Japanese guy again. Next time we’ll remember to ask for his name and address. He told us the photos of Muppet that he took at our 2004 Open Studio had been very popular at his own exhibition in Tokyo.

2007

Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?

Many thanks to the friends who helped with posters etc (we were in Paris). No thanks at all to the man who phoned on the fifth day Muppet was gone, claimed he’d got her and demanded a thousand-pound ransom. Fortunately she came home the next morning. We still don’t know where she was.

2008

“I must confess I lack my small friend’s dedication to the pursuit of voles. Problem is, I don’t really like raw vole. But they’ve been so plentiful this autumn that no cat could help catching the odd one. So I hand them on to her. Freaks her out! She’s such a suspicious little thing. I have to close both eyes tight and then, would you believe it, roll on my back and wave my paws in the air before she will actually believe that I mean it as a gift.”

2009

We used a little photo story that had already appeared on Flickr.

Muppet has just died

Muppet was at the vet’s today (well, yesterday, I mean, since it’s now after midnight) for a very minor procedure—flushing out a blocked tear-duct, under sedation. I picked her up in the afternoon and she seemed just like her usual self all evening, only rather cross because she wanted to go out and we had been instructed to keep her in. Then, at about 11pm, Andrew went to get her (she was sitting in the hall) to give her an eye-drop. As he carried her over to the sofa she seemed to shudder, and then she just collapsed. We rushed her to the emergency vet’s in Milton, but she was dead on arrival.

The emergency vet was very kind and spent time with us talking it over. He explained that she died because she had lost a great deal of blood. He said it was most likely internal bleeding (must have been—there was no visible wound), though he couldn’t explain what had caused that. He said that nothing connected with the usual procedure to flush out a tear-duct could possibly account for this, and it was probably a coincidence that it happened on the same day. He said that a post-mortem would be the only way to find out, and of course there was no need for that to be treated as an emergency. So we brought her body home, and will see about that sort of thing in the morning.

She had a good life. She was nine years old (same age as Mercury was when he died), and she was always active and healthy apart from minor things. It is a shock for us, but perhaps not too bad an end for her. It was sudden—no lingering illness—and she died in the arms of her master, whom she adored.

Why life speeds up

A couple of years ago I was walking past the CUP bookshop in town and I saw a title in the window: Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older. And I thought,‘Yes!’ And I bought it. But sadly I haven’t had time to read it yet.

I’d been meaning to say that for ages—it was one of the numerous things on my blogging backlog—but it only appears here today because I wanted to play with twitterfeed, and posting ‘This is a test’ after several weeks of silence seemed a bit pathetic. So I picked the easiest thing out of the backlog.

Ten implausible years

After dinner yesterday evening, in the final hours of the decade, the conversation turned to fiction that is based on counterfactual history (Fatherland and so on). Someone pointed out that this has an inherent limitation: it mustn’t surprise you too thoroughly, because of the need to keep the story plausible. Reality, on the other hand, is not constrained in the same way. And over the last ten years it has been taking full advantage of this freedom. As someone else said last night, since 9/11 we all seem to have been living in some kind of parallel universe.

My personal experience of the 21st century so far has been rather implausible, too. Most of what I was doing at the turn of the millennium could reasonably have been predicted at least 15 years before that, by extrapolation (not the details, of course, but the broad trends). The disruptive event in my life was the dotcom bubble, right at the start of the decade. I was just sitting there at my desk, minding my own business (or rather, my employer’s), when it picked me up, whirled me around, and then—pop!—deposited me, a bit shaken, in a delightful spot on the bank of the river. The consequences of this are still working themselves out. It was the start of a journey, and I don’t know yet where I’m going.

Sincerity, backlog and this and that

Just been enjoying the new Norah Jones album. When young I would have dismissed quite a bit of it (I think) as sentimental and therefore insincere. Same with those fantastic late works by Johnny Cash. It takes time before you realize that someone really could feel like that, and, if they did, that they would want to make art out of it.

This would have been a tweet, but it was too long.

I am backlogged on things to blog about (I have a list) and email to answer. And I have a pile of unopened letters. November.

Blogger’s spelling checker flags “blog” as an unrecognised word!

Prey

I have mixed feelings about celebrating the achievements of my small and destructive feline friend (as my Dad is fond of pointing out, it cannot logically be reconciled with my opposition to fox-hunting—especially when, as on this occasion, she hasn’t even attempted to get a meal out of it), but I couldn’t resist making a record of this morning’s specimen. That’s a 12-inch ruler.

How on earth did she manage to get it in through the cat-flap?

Venice Biennale 2009 – first impressions

[Some jottings from my notebook]

 

Lots of site-specific work (it’s a meme! —first saw it with that American guy a few shows ago—v powerful piece about slavery etc with the weird black Murano glass chandeliers). Examples this year: Giardini; the Venetian blinds in the Korean pavilion; giveaway postcards of Marghera in the Corderia.

Stuffed cats so far: German, Russian.
Stuffed dogs: Nordic; USA (several, but not, I think, real ones).

Several works obviously feminine in style (use of textiles, domestic interiors). Amused to find that we were nearly always guessing the gender of the artist correctly (yes, discovered later that the Korean one was a woman, too).

Scandinavian gay dead writer most impressive so far, but it was a pity they had to include an explanation. Other half of that show (the Danish/Nordic pavilion) is v good too (and feminine, by way of contrast, and also bleak).

Russian pavilion is a ghost train! The automatic artist drawing circles is genuinely creepy. French one is a black prison with black flags inside. Lots of bleak stuff about—recession?

Spanish paintings a bit like our own Gail de Cordova. Nice chairs in there too (with bark on!).

Jef Geys (Belgium)—nice counterpoint to the Simon Baron-Cohen autism/Aspergers book (which I was reading at the time). Collection/classification is a pervasive theme (influence of Damien Hirst).

Yoko Ono quote found in the bookshop: the glass is not half empty. It is 100% full, half with water and half with air. Yes!

In between the good stuff there is a lot of sixth-form (puerile) art. Too much text. Using text in visual art is hard (see Keith Tyson or Tracey Emin for successful use). A beginners’ book on drawing and painting that I read years ago recommended always rendering text illegible if it occurs in the scene, otherwise it draws the eye and distorts the viewer’s response to the composition. Like all rules, this is to be broken, but only by those who know what they’re doing.

More to follow, and photos of the art, when I get round to it. See Biennale website meanwhile.

Now I know where the river goes

I knew it in theory before; but there’s knowing and then there’s knowing.

I started walking, alone, from my own front door, at about 2pm on the last Saturday of September. I didn’t have time really but it was the last good chance of the year, with the weather set fair and dry and no work deadlines that couldn’t be made to wait. I’d spent the morning on my most pressing errands and chores, and then I sent out a brief announcement to some people who might want to come with me, but really not giving them enough notice, which was sort of intentional. Best to set off alone.

The first day’s route was familiar. I’d walked this way before, and boated along it many times. No surprises, just best-foot-forward. I was excited by the plan, and racing the sun, and I made good progress. From home to Clayhithe along the west bank; across the bridge and following the east bank via Upware to the next bridge; across again to Dimmock’s Cote.

Sunset overtook me at Pope’s Corner, and I paused on the bridge to watch it and to wonder what was going to happen next. But luck was with me, and there was half a moon, and the path was straight and level along the top of the floodbank. I strode into Ely railway station at about 8pm. Andrew met me at Cambridge and took me out to dinner. Nice.

Day 2 suffered a bit from a slow start. I was stiffer than I’d expected to be, and took a bath to remedy it. And then the usual faffing-around with email and what-have-you. Train, eventually, back to Ely, where William joined me. He, an efficient blogger, has already documented the weirdly convoluted goose-chase we were sent on by the Fen Rivers Way Association’s booklet. We would have done better following the OS map, which tells you to keep close to the river, even though this means walking along a road for part of the way.

We rejoined the river at Queen Adelaide bridge, and here I finally managed to pick up the rhythm of the previous day, and get into some kind of a stride again. River straight as a ruler; strong sun (glad of my hat). But the lack of pace in the early part of the morning meant that we reached Littleport after Andrew had, and then I needed a rest and some sustenance at the Black Horse, so it was 3pm before he and I bid farewell to William.

Then I set off with Andrew—and immediately made a strategic navigational error. I’d left the OS map for this section on the boat, and failed to buy another copy that morning, and so I was relying on the Fen Rivers Way Association’s 1998 booklet, which told us to cross the river to the east bank. This didn’t work out well. The floodbank is mostly unwalkable, and the A10 is ferocious. Never doing that again. (Subsequent research shows that this section of the official path has been moved to the west bank.)

Once we reached the county boundary, though, things got better. Norfolk looks after its walkers, even if they aren’t on an official long-distance path. And just before the boundary there is the Ship Inn, where the Brandon Creek meets the Ouse, and it is Cambridgeshire CAMRA’s Pub of the Year, and very nice too. Though we only troubled it for a cup of tea on this occasion.

Onwards, fortified by tea. Floodbank now well maintained and walking good. Dusk approaching, though. Eventually the bridge: Ten Mile Bank. Or was it? We were utterly flummoxed. Nothing was as described in the booklet—bridge different, and no trace of the pub—not even its foundations! No shop, no nothing. Well, we crossed anyway to the west bank, where we knew we wanted to be, and shortly afterwards passed St Mark’s Church, the one thing in Ten Mile Bank that seemed to answer to its description in the book. So this probably was Ten Mile Bank, or at least some weird parallel-universe approximation to it.

There was nothing in the village to detain us, so we set off north again. From here to Denver the path follows a minor road, so it didn’t much matter that it was getting dark again. But when we reached the Jenyns Arms I’d had enough. Spurned their food (we’ve tried it before); sat over a drink or two while a taxi came out from Downham Market for us. To the station; to Cambridge; to our usual Sunday-evening takeaway with the usual friends—rather later than usual, though. Web search: discovered the truth about Ten Mile Bank!

Monday morning started with the now-familiar flurry of chores, email, getting ready and just-getting-a-few-things-done-first. And a mad dash into Cambridge to buy a new OS map—not making the same mistake twice. Which resulted in my just missing, at Waterbeach, the train that Shona had caught in Cambridge. So I drove to Downham Market. The train is a lot quicker! It was well after midday when she and I eventually set forth from Downham Market station car-park. Never mind; short day, today.

The first job was to get back to the previous day’s endpoint, the Jenyns Arms. We accomplished this by walking along the Relief Channel, a route I knew already from an earlier boat-related adventure. There were cows, but they were not hostile. After a brief survey of the Denver Complex and its tourist information boards, and a pause, seated on the floodbank across the road from the Jenyns Arms, to consume our M&S sandwiches, we doubled back along the eastern bank of the Great Ouse itself, walking along what is, effectively, a very long narrow island between the river and the Relief Channel. The turf under our feet was close-cropped by sheep, and springy—if it hadn’t been for the thistles, I’d have tried walking barefoot. There were cormorants. We saw a narrowboat waiting outside Salter’s Lode, presumably for the tide (had they been there all night on the mudbank?—the tide was approaching the top as we passed them). In the distance, a long way ahead of us, a huge, white and mysterious building loomed [to be explained in a footnote later]. We admired the flour mill at Downham Market from all angles, and the trim little houses behind the floodbank—the countryside is all very well, but human things have a special fascination.

Downham Market flour mill

I don’t think I’ve ever done a significant walk with another woman before. Alone, yes. In big mixed groups, yes. With a man, yes. The odd thing was to be walking with a companion who had a shorter stride than my own. I’m accustomed to lengthening my stride to keep in step.

We reached Stowbridge by about 4. Pub present and correct, but, sadly, closed on Monday afternoons. Never mind. Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen wasn’t a great deal further on, and its pub was open. From there, after a rest, to Watlington station (less than a mile by road), and thus to Downham Market again (which felt like a buzzing metropolis after the emptiness of the fens), where we collected the car and drove home. A pleasant, companionable day.

I took the Tuesday off from walking, to catch up on things that couldn’t be made to wait any longer.

Wednesday morning: preparations accompanied by a flutter of excitement. Today might finish it! Taped up my poor toes with Elastoplast Extreme, William’s parting gift from Sunday. Packed sandwiches for a long haul. Resumed walking (alone) at Watlington station, by first backtracking to Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen and there ascending the floodbank once again. Glad to be on my own today, so that I could without embarrassment let my battered feet dictate the pace. At Wiggenhall St Peter I found to my astonishment that the ruined church nestles just behind the floodbank. I’d visited it before from the road and never understood this. You can’t now, of course, climb the tower, but the view from it must have been splendid. At Wiggenhall St Germans there was a pub, and I had soup and a pickled egg, and carried on. Crossing the Tail Sluice felt like a significant step, so I sent a triumphant tweet from the top, and my husband phoned to congratulate me. Solitude is not what it used to be.
I entered King’s Lynn just as school was turning out for the day, and it felt weird to be among people again—kids, mums, bikes. Now what? Fantasies of afternoon tea gave way to the reality of the ferry schedule—last boat back at 6pm, and an extra three miles round by the bridge if you miss it. Tea could wait; the unknown beckoned, though my feet weren’t entirely happy about it.
So I followed the channel downstream out of West Lynn. First past the docks, the river busy now with proper, serious shipping, putting to sea on the turning tide. I decided to go on for an hour and then think about what to do next, while there was still time to get back for the ferry. But an hour brought me to a smelly and unattractive stretch next to the sewage works, and I thought, no, this can’t be the end of it. Something will turn up. So I went on. And so it was that, as the sun was slowly sinking, I found myself in a perfectly, wonderfully desolate spot, and finally I could (more or less) look out at what just about qualified to be described as the sea. And I was happy, and it was done. And now all I had to do was to get back to civilization.
Which turned out to be incredibly easy. I didn’t deserve to be so lucky, but that’s the story of my life in a lot of ways, and at least I don’t take it for granted. Well, not all the time, anyway. I turned inland, and there was a farm, and the farmer said “Are you lost?”, so I explained, and he drove me to the village (Clenchwarton) in his Land Rover. Very kind. He clearly thought I was mad when I told him what I’d done, but we parted friends. And then I found a bus stop, and I was just typing the magic code into my phone to get bus information when a taxi drove past! Here, in the middle of nowhere. And I waved, and it stopped, and yes, it could take me to King’s Lynn railway station.

So that was that. I haven’t yet decided whether I’ll do sixty miles in ten years’ time, but it might be a nice goal to keep in mind.

Overload

This is just a “me too”, but it’s a heartfelt one.

Charlie Brooker in Monday’s Guardian: “Every day we humans gleefully churn out yet more books and films and TV shows and videogames and websites and magazine articles and blog posts and emails and text messages, all of it hanging around, competing for attention. Without leaving my seat I can access virtually any piece of music ever recorded, download any film ever made, order any book ever written. And the end result is that I hardly experience any of it.”

Mariella Frostrup in last weekends Observer: “I’m the sort of lunatic who considers the phone ringing an invasion of personal privacy, who can’t muster the energy to respond to emails that run at more than a paragraph. At night I lie awake wracked with guilt about unanswered texts and messages but during daylight hours can’t drum up the willpower to clear either my conscience or my in-tray.”

Enough (more than enough) said.