Me and Bob and Ed

robert-milligan-statue-1006(I wrote this for the Express, where it appeared on Saturday 14 June. I though I’d share it again here.)

It turns out I was a neighbour of Robert Milligan’s, although until this last week I would have been hard put to point him out to you. But you know him already, right? You’d see him outside the Museum of London Docklands. Tall bloke. Scottish. Little pigtail. Slave-owner.

And now, just like Bristol’s Edward Colston, gone.

I’ve worked in the arts all my life, and the notion of the removal of any kind of art, and all the issues that raises of censorship and faddy political correctness are matters I find difficult and troubling and confusing. But not in this case.

I must have walked past Robert Milligan dozens of times. If I noticed him at all, it would only have been as yet another statue of an old white bloke, with a truly tragic example of greengrocer’s apostrophe in its inscription. It wasn’t even a good piece of art (so few of these statues are), and looked nothing like portraits of the man himself, in all his pouchy thin-lipped pugnacity. No-one seems to have much cared for it, ever; it was shoved around three times to different sites. Had I been a schoolchild from a BAME background, as are so many here in Tower Hamlets, I imagine (and all I, white and middle class, can do is imagine) the statue of an old white bloke would have registered even less with me – that is, unless I knew who he was and what he had done. Then I might well have asked myself what, as I was here, he was doing there. I might have wanted to know why his life was celebrated, while the lives of those he had enslaved, at least until you got into the Museum itself, were completely invisible. And I might have wondered whether, in these new times of Covid-19 and Clap for the NHS and the appalling murder of George Floyd, something ought not to be done about his gurning presence.

Well, now it has been, and I’m glad. I’m glad those questions are now being asked at an elected level, and I’m glad Milligan was removed not by a crowd of protesters but by community decree. I hope his statue, and Colston’s, find new homes where they can be used to continue the conversation around all these difficult and troubling and confusing questions; and I hope the site where Milligan stood is used for new and better art, that responds to the whole, entire history of the Isle of Dogs and all its peoples. The reasons for Colston’s and Milligan’s statues are part of why they had to go, and now, truly, part of history itself, but I can’t find any part of me that thinks removing them was censorship. It is simply doing the right thing. It is, if you like, something as simple as good taste.

Image from the Evening Standard.

 

DAISY’S DIRY – The thoughts of small cat on lockdown. Episode III

I may be but small cat with tail on the wrong way round, and not at all Thinker of Great Thorts like Bird, but even I know there are two things every cat must establish soon as they get a Hoomann to look after. Number 1 is Ground Rules, and Number 2 is Routine. And these are speshally important now everything in Hooman world Outside has gone a bit squiggly, with Bloody Carniverus rampaging about out there. Therefore, Bird says, we should share our tips as being of great value to cats and Hoomans alike, so here goes.

First of all, Bed. It is most important to teach Hooman proper etiket of Bed from Day One. Bed is ours, and that is that, so take no notice of Hooman Moaning where Bed is concerned. Our Hooman, for example, says being in bed with us is like playing world’s worst game of Norts and Crosses (sorry, Hooman thing, no idea), because whichever corner she tries to put herself in, one of us is there first. Now this is just Hooman Nonsense as we don’t sleep on the corners (perish the thort!); I sleep draped nicely over Hooman hip and Bird sleeps on her head. We recommend this arrangement. First of all, it is handy for URKS, should such be needed (see below), but with Things As They Are it also means it is easy for you to check your Hooman is safe and well at regular intervals throughout night. You can do this simply by stretching out paw till it is in Hooman’s eye. If Hooman gives mighty jump and goes eeeuargh!, all is well.

Then you want nice early start. We start our Hooman at 5am. Hooman’s come in two sorts, Bird tells me, the Morning sort and the Not Morning sort, and ours is the Not Morning sort, so often requires a bit of Dancing On and Squeaking At to wake her up properly, and sometimes Bird even has to resort to what Hooman calls the Yeti Noise, which is Bird going URK into Hooman’s ear in her deepest voice, as loud as she can. Then Bird and me have our breakfast crunchies, and then we do Mad Cats, up and down the hall. We usually let Hooman go back to bed while we do Mad Cats, until it is time for even Not Morning Hoomans to get up, except for the odd occasion when I get so excited I barf up breakfast on the rug. Hooman is very good at getting up then, and this, says Bird, is important trick to pass on – if you need your Hooman up in a hurry, make barf noise. We have taught ours this, and it’s never failed yet.

Once Hooman is up, you must take them to pee. For some reason this is first thing Hoomans have to do, soon as they are up on back paws. This is another Ground Rule: while it is unfurgivable error for Hooman to enter bathroom when one of us is in the litter tray, it is vital that all Hooman pees are closely supervised. This is my job, and with Things As They Are, I always check Hooman’s right knee with nose while I do it, to be sure Carniverus did not make off with knee overnight. Then it is time for 2nd breakfast, and another Rule, because again it is unfurgivable Hooman error to allow bottom of kitty-dish to be visible, EVER. Inadvertent glance into bottom of kitty-dish is worst thing that can happen to a cat, punishable by not just barf, but by pee on rug, as well.

Time was, our Hooman would then head off to Libree, and Bird and me would have Kitty Qwiet Time, but now we all have our Hoomans home ALL DAY, there are xtra duties of regular checking up on them to be done. Our Hooman now spends day tappytapping away at desk, so we have to go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth… I always make sure Carniverus has not snuck onto Hooman lap without her noticing when it is my turn to check on her, even though Hooman moans that with me on lap she can barely reach keyboard (so?????), while Bird does Desk Patrol, and checks pencils still obeying gravity. If Hooman gets up, we escort her safely into kitchen, which is also chance to check on kitty-dish/crunchies situation, and Take Akshun, if needed.

End of Day sees Hooman on the sofa, writing to Monster in Merica. Soon as lap is free of annoying small tappytappy thing (kitten – we think – of big tappytappy thing on desk), it is ours, and sometimes we make it ours even if Hooman is still doing tappytappy on it, because it is also important Hooman understands Who Is Boss, which is me ow ow OW no OK Bird it is you.

And then we come to Most Important Part of Day, which is Kitty Play Time.

As every cat knows, best and faverit Kitty Play Time is when Hooman has brushed teeth and is just getting into bed, which is when you should charge into bedroom and leap onto bed to show her you are now ready for Play. Our faverit game is String, and way to play String is this: we hide under bed, behind quilt Monster bought, and Hooman trails String along carpet, making exciting chase noises as she does so, and then we Ambush. This always makes Hooman laugh, no matter how much moaning and complaining she may have done about wanting to put light off and go to sleep before. ‘You have entire Toy-Box of goodies,’ Hooman says, ‘and all you want to play with is a piece of string.  You’re cheap dates, you two.’

And that, of course, is whole point of Kitty Play Time, and why no matter how much your Hooman may moan on about being tired, Play Time is Most Important Part of Day. Because when you do Play Time with a Hooman, you are showing them that no matter how squiggly it may get out there, some things will never change, and one is that when Hoomans do String, cats will always make them laugh. And that when they sleep, we will be there too – me draped over Hooman’s hip, and Bird on her head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

DAISY’S DIRY The thoughts of small cat on lockdown. Episode II.

Dear Diry, likewise World Outside and Cats of Posterity

This is coming to you from under Bed, and not because Monster is here again, either, no Monster is Still Stuck in Merica for Months. This is coming to you from under Bed because Hooman is doing Housework. This means Hoover is out AAAAAARGHHHH, and not only that – Hooman is doing Angry Housework, the very worst kind, the sort where she shouts things over Hoover noise. I tell you, Kitty Quiet Time round here is but fond memory.

But Hooman, it seems, has lots to be angry about. First of all there is Monster, Still Stuck in Merica. Then a fellow Hooman was trying to tell her that people should all be buying extra Hooman crunchies in case there is Shortage. Shortage of Crunchies sounded pretty serious to Bird and me, but our Hooman says no, if there is Shortage, she says, ‘It will be caused by bleeping idiots like that. It’s like those bleeping WHUURRRR WHUUUUUR cretins who whine on and on about how they’re stuck in a bleep-bleeping WHURRRRR traffic jam without thinking how they are the goddam bleep WHURRRR traffic-jam. BLEEEEP!’ and she yanked Hoover across the carpet so hard that even though Bird says Hoover is Instrument of the Borsh the Borg WELL BIRD YOU SPELL IT THEN Bourgeoisie whose one aim in life is to eat Mousie (as well as making horrible WHURRRR WHURRRR noise), I almost felt sorry for it. Almost.

Then it seems that along with bleeping idiots and Carniverus, there is something out there in the world called the Lying Orange Liar. Lying Orange Liar is meant to be taking care of Merica, where Monster is, and keeping everyone in Merica safe from Carniverus, but isn’t interested in doing anything unless it means extra Crunchies for him. Lying Orange Liar, to quote Hooman, is bloated whitehead on nose of humanity. I asked Bird what that meant and she says it is like when we were in rescue place, before Hooman rescued us, and both had itchy butt-buttons, only worse.

Hooman then sat down with little book and pencil with chewy thing on end, and started using chewy thing to rub out writing in little book. Bird and I had come out from under bed by now, seeing as how Hoover was back in cage (also I wanted to make sure Mousie was safe in Toy Box and had not been et), and did all we could to help – inspecting pencil when Hooman waved it about and testing chewy bit, and I even gave her the tummy, but no. Nothing helped. Still shouty. Monster’s birthday – gone. Visit to her Mummy – gone. Trip to Paris with Nice Friend Lee – gone. ‘Three bleeping months of this,’ says Hooman, ‘and that’s if we’re lucky. We’d better start getting used to each other, girls.’

I looked at Bird and Bird looked at me. It seemed to us we could hear faint evil antispatory whurrrrr of pleasure from Hoover’s cage in kitchen. Three months of Angry Housework? Three months without Kitty Quiet Time? BLEEEPING EEEEP! Pass the nip!

 

HARD BODY: On going to the gym

Screenshot 2020-02-05 at 14.44.12

As a writer, most of your day will be spent hunched over your keyboard, peering from an unhealthily close distance at your screen. Your sustenance will be flagons of coffee in the morning, and gallons of tea in the afternoon. Your lower legs will be knotted around each other in either terror or excitement, depending on how the Muse is behaving today, with your entire body-weight resting in effect on one butt-cheek and one big toe. This will become apparent only when you attempt to stand, when you will realize that all feeling has departed from said toe, possibly never to return, and that the butt-cheek is now busy informing you by every means it can that you need a hip replacement. Your fingers will be bitten; your eyes will be scrunched. Your lower lip will be chewed like a dog-toy, and possibly your upper lip as well.

As the ideal antidote to all of this, you may wish to take yourself down to the gym: unbend, de-knot, stand tall and breathe from the diaphragm. Here is a writerly guide to some of the items of equipment you will encounter if you do.

Cross-Trainer

This is an excellent machine to start with, especially for a writer. The contradiction of trying to pull the handles back toward you whilst your feet advance on an endless trek to nowhere is a perfect metaphor for the writer’s life. It comes complete with graphics of a pounding heart to monitor how close your lifestyle choices have brought you to cardiac wipe-out, and on the more advanced models a TV screen where (since the cat chewed through your ear-buds) you can watch in eerie silence the world you will never be part of again.

The Leg-Press

Do you remember the pose in which the exploded fossilized alien was discovered in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus? That’s the one you want to adopt here. It is an excellent research tool should you ever need to describe the torments of a sandwich trapped in a sandwich-maker.

The Pull-Down

The Pull-Down exercises the latissimus dorsi, the biceps, and a tiny muscle you never knew you had in your right index finger, which will suddenly start screaming like a bitch. It was a favourite with Torquemada.

The Standing Leg Curl

Speaking of Torquemada, you really should try this. It pretends it’s there to strengthen your hamstrings, whereas an acquaintance of mere seconds will be enough to convince you that its true purpose is to bring you to confess every deep-buried shameful secret of your inmost soul, and then to die.

The Half-Rack

Oh please. How graphic does a name have to be?

The Leg Raise Dip

Place your back against the big bit of padding, and let your arms rest on the two smaller pieces. Yes, what, indeed, are you supposed to do with your legs? If the oxymoron in its name isn’t enough to warn you off, the experience of once trying to raise your legs to your chest on this one, in defiance of all the laws of physics in the known universewill certainly do so instead.

The Foam-Roller

This is neither hard enough nor heavy enough to be of any use in putting you out of your misery, no matter how much you beg.

The Ab-Crunch Bench

This is designed to reduce pressure, whilst you crunch, on the back and neck. But since it will already have caused you to push all the major organs out of your body, that’s not really going to be a concern for you, is it?

Kettlebells

These are heavy. They have handles. They lend themselves to being swung at head height. Are you choreographing a murder mystery? Then their usefulness to you should be obvious.

The Preacher Bench

The reason the seasoned gym-goer sitting on this one appears to be judging you as you pass by is because of course they are. If they should begin to denounce you out loud, the proper course of action is to hide in the toilets until the gym closes, leave via the fire exit, and never return.

The Rowing Machine

Think of poor Douglas Adams. Don’t go near it.

The Peck-Deck

This machine exercises the pectoralis major and the deltoids. If your burning ambition is to look as if you are wearing epaulettes even when naked, this is the one for you.

The Leg Abduction Machine

This one abducts your legs and refuses to release them. It opens you up as if you are a book, and your legs are the covers. It is recommended for writers of science fiction in particular, as the position it puts you in is exactly the one your character will be forced to adopt after they have been abducted by aliens: helplessly pinioned with legs akimbo, screaming for rescue. Again, an excellent research tool.

The Hammer Strength Machine

Would you rather be a hammer or a nail? This machine gives you the opportunity to experience the sensations endured by both, simultaneously.

The Stability Ball

It’s a ball. By no stretch of the imagination could it ever be described as stable. Don’t be surprised if this is the one you find yourself attempting to balance on, in those dreams where you are trapped in the gym butt naked, and being denounced by the guy on the preacher bench. Second cousin to –

The Wall Ball

This is the one for the end of your workout. Position this securely between your forehead and the wall, and you will be ready to start banging the former upon the latter. Three reps, of 20 concussions each, and don’t forget to stretch.

 

 

WHYS AND WHEREFORES: On blogging

 

First question: why blog?

Because writing a book is like cooking a 5-course dinner-party, and really, sometimes, all you want to do is shove a bit of bread and cheese under the grill. It may be – indeed it should be – the most perfectly crafted toasted cheese, with granary bread just the right side of chewy enough to give your jaws a work-out, Cornish Quartz cheddar, a liberal sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper, and be served with cress and tomato on the side. It may be splished and spiced up with Worcester sauce; or before it even meets the bread, the cheese may have been boosted with a little beer or cider – the point is, it’s the kind of thing you can put together on impulse, a small piece of perfection attainable in fifteen spontaneous minutes or so. No tablecloth, no side plates – desire satisfied, guilt-free indulgence experienced, lips smacked, and then on you go with your day. That’s what this blog will be – impulsive and tasty. Tidbits, snacklets and bonne bouche.

But a blog is the saddest thing in the world without readers. Second question : why might you give your time to read this one? What’s going to be on the menu?

Well, there will be plenty musings on food, for a start, because food, like sex, is a thing we have to do, but the gods have so arranged it that we would do it for pleasure anyway. There will be investigations of Zen and the art of slow cooking. There will be philosophical reflections on everything from ice-cream to the perfect pretzel; from soup to nuts.

There will of course be books – the special ones, the ones you never forget; and those still to be cracked open to release their new-book smell. There will be much thinking on the subject of smell, in fact, from that of a Cornish rockpool to that of the first cup of coffee of the day.

There will be cats – mine, yours, and all those in-between. There will be animal life of every description. There will be the shocking manners of Thames waterfowl, and the utter perfidy of wasps. There will be life as a writer, in all its unexpected weirdness, all its paranoias and all its peculiar delights.

There will be big skies and running, and the horrors of being tortured down the gym; there will be TV, and rants about bloody silly adverts on TV, and Tottenham Hotspur (God help me). There will be spirits of place from the Isle of Dogs to the Isle St-Louis. There will be Samuel Pepys. There will be graveyards and echoes and fog.

There will be movies. And museums. And lifting the curtain on what goes on behind the scenes at museums, and what went on behind the scenes in them fifty, or one hundred, or two hundred years ago. There will be the British Library. There will be the buggritts of life, and the manifold buggritts of tech in particular, and of haircuts and bras and all the ills that female flesh is heir to. And there will be meditations on the small and precious joys – new tights fresh out the packet, lying in a hot bath in the dark, eyeliner that stays where you flippin’ well put it, vodka martinis (oh, there will certainly be booze), and new notebooks, just waiting for the pencil.

In other words, the random thoughts of a random redhead. Welcome to the inside of my head.

 

 

ONLY DISCONNECT: On writing

 

THE LIFE OF A WRITER is a strange and wonderful thing. It is, truly. Here I am, a proper serious grown-up with a very serious birthday a scant two years away, and I spend my time in as much of a bubble as if I were a toddler in a playpen. Writing has disconnected me from calendar, salary, and commute. There’s a fabulously creepy movie from 1962 entitled Carnival of Souls, where the female protagonist (to call her the heroine would undo everything the movie does) simply doesn’t know if she is still in this world, or if she is not, and nor does the viewer. Imagine a benign version, with added cat, of that.

It has disconnected me from clock as well. Hands up all those other night-owls out there – my word, we truly are a thing. I didn’t hate getting up at 7 just because I hated getting up at 7 (although I did) – I hated getting up at 7 because my body-clock wanted me to surface at 10, and then still be awake and tapping away at 2 the following morning. At 2 the following morning on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday…. I used to love my weekends. Croissants on the sofa, big mug of coffee made just the way I like it (I don’t care how you make yours, mine is better), weekend papers spread out all around me, Radio 4 burbling away in the background and at some point Spurs either covering themselves in glory or causing one to wonder how come they were ever in the Premier League in the first place. I loved my weekends. I can’t remember when I last had one. There was a point before Christmas (Christmas being one of those moments when even the most demented scribbler really has to pause) where I realized I had been working for 19 days on the trot.  I am the writer who lives by herself, and all days are the same to me.

For some of them, I don’t even unlock the front door. For some of them, (oh the shame) I lever myself from the bed, as the last and the tardiest of my neighbours are running from the building in a panic that they’ll miss the bus; I pull on an old stained sweatshirt or holey jumper over whatever I happen to have been sleeping in, and that’s me, dressed. I used to wear skirts; I used to wear tights; I used to wash my hair every morning; I used to wear heels in the daytime – not any more.

If I do have reason to emerge into the outside world, it’s a different place to the one I knew before. The tube is empty; the pavements ditto. Shop assistants are chatty, the shops themselves populated by gently drifting flotillas of mothers with young children, and OAPs – two tribes I never really had any contact with before, but with some of whom I am now familiar enough locally to share a nod. And not for me, any longer, grabbing something for dinner on the way home. I can take my time. I can food-shop with a mindfulness that would make Madame Maigret proud. All those hours between 9 and 5 have opened like blooms on a tulip-tree. When the fridge died recently, after one of those lingering fridge illnesses whose symptoms include a dreadful rattling wheeze and a tendency to wee all over the floor, the folk at John Lewis who provided its successor were deeply apologetic about the fact that I would have to stay in all morning to take delivery. ‘Sometime between 9 and 1’, they said. ‘We’re sorry, we can’t be more specific than that.’

Not, I assured them, a problem for me.

And people are so damn nice when they learn that you’re a writer. If I ever venture into the world of the thriller, and the plot demands some character has to justify their presence in some place they have no business being, all I will need them to do is utter the three magic words ‘I’m a writer’. Abracadabra – everyone’s your friend. We truly are the animal that tells stories, and Lord how immediately and positively we still respond to those who help us do so.

There’s a saying (you know it, I’m sure) that everyone has a book in them, but God help us if should that be true. A world with nothing but writers in it would fall apart within weeks. We’re only half the story. Writers need readers. When you come down to it, there are only two reasons for disconnecting as I have done: to get something written out of my system and to get it into that of as many other people as I possibly can. Thank you for indulging me.