"Alan, you're no neat freak," says Ailsa, "you're a clutterbug. Instead of all these dead scruffy notebooks you should create a new document just for notes, then you can move them to the appropriate document when needed." So she sits next to me and makes tidy notes step by step showing me how to do it. "I'll leave you to show Mum." Beneath her girlish chat there dwells a helpful friend.
With Lizzie's stuff and my stuff, the office has a lot to answer for! Only when relatives are staying do I get around to tidiness because, apart from our joint responsibility for the business side, we share the office where we play literary games and our guests like to see where we work. The kitchen is different. Lizzie is good on the stove, I'm good in the sink. There's a parallel here somewhere but I can't be bothered to work it out.
What's this? Papers clipped in a bunch signify something - ah yes, a potted history of the Celtic People and something Tacitus said about the red-headed race being of an old and much venerated people. Okay, do I still want it...? Yes, for future use, so I'll bung it into the folder on Guanche history. And this other bundle? Yes, about the possible origins of Atlantis - but not significant because I'm pretty damn sure the Guanches are not a remnant of that primal race of people who escaped when Atlantis sank. Mind you, Bob Gethin cracks on about the Atlanteans themselves being Celtic in origin and red headed. The Celts reached North America so why not Atlantis in the middle? And here's Frank Delaney's new book on The Celts: so why have I bookmarked it, why this page? - Ah yes! Bob Gethin's notion that the Guanches were Celtic in origin; I skimmed through it quickly but could find no link to hold the argument in place. Okay for later, so take out the bookmark and put Frank Delaney back on the shelf. But this bunch of stuff on the left side of the keyboard, left there for handy consultation... okay, so it's not handy right now, just irritating, so tidy the bunch, get all the corners together and put Large Tortoiseshell on top. But that press photo of the mischievous boy? Ah! Used it already in my String Game drawing, so put it away in the 'Children' file.
Once you get around to it tidiness is good potem stuff; thing is, once you get into a tidiness trot it can overtake the work in hand so you need work in hand back in hand - so to speak - to take your mind off the potem because you've also tidied away the work in hand - daft bugger! And now the day has become totally ridiculous. I can spend half a day tidying the office, I can then pick up the work I started the day with, contemplate it with a slight frown, wondering where the hell it belongs, then I'll faff around for a few minutes until with a blaze of recall I remember it as work in hand - I just put it down halfway through the morning in desperate need of a break.
The oldest solo game in town
A hand of potems played face down
To ease that tiresome daily grind
Of burdens borne by all who find
It truly counts as time well spent
Putting off the evil moment.
Not seized by work that's stern enough
The day spends time on easier stuff
Till guilt and conscience stir the blood
Bring light to shine where once none could
Sweeping away our mild distraction
Clearing the decks for positive action...
Okay, so, I'm not given to proper tidiness, but once I get started... Claudia thinks it's funny. "Take away the number you first thought of - and you can't even remember the number you first thought of!"
"It's me age, dear!"
"And all this scribble: I'd go mad trying to read it."
"Helps me think. The pencil is poised - so to speak - the conduit through which ideas flow - with a nod at Dylan Thomas. If I go straight onto the keyboard it looks like a shopping list! But now I know how to transfer text, so no bother. Anyway, my dad always insisted that it was discourteous to type personal letters, but mostly, when people see my handwriting, they prefer the discourtesy."
A smirk from Claudia: "You're good at the neat bits! You should try writing poetry. This is where handwriting is better for roughing it out."
To Claudia e-mail is an insult to the English language and no-way a path to wisdom! Her relatives in the USA use it to show Claudia how cool they are. Harold leaves all computer stuff to Claudia. His views on e-mail are dismissive, bat-squeak he calls it, fly-by stuff, useful only to the bat. He says he is too old to bring high-tech stuff into his life. Yet he is, above all else, a wordnik and a master of the dry stuff. He even does crosswords with a pen!
Computers are a long learning curve, signals pop up that I can't understand. Thanks to Ailsa I have now learned how to transfer blocks of text and, thanks to Lee, I know how to open a new document and I can SAVE, having lost some worthy stuff through carelessness - so I SAVE SAVE SAVE all the time. Even e-mail is transferred to DRAFT in case I run out of time, but then, having transferred it, the text, maddeningly, will not continue until I press EDIT (and it took me ages to find that out) but SAVE is better than crossing out, or fouling handwritten notepaper with incomplete erasure before scribbling over the top, then I can't read it because I didn't erase the first lot properly, and this is where the computer screen rises in pure blank purity in place of that creased and huffed-up sheet of handwritten paper. And all these discarded notebooks - what a waste of time and effort! Do I ever look at them? Nope! Here we are in the late 20th century and all these people world-wide still labouring with pencils and pens hovering over blank sheets of blue lined paper waiting for words to strike, when all they need is a bit of technology, a screen, a keyboard, and a Lee and an Ailsa to point the way. Vocabulary that could easily sink down to the simplest level of meaning, around 150 words in total - about nine-year-old level - that fill not even an umpteenth part of the space available to the human intellect - could easily if kept at childhood level, but we are not into childhood so, in the interests of intellect, we keep the dictionaries and Thesaurus ready to hand. I need to be able to tighten up a woolly sentence, expand a cramped one, pressing for adequate communication that meets the case. Thing is, I don't have the right sort of brain for computers, mine is fixed at pen and ink level.
"You don't half go on!" says Claudia, then asks, "How did Lizzie cope with shorthand in those distant days, an easy and distinct mode of communication with the fewest letters - sort of like e-mail?"
"Yes, e-mail at chatterbox level is the way kids are using it, no punctuation, no sentences, a sort of naïve wastage - like eating your sandwich but leaving the crusts. I mean, is this innovation sinking into progress - sinking with a big S and progress with a small p?"
"But that's just it, Alan! Kids are the way forward."
"I don't half go on!" she said. Really! But only in moments of rearguard disdain of social progress; when traffic is moving I'm about as talkative as a star-nosed mole! I think of Michael my brother in law whose phone line is occupied when he is on board his pc. Unreachable, living in solitude he admits with a shrug that he has almost forgotten how to do joined-up writing. I can envisage such a loss amongst kids but hardly from a man in his sixties! Will writing become a discarded mode of expression - like the war bow giving way to firearm? How will the not-too-distant future bear with the realization that handwriting has reached the very edge of living memory and is about to disappear for ever. To preserve some links with the past, formal handwriting will be cleverly reproduced on screen to any style you want, flowery, plain or even copperplate, before you hit the key and print it off. Such futile attempts to look elegant are surely where elegance dies - or is this just me at dinosaur level? Kids can do it with acronyms and initials that sound like tuning-up. I like words performed like real music. And you barely know when Michael is being serious. "You have to visualize punctuation," he tells me. "It's the way forward."
"The Channel Bridge was the way forward, Claudia petal: the French agreed to it only if the British promised to stop swimming across! We didn't. So it never got built!"
"Alan, by the way, talking of progress, what happened to Dobbo? I heard the police were looking for him. The kid with the spray gun ended up in the green hospital."
Maeve knows what's up. Her police friend on the motorbike said he was wanted for questioning. Seems he came looking for Dolly's bloke. But Dolly's bloke had gone to ground already, sheltering somewhere between Spain and Morocco. And now there's all this loose stuff about a new extradition treaty with Spain - like throwing a stone at a wasps' nest, as Maeve puts it.
As for Dobbo: I rang Bernard to tell him of a confirmed booking for Los Angeles and Dobbo came up. I can't remember where the link was - maybe great nights at the Coqueluche - but a deep silence from Bernard's end threw alarm in my direction... "What's up, Bern?"
"You mean Dobbo, right? Well... Just keep away from him, Alan, mate. He's bloody dangerous."
I just said "Okay" with enough common sense not to pursue the matter.
Mostly by letters confirming a phone call, our bookings are swerving into the flight-path of e-mail. The need to be 'with it' shows itself in strange symbols that we are expected to understand when, desperate for clarification, we ring back. We know these people, a nice family, proud of the fact that they've stopped smoking and trying to let us know that they are geared up and with it. But their kids eat sprawled all over the table, elbows everywhere, and they leave stuff uneaten that would feed a family in the poorest parts of Africa. October? Yes, thank you, we do have some spaces in October.
Still in the office and harking back, there were a lot of empty spaces in Beeston. There was a small field at the end of Fellows Road where carthorses grazed, and at the end of Sidney Road next to Wollaton Road there was a dump full of thistles and nettles. We used to build houses with all the loose bricks and slate rubbish lying around. A wooden cupboard door was a table and Sybil Baskeyfield wouldn't serve our slate dinner plates unless we were all sitting up straight. There were three Cooper kids and they all looked alike. One of them smoked. I was awestruck, so were Sybil and Rosemary. When so much has gone into limbo how strange it is to recollect these names and our playground on Sidney Road. Mum explained to me why she was particularly taken by Rosemary Appleyard and it came to me many years later that my plump little playmate looked like her name, but at that time of my youth I couldn't get the describing word round my tongue. It was an age of innocence before the proper boy began to treat girls with disdain.
Boys had little time for English Grammar, well, not at my social level; along with Poetry it was little better than Scripture - which was what RE was called in those days. But for me Art was always interesting: during the early days of WW2 the school held competitions designing posters. I did a man on a tractor with SOWING FOR VICTORY as a slogan. It didn't win any prizes, though I did rather admire my drawing of the back view of the man driving the tractor. I was no good at school games, hated football, terrified of cricket - that hard ball coming in my direction - but I could run, keeping all that empty space in front seriously empty. When Bill Wild left school and joined the army as a boy soldier that left me on top. Probably my eagerness to get away from the following crowd and dislike of team games marked out my future as a non-joiner But I enjoyed minor fame as a clever clogs when Miss Steeples went into the hall and played a note on the school piano and I was told to go out and play the same note. I played the most likely choice, middle C.
Claudia is a poet. Her poetry group attracts a constant membership - mostly female. "Where are the men?" I ask. It's the same with other groups into self-expression. What are men afraid of? It could be a good subject for a discussion group: "Why Are Men So Shy?"
I'm not really urging her to leave, but Potem is making way for Work in hand, and Lizzie will be back soon and there is great danger of this session becoming a three-way discussion group.
What drew me into writing, she wants to know?
I think I always did. This child had a mental picture of himself as a great author. A bit airy-fairy for a working class boy who started work at age thirteen and a half because most of the school staff were in the war getting killed. Beginning as a truly copper-bottomed blacksmith's lad who could make quite lovely candlesticks in wrought iron with vine leaves in sheet metal beaten into shape on the anvil, the veins delicately tapped in with a cross pane hammer; it was his proud creative work done in the spaces between holding horses being shoe-ed, repairing farm machinery and putting iron tyres on cartwheels.
Too shy to talk about it the child much preferred wild insubstantial notions of mixing with intellectuals who kicked ideas around instead of footballs, who wrote literature for the public instead of dutiful letters to expectant relatives. For in his family writing to relatives and sitting up straight was part of growing up. "What will people think, Alan? Go and wash your hands." but writing for a living was not a 'proper job', so he kept shtum about it. But he was pretty good at drawing, so 'great painter' was substituted for 'great author' - only to discover that he was partially colour-blind. Astoundingly he found there are a greater number of tints and shades of green than any other colour, but he struggled with reds, which caused embarrassing amusement. So 'great painter' went out of the window and 'great author' came back in.
"Didn't your dad encourage you at all?"
"My dad worked at Sellar's Hosiery Works in Beeston. He didn't have any hobbies, far too busy earning a crust. We used to have darts matches at home but my dad was very good at drawing."
Leaving the distant past and forward to the recent past I was thereafter too busy earning a living. Part of that living in later life involved writing reports for case-conferences and to juvenile courts, county courts and even crown courts, where learned clerks, magistrates and judges were just as likely to draw attention to shaky grammar as they were to shaky case material. With the spoken word the first version is usually the last. The great value of the written word is that it is improvable. Report work taught me the value of revision, an inept sentence would bring the court usher zooming in; being summoned to the bench to clarify a point to the learned clerk was the worst sort of experience.
The proper mental attitude can be expressed simply: an amateur writes a report so that it comes out right; a professional writes a report so that it can't go wrong. My dear hardworking student supervisor was quite right - pleasure resides not in joy alone, but in everything fitted to instruct. And there was a certain pleasure in crafting words together with clarity and plainness.
Mind you, report writing is essentially featureless. There are no fine points of style; humour and irony are not acceptable. It is just hard facts, followed by doubtful facts, followed by opinion, followed by respectful recommendation. Report writing is the basic stuff of social work: factual and tolerably brief it must be; entertaining it must not be. Occasionally have I seen stricken looks on the faces of magistrates when hefty reports are handed up.
When we retired here, I was still entertaining visions of greatness in the literary world. To entertain family and friends I started our Annual News Letter and began writing articles for British magazines which is where I met a race of people called EDITORS who cut huge slices off your best work then send the remains back to you for your approval.
I was never paid for my articles. At the time I didn't mind, being convinced that greatness was its own reward. You could label such supine generosity as creativity mortgaged to vanity, or maybe the other way round, or maybe simply as enlightened self-interest. Whatever, writing articles was a far greater pleasure than writing reports, and the research was always interesting.
"You should try poetry, Alan, it's a very small market. Thousands of people write, most of it is dumped without ever seeing the publisher's front office. You really need a literary agent."
"I hope they are not like accountants, mine saved me about £120 in tax and sent me a bill for £70."
Mimi scampers to the door in hope of a treat, for Lizzie is back. She looks in the office, says 'Hi' to Claudia, sees neat piles of paperwork, raises her eyebrows. "My man, this is too good to be true! Are we expecting a visit from La Reina? I've brought you a stone."
"My Mouse, a potem flew in. I now know where everything is."
My stones get rather more appreciation than my drawings. What people don't appreciate is the hard work in finding the right sort of stone. There is a stony beach not far from Cristimar and behind the Costamar edificio, millions and millions of stones only a few of which are right for paperweights, the right size, the right texture, the right shape. They have to feel comforting when held in the hand. The risk of losing papers through all these open windows four floors up with the pool right in front of us meant decorating a dozen or more stones with butterflies, birds, and daisy-like flowers with the odd three spot ladybird thrown in. And I never have found a stone suitable for a Mrs Tiggywinkle. Claudia has four of my stones. This latest find looks like a frog.
Mrs Dellow on Denison Street, Beeston gave piano lessons. There was a gas curtain over her parlour door and she insisted that my gas mask must be carried even when seated at the piano. Mr Dellow was a librarian. Eventually the family left Beeston for New Zealand. Thereafter I continued piano with Harold Allton who was the organist at Beeston Parish Church. When I reached Grade 6 Associated Board of Examiners there was talk of transferring me up the line to Gaze Cooper at the Nottingham Harmonic Society. Shy and awkward with spots, blackheads and a stammer I was low on charm but then, amazingly - the heavy overlay of disdain thrown open - I discovered girls and the best way to get to girls was ballroom dancing, after which fundamental enlightenment at the Len and Lila George school of dancing I never touched the piano again. My parents were terribly disappointed. One of the main highlights of their social life was the fact that their elder son played the piano. My Mum's Tennyson is here in the office. I really must look up Idylls of the Kings and that part where perfection is detested.
Guilt - the penalty of youth. If I thought about it I could unearth a whole history of regrets.