As I pulled it on this morning, it happened. My reaching hand tunnelled down the sleeve, and then suddenly everything was confusing. My hand was still half-way down the sleeve, yet my thumb waggled in open air. A new hole.
My gardening jumper is dying.
I am not sure what to do about it: one can’t simply buy a new gardening jumper. The whole point of gardening jumpers is their state of advanced decrepitude. Traditionally, one inherits – alright steals – a gardening jumper from one’s partner. I have had only two gardening jumpers in my adult life (as a child, every garment you own is a gardening jumper, much to the dismay of the adults who bought them for you). My first, proper adult plumage as a gardener was a gigantic old green Hackett thing that was deemed “dead” by my ex-husband when it got (note the passive phrasing) ink all down it. The sleeves were a good six inches longer than my arms. It came down to about mid-thigh. You could fit 30 apples in the front of it, if you held the bottom hem out. It was perfect.
People imagine you need to wrap up warmly to garden, but the reverse is true. It’s a bit like skiing: spend £300 on a fancy jacket that’s filled with the pubes of Norwegian snow leopards and is guaranteed to -50, and the minute you hit the slopes you’re clawing the layers off like Eustace Clarence Scrubb. With gardening, you need a t-shirt, some sturdy, waterproof boots, a pair of really good gloves, and a huge and venerable gardening jumper. Waterproof coats are useless – you’re bending and kneeling, and whatever you wear, short of full NASA space gear, the rain will get in, or the garment will get in your way. You toughen up like a pony and don’t mind the weather. But getting wet is one thing: getting cold is another. The jumper is a necessity.
My second inherited jumper – a vast grey thing I am wearing as I write – was also harvested from a long term relationship. Again, the long sleeves, the voluminous carrying capacity. I don’t want to give the impression that I drift in and out of relationships solely so that I can steal people’s clothes, but it’s probably pretty close to the truth.
One becomes attached to one’s gardening jumper. It is the adult equivalent of the child’s Special Blanket, of Aladdin’s magic carpet: this all-enveloping thing one puts on in order to be transported to a happy land remote from modern cares. It carries about it some automatic memory of the smell of the person who originally owned it, the snug aura of the happiness of love, of someone being fond enough of you to give you a perfectly good old jumper to muck about in. It also – and this is probably particularly true if you’re a woman – grants you licence to look absolutely frightful. You needn’t comb your hair when you’re wearing a gardening jumper. The hawthorn will do that for you. It would be incongruous to put on lipstick – it’s only going to get slapped off you by brambles. It’s not worth washing yourself – you’re about to get filthy, better to pile the clothes on, get out there and do it like you mean it. You will have to shower when you get back in any case. The gardening jumper returns you to age five, when you resented time wasted showering and putting on “nice” shoes that pinched.
It turns out “age five” is never quite as far below the surface as one imagines.
But there it is: in the last ten years I haven’t managed to meet anyone who was fond enough of me to make me a cup of tea, much less donate a jumper. I suppose it’s off to the charity shop for me.
I might wait until this sleeve comes off.
Bitchaz, I went up the Hill.
I let the birches comb my hair – god knows I don’t bother. The intention was to go to the Post Office and send off some things I’ve made to the people I’ve made them for, and then after I did that, there was a road I’ve never walked up before, so I walked up it, and at the end I realised that if I hooked right – up past the sleeping hedges and the soft, reaching red hands of the roses – it would get me right to the top of the hill. I didn’t really think. It just felt good. The Hill is domed, like standing on the top of an enormous cabbage. I took a long look down at London, while schoolkids and mums with pushchairs belted past me, entirely inoculated by familiarity against the amazing view below them. As I stood there, I found that I was back on my metaphorical horse, with my metaphorical spear in my hand, and I thought: well. Well, this feels better. Well, I feel like me, again. And I had a look at the blue sky and the birds, the stripped trees and the soft, muddy grass (which I always walk on, not the path), and I felt it all flow up into me, until my bones sang with it.
It was probably rash. It took me just under half as long again as it takes me when I am at my wellest (it’s a word NOW). But as Björk says “rescue me from the unnecessary luxury of level-head-ness”. I need a month like this: where I purely concentrate on eating the right things and exercising every day. And then I might be ok for the summer. Will I get a month like this? I doubt it, but after spending two months flat on my back, I will make every effort to defend my recuperation time from my own undermining tendency to hurl myself into the arms of my friends at the first possible opportunity (I love you all. I do).
Anyway, for the first time this year I did not feel like a tick on the hide of the world, today. And for that, it was worth it.
 Look, you might only live in one world at a time, but I can’t be expected to edit myself down for the sake of not seeming a bit odd. Embrace the odd.
Circumstance – well, let’s be specific: the fact that I had run out of cat treats – finally winkled me out of the house today, against both capacity and inclination. Hat jammed tight around my ears, I tromped down to Sainsers with a list. It was a beautiful day. As I passed the gasometers (as usual, gazing up at them as if they were urban gods, with the birches framed against them, pale arms lifted in that jubilant way of birches, poplars and hornbeams), a few tiny, dry dots of snow came down. I can’t think of anything I like better that this sight:
Since dawdling was my only option, I took the time to have a look at what is happening to the Crow Ground behind the gasometers, and found the hoardings around the site are now plastered with enthusiastic posters announcing the purpose of the development.
My assumption that it would be high density housing was incorrect: in fact, this place that hopped and seethed with birds is going to be a “retail park”. Posters (“artist’s impression only”) show ToysRUs and a B&Q; Pets @ Home. Oh, still the dark bunting of my heart! Maybe we’ll get a PC World.
I had a tiny cry at the bus stop. I don’t mean one of those hoo-hoo hiccuppy jobs (I don’t really do that), but the sort of thing where you could legitimately pass it off as the wind having made your eyes run. I saw three crows today. And one starling, too sick to get out of the way of pedestrians, its little oily feathers sticking out in soft arrowheads around it as it waited, hopelessly, to be kicked or trodden on. I moved it off the pavement, under a shrub, and decided that if it was still findable when I left, I’d bring it home and see if I could fix it up, but when I came out it had gone.
So there we are. Thousands of scraps of wild life undone so that little Michelle and Bobby can bully mum and dad into a trip to ToysRUs to buy petrochemicals, shat out in the form of aspirational sexual stereotypes, blue for boys, pink for girls. I should be glad: it will give the area more employment, create more passing traffic for the local chicken shops. But I am not glad.
I miss the crows, and, more abstractly, I miss knowing that the wasteland was there: not a park, not a “leisure facility”, but a plot of land that was not for people at all.
The reason I haven’t done a personal update for ages is that 2013 has been difficult, thus far. I was doing really well at the back end of 2012. And then my health folded (ME/CFS), and this time it’s folded in a way it hasn’t since late 2008. While I’m accustomed to dealing with fail at fairly high tide, I thought this level of fail was behind me. My eyes have packed in and everything is a superbright blur that clears, like clouds parting, then blurs again. My muscles have failed, and I can only do a staircase twice in one day if I’m prepared to crawl up it the second time. I can’t grip anything. My skin is so thin I can tear it washing myself, if I’m not careful. Everything hurts. Several times a day I find I cannot stand. All this has improved a bit since I started a mostly-vegan, mostly-live food diet a couple of weeks ago. But it’s a question of degree. The slightest bit of excitement or upset uses up the little stores of energy I have (good things are as exhausting as bad). I’m running at 100% capacity if I just get up, wash, put some clothes on, eat some oats, and lie on the sofa drinking tea. All day. You can say “I am incredibly fragile, please -” to well people until you’re blue in the face. They won’t understand what that means.
People make the mistake of thinking that because I live with this and because I prop myself up and smile when I see people or talk to people, and because I always want to know – really know – how everyone is and I listen to people when they are sad, and nobody ever sees my washing-up not-done, and when I AM well enough to go out I breeze into gatherings with a big smile on my face, I am strong. Well, I am in that way. But the truth is, I’m not strong if people hurt me. When that happens, I just run off, not because I’m angry but because I physically cannot bear it. You need physical resources to get though that. I don’t have any. It looks harsh from the outside, like hate, but that’s not where it’s coming from when I pull the plug. I’m just trying to survive this without becoming even more of a burden to my parents, without ending up with a fucking carer.
So: no big plans for this year, other than “please, let me get a little better than this,” and “please, let me not be required to do anything until I am.” It’s not so much a plan as an plea to circumstance. Which, as we know, is a capricious feck at the best of times.
I kind of get it, the furore about opening up marriage to everyone.
Let me explain it using the medium of cheese. We all understand cheese.
Let’s say there was this little village, and historically the village made cheese. It was very variable cheese. Some batches of it were good, some were rubbish. But the good ones were so good that, for all its faults, this cheese obtained a reputation worldwide. It was aspirational cheese. It was cheese everyone wanted to try.
And then one day another village discovered how to make that cheese. Their cheese was also of variable quality, but the good stuff was every bit as good as the first village’s cheese.
The original village was fed up. “Hey!” they complained. “We invented this damned cheese! It’s our THING. It’s what defines us. If you start making the same cheese as us, we are no longer The Village That Makes That Amazing Cheese. We are just some village, somewhere.”
And that’s what this is about. Oh, there IS bigotry involved – massive, towering homophobia from some quarters. But after reading and reading and reading about this, precisely because I couldn’t understand the sense of hurt that emanates from some writers, I’ve concluded that quite a lot of the people who don’t want gay people to get married aren’t protesting on the basis of homophobia per se, but because they perceive the institution of heterosexual marriage as part of their cultural identity.
It is the cultural equivalent of being annoyed because someone else has turned up at the party wearing the same dress as you. But I CAN understand the sense of diminishment and disappointment. It makes perfect sense, providing we’re willing to indulge, for a moment (go on, stretch your mind, you can do it), the idea that gayness – that gay identity – is a distinct culture.
It is, of course. Gay culture, gay art, gay identity is a thing, loud and proud. But no person is made of one cultural identity. A lot of people probably think they are, but they’re not. You have the culture of your family. The culture of your town. The culture of your race. The culture of your time. The culture of your gender. The culture of your sexuality. The culture of your religion. And your mix of those cultures is unique. Nobody else is going to have the blend of practices and opinions you picked up from your mum, your football team, your priest, your school, that girl you went out with at uni. What hangs us together as a people are those things we share: marriage is one of them. And thus far it has been available to a very defined set of “us”-es.
There is a sense that this is a battle not between gayness and straightness, or between left and right, but between two fundamental identity paradigms. There are people who need small, defined social groups with a fence around them in order to feel safe. And there are people who want to remove barriers between social groups and celebrate all our common areas.
We call this dissolution of barriers “progressive”. It is the move from having each village make one particular kind of cheese, to having an enormous city, where all sorts of cheeses are made by all sorts of people. This form of identity is inclusive: we want to share our cheesemaking techniques. We want to have a go of yours. That drive to share is itself an identity.
We call the urge to keep the villages separate “conservatism” (in the British, rather than the American sense). It is a form of identity which is based on exclusivity. We are us because our ways are not your ways. A sense of separateness is itself an identity.
Neither of these things is evil. They’re as inherently human as being introvert or extrovert. However, one of those attitudes is more workable in the modern world than the other, and the drift of society from exclusivity to inclusivity seems (is) inevitable.
But with this in mind, our social, legal and financial systems in the UK remain stacked to favour the original cheese-making villagers and the exclusive form of identity.
They get tax breaks for making their cheese (this issue was addressed). They also get a special cheese-party and a special label for their cheese that has its feet deep in a beautiful myth. A myth they consider theirs alone. The original village’s cheese-label still carries a special kudos. The new village’s cheese is every bit as good: but it’s not treated as such.
“But why should the second cheese-making villagers want the same label as us?” cry the original villagers. And this is where people’s compound identity comes in. Because the assumption that someone’s gay identity trumps all others is wrong. There are gay Jews, gay Muslims, gay Catholics, gay Anglicans. The identity that the first village thought was just theirs has never been just theirs. We all have a deep understanding of what marriage is. We are all – gay, straight, trans, bi, poly, pro-marriage, anti-marriage – ALL in that group of people for whom marriage has a specific and deep cultural resonance.
There are bigots in the picture, people who specifically find gayness repulsive and who specifically disapprove of homosexuality. But what’s unsettling a lot of people who are not specifically filled with hate for The Gays, is the realisation that what they thought of as their culture – a small and clearly defined culture for People Like Us, already includes gay people.
Gay people, it turns out, are People Like Us.
For some, not necessarily because they’re bigoted, but because they have never stopped and thought about how broad certain elements of their cultural identity truly are: how a lot of people who differ from them profoundly also share that cultural identity – this removes “marriage” as their private, distinguishing feature. It doesn’t nibble at their sense of identity. It takes a whacking great bite out of it, and it seems to me that that bite is not just about what happens in the future (the removal of marriage as an exclusive identifying factor of one group), but on a deeper level the realisation that Gays Are Us Too means that marriage has never been an identifying marker. It was incorrectly labelled as such. It always belonged to everyone. “Us” did a wrong thing by not sharing it.
That is a demanding, (and therefore unwelcome), lesson. I’m thrilled to watch gay marriage become just “marriage”, as soon as possible please. It is time this long-standing wrong was righted. But I have some understanding of people who are not filled with hate for gay people, but who nonetheless feel their sense of self has been deeply affected by this change, and who are at a loss to explain quite why they feel this way.
Ultimately, the right thing is happening. But it probably feels hard and scary to some people, and calling them bigots devalues the word and misses the point.
I’ve been staring out of my window (or when putting out bird-seed) at the emerging signs of spring since Christmas, but there’s one definitive element that, to me, sends the first message of the year that says “DO SOMETHING!”, and it’s the simple little pulmoniaria:
After the primroses, these are the first proper flowers to open. In the next few weeks, the earliest species of bee will emerge: first the small, frantic carder bees that are so hard to photograph, then the honey bees and hairy-footed flower bees will follow. All of them use the pulmonarias heavily.
Opinion on rose-pruning differs, and I suspect that it’s for the simple reason that roses grown in different conditions require different approaches. In the end, you have to figure out through painful experience what works for your roses. In my dry, shady little cave of a garden, what works is a medium prune the minute I see these little pulmos open their faces to the sun. Since I was determined to make some use of myself today, I have been out with the secateurs and done the pruning.
While I was at it, I took my young clematises back to about a metre from the root, taking off just the long stems from last summer – they already had young leaf growth on them (this pleased me: they have survived their first winter!). I don’t want to take them back to the recommended 60cms until they are very firmly established next year. You have to think of clematises in spring a bit like an army that’s still conquering territory – if you let your supply lines get all long and straggly early in the campaign, the campaign will fail. Keep the growth tight and lushly supplied early on, and once the sun really starts to shine they’ll conquer the fence in no time at all with a thick net of stems and flowers.