Nurse! The Screens!
This column is going to be like the comments section; all over the place. But it probably reflects my fractured mindset at the moment.
Morphine, I thought, having instant thoughts of Sax Rohmer and Anna May Wong, does it have a place in the modern medicine cabinet?
I checked the bottle. A liquid with a ridiculously complex delivery system involving a plastic syringe and a funnel. You fix the syringe to the funnel and turn it all upside down, a leap of faith that I fully expected to result in a stained shirt or ‘dinner medals’ as my business partner used to call them. Filling the syringe, you squirt the liquid down the inside of your cheek. Not sure why. Maybe it makes your gnashers fall out.
The moment the sickly smell of rotten strawberries hit me I realised this was ‘Kaolin & Morphine’ without the kaolin, a chalky mix that used to separate when left on the shelf. Not especially strong, but in these more cautious times less readily prescribed. As children we’d had cocaine of course – at the dentist in the form of gas or an injection, and heaven knows what else. They probably gave us little’uns something for being good after, like a sweet cigarette or a sly finger down the bum crack.
I took the morphine, carried on reading for a while, dozed, woke up with a mouth so dry you could have shot ‘Flight of the Phoenix’ in it (do I mean that? The one where Sylvia Sims and the flight crew go for a beer), went for a glass of water and fell over most of the flat’s furniture, which had clearly been rearranged in an effort to make me think I’d gone mad. I explained to the spouse (whom by now I had woken up) that I felt like Liz Smith in Alan Bennett’s ‘A Private Function’ desperate to prove she was not ready to be put away by reciting her times table.
I had foolishly thought that being married to a Johnny Foreigner with no matching pop-cultural references would be fun. ‘Nurse! The screens!’ I cried, sitting down heavily. JF scratched himself in puzzlement and stumped back to bed.
I acknowledge my British heritage, how could I not when my family counted among their number teachers, farmers, scientists, mariners, road diggers? I didn’t follow in their footsteps; I live in the Now, and this confuses those who look at my age or Bryant & May (Ugh! Old people!) and condescendingly write me off. Last summer I went to one of those relaxed sort of raves where you can take kids along and sit on a hillock with a joint and some glow-sticks, and a girl looked at me admiringly. ‘Well done you for coming here,’ she said. ‘I bet you’ve never been anywhere like this before!’
Edward Lear was a boring-looking old Victorian with a grey beard. When the young saw him, what did they see?
Lear was one of 21 children. A lifelong epileptic asthmatic, too intense to form lasting relationships, his love of wordplay influenced a century of British writers. At the age of 16 he trained as an ornithological draughtsman and travelled through Greece, Egypt and India, creating vivid sundrenched landscapes that appear to glow.
His written nonsense predates Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’ by nearly twenty years. He concentrated on the five-line anapaest with an AABBA rhyme scheme, or limerick. Popularising the form, he became famous for his fanciful neologisms, most obviously the ‘runcible spoon’. People assumed he was the Earl of Derby writing under a pseudonym, ‘Earl’ being an anagram of ‘Lear’. Indeed, he was once called upon to prove that he wasn’t.
Victoria Holt enjoyed portraying feisty women of independence and integrity who fought for liberation. She rarely wrote anything dull; Hitler, she says in ‘The English Are Like That’, made the fatal mistake of frightening the English. Hamlet, she notes, is not incapable of action; he kills his man three times in the play. But popularity rarely guarantees posterity. As post-war hardships intruded, historical fiction for women became unfashionable, just as surely as men stopped reading tales of kings and explorers.
I approve of the removal of statues glorifying rich white males with their boots on the necks of a captive workforce. I do not approve of the idiot girl who spray-painted antifa on Churchill because it’s lazy and reductive. Instead of a sneer, why not work from the inside? Investigate the endless deaths in custody, cases too complex for a clear-cut narrative? They can ban ‘Gone With The Wind’ but what do you do about the nasty little coded digs Agatha Christie regularly came out with? All those snide remarks about ‘swarthy’ foreigners?
Victoria Holt died on a cruise between Greece and Egypt in her eighties. ‘Never regret,’ she once said. ‘If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.’ I wonder if any young madame asked her if she’d been to a rave.