Marigold is missing out on one of life’s great pleasures during the perfidious restrictions imposed by a pandemic. I refer to what I call accidental conversations. Not actual conversations, with friends or even complete strangers, that’s bad enough, but those conversations which take place in one's presence, and of which one is merely a silent spectator. Privy to the words yet lacking the context.
How exciting is that? Harold Pinter, who needs you?
I’m still savouring a snatched fragment of conversation between two dog walkers we overheard the other day.
‘Never bothered me, the arthritis, but what with irritable bowel, a frozen shoulder, gout and now this wretched ear infection, I’ve had it up to here with trying to sound sympathetic when he goes on about his bad back.’
Now that’s true comorbidity. Respect!
Marigold isn’t alone. To the many men and women who cultivate a taste for accidental conversation a journey by train or bus, a walk through a supermarket aisle or just strolling along a busy street, is as good as a visit to the theatre. Not that the option of live theatre is available now either.
It’s true that, as with much ‘experimental’ theatre such as we’ve had offered up at Edinburgh Festivals the scenes are apt to end abruptly, and the plots are often not sufficiently expressed; but against this must be set the variety and immediacy of dialogue and the immense variety of the stories. As with life being like a box of chocolates as expounded by Forrest Gump, you don’t always get what you want. You certainly don’t get what you expect.
A chance remark, overheard in passing, lacking context or prior knowledge of both speaker and recipient, can be sufficiently engaging to occupy our own conversation for an hour or more. The more bizarre and inexplicable the better. A throwaway remark, devoid of any understanding of its antecedent history, can surpass anything produced by a television studio. All we need is imagination and there’s never been a shortage of that in our house.
Imagination is a precious quality. Life would be very dull without it. My own imagination was nurtured from a very early age by an innate ability to ‘play’ by myself. (I almost wrote ‘play with myself, which would have had unfortunate albeit unintentional connotations).
For an imaginative child an empty room can be a castle or an entire solar system and my own imagination took wings when I discovered the escapist world of books. I think it may be necessary to point out I read anything and everything put in front of me. I always have since I realised the written word was packed with possibilities at age five. Newspapers, magazines, books of all kinds, some very low brow indeed.
Judging by the reaction of some of this blog’s readers I have apparently been promoting myself as some learned scholar plodding through a series of dusty yet distinctly worthy tomes. Putting aside the current edition of Viz for the moment, I can assure you all this impression is very wide of the mark.
After certain uncharitable folk poured scorn on me reading the works of Plato and Pliny the Elder, (yes, there are some unkind people out there with distinctly plebeian tastes in literature) it took a moment or two’s consideration before ‘confessing’ to reading The Decameron. After all, by Ancient Greek standards the 14th century is practically cutting edge.
The Decameron is a collection of short stories by the splendidly named 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio – in translation, obviously. I struggle with the linguistic style of Chaucer, who would have been almost an exact contemporary, so medieval Italian would be impossible.
The Decameron is structured as a collection of short stories – think of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales - 100 stories told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa on the outskirts of Florence while trying to escape the Black Death which was afflicting the city and indeed all of Europe.
Very topical. Hence my interest.
In modern times we have the television set as our focal point, but for thousands of years humans huddled together around a fire and told stories. Boccaccio’s group trying to avoid a pandemic are 14th century Italy’s answer to Facebook and Netflix.
As we know only too well, pandemics are no fun at all, but the pressure of coming up with an entertaining tale when called upon appears to have promoted an aura of eustress and positivity within the group. Maybe we should all take a turn as story tellers.
Long ago reading became a lifelong affliction but also a pleasure not without its drawbacks. My weakness, one of many but this is a biggie, is books. I own a lot of books. The Japanese have a word for this condition: tsundoku – the pleasure of owning more books than you’ll ever have time to read. The word, thought to have been coined in the Meiji era is a meeting of two ideas: tsunde-oku – to pile things up and then forget about them, and dokusho – reading books. You may have to accept that as an etymological fact. I did.
I read voraciously, happily reread old favourites and even isolation won’t put a dent in my book a day addiction as I have untold numbers of books on Kindle as well. Having moved house many times, books in large quantities are a big problem. They weigh a lot for a start. I try to do a bit of ‘weeding’ on the occasion of every move. The books I’ve held on to in the hope I’d appreciate them at some later date, the books given by friends insisting ‘This one will be right up your street’ – no, no, no - plus all those, mostly proof copies of still technically unpublished novels, sent to me in my ‘writer’ period to ‘take a look at and let me know what stops it being a best seller,’ (no pressure then), they’re all off to good homes or that mythical ‘farm in Wales’ where excess and/or unwanted pets were reputedly sent.
Every time we move we vow to embrace minimalism. Each time we fail and books, in vast profusion, aren’t helpful. I’m not totally abrogating responsibility here, I’m looking on the bright side. Shelves of books aren’t ‘clutter.’ They’re furniture, ornaments, old friends.
I’m fully embracing the concept of tsundoku.
All these books just waiting to be read and plenty of opportunity to do just that. it’s one of the few bright spots of the Covid-19 era. A novel takes up a relatively small space on a shelf yet it’s much bigger on the inside than on the outside.
There’s a vast world of imagination inside a book. That’s true minimalism and reading a book has to be one of the least disruptive actions a confined person can indulge in. I suppose Marigold and I could learn to play the trombone in our freshly minted free time, but that’s not showing much consideration for others, is it?
Good manners still matter. I’ve suffered from a surfeit of good manners all my life. Manners, behaving myself, not speaking unless spoken to in the company of adults, all this was drilled into me in childhood, and rigorously enforced. It’s not made life easy. I used to let people ramble on, never interrupting no matter how tiresome their conversation. I made a conscious decision not to suffer fools gladly a few years back and it’s made certain aspects of life a lot less irksome, but as for the rest, I’m stuck with the legacy of my upbringing.
I still seem unable to pay for something with the exact change without saying ‘I think that’s right’ as I hand it over, having already checked it three times beforehand, then hanging around while the cash is counted and some unspoken version of ‘permission to leave now’ has been granted. On using a pedestrian crossing I do a strange little jog while offering an apologetic mini wave to any waiting motorists. They rarely acknowledge me, just sit in their cars wishing the weirdo doing the half skip half walk would stop waving his arms about and get off the road.
I apologise when someone barges into me, I apologise for not being able to provide the exact money in a shop, I say please and thank you about fifty times a day. Good manners are a chore.
Marigold is similarly afflicted. A neighbour misheard her name on first meeting her and has called her ‘Marlene’ ever since. Marigold says it’s too late now to correct her, meaning she must live with her new name forever.
Names don’t really matter, not really, as long as we all know who we’re talking to. I used to know a couple named Barnes who lived in Barnes which I thought to be the height of sophistication. We were living in Richmond at the time and it crossed my mind to change my name by deed poll to Richmond, but nothing came of it.
The Barnes of Barnes had a daughter named Juliana and it’s one of those names that sticks in my memory so when I read the other day about a book written by Juliana Barnes I took notice. It was soon evident they only had their name in common. Ms Barnes from Barnes married a Kiwi and went off to run a sheep station last I heard while the one in the magazine was a nun.
The book she wrote was The Book of Saint Albans. As it was printed in 1486 I don’t imagine the two were even related. The Book of Saint Albans is basically a list of collective terms for animals but also covered the topics of hunting, fishing, and coats of arms and provides the earliest list of collective nouns for every type of animal one could possibly imagine.
It’s been regularly updated as new species were discovered. Originally, these nouns were used primarily as hunting terms, although it’s hard to envisage a mediaeval hunting party setting out in pursuit of an ostentation of peacocks. A flock of ravens is called an ‘unkindness’ or a ‘conspiracy,’ both of which appear rather more weird than a simple ‘flock.’
A pride of lions, a prowl of jaguars, yes, I can see the logic there, but what about a wisdom of wombats? A murder of crows, a charm of finches, these I know, but a gulp of cormorants? Oh, come on, Sister Juliana, you can do better than that. As for a pandemonium of parrots, an intrusion of cockroaches or a gulp of cormorants…
Cognitive bias, what I usually call having blind spots, invariably manifests itself at the most inopportune moments. Certain areas of expertise are a closed book to me, yet I frequently offer up opinions on subjects about which my knowledge is minimal, at best, rather than my ignorance be exposed. Most of the time the habit is so ingrained I don’t even know I’m doing it. It’s very little consolation to find it’s a common trait in humanity.