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Vol. 17 No. 4 · 23 February 1995

A Looking-Glass Land of Sorts

Jenny Diski

It always happens somewhere between pages 120 and 150. This is what they tell me, and I suppose there must be something in it, because I only have to get a certain look on my face and the daughter and ex-husband nod knowingly at one another and say: ‘Page 120.’ Invariably, between half and two-thirds of the way through a novel, the whole thing turns to dust. The choice is to take a deep breath and re-write, or chuck the whole thing into the dustbin at just the right moment on a Thursday morning so there’s no time to retrieve it before the dustmen come and claim it. After the event, with a slab of finished manuscript sitting on my desk, I call it a second draft: now with months of work a heap of ashes, a pile of incoherent words whose meaning I cannot for the life of me fathom, I wring my hands, drag my feet, and announce dully to anyone who’ll listen that this time (yes, I know last time, and the time before that, but this time) it’s an irretrievable disaster. And my loved ones yawn as if Karl Popper had never lived.

There’s very little leeway for temperament round here. I think of a long-ago lover who stormed out of my distracting bedroom with his manuscript under his arm, saying, ‘I have to concentrate on my work,’ leaving me entranced by the enormity of the paired pronoun and noun. I’ve tried it once or twice at home, but seem to provoke very little reverence for the magnitude of my task, unless I misread the cocked eyebrows and suppressed giggles. Things can’t be like this for Julian Amis and Kingsley McEwan.

However, this time (page 147) I do not dispose of the current manuscript in the garbage, nor do I roll up my sleeves and just get on with it like a plucky little householder, mother and lady novelist probably ought to. Instead, I pack my laptop into its snappy black case, leave housekeeping money on the kitchen table, give what I hope is an affirmative hug to the daughter, commend her well-being to her father, and bugger off for a fortnight to a place where I don’t have to do anything except sort out the random words of my manuscript into something approximating to a novel I once had in mind.

The place is a health farm in Hampshire. Where else can you go on your own, get a sauna and massage each morning, be fed three times a day and have no interruptions? Apart from Julian Kingsley’s house, if you’re Julian Kingsley, I can’t think of anywhere better. In reality, my haven is a place people go to shed fat and get fit, but by avoiding the exercise classes and the after-dinner talks on the uses of colour analysis in physical and mental well-being, what I have is a hotel with full board, unlimited work opportunities and someone to massage the chain-mail knots of anxiety out of my shoulders and neck.

I say ‘hotel’, but it’s more like a nursing home. Actually, it’s that place which my shameful psyche has been dreaming about for most of my life: a hospital (specifically a mental hospital, since no one is physically ill) with none of the institutional and moral disadvantages that spoil the real thing. There is no brisk, frosty Sister pulling back the covers of my bed/pit, crying: ‘Up we get, dear, it’s not good for us to lie in bed.’ No one chases me off to Occupational or Art Therapy, where overalled people with soft voices and understanding eyes produce paint, clay and bits of bendy sticks, so that I can express myself creatively. No doctor sits, fingertips together, forefingers tapping his message out in morse, telling me: ‘You have to confront reality.’ (I do? Why?) There’s none of that here, just crisp sheets, power showers, and a day punctuated by meals. This is the trick, routine without responsibility: institutionalisation in its most morally-neutral form. I do the writing, they can do the rest. Take my body, feed it, heat it, cool it, massage it, relax it, and let the rest alone.

My fellow inmates are on the elderly side, which is soothing, and quite cheering in the sauna if I concentrate on the how-it-is-now rather than the what-it-will-become. They are, for the most part, widows, or wives who are taking a break from marriages which have taken a break. There are fewer men, all business types and afraid, what with the lack of exercise and the unavoidability of the business lunch, for their hearts. A handful of couples, hearts at peace or dead in the water, sit respectively in comfortable or sullen silences in the lounge and dining-room.

I indulge in one of the great pleasures of life: eating alone and reading. It’s not easy, I’ve discovered over the years, to do this in public without provoking resentment. Luckily, most people eat in the Diet Room, and there are enough tables in the dining-room for those who want to be sociable to get together and for me to be left to my book. I’ve developed a special kind of avid look: deep concentration on the text while forking food absent-mindedly into my mouth, which precludes interruption without seeming actively unfriendly. Putting other people’s backs up is stressful and best avoided. Even so, the reading thing is a problem in this bastion of Middle England. ‘Still struggling through your reading book?’ says a man narrowing his eyes at me. ‘Good book?’ asks another who barely suppresses a sneer and walks away before I have a chance to answer. No one else reads anything other than a daily newspaper here – generally the Telegraph. Books are suspect. In fact, I am not struggling through my reading book, I’m swooning through it. It’s my biennial-or-so dip into Lolita. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it, but enough for me now to consume it sentence by sentence, word by word, incredibly slowly, like licking a lolly down to the stick. The writing tweaks the delight centres of my brain. Imagine being able to do that ... and that. I was Lolita’s age when I first read it, and now I’m seven years older than Humbert. Charlotte Haze was a mother’s age that first time round, now she’s a decade younger than I am. By focusing my internal telescope carefully, I can catch sight of the different me’s reading this same text over time – even get them to converse if I catch them at the right moment and they’re prepared to look up from their book. This time, though, the current incarnation of the word ‘abuse’, dressed in social-worker drab, lurks in dark corners, threatening care proceedings on the book – which can take care of itself well enough. (My daughter was told recently by her school librarian that it was ‘a boring book written by a pervert’.) Anyway, I’m happy as a wasp in jam, and most people are content for me not to bother about them, if they don’t need to bother about me.

Even so, a perfect silence isn’t achievable. Quite rightly, morses the Ineluctable Doctor stowed away in my superego, reality and all that. The lady who has embarked on a campaign to give me serene shoulders, my ‘massoose’ she calls herself, asks me what I do and gets the wrong end of the stick. No, really, I’m not here in search of plot ideas. ‘I expect you have to travel a lot to get stories to write about.’ ‘Not at all,’ I say. ‘I stay at home and make them up.’ She doesn’t seem to have heard me, and during our daily half-hours together, she offers me her own and her mother’s stories, which variously involve destitution, bigamy, illegitimacy, sudden death, marital violence, suicide attempts and kitchen renovation. I wonder if the whole saga isn’t cribbed from a Catherine Cookson novel, but, of course, it’s just the regular family narrative. ‘What kind of novels do you write?’ she wants to know. I don’t know the answer to this question, though once, in the States, when I answered ‘fictional’, my questioner nodded, ‘Ahh,’ and went away satisfied. But my massoose helps me. ‘Romances, are they?’ ‘No, they’re more ... realistic ...’ I don’t think it’s true, but it’s all I can manage covered with almond oil and in a near-trance. ‘I know what you mean, more like EastEnders?’ she says brightly. More like. To the standard questions (Do your characters take you over? Do you make a chart before you begin? Is it all autobiographical? Do you have to be very disciplined?) I answer yes and no in a random order that does as well as any other, and hope she won’t forget to do the bit at the bottom of my left shoulder blade.

There are a lot of sadnesses here, which I confess I try to avoid. Most people drift about during the day in their dressing-gowns, which is conducive to that sort of thing. Say what you like about exercise increasing endorphin levels, a day in a dressing-gown will bring it all to nothing. I make a point of getting dressed after my massoose has had her way with me – anyway I find I can’t write unless my teeth are brushed and my stocking seams straight. A friend who comes here frequently told me she often finds women doing homeopathic weeping in the swimming pool. I’m rather taken with the idea of the pool of tears in the basement, but find myself reluctant actually to swim in it. I’m not overly fastidious, but don’t fancy immersing myself in other people’s waste products whichever end of the body they drip from.

Some social intercourse is inevitable, especially as I have to use the small smokers’ sitting-room at regular intervals. In any case, the Persistent Doctor tells me there’s much to be learned from this gathering of the heart-landers. As the pool of tears suggests, this is a Looking-Glass Land of sorts. Get talking and a dreamlike quality settles over me, though occasionally it slips into nightmare.

One evening, after dinner, I’m joined in the sitting-room by my only fellow smoker and her pal, D., a fiercely made-up, blood-lipped, tailored (even her dressing-gown has darts) woman in her early fifties, who launches a conversation on the subject of veal calves. My fellow smoker ventures an opinion. ‘Well, I don’t know what all the fuss is about. If they’ve never seen daylight, they won’t miss it.’ All the lights of North London flicker and dim, philosophy departments crumble to rubble as we speak. In this world abstract ethical considerations are entirely absent. Forget Mary Midgley, expunge all uses of the word ‘right’ other than those that define direction. There are no moral imperatives here. I don’t doubt that the ‘if you’ve never had it, you don’t need it’ argument would extend well beyond calves, but I don’t feel like testing it.

I don’t have to. D. is already speaking in tabloid headlines about the demonstrators – ‘rent-a-mob’ – trying to prevent the calves from being shipped from Brightlingsea (there’s a name for crated calves to conjure with). Against my own advice, I say that, as with the poll tax and motorway campaigns, this cause seems to have a middle-class component, and that I’ve just seen on the news respectable elderly ladies shocked rigid at being manhandled by the police. ‘Exactly,’ shrieks the Queen of Hearts. ‘The media deliberately film it, so people will knock the police. They shouldn’t be allowed to show that kind of thing.’ Freedom, inalienable rights? Not on this side of the looking-glass.

Cruella de Vil is in full flood. ‘The trouble is that young people are so spoiled today. They get everything they want. Look at children in care.’ (At this point I check to see if we don’t have a satirist in our midst, but sincerity is burned into her expression.) ‘They live in luxury, each child has a live-in care worker of their own. They’re given computers for Christmas by the local authority.’ I say – can’t stop myself – that this isn’t the way any children in care I’ve ever come across are treated. Cruella throws me a poisonous look and informs me that she knows, as it happens, from experience. ‘We’ve adopted a teenage boy, Jason. He’s so materialistic. That’s what they teach them, these care workers, that they’re entitled to have whatever they want. Well, we were going to adopt, but we’ve changed it to fostering.’ She smirks at my fellow smoker, and it’s clear that Jason will soon be back wallowing in the overindulgent arms of the local authority.

I’m about to stub out my cigarette and flee to my room but I seem to be paralysed. The Wicked Witch of the West slithers on to tell us about her ‘black sheep brother’. Specifically, that she has (giggles) three ‘half-caste’ nieces. The brother lives in Africa, retreating from country to country as they come under the government of their rightful owners. Along the way, he seeded these three girls with ‘native women’, telling his sister (who tells us as an example of his wit) that three mistakes in his life is not bad going. My fellow smoker, who may be reaching some kind of limit, asks if he supports these children. ‘He sends them a bag of mealie meal from time to time,’ chortles the Evil One.

I loathe this woman so much (Yea, yea, moral philosophy and freedom of speech) I decide to kill her. A plan forms in my mind, and, pointing myself in her direction, I light another cigarette. I’m going to passive smoke her to death. Even if I fail and end up actively smoked to death myself, I can’t lose; either way I’ll be on the opposite bank of the Lethe to her, which is the minimum distance I require.

The next morning my massoose is astonished at the state of my shoulders. All her good work has been undone and we have to start from scratch. While she’s pummelling away at me, I ponder about my obligations as a member of society. The Inescapable Doctor muses on the importance of investigating and understanding the wider world. I dare say he’s right, it’s probably true that the looking-glass world is inside, not outside my skull. All this I grant in theory. Nonetheless, by way of an answer, I smile sweetly, stuff cotton wool in my ears, and put on a pair of shades cunningly mirrored on the insides. ‘That’s better,’ says my massoose. ‘Those muscles are really beginning to relax.’

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