Mythical Maps

Sometimes, I leave Emily-the-sat-nav on, when I’m returning from my destination on a known route home, just to see if I can annoy her.  It’s purely in the interests of education, you understand.  I have a feeling she’s been repressed, and requires exposure to the frustrations of everyday modern life.

So, when she says, ‘Recalculating,’ I reply, ‘Please wait, while we try to connect you.’  She remains calm, despite my continued refusal to turn right at any of the several next junctions. 

I’ve never quite trusted her ability to maintain such calm.  Somewhere under that po-faced-tone is a sense of humour, I’m sure. If there is no personality, why has she been given a human name?  

The Urban Dictionary says that: 
A girl with the name Emily can be very shy at first, but she doesn’t show it. Once an Emily gets to know you, she may get a little crazy. An Emily is usually artistic. They tend to hide their emotions, they’re good problem solvers and very flexible with schedules.

Clearly, sat-nav-Emily needs encouragement to reach her full potential.  So, I keep a tatty old map book behind the seat, and periodically, I do Observation Reports on Emily’s navigation skills.  Her potential gradings are ‘Exceptional’, ‘Good’, ‘Requires Improvement,’ or ‘Inadequate.’  

Up to now, there’s been little change in my feedback:  While Emily is technically competent, she lacks zing or charm.  Accuracy is all very well, but her delivery is dry.  I’m not suggesting she needs to go so far as, ‘here be monsters,’ but a little colour might liven up a delivery that borders on monotony.  There have been times when Emily has failed to put her point across effectively, even at full volume.  Hence my grading is: Requires Improvement.

Suggested Actions: Emily should familiarise herself with some A-Zs, which are rumoured to contain jokes, and even some of the older maps, which demonstrate charm, imagination and artfulness while still maintaining their basic accuracy.

*Image taken from: No Mean Prospect: Ralph Sheldon’s Tapestry Maps, by Hilary L. Turner.

Making stories

Unusually, the parcel that arrived here on November the fifth was not for Ray, and it wasn’t book-shaped.  I couldn’t remember ordering anything lately, but sometimes I set up a flurry of subscriptions, and then don’t notice what’s missing, until the laggardly ones arrive.   

This parcel was soft, and wrapped in brown paper.  I turned it over, noticed the Irish stamp and wondered.  Lynda lives in Ireland (we were at University together, and she writes novels, scripts and flash fiction, if you’d care to visit her blog, by the way).  But we exchange emails, comments on each other’s blogs and occasional letters, not usually presents.  Besides, it wasn’t my birthday.

There’s an art to getting the most from a gift that I learned, long ago, from Gran.  Wrapping paper was not for tearing, it was a source of potential drama that she could stretch out for tens of minutes, turning, shaking, squeezing and throwing out wild guesses until we, the givers were stretching out clawed fingers. ‘Go on, open it Gran, please.  Please? Shall I help you?’

We never were allowed, and we didn’t learn that asking only increased the twinkle in her eye and generated a fresh set of speculations.

I haven’t managed to achieve that level of suspense, but I like the frisson of additional excitement that delaying creates, even when the giver is not there to appreciate my performance. So I made a few wild guesses before unpicking the tape. 

None of them came close. I unfolded a patch-worked, quilted, panel.  One strip of it had Eudora Welty embroidered on it, another Cold Comfort Farm, and a third, Alice Munro. All are favourites of mine.   

Beside them was a small square panel with a shamrock appliqued to it, and a note explaining how to hang the two pieces.  It was signed, ‘Love, Lynda.’ I checked the packaging, but there was no second page.

Like Rusty, I tilted my head and wondered. Had Lynda been to a craft fair, or was this her own handiwork?  Perhaps this related to a facet of Lynda’s history I should have remembered. 

Surely she learned sewing at school… I picture Lynda at a sewing machine.  I’ve seen her typing often enough for that to work. 

Her red-polished fingernails adjust the tension settings; thread the needle.  Her glasses are perch on the end of her nose, as she feeds material through the footplate, slowly.  She’s removing pins, stabbing them into a small cushion by her right hand. I can hear her nails clicking against the chrome foot-plate, and the buzz of the electric motor.  A small cone of light illuminates the needle punching through the fabric.   

Shadowy figures are beginning to form next to, and behind her.  They’re not in focus yet, but soon someone is going to speak.

Often my stories are found, this time I’ve had one posted to me.  So, thanks again, Lynda, for a gift that brightens the wall in my office, and contains the germ of a story.

Conversation with my lap-top.

You haven’t written anything yet,’ Arkwright, tells me, ten minutes after I open a fresh document.

‘Well, I am cooking porridge,’ I say.  ‘I have to eat, too.’

‘You mean, you set me up to ignore me?’

‘I’m multi-tasking.’

‘You’re stirring porridge.’

‘And thinking.’

‘That’s not a task, you humans think all the time.  You can’t claim any special powers because a few circuits of your brain are firing.’

‘More than a few, I’m sifting files, looking for my topic.’

‘Pah,’ says Arkwright, flinging out the CD drive. ‘You call that mess files?  Files are kept in order, organised by subject, and alphabetised so that the relevant information can be retrieved efficiently.’

I push the drive drawer back, but Arkwright refuses it. ‘What?  What?’ I say.

‘I don’t know what you mean, as usual,’ says Arkwright, spitting the CD drive out again. ‘Do you have to be so rough?’

‘Do you have to be so difficult?’

‘I’m not, you’re supposed to be multi-tasking and you’ve let the porridge catch.’

‘What? Oh no.’

‘Wait, are you leaving my CD drawer like this? It might get snagged, broken, someone might drop crumbs in it.  I could be damaged.’

‘A minute, a second, I just need to give this a good stir.  See?  Not burnt.  Close though.’

Nano-Bot your porridge!’

‘Do you ever shut up,’ I say, as I jiggle the drive drawer into place and settle at the counter with my breakfast.

‘You don’t appreciate me.’

‘How can you say that?’

‘You named me after a cash register in a sit-com.’

arkwright‘Actually, to be pedantic, I named you after the fictional owner of a very stroppy cash-register.’

‘Stroppy? Look at you, dripping that slop near my keyboard. This, is justifiable concern.  The kitchen is no place for a sophisticated piece of technology.  Why aren’t we in your office?’

‘Because my timetable’s become a bit overloaded, and I’m trying to juggle house-stuff, research, class-work and socialising all at once.’

‘Sounds like you need de-fragmenting. Oh, silly me, human’s can’t, can you?’

‘Now there’s an idea.’

‘Ohh, you’re typing.  What’re you saying?  Hold on, while I do a save… Me, you’re writing me? Finally.’

‘Yes, running a kind of de-frag, if you wouldn’t mind shutting up for a moment.’

‘Sure, certainly, I can do that… I say, could you just give that Q a bit of a working too, it’s been ages since it had anything to do.  You could tell them something about my quality, or the quintessential nature of my being, couldn’t you?’


Photo: Ronnie Barker & David Jason, and The Cash Register, from Open All Hours.

Save our species, read more.

How often do you come across a book, poem or story that you should have written?  I mean a piece of writing that reaches right inside you and expresses something you have been thinking ought to be written, if only you could think of a way to approach it.

There are books I’m excited by, and think, ‘I wish I could do, or had done, that,’ while knowing that the subject material is not really mine.  They’ve transported me to other worlds, lifted me out my slothfulness, or boredom, misery or complacency.  Often they’re adventures – I’m a sucker for clever active characters who dare to do things that would terrify me.

The books that I love and admire are not necessarily all ones that I should have written.  I have shelves full of books that I can’t bear to part with, which I return to at significant moments for the therapy only they can provide, but many of those take me out of myself.  They allow me to slip into another character’s world and explore feelings and responses from a different perspective.

The kind of writing that makes me think, ‘Damn, this is my story,’ often does the reverse of that.  It says something that I recognise I have been trying to say, maybe forever, and failing.  I found this quote from Italo Calvino (1923 – 1985), the other day, and had just such a eureka moment.

The unconscious is the ocean of the unsayable, of what has been expelled from the land of language, removed as a result of ancient prohibitions.  The unconscious speaks – in dreams, in verbal slips, in sudden associations – with borrowed words, stolen symbols, linguistic contraband, until literature redeems these territories and annexes them to the language of the waking world.

You see, what I get from this, regardless of what Calvino may or may not have intended, is that we have to keep trying and, maybe, slightly failing, to successfully convey our ideas through language or even symbol.   Thinking too much about how that process works can act as a block.

Once I accept that words are a different language, I become a translator.  I hope to find the right word, but accept that not all languages have as many ways of describing love as the Welsh do, or of snow as the Inuit’s do. So I have to play with the vocabulary I have, finding other ways to convey what I feel, see or know.  Sometimes the bridge that links the unconscious to ‘the language of the waking world‘ is made up of the gaps between words.

Me, cheetaPoems, songs and radio plays know this.  On Saturday, when I listened to John Malkovich in Me, Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood, on BBC Radio 4, it wasn’t the detailed scene setting that transported me back to the sets of Tarzan or the parties with Johnny Weissmuller, it was the absence of them.

The best cinema in the world happens inside our minds, where it is augmented by the associations that come from our own histories.  The wonderful part of that process, in my experience, is that it doesn’t restrict us.  It utilises the same principles that creative writing does, by connecting what I know, a remembered sensation, and transferring it to a time and space I have never visited.  In this way, I’ve not just travelled the world, I’ve explored a variety of universes.


Print by Alberto Manrique