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Thursday, January 29, 2009


Part four of rollicking saga about books, and sitting, and writing too many things down, all within the confines of a castle.

19 February 2004

There is something about this place that occasionally makes we want to bang my head against my desk and just keep banging and banging until I lose consciousness. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

Everything is down to fine calculations now. I realize that I have been here for exactly one week as of 9:30 last night. I know that I spent four full days here before running off to Edinburgh, and I felt like I was pushing it then. My hope was to make it through the weekend and go again on Monday. Not entirely sure I will make it.

20 February 2004

I was not in good spirits yesterday.

I’m not sure what it was, but I was really at the end of my rope. I wrote that last entry in the study. I was sitting there thinking that I had no idea—no idea at all—how I was going to make it for 15 more days. 15 sounds like nothing, but when you’ve only done 8 1/2 so far and you already feel that you are at the end of your rope 15 seems impossible.

I hid in my room for a while, determined to stay awake and read. I didn’t want to go to dinner, but of course, I did. You can’t NOT show up to dinner here or they’ll call The Yard. As it is, we are all developing Agatha Christie paranoia—the group locked in the far off house, killed off one by one. We look at each other over the table in the dark and quiet and wonder which one of us will go first, and how. There are loads of things around here you could use to kill someone, and lots of places to do it. We sometimes discuss this.

The informal dining room, where we plot the demises of our fellow residents.

Personally, I would like to be bludgeoned to death with one of the black bird sculptures from the hall. They look exactly like real birds who have been trapped in an oil spill, all gloopy and misshapen and agonized. Bludgeoning is nice and direct and really old-fashioned. I would also be okay with poisoning. In these sorts of murder mysteries, poisons tend to be used early on as a quick and relatively painless way of knocking someone off who isn’t very important to the story. Once you really get into your murder spree, you have to get way too creative, and that’s where problems develop. Then you start knocking Chinese vases off second-story ledges or rigging up guns to go off when doors are opened. Mistakes can be made when you get to that level. Beat me over the head with a bird or slip me something in the soup. That’s what I want.

After dinner, we went to the study, like we do every single night. Sat looking at the others, those green walls, the white window shutters, the electric fire, the tea tray on the oversized ottoman. Nigel sprawled on the couch. Paris Reviews all around us. Thought to myself, I have been here forever. There was never a time when I was not here.

Then things took a turn. My spirits began to lift, for some reason. I was hanging around, waiting for the phone. I read the paper. Nigel read the Ford Maddox Ford piece on D.H. Lawrence that I’d found for him. Then Petunia said, “Right. Hubert’s not here. I’m plugging in my computer.”

This was breaking the rules in a huge way, and I wanted in.

I connected on Petunia’s number for about 20 minutes and actually collected e-mails. So much happiness.

Woke up this morning. Head was completely cottony. Stuffed up. Ears blocked. Headache. I thought, Right. Here we go. It was a cold! All made sense to me. Felt like crap at breakfast. Wanted to go back upstairs immediately. Nigel finally mentioned how “much Maureen always dominates the breakfast conversation.” Several times been pointed out that I am the “quiet and mysterious” one. This is from a man who disappears every morning right after breakfast and goes into the woods for an hour with his new axe and won’t tell anyone what he is doing out there.

Said I was just feeling a little under the weather, and that I might go to Bonnyrigg and visit the Superdrug.

Petunia gave me a pack of Echinacea and two fizzy vitamin C tablets. (Petunia is turning into the big giver. All those things I said about Petunia . . .) I took one Echinacea, put the tablets in water and drank them (tastes like Tang), took two cold pills, went back to bed and finished book, which seemed much less creepy. Fell asleep somewhere around 10:30 AM. Woke up at 12:20. Didn’t want to get out of bed, but once I did, found that head felt clearer. I think now I will slap on my hat, clear the mascara smudges from under my eyes, and go to Beautiful Downtown Bonnyrigg.

4:08 PM
Just returned from Bonnyrigg. Yes, even the small trips into town hold their little adventures now.

Went down the drive to wait for the bus on the other side of the road. Watched two buses go by on the castle side. Finally, a bus came. The driver was very nice, and told me that I’d need to catch a bus on the other side of the road (again, the castle side) to go to Bonnyrigg. This defied logic, as I’d been watching them come and go, and there was really only one way they could go, since the Polton Road West (where Hawthornden is) leads only to Bonnyrigg or Rosewell. But I said okay, and went to the other side of the road. I waited there, and a girl rode by on a pony. It was a rather fat, black and white one. An old man came by and said something very sweet and totally incomprehensible to me. The girl (who had ridden the pony down to a drive just beyond ours) came back, leading the pony down the sidewalk, just past me. Finally, a bus came. It was driven the same driver I’d just spoken to, and now he went to Bonnyrigg.

I bought some pretty basic things, including a container of Cadburry’s hot chocolate, which I added to the tea tray upon my return. My return consisted of standing at a bus stop in Bonnyrigg for another twenty minutes, listening to these kids with spiky hair (the famous “feral youth of Bonnyrigg”) talking about how the buses were shite. I am getting pretty good at convincing bus drivers that they really do go to Hawthornden. I was massively lucky that first time when I got Father Jack, who actually knew where Hawthornden was. That was the only time. The first driver today (of a 49) was convinced he didn’t, so I got off. But when the driver of the 77x also claimed he didn’t, I explained that it was on the Polton Road West, and I described the spot and assured him that he did, in fact, go right past it. A discussion ensued among several people, and it turned out some passengers knew where it was. I never envisioned a time when I would be explaining a route to a Scottish bus driver, but there you go. I don’t want to hear any more talk about my sense of direction. I am kind of the Sir Walter Raleigh of the group, exploring the area, taking new, exciting routes, bringing back swag like instant chocolate and colored editing pencils. I think I cut rather a romantic figure, and I envision a statue of me surrounded by buses.

There was a heavy smoky smell on the drive, like a massive woodburning fire. It was much too early for Nigel to start his fire in the garden room (he goes down at 6:15 to light it), and it wouldn’t have put off that kind of smell unless he’d decided to shake things up and burn the whole room down.

I’m not sure I’ve done a good job in really conveying just what conversations with the others are like—how I can say that I like them, yet I am in hell. Here is a totally made up conversation that captures the essence of my every morning and every night. It is not far exaggerated:

Nigel: Did you read E.W. Pantsbottom’s newest?
Petunia: No, I’ve only read his first thirteen, then I grew bored.
Nigel: It’s awfully good. Have you read his interview in the Paris Review?
Agatha: I prrrreferrred My Spotty Thing.
Nigel: Oh now that’s a wonderful book. Marvelous book. I remember reading that while I was hiding under an overturned bus in Peru in 1970. Such a good book.
Petunia: He’s a bit of a beast, isn’t he?
Nigel: Oh, he’s awful. Absolutely unbearable. Killed his mother with a biro. Still, good writer.
Petunia: I don’t think so. I think he’s dreadful. And they made that awful film from that one book of his . . .
Nigel: Ah, but that’s how you sell in Rome. We must all bow to Rome, mustn’t we?*
Petunia: No, we mustn’t. And Rome will fall.
Agatha: Hermia winks, does she not, upon the television antennae?

All laugh, except for Maureen, who smiles weakly and minutely examines bowl of porridge, possibly for some kind of escape hatch at bottom of bowl.

Nigel: What is it that Ben Jonson said about writing? Give unto me just enough ink, printer, forsooth I have not a squid of my own, nor equip’t with pen am I.
Petunia: Well, he would, wouldn’t he!
Ron: I was just reading in the TLS that A.Q. Patel is doing a new book on B.Z. Bee. I quite like A.Q. Patel.
Nigel: Alan Wheeze, John Toad, Alistair Refrigerator, Nigel Flapjack and I once did a piece on A.Q. Patel. She said: (speaks in Latin for next five minutes)
Ron: That’s good advice, that.

*Have I mentioned Rome? Rome is how the assembled refer to America. Daily it is mentioned that Rome will fall, in pretty much these exact terms.

21 February 2004

9:30 AM

It goes on. It goes on and on and on.

This morning’s topic was “Poets Maureen Has Never Heard Of.” Which isn’t a shock. I’m not huge on poetry, and I can’t say I keep up with current poets at all. In fact, it’s possible that I can’t name one. (That’s not true. I can name several of my teachers. And maybe a handful of others—by name only. It doesn’t help me.)

Before I came here, I wasn’t under the illusion that I knew a lot—but I thought I knew a little something about books. Just a little. I know realize that I know nothing. Truly nothing. I’m flabbergasted by these discussions—endless writers I’ve never heard of. I’m beginning to think the admissions committee was just trying to be funny by letting me in here.

Like this morning. I believe they were talking about someone named [some poet] because Agatha said she had a book on sonnet form written by him, and that he wasn’t a bad poet. (This stemmed from a discussion of Agatha’s current readings of Drummond of Hawthornden and his use of sonnet form, which was kind of midway between Petrarchan and Shakespearian.) Nigel chimed in that he had to go up in front of [the poet] for his interview for one of the Oxford colleges, and he told the story of how he was asked to define the word “ectoplasm,” and how he was an overeager youth, and how they rejected him. Then Petunia chimed in about how he wasn’t a very nice person—or that may have been in reference to the next person who came up. I didn’t even catch the name. Then Nigel started rattling off names of current female poets, one of whom was [a poetess], and Nigel said that she was very good, and that she’d actually been here with Nigel’s wife when she stayed here, and Hubert said yes and she was quite good and he hoped that she would send her new book along.

But you see what I mean? This was in the space of maybe ten minutes, between 8:50 and 9:00 this morning, while I was eating porridge. Now multiply that. Do you see? Do you see why I have to come home and immediately enroll in a program for special learners? Also . . . ENGLAND MUST BE BIGGER THAN THIS. HOW DO THEY ALL KNOW EACH OTHER?

I’m not saying I’ve never heard of anyone we’ve ever discussed. But it’s so infrequent as to be alarming. Maybe they are making things up?

The feeling that is developing is that any moment, I may turn one of the dark corners of the dungeon-library or a deserted corner of the walk and one of them might spring out and put a shiv to my throat and say, “Recite Ode on a Grecian Urn! Do it NOW, b%ch!”

After breakfast, I snuck downstairs and called Trevor in London and asked him to send me movies with helicopter explosions in them—only because it was the most devious and perverse thing I could imagine under the circumstances. “What is that idiot American doing? Probably hiding in her room watching films with exploding helicopters.”

Trevor said he was on it. Trevor is a fancy man who knows his fine drama, but he also knows his big-budget flick. Thank god for Trevor and his perfectly organized selection of 3,000 films. It is good to have kind friends with hobbies.

I am coming to pieces.

Also, I saw two deer on the castle walk.

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Blogger Khy said...

The diary only gets better.

4:30 AM  
Blogger William said...

Oh, dear. I feel as if I'm peering into that ugly period of writing I've often heard of, when the writer starts to slowly unravel as the book comes together. Sounds like a proportional event.

At least, I hope that during this madness you were able to get an actual book written.

I must say, I spent a summer studying at Cambridge University and was often referred to as a "beastly American" and a few times spit on for also being Irish. Lovely place, the United Kingdom, but good lord they can be brutal.

4:32 AM  
Blogger Kylie said...

Seeing Ron's two comments made my day. He is the true "quiet and mysterious" one, in Nigel's words. You two seem like you got quite overpowered by the three others.

I am still jealous, however. Note to Self: Get a strange trip to Scotland to write in a castle and pretend I am Canadian or Icelandic or some such nationality. And according to William, don't use Irish. Wow. Can't believe they'd still spit at you for that.

5:01 AM  
Blogger amy said...

Thank God for Trevor!

5:02 AM  
Blogger ROSIE!!!!!!!!! said...

Ja, oh Maureen you lead a much more adventerous life than the rest of us!
Agatha seems to be quite nice despite the fact that she goes to bed so early!
And William, the British do indeed sound brutual after your comment. Did they seriously spit on you? That's not nice!

5:19 AM  
Blogger Colt said...

I hate to break it to you but if their were a murder plot a brewin' you wouldn't be goin' off peacefully. You'd probably be the killer. And you'd cackle has you offed them in mysterious American ways! Like with exploding remote control helicopters!!!

5:23 AM  
Blogger Lexi said...

I want to accuse you of making the conversations up, only something tells me you're not. And that, dear mj, makes me quiver in sympathy for your sanity. :]

Yay more diary!

5:53 AM  
Anonymous Lauren said...

Gasp. We don't know the badger count! What is the badger count?! They could be multiplying their numbers this very second!

7:25 AM  
Anonymous Lysh said...

I keep wondering about Ron. He gets very little blog time.

As always, I love this. I truly look forward to it.

8:11 AM  
Blogger Candy said...

Wow... I had no idea about "Rome". That's kind of amazing, how they drop such remarks about the US all the time.

Did you ever try talking about all of the American writers you knew of? Maybe they only knew people from Great Britain that were unknown in the States ;)

I am really loving these diaries, by the way. I find myself looking forward to them!

8:19 AM  
Blogger Brittany Ann said...

Sounds like no one you were with fancied the US much. I think you should've walked around the castle in nothing but an American flag worn as a wrap-around dress just to be annoying.

BTW, I just read "Let It Snow"!!!! Arghhh, you guys were all amazing. I don't know which story I loved best! They were all just so good. It was like a mini-Christmas reading it.

9:40 PM  
Blogger Nadia Murti said...

I would go crazy. Actually, I think I would hide from Petunia, Agatha, Nigel, and Ron. I'd become a hermet.

How did you get any work done???


2:10 AM  
Blogger Chelsea said...

The last line made me laugh so hard. It was just pure randomness. It's like you in a nutshell. I loved it.

9:12 AM  
Anonymous Becky said...

I love these entries. If only because they make me feel better about the year I am spending in England. During which there have been many times I've wanted to get on a bus and go back to the airport. But at the last minute, I realize that I don't have my passport.

The English are very strange. When Obama won the election, a man came up to me and told me all Americans should die. And I've had my accent made fun of - people try to make me sound like I'm southern, and then they ask me how New York City is...though the one time I've been to New York, it was during a blizzard and I couldn't see anything. I live on an Island. Its very different from New York.

Anyway,thanks for posting!!

1:11 AM  
Blogger Namlhots said...

None of your fellow authors could possible be Scots, because all true Scots speak incomprehensible English. You encountered this with the old man on the Road to Bonnyrigg. I had my encounter with an 11 year old lad in the stands at last summer's Tattoo.

Strange thing is they all seem to understand American's perfectly.

12:34 AM  

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