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Bathtime with Birds

I am now devoting my life to pleasure. And one of my greatest pleasures is to have a bath before bedtime. Those of you who have read Yesterday’s Houses (I think it was my twelfth novel) will know that I was always a woman in search of the perfect bathroom wherein to have the perfect bath. To bathe at night is warming, soothing, gentle on the psyche and I glide into bed thereafter in a happy state for opening my book (currently ‘Stoner’ by John Williams – a gem from the past).

While lying in the bath I sometimes listen to Radio Four – secure in the knowledge that I will hear nothing to frighten the horses, nothing to make me feel either that I am missing out on some marvellous new erotic excitement, or remind me that I am now a tad too wrinkled for anything very lively, very much. Sometimes the bath is early and it’s Book at Bedtime (if you didn’t catch the Muriel Spark you missed a treat) – sometimes it’s later – and it’s all kinds of different programmes – none of which have ever been particularly cutting edge or disturbing. But last night, Oh last night, was different.

The first thing I heard when I switched on Radio Four was mind blinking. It was a description necrophiliac rape. On water. The people talking about it were less shocked and disgusted than amused. Amused. And not only that, but it was necrophiliac rape that one woman said she had observed while out with her young son. At this point the woman seemed remarkably impervious to the fact that she was subjecting her young son to something that would traumatise him forever. The soothing quality of the bath was rapidly disappearing. So was my liberal tendency. Violent sexual acts on Radio Four, indeed – and people joking about it. The world had gone mad.

It took a little while for the truth to be revealed; the team on the radio were discussing ducks. Ah ducks. So that’s all right then. Except the duck discussion moved into an illustration of the scientific pursuit of ducks which was startling in its detail to say the least. First we learned from the (male) scientists about various aspects of bird science which seemed to centre around, in the male, sex and brain size. Why would anyone be surprised about that? Or feel they have to give a lifetime of study to prove it? This interesting but rather one-dimensional discussion was occasionally, and thank the stars, interrupted by Katy Brand (she it was who had taken her son to watch necrophiliac rape and who had by now realised this was not a good thing) who did her best to put some human leaven into the enthusiastic males who had moved on from necrophiliac rape to the need to measure a male duck’s penis. I dropped the soap.

A male duck’s penis is, apparently, amazing. We were informed that this extraordinary realisation was gleaned, not from live ducks, but from duck road-kill. That made me feel a lot cheerier. And what the passionate professor found (despite, one assumed, its being a tad squashed) is that the male duck’s penis is shaped like a corkscrew. A very, very long corkscrew. And that the female duck (who probably died in the same collision – or possibly from the gang-rape perpetrated by those pondlifes) has – as no woman reading this would be suprised to learn – managed to subvert this male-duck plan of owning a penis that will not be stopped. The masculine plan being that once entered the female duck cannot get rid of the male duck until he has done the job. And she will be entered by very many ducks who want their wicked way with her when, frankly, one would do perfectly. So, what the female duck has developed to divert these excess rampant males, apart from a corkscrew vagina (weird these water birds) is a corkscrew vagina that does not only go up to the vital bit, but has little off-roads, little dead-end streets, little cul-de-sacs – and when the male duckery (change one consonant, as Dorothy Parker once said, and you have the story of (the female duck’s) life) has gone on too long Lady Duck manages to SatNav him up one of these. He thinks he’s got to where he wants to be, but in fact he has gone to Bournemouth.

By the time I’d got to this part of the programme any idea that I would go to bed and read and rest was shot. For then – Oh then – we moved on to the burning question of what was the stupidest bird the professor had ever studied and the professor said there were no such things as stupid birds (something that might be passed on to the male population of Essex, or, indeed, possibly Peter Stringfellow). Hens? Absolutely not. Hens were clever. And so were cockerels. Hens not quite so clever once caught by the professor who used them unashamedly to pursue his grand design on the gallinaceous community of measuring the competitive output of birds’ sperm. How rarely does a writer get to write such an idea. The headlines are that a hen is entrapped and has a form of chastity belt put up her by the jolly professor which will hold the sperm so that it can be measured. And in pursuing this unlikely activity the professor has found that the cockerel can recognise if he has already had a go at a hen – by looking at her face – and why not? Then, although he’ll have another go at her (he is, after all, a game bird) – he will not bother about the impregnation bit because he has already done it. So, he gives her very short shrift in the sperm department. As measured by the prof. Excellent. But it was at this point that a thought crept over me about this experiment and its conclusion, and the thought was this: WHY?

I know this is Philistine Thinking writ large but my lovely neighbour has been coughing and sneezing and blowing her nose for nearly a week. She has a cold. The common cold. I have probably caught it from her by now. Scientists have known about the common cold probably since the dawn of science. They have not cured it – not even got remotely near it. Oh, they bleat, there are so many viruses that cause the common cold that we can’t find a cure – not even for the most common of the common colds’ viruses, the rhinovirus – sorry. So, we thought we would measure the competitive output of birds’ sperm instead. And – while we were at it – we thought we could take a look at a duck’s penis. It’s the next best thing we can do.

The bathwater was cold. I was cold. I got out of there and tottered into bed only to be struck by the thought that I shall never be able to look a female duck or a hen in the eye again.



19th Century

Of course it’s Louise May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ – with the wonderful Jo March (who should have married Laurie) being a splendid role model for any aspiring writer who also likes to have a romance in her life. Curl up with it – sip tea and eat a warm mince pie and know that everything turns out fine.

No Christmas list complete without Dickens – the man, they now say, who invented Christmas – but not ‘A Christmas Carol’ – ‘The Pickwick Papers’ has a wonderful Christmas chapter – logs a-blaze, punchbowls and goodwill to all men (and women, I hope). Read it and you will instantly feel warm on the snowiest of nights.

And the humour and fun (and romance) of Anthony Trollope’s ‘Christmas at Thompson Hall’ – with lovely Christmas delights and people falling in love – amusing and happy. That’s what we need.


Margaret Atwood’s rewriting of Shakespeare’s The Tempest ‘Hag Seed’ is a very good one to settle down with – her usual beady eye and her usual humour and irony mix into a very satisfying read for the Christmas period. Or failing that ‘The Heart Goes Last’ which is fun, and should make you think twice about the world of robotics.

If you want a snow-bound whodunnit, Martin Cruz Smith’s ‘Stalin’s Ghost’ should crack it for you. Moscow is snowbound, the ghost of Stalin appears on the underground – and Arkady Renko – whom you may have fallen for in ‘Gorky Park’ all those years ago, is back and just as out of kilter with his superiors as ever.

And, of course, there must be an English Country House murder mystery – so pick a Christmas Agatha Christie – ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’ where a nicely savage murder and a suspiciously unmournful family gives the detective a bit of a problem.

Short stories are A Good Thing at Christmas, and Jo Jo Moyes ‘Paris For One’ should do it. Just enough time to read a couple of the stories in between feasting and drinking bouts.

And for the brains – there is always the ‘Penguin Book of Puzzles’ to work off some of the fat surrounding the little grey cells. Or to make that irritating know-all in the family pipe down.


My usual routine has been shot to pieces by having a bunion removed and being encumbered by an enormous boot still occupying my lower leg and foot – which means I can’t do hands free going up the stairs. So, I can’t carry a tray with tea things up to my bedroom early in the morning. That was the time I used to answer emails and write blogs and do anything else that wasn’t The Servant Questionto do with writing a book. The prelude to the day. This, of course, is when you miss being rich and privileged – because I find myself thinking – as I drink my tea in the kitchen on cold November mornings and staring mournfully at what must be one of the ugliest surgical appliances ever devised (though its benefits are legion) – that a servant would be nice.

This thought has probably come about because, in the times when I do my duty by the foot and lie down, and try not to think of England (because I can’t get out in her and enjoy her), I’ve been listening to the quasi-biography of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown. This was recommended to me by one of my more cutting-edge writer friends, whom I won’t name because it might destroy him, but he recommended it as his ‘dirty little secret’ after I confessed to mine of taking three or four unread Spectator magazines on holiday with me every year- not something a dyed-in-the-wool liberal leftie is supposed to embrace.

Anyway – Princess Margaret is brought to life in an extraordinarily vivid, sometimes horrible, sometimes saddening, sometimes shocking, way – and none more so than when her footman spills the beans about his life with her. Never mind bringing up the morning tea-tray: To have a servant with whom there is no compunction about keeping him up at night so that, when you are tired of the television and too snuggled up on the sofa with your lover to get up and turn it off (no remote controls in those days), you ring for him to come and turn it off for you – is – let’s face it – indulgence beyond the call of his duty and her good manners. It makes me think of Kim Jong Un or Grace Mugabe or any spoilt and power-mad creature under the sun. And it also makes me think how very, very lucky we were that Margaret Rose’s sister, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary – came first.

On the other hand – would I like a servant, really? The Princess’s footman watched her every move beadily and then told the world all about it in a book. And much as we – or certainly, I – find his commentary both fascinating and repellent – I can’t think of anything worse than my quips and quirks being published for posterity. I mean, this morning, for example, I swore very lustily at the front door. It had not done anything. It had merely been a front door doing what a front door is supposed to do – impede the progress of either people on the way out or people on the way in. Which is what, in its role as front door and guardian of my estate, it did to me. And if I was determined to be offensive then it was my lack of mobility that should have received the – may I say – rich and colourful swear words that rent the air, not the poor old front door. I ever I was drawn to share this moment with the world (which, of course, I would never do) the world would have every reason to condemn me for unjustifiable treatment of an inanimate object, monumental insensitivity – and the possibility that I am of unsound mind. Happily, since I do not have a servant hanging around, no-one will ever know…

The bright dawn will come. Once more the tea-tray will be carried up the stairs by its owner – and the ritual will be restored. Can’t wait.


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