Cat on the Edge of Time

December is starting to addle our brains. We did the backwards-day thing again today, but with the other calendar. We managed to get Germany right. We got up and opened box 22, and in fairness, since that was the only horizontal box, it wasn’t all that hard to figure out. So after we finished up the last of the Winter Earl Grey for breakfast, and mourned its loss because that was a gorgeous tea, we had the darjeeling.

We poured our first pot at the end of a lunch hour mostly spent walking dachshunds and revelling in the sun. But after a morning on Zoom somehow getting out into the sun and the cool weather was more important than actually eating, and we had a lovely, muddy tramp through the ravine. Yesterday was so grey, and we’re just that bit sick of twilight rambles, always worrying about getting back before the light goes.

So anyway, we made the Darjeeling, which was Ronnefeldt Darjeeling, a lovely first flush blend. It’s floral and brews quite strong, but not so much so you can’t drink it without milk. And it got us through a long, dull afternoon. Then it revived us at 4 when the afternoon was finally over.

Now we are drinking Valerian Nights, which was apparently tomorrow’s tea, and we have no excuse because the numbers on the DavidsTea calendar are large-print friendly and everything. But Valerian is a weird one. We always debate getting Miss Marschallin to guest write this tea sample because whereas it makes humans sleepy, it’s Ecstasy to cats. No, really. Worse than catnip. Fill a toy with this stuff and watch them go truly berserk. Od course, it also stinks to high heaven – we’d forgotten just how badly until we did the weekly swap-round of cat toys and got out the valerian…then worried the attic was burning or possibly something had died in the roof. But no, just the reintroduction of valerian into the atmosphere.

This is probably why DavdsTea has revamped the stuff and bent over backwards to make it smell not of burnt fuses and/or dead animals. Weirdly, what seems to be blocking out the valerian taste is…coconut. Remember how violently we hate it? Yeah, well, we take it back. It works like a charm here. It doesn’t even taste of sunblock! There’s a whole other thwack of stuff in there too; hibiscus to turn it pink, blackberry leaves to keep it sweet, sugar, ditto – and we forgive them the sugar because with something like valerian you do need these outlandish extremes. In black tea not so much but when trying to make something quite that potent palatable, it balances nicely.

Everything combines so that the primary taste is of toffee, which isn’t at all unpleasant. The only lingering oddity, aside from the fact the valerian has swayed even us to its thrall, is that they feel a need to specify it’s dairy-free. That’s great David…but why wouldn’t this be dairy-free? (We long ago stopped asking when tea started having latent milk concentrate; DavidsTea have been doing it for years. With certain blends we even think it justified.) What about this rooibos–herbal hybrid was supposed to make me think milk was even in the ingredients? Ah well, you’ve worked a special kind of alchemy with this one and we cop to your superiority in all things tea.

Since it’s a cat’s tea we went looking for cat-themed poems for you. There are lots out there, but the one that peaked our interest came from Marge Piercy. Remember her? She famously authored Woman on the Edge of Time, featuring protagonist Connie’s might-be-visions-might-be-psychotic-episodes?.

We had the misfortune to encounter this thing by way of a unit on eco-feminism. We knew it wasn’t for us when the first chapter evolved rapidly into the gorriest back-street abortion scene anyone will ever read by way of an inciting incident. And we say that coming off of Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony. We know our way around horrific literary do-it-yourself abortions, bizarrely. Anyway, Piercy also includes a utopia, possibly in compensation for that horrifying first chapter. The men nurse the babies, which we seem to recall grow in pods, and everyone is vaguely genderless anyway. But that’s only the first act! There then follows an alternate dystopia that possibly-delusional Connie has to somehow prevent, as guided by the androgynous angel messenger. It’s by turns horrifying, weird, and in places just downright perplexing. And we’ll never forget that opening sequence. We’ve forgotten great swathes of this book, but not that.

But anyway, the same author has apparently turned her hand to cat poetry, and the thing is, for as much as we run screaming from Woman on the Edge of Time, the poem works. We like it. It rings true to anyone who has ever owned a cat. This is less Miss Marschallin and more her predecessor, Keys, but still. So sit back, clear your head of all latent Marge Piercey associations, especially if they involve misapplication of kitchen ranges, and enjoy.

The Cat’s Song 
Marge Piercy

Mine, says the cat, putting out his paw of darkness.
My lover, my friend, my slave, my toy, says
the cat making on your chest his gesture of drawing
milk from his mother’s forgotten breasts.
Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.
I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,
to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.
Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.
You feed me, I try to feed you, we are friends,
says the cat, although I am more equal than you.
Can you leap twenty times the height of your body?
Can you run up and down trees? Jump between roofs?
Let us rub our bodies together and talk of touch.
My emotions are pure as salt crystals and as hard.
My lusts glow like my eyes. I sing to you in the mornings
walking round and round your bed and into your face.
Come I will teach you to dance as naturally
as falling asleep and waking and stretching long, long.
I speak greed with my paws and fear with my whiskers.
Envy lashes my tail. Love speaks me entire, a word
of fur. I will teach you to be still as an egg
and to slip like the ghost of wind through the grass.

Murder in the Vestry: Clergy in Detective Fiction

When PBS first started airing the latest season of Grantchester, WNED ran a promotional ad that was words to the effect ‘Featuring unlikely duo Sydney Chambers and Geordie Keating’  Not a bad line except for one wee detail; fiction is replete with clerical detectives. Many of them are even Anglican. There are so many in fact that to list them all would be unwieldy. Here though are some of our favourites.

Fr. Tom Christmas. He’s not really high enough to be ‘Father’ to anyone, but some last names come with a doom, and that seems to be his. He’s the rector to St Nicholas Church (or course he is) in the parish of Thornford Regis. His mysteries invariably take their theme from The Twelve Days of Christmas and are as cozy as any Golden Age writer could hope for. The fact that Canadian writer C. C. Benson infuses them with that quintessential Englishness that makes the books best suited to dreich, tea-filled afternoons would be impressive in and of itself, but the mysteries are clever and the characters charming. Mind housekeeper Madrun though, she has Opinions and enough prickle to her to run circles around even Mrs McGuire.

Fr. Brown – All right, he’s not Anglican, but if he didn’t invent the clergy-detective, it feels as if he did and any list would be incomplete without him. G.K. Chesterton first priest introduces his sleuthing priest The Blue Cross and the world never looked back. We love Chesterton’s deft welding theology and the murder mystery. We’ve said it before and we mean it, nothing is more addictive in reading than the assumption that the reading audience is intelligent.

Rev. Dr Blake Fisher is Fredrick Ramsay’s detective, and we can’t win with our fictive clergy this evening because this one objects to being called Reverend since it’s an adjective, not a noun. He’s an American detective, an Episcopalian with a gift for observation and making faith accessible without ever reducing it.

Fr. Gilbert for a novelty doesn’t object to his title. He’s also formerly of Scotland Yard, so when we told the WNED continuity announcer (not that he heard us) that we’d heard of stranger pairs than television’s favourite Cambridgeshire clergyman, we meant it. He believes strongly in evil, and unlike rational Fr. Brown, is prone to seeing the odd spectre. We don’t mind though, we were trained on Muriel Spark. There are definitely weirder things in fiction than a light touch of the gothic. No really, go read The Ballad of Peckham Rye and get back to us. We dare you to find a novel more bizarre.

There are others, of course, there always are with lists like these. No one loves a priest so well as a mystery writer, and we can’t blame them. Given our druthers we’d take confessing to any of our detective clergy over formidable Morse, Rebus or even the charming Steve Carella, and not just because biscuits seem to be less forthcoming from fictive police.

Every type of character brings advantages to detection. Morse had his vast intellect, Carella his cohort at the 87th Precinct. Clergy though bring their humanity, or they should. They offer an understanding of people, the good along with the bad that makes them particularly well-suited to solving murders.

To the continuity people over at WNED we can only say that if it’s strange pairs they’re after, they’d be better off reading Witches of Lychford. As mysteries go it has its holes, but we can’t think of a stranger pair than the triumvirate of vicar, witch and hippy it offers. Perhaps you can though, or have a favourite religious sleuth we’ve missed out. If so, we’d love to hear from you!

Why the Death of Roger Ackroyd Matters

American Murder Mystery detective: I’m going to solve this murder because it’s horrible and dramatic and linked to me through my tragic backstory.

English Murder Mystery detective: I’m going to solve this murder because I don’t want to be late to tea.

A while ago we stumbled across the above quote on the internet. It made us laugh, and then it made us think, because we’re not sure it does justice to either classification of mystery.

The English murder mystery traditionally comes from a place of optimism. In it the world is inherently good, as are the people in it. When the detective is invoked it is because a Wrong has been committed that puts that goodness in jeopardy. It becomes the duty of Poirot, Campion, Wimsey, et al to restore that goodness, to preserve civilization. For that reason we often fail to see the corpse, or if we do, it is tidily presented. Not only that, the murder weapons we see in the early English mystery are often exotic, curio knives, pistols that date to the Boer war, sacrificial daggers and ancient artifacts.

Alison Light has argued that this is a reaction in Golden Age fiction especially, against the War. Readers needed the fantasy of clean, contained justice, not realistic renderings of corpses and their deaths. To a certain extent we suppose we must still need it, otherwise why be outraged when those ten Detection Club laws are broken? Why be startled by the violent death, the masses of fictive blood in Have His Carcass? Why care, as Edmund Wilson once famously asked, who killed Roger Ackroyd, and why be absolutely indignant when that particular solution is presented? Is it because in a civilized, well-ordered world, these things have no place?

We think it might be, and thinking on it, we recant; the loss of tea is a part of the English murder mystery since to delay it is to infringe upon civilization, and to lose the veneer of civility is to let the world fall, and that must not happen.

Often though, in American detective fiction, this is exactly what has happened. If the classic English mystery is cozy, the American is what writers of crime fiction call hardboiled. The detective is flawed, undeniably, but if s/he is flawed, so is their world. Where English mysteries begin from a place of optimism, the American begins from one of disillusionment. Here the world is fallen, the people imperfect. We see the corpses and more than that they are messy. There is violence and there are guns, people are battered and bruised; there is also blood, brains, severed limbs, and where in the English mystery these things would shock, here they feel inevitable. The world is an uncivilized one, tea will be late, and the detective is obliged to work outside the limits of the law to preserve it.

Never because of personal history though. While they undeniably have histories, when Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, and Vic Warshawski (to name but a few) fight devastating odds it is not in the name of their own private demons but because they must. Not to do so is to let a world they have sworn to protect fall to the Bay City Cops, the thugs, the mafia, is to sacrifice whatever innate goodness is left in the world. Their fight is to not to preserve, but to restore civilization and that fallen grace. Inevitably, it can’t be done all in one stint, so they go on fighting, never quite winning, but never wholly losing either. If the solution is not proclaimed with a triumphal yell, if the ends when tied together are frayed, it is because the victory in hardboiled fiction, like its corpses, is messy and its world a murky, changeable place in need of salvation.

Even here we’ve simplified it. We’ve not touched on the police procedural, which is a cat of another colour and exists at least in part to refute the isolated, defeatist world of the hardboiled gumshoe. Another time. For now it’s enough to have approximately sifted what it is that drives the mechanism of the hardboiled plot, why we love it, and why they fight.

Reading Experience

We want to begin by stressing we are book-lovers. We love the smell of them, and the feel of them, and weight of them. We go to great lengths to preserve their spines out of a deep-rooted belief that to do anything less is Abuse of Book and on par with High Treason. We say all this because what follows is a defence of the kindle.

Every now and again someone will see us with ours and say, ‘I still like books.’

Or, ‘Don’t you think you remember less reading on a screen? Doesn’t it irritate you that it needs charging?’

There’s any number of arguments against the kindle, as there is against anything. But there’s a value too that we don’t think is lauded enough; it’s a godsend to the partially sighted. We’re just sighted enough that growing up, no one offered us large-print as an option until university. Preferably we read at size 16. But the number of books printed size 16? Our local library has perhaps ten large-print books together and they’re always Jilly Cooper. That’s not a condemnation, because we’ve never read her and know nothing about her books. There have got to be partially-sighted people in my town with less vision than us, who have read those ten books to death out of a lack of choice.

There are things like Daisy Machine, but we could write a whole other post on the evils of the Daisy Machine. Suffice it to say we could never make ours work, and like any 13 year old, refused to lose a Saturday afternoon to a class on how to use one. That’s why years later our Daisy is stuck at the beginning of Jane Austen’s Emma,  though we’re sure we bookmarked wherever it was we got to on first listen. It’s also why any reading we did, we did in print.

Vision acuity notwithstanding though, we only read with half of one eye, which makes things slow, and with dense or close-typed prose we read even slower. The way our eyes work we have to keep stopping to relocate the beginning of the next line. If the print’s too small, we’re liable to read the same line two or three times before we get to the next one. We read Caleb Williams with a line-guide, because we kept losing our place, Virginia Woolfe too. The first time we read Vindications of the Rights of Women it was a library copy designed for people who could read the last row on the eye-chart accurately. But we read Maria or the Wrongs of Womenirritating, didactic thing though it was -on a kindle. We read it in the largest font-size on offer, and we couldn’t believe the difference. We even took notes, a thing we would never do in a book proper, because we’re fastidious about our books.

We wouldn’t say we never went back, but we can’t say enough about the difference our kindle has made. Suddenly, as long as the book’s on Amazon, we can read it with font as large as we like, and it won’t cost us more.There’s no need to bookmark, but we could, because unlike Daisy, we can intuit the workings of the kindle. We don’t need the line-guide, and we don’t lose our place. We never catch ourselves rereading a line we’ve read already and we never have to stop because our eyes are swimming from over-reading. No, it’s not a book. Yes, it needs charging. It has definite merit though, and we’d hate for people to lose sight of that.