Uncommon Harmony 1

OK, this is not poetry. I have joined a memoir writing group, and the wonderful phrase “uncommon harmony” comes from Faye Benedict who is a really gifted writer in that group. It was that phrase that made me decide to write differently, it seemed to make sense of what writing memoir might be. Though, it is likely to be me, me.

The Red Suitcase

I am 21 years old. My aunt Sybil gave me a red suitcase “in case I want to travel”. It was something like 18 by 12 inches, and 8 inches deep, measurements in inches of course, no-one said centimeters then. It was the kind with one handle on a long side, flanked by spring clips. I think it was taffeta satin inside some kind of pressed cardboard covered by faux leather. That was red, very “mod”. I returned to Belfast, my final year at university, my first year out of “halls”, sharing a rented ‘flat’ that was actually just a large victorian front room with kitchenette carved from the rear and a bathroom shared with other ‘flats’ down the hall. The suitcase went under my bed, a twin facing Jean’s twin on the other side of the room, a wide rug in between. Do you remember 77 Sunset Strip? We were 77 Botanic Avenue, Ground Floor.

The Applied Maths Department was up the hill. five minutes walk to all my classes. Jean was ten minutes further, English Department and Library. There was a table to eat at, but not much space for desk work, so I lay on my stomach on the floor to read, between the beds. Sometimes it was Lord of the Rings, or Georgette Heyer, my wonderful honours english Jean provided the library at number 77. Sometimes it was Quantum Mechanics or relativistic something or other I have long forgotten. Sometimes it was my sort-of-secret indulgence Hardy’s History of Mathematics. There’s a story behind where that came from.

To look back, the suitcase, three or four times as heavy as my current wheelie bag that moves at fingertip touch, was not the only thing that had to change.

That year, there were twenty-one of us in applied maths honours, three girls and eighteen boys. We said girls and boys, not men, women, nor male, female. (And I at least had never heard of LGBT). This number, three girls, was unprecedented. The history love came about through a girl thing too. A few years before, as a fresher straight from a country school, I had happily and dutifully joined the university maths society, as one did if one had arrived to study maths. And, as a girl, I got the privilege of arranging meeting refreshments, the tea and buns. I discharged this duty so faithfully, clearly able to count the cash, that the following year I progressed to being treasurer. (I have never since taken on being a treasurer.) This post put me on the committee with the professors, lecturers and postgrads, who also served. I became part of the welcome for the visiting speakers, possibly the committee showed their modernity with this, I say it myself, quite attractive female person. Then I became the person who arranged for speakers. Being a girl, who knew her place was to serve and agree, in the year before finals, I was asked to be President, President of the University of Belfast Mathematical Society. Yes, said Elspeth, the first ever female undergraduate president.

The following year, Jean also lent me Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. When I read it lying on that floor, I was again saying Yes, Yes, some different kind of yes articulation on its way.

It sounds like I was a with-it achieving person, but the reality was that I did not actually know that the president had to give a presidential address, had to be a speaker offering a topic of interest to the whole of the society. I was an undergrad whose only discovery so far had been that being very clever in a small school didn’t mean I was particularly outstanding among other really clever students, let alone someone who knew enough math to address the society. I didn’t have either a “Beautiful Mind” or a new idea for proof theory. In fact, I didn’t have any idea, but fortunately I had a good friend in the postgrads, who said “Do History”. So I did, with a brief byway into philosophy where the history books took me. I remember only the title “Development of Calculus from Anaxagoras to Newton and Leibnitz”. But, I found a love, the thought and curiosity that led to my life had happened to happen. Or, not yet, as like the Second Sex, it took time for what had been begun to emerge.

Our final year in applied maths produced something else unprecedented in the department history. Four, four students achieved first class honours, in those days something that did not even happen every year, was achieved by two boys, and two girls, Heather Knox and myself. Now I know about the resonance effects of diversity, connection and positive motivation in groups, I wonder, did that achievement we each claimed as our own, which it is, also owe something to the contributions of all twenty one of us feeling some change in the blowin’ in the wind? Dylan’s song recorded first in 1962, our year was 64-65, was frequently sung, along with We Shall Overcome and folk songs from Ireland, not to mention hot debates on the papal encyclical 1965 that repeated the Roman Catholic Church position decrying birth control.

Whatever, the first class boys both joined one of our professors at post-graduate work, exported with him to MIT in Boston, USA. In my final interview with the Head of Faculty, seeking advice, he suggested that teaching was a good career for a girl. Maybe he had seen the ring I proudly carried on my third finger, another clear expectation of going to university being to meet a better class of man, and the ring was the visible sign that I had achieved that too. Maybe he knew I was already pregnant, though at three months in, just finished final exams, and meeting up with my mother to plan the wedding, I had hardly registered the consequences of that finding myself. The man of good class also graduated, though in psychology, second class. We made the local papers as the human interest couple who returned from their honeymoon to be present at the graduation ceremony, in my case in forgivingly covering graduation robe. They all asked an embarrassing “class” question. Nobody noticed that no-one would have cared if the first and second had been the other way round.

I had not registered that after achieving aims, there was a new place to be, a change. I had not registered that ‘being a girl’ was going to have to change. The red suitcase retired to store in my mother’s attic, never again big enough or useful enough for any journey.




Ubiquitous Bic

Ubiquitous Bic biclighter

(prompted at writer’s group by an old lighter)


It’s a bic lighter
Not alight even though
I have seen it used for the gas
I suspect somewhere there is a roll-up
Flimsy paper, sticky flakes
a stash, hash.

Lighten up people
What do you know about
some of this?
Names you talk about
without experience?
Lighten the load.

Anyway I go my road
Flame flickers yellow
Coward, frightened, burnt,
back-lit shadowland.
Never see the sun rise
No shining eyes.

Let it go to landfill.
Emptied now
Like life
Where went the light?
While I flew to the flame?


Writing 201: Animal

Writing 201: Poetry – today the prompt instruction was: animal, concrete, enjambment.


Middle grand-daughter, Ruby, with Finlay, the dog. Ruby is blonde, her sisters are red-gold, a match for Finlay.

Middle grand-daughter, Ruby, with Finlay, the dog. Ruby is blonde, her sisters are red-gold, a match for Finlay.

Concrete can mean ‘make a shape’ with those lines. Enjambment means that a sentence or phrase can go over a line break, stop in the middle of the next, etc. Well, if making a shape, the enjambment seemed to follow. Question is: Is it a poem?

Fun to do. I did the shape by writing in a word doc over a nearly transparent picture. Then I took a screenshot. If, or when, I work out how to do this by some other clever html way, maybe I will update. Maybe not. Seems a lot of effort for not much result.

Change attitude. It is also for fun.

Ready for Action

I have not been writing poetry recently, and not happy with what I tried. Not uncommon I know. I have restarted the writers group on Block Island for the totally selfish reason that it might get me going again. Thanks to Gloria, Kim and Maggie and their encouragement, writing to prompts we have had some fun. I found myself writing short prose.


Prompt (a random line from the bookshelf): He determined that when he heard the sound of the mug being put down on the desk he would be back.


He thought about how often he had allowed a casual event, like a sound, to be the marker from which his next action would proceed. What did that say about his character? General indecisiveness in disguise? He remembered a book from years ago “The Dice Man”. The hero threw dice to decide what he would do. It was a horrible book as the list of possibles was put in by the so-called hero, if he remembered right, there was always a horrible possible, an unthinkable, like rape or murder, like russian roulette in a dice for determination.

Then he remembered how much he had hated the book as the dice game seemed to be the author’s excuse for putting in lots of sensation: sleaze and sex and smut.

Dear God. He was supposed to be being decisive now, deciding when he would be back and he hadn’t even gone yet. This forgetting what he was about to do was becoming part of everyday life. The nice lady with the nice title he had forgotten that was supposed to be a nice way to describe a person who looked after geriatrics who couldn’t remember their own name sometimes let alone anyone else’s professional title, what that nice lady said was find little markers to help you remember things. Yes that was it, putting the mug down on the desk.

Now, I remember.