Columns and Beatrix Potter12th May 2020
As always, very tardy (sorry), but last week’s Standard one HERE.
My Sunday Tel one from a couple of weekends back below, which is v fitting as it’s about the death of the excuse. There’s also a short about diary keeping which prompted a kind email from a reader yesterday. Apparently, I’m not the only one who wrote a teenage diary in a strange code. So did Beatrix Potter, according to a writer called Andrew Wiltshire who got in touch to tell me about it. I’ll paste some of his email below since Andrew is much more qualified than me to explain it:
May I introduce myself as the biographer of Leslie Linder, the man who broke open the secret coded Journal (diary) of Beatrix Potter.
She also started hers as a teenager, using a code of strange shapes and letters, which she, too, had invented, then carried on using for 15 years, stopping only when she began to think about creating Peter Rabbit.
200,000 words of her almost lost jottings were found, by chance, in 1952. Linder then spent five years trying to break open her code and – when he did – he took a further eight years to translate them into his celebrated publication of 1966.
I have written the first biography of him. Luckily, I knew him and his sister, so could bring their achievements to life, including the fact that they donated the world’s largest collection of Beatrix’s art and writing to the nation, via the V&A Museum.
Am so tickled to find this out, although I suspect my teenage ramblings were much more embarrassing than hers…
I only realised it was a problem this week when I sat down to reply to an email someone had sent me five days earlier. ‘I’m sorry this is so late,’ I started typing, deploying the traditional greeting that many of us have used not just since the advent of email but since we started to write thank you letters aged five or six. Then I paused, hands frozen above my keyboard. What was my excuse?
I’m facing the same problem with Zoom invitations. ‘Oh not another one!’ I thought this week when a friend suggested we attempt a group chat. ‘Not another 40 minutes of pretending to have a conversation while secretly despairing at all my chins. Other people manage to look perfectly normal on Zoom whereas I look like Mrs Potato Head. I’ll have to make up an excuse.’ But again, what excuse? They’re in short supply these days when our social calendars look more lacklustre than Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. Dodgy internet connection? Screaming children? You can give them a whirl but tonight marks the 42nd night we’ve all spent in since lockdown began and I’m running out of credible alibis.
In the old days, I was a big fan of an excuse. ‘I’m sorry this is so late, mad few days!’ I’d write in my tardy emails, trying to make it sound as if I was running a FTSE 100 company, dashing from meeting to meeting, and only now sitting behind my laptop to catch my breath. If I wanted to dodge a physical invitation, I had a stock get-out clause. ‘I’m so sorry, I can’t make dinner with your new boyfriend that night because I’ve got a work thing,’ I’d say, sometimes with a sad voice to try and denote genuine sorrow. ‘A work thing’ was a brilliantly vague phrase which nobody dared quibble. Harder to deploy on the weekends if you were invited, say, to a godchild’s fifth birthday or a dinner party, but in such situations, you simply had to become more creative. ‘Sorry, can’t come because I think I’ve got nits,’ often worked a treat.
But now? The only place I’ve been rushing to in the past few weeks is the fridge and ‘Sorry, I’ve been lying in bed watching Netflix’ doesn’t cut it either. I wish I could be more like the seven-year-old niece who doesn’t give a fig about the plausibility of her excuses. ‘Finish your green beans,’ I tell her over dinner almost every evening, at which point she will get up and sidle out of the kitchen declaring that she needs the loo. On the weekend, as she skipped towards the damp garden in her socks, I waved a pair of trainers in the air but she refused them. Apparently those specific trainers ‘are mean’ to her.
Alas, social niceties mean we can’t get away with such nonsense when we’re adults and in an extreme case of overthinking, even for me, I’ve started worrying about the explosion of parties and socialising once this is all over when excuses will surely be frowned upon, for what feeble pretext can possibly be used without being considered an awful stick-in-the-mud? Almost exactly 75 years ago, people celebrated the end of the war by partying and going at it in the streets. Will it be like that? The idea makes me feel quite anxious. I expect I’ll have nits that week.
Are you keeping a diary? I’ve read various people suggesting that we should be noting down our thoughts because we’re living through such extraordinary times. On my list of ‘Things I Feel Guilty About’, not writing a diary clocks in fairly high. Many writers do; it’s a sensible habit which could offer stacks of material down the line, but I never feel like writing anything else when I get into bed at night. Also, I’ve been put off by something mad I did as a teenager, where I wrote a diary in a secret code I’d made up. I’ve still got the notebook now – all strange symbols and hieroglyphics – and I can’t understand a word. I’m sure it contains plenty of feverish observations about Leonardo DiCaprio and Prince William which would make me scream with laughter but it’s entirely indecipherable. A fat lot of good for future biographers.
Bravo to everyone embracing the craze for lockdown challenges. The most successful has been the ‘5k’ challenge where you run for five kilometres, then take a sweaty selfie and nominate five friends to do the same on Instagram before donating a fiver to the NHS. There’s also been a push-up challenge, various baking challenges, drawing challenges but I fear we may be running low on ideas since the latest is ‘the raw egg’ challenge. Last week, I watched a video of my cousin cracking an egg into a glass and swallowing it before nominating several of his pals to copy him. It’s to raise money for the treatment of an ill Irish boy called Dan and wholly admirable it is too, but is there any chance I can just stump up the cash? Alternatively, I’d be very keen on a ‘reads 100 pages of a book’ challenge, but I do see this might make for a less exciting picture online.