Bittersweet Lucy Ellman

Poorly, elderly parents abound. I was convinced the other week that there was a great quote from the writer Lucy Ellman about the death of one’s parents. It was sad, it was witty, it was pithy. It was up there with ‘they tuck you up, your mum and dad’ (that was what Philip Larkin said, wasn’t it?).

So I searched the internet. Nothing, though I did find that quote about men menstruating through shedding each other’s blood in warfare. I think it’s a pretty meaningless statement, but it’s clever and it’s clearly struck a chord with a few people.

I started flicking through the three Lucy Ellman novels I have on my bookshelves. Nothing. So I started reading Sweet Desserts in full.

I still couldn’t find the quote. (The fearsome Dr Bowler*, the imaginary English teacher on my shoulder, is now piercing me with her steely brown eyes – can brown eyes be steely, Giles? Can they? Mmm? – until I spit out the subsequent and missing syllables QUO-TAY-SHUN!).

Sweet Desserts a cracking book. Two sisters, raised in American academia find themselves transported to Oxford after their mum dies. Art and and the art of found objects run through the book, and the text is cut up with gobbets from instruction manuals, adverts (okay, okay AD-VERT-ISE-MENTS, sheesh, Dr Bowler, calm down), recipes and lonely hearts columns. It’s funny and bittersweet and there’s more casual sex than I recalled.

Immediately afterwards, he got off me, turned on the light, opened a carton of yoghurt he’d brought with him, and a thriller. I went back to sleep slowly, feeling envious of the yoghurt.

It’s weird reading a book again for the first time since 1988. It was another age, a pre-lapsarian, pre-internet age. There were books and there were fixed telephones and answering machines and typewriters and Tippex. There were letters. People wrote letters.

The book is also so old, it has an approving quote (AY-SHUN) from Clive James on the front cover. And one from Fay Weldon on the back. I’m slightly surprised it has a barcode on it.

I finished the book, still longing for the quotation about the death of a parent, and I read the blurb on the back:

Suzy Schwarz has learnt one or two things about life: other people know how you should live your life better than you do; sisters can destroy your sanity and self-esteem; lust calls for careful timing because it rarely coincides with that of your partner; and, most heartbreaking of all, parents die on you, leaving you grieving. The only thing that provides constant solace when times are bad (and they usually are) is food.

So – it was not pithy, not witty, and it was probably not even written by Lucy Ellman. But a handful of words on the back of a book lodged in my mind for 23 years.

*Dr Bowler deserves a place in history for one of the most memorable moments in my Sixth Form. We were doing Donne, I think. Or maybe Marvell, ‘To His Coy Mistress’, perhaps.

I complained the poem was illogical.

“Giles,” said Dr Bowler, “I want you to do something for me.”

Nervous titters round the classroom. It was the mid-80s. Think The Cure. Think The Smiths. Think The History Boys, with a smattering of elegant, mysterious girls peppering our environment because being 17 at a boys’ school isn’t torture enough as it is.

“Yes?” I asked anxiously.

She replied, “The next time you try seducing someone, try using logic – and see how far you get.”

Lucy Ellman could have written that.

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3 Responses to Bittersweet Lucy Ellman

  1. Bethan says:

    I can just hear Dr Bowler saying that…. I do think having a highly intelligent feminist teaching English at a boys’ school was an inspired move. I remember one English lesson where she presented us with a poem and invited us to speculate on the gender of the poet. Chris Masters came up with the classic opinion that it was ‘too good to have been written by a woman’ – maybe he was just being provocative, but I have my doubts. Anyway, you can imagine Dr Bowler’s satisfaction in pointing out that it was by Adrienne Rich – not only female but lesbian.

    Oh, and it wasn’t easy for all of us arriving from girls’ schools to be outnumbered ten to one by these tall, hairy, hormonal creatures who veered between putting us down and pestering us to go out with them. We were just as insecure as you were….

    (Hi Giles, spotted you in the Guardian the other week and thought I’d check out your blog.)

  2. blogmywiki says:

    Hi Bethan! How wonderful to hear from you. Very spookily I am right now writing a script set in Bristol in the mid 1980s… and then I saw this. Hope you are well. Will drop you a line. Dr Bowler was one of a kind, an amazing teacher and very kind to me when it mattered most. G.

  3. madeline says:

    This is the bit from Sweet Desserts about the father dying that stood out for me:

    “It was after watching a weepy made-for-TV movie about a child dying of leukemia that I finally knew how sad I was about my father. That he was wasting away, that he was being taken from me, out from under me.
    I had tried rationality: everybody has to go.
    I’d tried: what good’s life anyway – I want to die.
    I’d tried viewing death as an injustice, an immense wrong done to every living thing. Apples falling off trees.
    I’d tried general unfocused anger. I’d built a wall of it around myself, seeing everybody and everything – even spaghetti bolognese – in a ghastly new light.
    I’d felt disgust, shame, indifference towards my father, and recoiled from his condition. I was so cold. I was so cold.
    I’d tried self-hatred – thereby giving myself the excuse to slouch away.
    And all to hide this little hurt, this little pain that was now revealed, the pain of loving someone who’s dying.
    After all after all after all, he was someone I knew and loved, knew and loved, and he was dying.
    Suicide was suddenly the opposite of my desire: I wanted the whole bloody world to live! Life isn’t so bad – there are redwood trees surging straight up, there’s Cornwall, there are lampshades made of straw wound sweetly round in circles, there are certain female arms by Picasso, there are men who fuck you tenderly in the dark, there are the perfect forms of cats, electric heaters available at a fair price, bel canto arias and the first few pages of Dombey & Son. What the hell, what’s wrong with it?
    Only death.”

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