The trouble with Henry

I hate Henry.

I hate to admit is, but I loathe the happy, grinning face on the body of our vacuum cleaner.

It’s worst when the cleaner (I refuse to call it ‘Henry’ or ‘he’) has wedged itself on a chair leg and I have to trail back to untangle it.

Or the flex has become entwined in the banisters and I have to struggle back downstairs to release it, carting said vacuum with me. And all the while, I’m being stared at by that unrelentingly cheery look.

The origins of the face are, according to Wikipedia (that source of all accurate information) to ‘prevent late night and early morning workers from feeling lonely.’ Created and built in the UK, it first started sucking up dust in 1981. If there were such a crime as violence towards inanimate objects, what might the incidence rate have been before that date and after? A sharp rise, most likely.

Described variously as ‘iconic’, ‘loveable’ and a ‘legend’ by the manufacturers, Numatic, Henry has been joined by other family members. There is a Hetty, whose contribution to equality of the sexes is a pink body and large fluttery eyelashes. Whether this subtle femininity would help me contain my bursts of anger I can only conjecture. There are also Henry’s cousin’s Charles, James and George and probably, before long, a Boris, a Kier and a Sir David.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the vacuum cleaner is only in use when I’d rather be doing something else. It might be the result of a three-line whip to clean the house, often in preparation for a cleaner coming. The house apparently mustn’t be too dusty or untidy for such visits.

Or it’s a displacement activity. Like when I’m agonising over writing a particularly troublesome paragraph. Getting out the vacuum cleaner to suck up a cobweb that’s been irritating me for months is one way of escaping the frustration of writer’s block, at least temporarily. But it means I’m already predisposed to rage. It inevitably erupts when, perched on a chair and stretching, the nozzle doesn’t quite reach, the face topples and I lose my balance, leaving me on the floor alongside that face baiting me., still grinning.

Perhaps the answer is a cordless vacuum cleaner. My experiences have not been good, though. Scarred in my youth by a Pifco cordless, a Ewbank, and a battery driven cleaner that neither cleaned nor lasted long enough to manage a rug, I am left deeply distrustful.

A recent arrival is an Amazon Robotic Vacuum Sweeper. Like a floor-mounted drone, it buzzes across the kitchen and aggregates an alarming amount of dust and detritus, no matter how many times the floor may have been swept already. But although spared the Henry face, it still drives me mad, demanding attention. Its apparently random movements and wild trajectories make escape from it like some futuristic game of dodge ball.

And if you leave it to its own devices, it’s quite likely to fall down a step or trap itself on some unlikely obstruction. Then, like an ostrich stuck in a corner, it will bounce endlessly from side to side until it’s rescued. I want to punish it for its stupidity, pick it up, shake it, except that’ll result in all the dust its collected returning to the floor.

But the truth is, I guess, I just hate housework.

And at this point, I was planning on concluding that I should acknowledge the efficiency with which these devices have the desired effect of cleaning dusty surfaces and it’s really all my fault. That the problem is mine, not Henry’s.

Then I changed the end and decided to suggest that maybe the manufacturers of Henry, Hetty and the rest could help me out by creating a different face; one that is responsive to my mood, offering me an expression that is non-patronising, sympathetic and understanding.

Then I changed my mind and went for an excoriating paragraph on anthropomorphism, that a face on a vacuum is entirely inappropriate. I’m quite justified in my ire, I was going to write. But then again, isn’t that a sign of personal weakness . . . ?

At which point, I concluded it was all just too problematic to find a decent end and  . . . if I’m not mistaken, is that not a sliver of dust under the sofa? Excuse me while I go and fetch the Henry . . .

If you enjoyed this blog, maybe you’ll enjoy my first novel ‘Homeward Bound’, a feelgood tale of family, ageing and ambition. Available from bookshops, Amazon (paperback and e-book) and other online retailers.

The tyranny of the pen

We weren’t allowed to use ball point pens at my school. The very word, Biro, was never mentioned. All writing had to be with a fountain pen, preferably using Quink blue-black. We also had lessons in how to form capital letters, and no essay would be accepted if the wrong form of ‘F’, ‘G’ or ‘T’ was used, or words were not joined up correctly.

I was sitting with my feet in a pool a while back, reflecting on life, and this early ‘60s memory flashed back to me. Having published my first novel, Homeward Bound, I’m often asked how I write; longhand or straight into a computer. My first response is it’s a wonder I write at all after that induction and suffering the tyranny of the fountain pen.  But the answer is that once I’d been given a Parker for my 18th birthday, I never looked back and now I compose entirely using its cheaper successors – a Biro, Bic, or one of those freebies you collect at exhibitions.

Why I like a ballpoint is it’s so easy to write quickly and even easier to make changes, ideal if thoughts are spilling out of your head at a rate of knots. And if there’s an inspiration for later, a word that’s just come to me to improve a previous sentence, or a paragraph that needs moving, I scribble it down and add an asterisk, a box, or an arrow to signal something to come back to later.

It takes just a second and  – more importantly – it doesn’t interrupt the flow of ideas. Add to the fact that I write on scrap paper – the reverse of single-sided photocopies or envelopes that held today’s consignment of bills and begging letters and I can add feeling virtuous about my recycling into the argument for longhand.

I’ve tried starting on a computer but, for me, it’s a slow, laborious and stultifying experience. I’m quite fast – a self taught two fingered style serves me quite well – but the plethora of red underlines and strange line spacings distract me, making me want to correct as I go, and the practicalities swamp and submerge the original inspiration. Using a ballpoint, the ideas can just flow.

There is a downside to paper. A puff of wind and the pages scatter across the room, a disaster when I’ve not numbered them. And worse, the speed that the ballpoint allows me invariably comes to the detriment of legibility. I’ve invented my own form of shorthand, with vowels omitted and words often just a squiggle between first and last letters. Their meaning is all so obvious as I write, but when it comes to reading back, it’s often impossible to decipher.

The answer? I don’t read it back! For the next stage is to transcribe my manuscript into my laptop and as often as not, I make it all up again. This is partly because I can’t make head nor tail of my longhand, but also because, having created a sense and the structure, I can recompose it straight into my laptop from memory. A second draft, as it were.

Once the page is on the laptop and saved (how many times did I use to lose a day’s work because I hadn’t saved my manuscript – and pardon me while I save this one, it’s still Document 29. Done it), the next question is proof reading and revising for a next draft. My preference would be to do it by printing out the pages. I find reading for content easier on paper, and making amendments using my ballpoint brings all the advantages of being able to scratch out words, move paragraphs and make comments to myself along the margins. But this is very wasteful of paper, even if the reverse does provide new scrap for the next handwritten manuscript.

My solution is to use an iPad with one of those electronic pencils. That way I have all the advantages of longhand and the sheaves don’t blow away. Then it has to be transposed on to the master laptop, but that’s OK as it’s yet another drafting and improving stage. By the end, I may have dozens of fragments of manuscripts on paper, laptop and iPad, not to mention bits I thought were good but left out, in case they should come in handy for something else.

It was one of these I was searching for just the other day. While working on my second novel, I thought I might be able to incorporate a section I’d written and left out of a first draft of Homeward Bound. I rummaged through a box stuffed with papers.

They’d been hidden there, away from my wife’s perfectly reasonable wish not to have every surface in the house awash with scrap paper and old envelopes. It didn’t take long to find the very manuscript I was seeking. Except I couldn’t read a word of it. Completely inscrutable.

But also in the box, an old school exercise book, with my handwritten notes on Shakespeare in blue-black ink, clear and legible.

Perhaps my school had a point