Everyman is an Island

Amid the relativistic distortion of lockdown time, when the minutes crawl past like a scarab dung-beetle and the days fly by like a Japanese maglev train, we are all of us, especially those of us who live alone, getting a little eccentric.  I, for example, have started talking to my sole confidant, my Christmas cactus, Noel, who sits on my living room window sill.  Didn’t the Prince of Wales once say he talked to his plants?  That, I believe, was the origin of the expression, “the loony prince”.  I don’t think it’s so crazy.  I’ll tell you what’s crazy: it’s when the cactus talks back.

Yesterday I was sitting on this very chair facing this very computer screen, when I heard a soft and reticent cough from behind my right shoulder.  I glanced round.

“I’m a little dry.”

“Would you like a glass of water?”

“Please.  Not too much!  Thanks.”

I sat back down.

“What are you writing?”

“My blog.”

“Ah.  What’s the topic this week?”

“Dunno.  Sometimes I just open up a Word doc and blether.”

“That is all too often self-evident.”

“You’re getting very pass-remarkable!  Okay, smarty pants, give me a theme.”

Desert Island Discs.”


“Because, with social distancing, we are all Robinson Crusoe now.  And face it, even before this enforced isolation, you were cast away.  So why not choose your eight discs?  Music is a favourite subject of yours.  Actually, you can be a bit of a bore about it.”

“Steady on!”  But I took him up on it, and started writing.

One day when I am rich and famous, Lauren Laverne will invite…

“I wouldn’t start like that.”

“Why ever not?”

“It’s self-indulgent.”

“Nonsense!  I was being ironical.  My readership will understand.”

There was a silence.

I started again.

Since the early days of its inception in 1942, Roy Plomley…

“Verbal upholstery.”


“Padding.  ‘Early days’ is redundant.  An inception will clearly take place on an early day.  Incidentally, do you know who Roy Plomley’s first castaway was?”

“No idea.”

“Take a guess.”

“Winston Churchill?”

“Close, but no cigar.  His son-in-law, Vic Oliver.”

I started again.  But now I froze.  The fact is, the cactus had made me self-conscious.  I had acute writer’s block.  I tried various permutations and combinations, each time pressing delete as if I were screwing a sheet of A4 into a tight ball and tossing it into the waste paper basket.  Personally I blame word-processing.  It offers too much opportunity for revision.  I bet you it would even have screwed up Thomas Gray:

The plowman homeward plods his weary way

Homeward the plowman plods his weary way

His weary way homeward the plowman plods

Weary his plow the plod wards home way the

“If you don’t mind my saying so,” said Cactus, “your work practices are lamentable.  Your modus operandi is completely anarchic.  Why don’t you decide what you are going to say, and just say it?  Compile a list of your eight records, write a blurb for each, and Bob’s your uncle.”

“Okay.”  I made a list.

  1. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, variation 16.
  2. The Presto from Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 130.
  3. Der Leiermann from Winterreise, Schubert.
  4. Prelude in E minor, Op. 28, No 4, Chopin.
  5. Tell Me Why, from A Hard Day’s Night, The Beatles.
  6. Prelude in F minor, Op. 32 No 6, Rachmaninoff.
  7. Kinderstück, for piano, Anton Webern.
  8. Nana, from Siete canciones populares espanolas, Manuel de Falla.

“Interesting list.  Do I sense you have a criterion of value?”


“Why so?”

“I want to hear each piece, complete.  I hate ‘bleeding chunks’.  I’ve allowed an average of two and a half minutes per disc., twenty minutes total.”

“A limited repertoire, but have it your way.  Now, the blurb.  Continuez.”

“The Goldberg.  I want Glenn Gould.  The 1981 recording, mind.”

“Sublime.”  I wish I could capture the sarcasm in Cactus’ voice.  He wasn’t mocking Bach.  He was mocking me.

“Something from the late Beethoven quartets.”

“Now that is echt.”

“I cannot live without them.”

“Oh please.”


“It’s so bleak!  Wunderlicher Alter,

“Soll ich mit dir gehn?”

“Then the Chopin.”

“Melancholy again.  You’re a sad old git, aren’t you?  Still, Frederic told me he was particularly fond of this one.”

“Come off it, Noel.”

“I sat on Jane Stirling’s mantel at that time, in Strachur.  We cacti can be extremely long-lived.”

“Then I had to have something by The Beatles.”

“Tell me why.”

“They remind me of my youth.”

“So glad you can lighten up.”

“Then I believe Serge speaks for himself.”

“Ah.  The six and a half foot scowl.”

“And the Webern?  Mysterious.”

“It’s certainly a mystery to me.  Still, it only lasts 46 seconds.”

“And finally, the Falla.  These resonant single piano notes, plucked, as it were, almost at random, falling like water drops into a deep Andalusian pool.  La nostalgia.”


“How’m I doing?”

“Splendid. What’s left?  Book?”

“Lectures in Physics, by Richard P. Feynman.”

“How pretentious is that!  You just want everybody to think you understand quantum physics.  What a fake!  Luxury?”

“As a matter of fact, darling, I thought I’d take you.”

“I am not allowed.  Luxuries have to be inanimate, and useless.”

“Well, at least you fulfil one of the criteria!”

There was a dense silence.  I realised I’d gone too far.  I tried to rescue the situation.  “What about my one disc, saved from the waves?”

Deathly silence.  He was sulking.

“Oh come on, Noel, don’t let the sun set on a quarrel!”

Silence.  I went to bed.

Last night, I had a terrible nightmare.  I had long known that my cactus was exuberant.  All I needed to do was give him fresh soil in a bigger pot, and he would continue to burgeon.  If I continually replenished his needs, there was no reason why he should not occupy the entire space of the Kibble Palace in Glasgow’s Botanical Gardens.  But it was amazing that Noel should accomplish such growth within the space of a single night.

I woke at 3 am.  I became aware of the fact that Cactus had burgeoned to occupy the space of my entire house.  By some grotesque prehensile manoeuvre, his spatulate leaves had prised open my bedroom door.

“Sorry!  Couldn’t sleep.  Fancy a talk, old man?”

“Noel, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning.”

“Re the one to save from the waves, it’s got to be the Webern.  You could spend a lifetime listening to it every day, and you’d never get to the bottom of it.”










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