I have never liked the term 'keeping busy' as I don't really like being busy anyway – in an ideal world I would sit under an apple tree thinking great thoughts and perhaps updating Newton's theory. But (apologies to the scientists reading this who hate astrology) I'm a Virgo and although we Virgos would like to chill out, we always see something that needs doing. Or not, in my case – as my beloved OH passed away last summer, I have no-one to mess up the house with his DIY efforts (or quietly dispose of them when he wasn't looking). His best effort was a bookcase composed of old bits of wood and some bricks, which hardly matched the décor. Considering how in your face it was, he never commented on its disappearance when I put it out with the recycling.
But as a Virgo, I have had to invent useful hobbies and interests instead. When very young, like many children I was taught the tiny descant recorder, and for some reason I was able to pick up quickly how to play it, surprisingly as my efforts to play the piano were feeble – I could never synchronise the two hands. The teacher used to tell the class: 'If only you would all practise like Mary!' which made me feel, at the age of nine, quite guilty as I never practised at all – my parents hated the noise so much that if I did play the instrument it was down the bottom of the garden. Some time ago, I was given the larger version, the treble, which isn't quite so squeaky, but the downside is that you have to use different fingering to play the notes, and at my advanced age it's not so easy to remember which is which, so my repertoire is currently rather limited. Neither are my efforts appreciated by my geriatric cat, Sir Ernest Shackleton, who yowls loudly and not in tune whenever I attempt to play the thing. My musical career may be thwarted yet again.
In the stars?
On reflection, I shouldn't really be apologising for an astrology reference, as some of its practitioners would argue it has a respectable scientific history. Some years ago, I was taught the principles of it by a retired physicist, who had set out to debunk the subject and found himself converted. The real study involves quite complex calculations of the positions of the planets and constellations, which were beyond me, but it was fascinating to see how a 'birth chart' could produce an incredibly accurate portrait of individuals of whom this man had no knowledge. I also know a medical doctor who always checks his patients' birthdates before diagnosing their complaints, although he would never admit it, and, surprisingly, the very academic school I attended years ago recently congratulated an ex-pupil, another physics graduate, on completing a course in 'medical astrology'.
So, who knows? I'm certainly not of the opinion that astrology can foretell the future – otherwise the doyen of the journalistic side of the profession, Jonathan Cainer, would have predicted his own sudden demise. Professional astrologers will tell you they don't do predictions but focus on trends in the Heavens. Some of this appears to make sense in a commonsensical way – there's evidence that the amount of sunlight we are exposed to affects certain hormones, and there is also the classic observation that the moon's phases have an impact on emotions. We are all, technically, made of water and stardust so who is to say that we can't, as Blake said, see infinity in a grain of sand?
My hero, John Buchan, once remarked that he wrote his bestselling 'shocker' The Thirty-Nine Steps
, as he couldn't find a novel he liked when he was confined to bed with a duodenal ulcer. I can empathise with his frustration, as most of the fiction I've been offered recently has left me rather cold. Books which have been on the bestseller list or won prizes, to my mind would have benefitted from savage editing, or at least should have a story apart from examining the characters' 'issues' – that's what makes Buchan's fiction so good – something is constantly happening.
And some of the classics are as bad as the 'new' fiction. I tried to read Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence
recently and although I'm sure New York society in the 1870s was as stuffy as she described, several hundred pages of this exposition of manners was more than enough for me. To convince myself I'm not alone, I usually read the reviews on Amazon, starting with the one and two star ones, where I can usually find some agreement from fellow sufferers. Why did Hilary Mantel write all that tedious stuff about Thomas Cromwell to try and make a hero out of someone who was clearly a very nasty piece of work, when she could write a novel of comic genius in Fludd
? If you haven't read it, you have a treat in store. She manages to involve 1950's middle England, the Catholic Church and the nature of reality – with never a dull moment.
Currently, I am following Buchan's example and writing my own novel, which consists of astral projection, a fairy private detective, 17th-century Edinburgh and a talking bear called Eric. My strategy is to write 500 words a day regardless of their merit. Jane Austen described Emma as 'a heroine that no-one but myself will very much like', and the same will surely be said of my work in progress, but as a Virgo (we are, apparently, the critics of the zodiac) at least I will only have myself to blame!
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant