Monthly Archives: August 2018

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 32, 33, & 34.

Land and Sky

I’ve always made Lizzy uncomfortable when I talk about the politics of land, particularly when it’s with Sarah. No doubt she feels I’m getting at her as a landowner. I don’t meaning it personally, but I can see that she might well take it that way. It’s caused a good deal of friction between us over the years.

I’ve been critical of the politics of the landowning elite since my London days. It was largely intuitive until I started learning from Mario’s friends, who were already debating things like the policies of the Natural Environmental Research Council in relation to Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’. (One of them would later became an eminent environmental historian). Later I read Marion Shoard’s ‘The Theft of the Countryside’and ‘This Land is our Land’, which confirmed my sense that our landowning elite were excessively influential in shaping national politics and perceptions. Only a British Tory Government could get away with a response to increased flooding by substantially cutting funding to the national Environment Agency and, simultaneously, massively increasing the subsidy to the very grouse moor owners whose management of land helps cause that flooding. My talk about this kind of thing upsets Lizzy because she feels I unfairly identify her with the small number of hugely wealthy individuals who’ve preserved an archaic and profoundly damaging model of land management. Yet she is intelligent enough to know that in many respects she’s complicit in perpetuating just that model. Intellectually, she knows perfectly well that the vision of rural countryside promoted by everyone from the National Trust to ‘Horse and Hound’is, at the very least, profoundly misleading, and that the public image she projects is virtually inseparable from that vision. Her defence against my politics is a paternalistic localism of the National Trust variety. It would go something like this.

North from the Cheviots

Yes, it’s true there was once a ‘Big House’ here, only it wasn’t that big and was one of a kind with Homehaugh, the vicarage, the doctor’s, and all the other larger local houses. It was really a large farm, a neat cluster of old stone buildings around a courtyard behind a long two-story house, all tucked away in its own little patchwork of land. A small lawn, stands of old trees, and a little meadow running down to the stream, all nestled strategically in the shelter of the hill and between the two big home farm fields. And yes, it was also the busy centre of a business based on a network of hill farms, an agricultural and sporting enterprise designed to provide its owners with both economic capital and social status – but that must be balanced against the fact that it provided much of the employment in the local community.

All of which, in it’s own strictly limited terms, is perfectly true. The 1867 map of the estate, taken from the former estate office and now framed and hanging in Lizzy’s downstairs corridor, embodies the ownership of an area of land that forms a roughly oval patchwork. The Big House, home farm, and the village are more or less at the centre; then various tenant farms around it, their land spaced a bit like the gaps between spokes of an irregular wheel. Today it would have to include several large, seemingly randomly placed, rectangular patches of forestry in what was then rough grazing land. This runs from the valley on either side to the high open fell up to the watershed and the edge of that map. When Dad and I arrived this all belonged outright to Sir William and Lady Aitcheson, although technically it was owned by a family trust. But to local people it was and still is the Reed Estate or, more usually, ‘Reed’s’ or simply ‘the estate’, as natural a phenomenon as the Cheviot itself.

Apart from the Sitka Spruce plantations, it’s still mostly agricultural or grazing land, with cattle or sheep on almost all of it at one time of year or another. For Sir William, it was primarily a breeding ground for the grouse and pheasants essential to his shooting parties. For almost everyone else employed here, it’s hill farming land with the husbandry of animals at its heart. As a child, I took what I knew of all this for granted. Only the sky was different, a constant source of wonder because so vast and changeable.

One late August evening when I was twelve or thirteen, some of us children were up on the ridge behind the village after long walk. Unusually, Lizzy and Peter argued. She wanted to stay out and watch for shooting stars. Peter insisted that we should get back at the agreed time. James sided with Lizzy, as he usually did on the rare occasions when Peter and Lizzy disagreed. Normally I’d have gone with Peter but, emboldened by Lizzy’s rare refusal to honour an agreement, I said I’d stay. I badly wanted to see shooting stars. In the end, we compromised. The others went on, with Peter promising to let Mrs. Oliver and Dad know we’d be late back. The three of us then sat in a huddle on someone’s jacket, our backs against a convenient boulder, James in the middle with an arm around each of us for warmth.

Abandoned track.

The last daylight slipped away and the whole panoply of stars started to appear. After a while the sky darkened and then, every so often, a little point of light would fall and be extinguished forever in front of our eyes. What stays with me, however, is not so much the awe they eclipse inspired in me as Lizzy’s uncharacteristic behaviour. I cannot recollect another occasion when she put her own desire before her sense of obligation to do whatever she had said she would do.

 The Oliver family

 Before I’d been in the valley a week Lizzy, prompted no doubt by her mother, started to treat me like a little sister. She was rather bossy, which I resented, but also practical, kind and, mostly, patient with my occasional petulence. She helped me to settle into school, to negotiate with Dad about clothes and getting my hair cut properly, taught me to sew and darn, and encouraged me to read, particularly the local and natural history she herself loved.

Today I find it hard to conjure up Lizzy as she was as a girl without the help of old photographs, where she’s either in school uniform, or else the jeans or short skirts of our teens. Day to day she usually now dresses like a 1940s Land Girl. (Not that she can’t scrub up and ‘do county’ if she must.) Like us all, Lizzy is several people. The Lizzy of my childhood, always polite and studious, is still in there somewhere, but you’d be hard put to find her most days. Now she has quite a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, a trait previously only visible when she had to deal with obdurate younger children like myself. Although it was often tempered by Kate, who always gave as good as she got.

I never really grasped the relationship between the sisters. It seemed to occilate between two poles: guarded but essentially loving mutual respect and undisguised exasperation. I think each privately had a grudging but genuine admiration for those elements in the other’s character that she herself did not possess; Lizzy for Kate’s restless experimentalism, and Kate for Lizzy’s dependable evenhandedness. They rarely quarrelled openly, at least in public, and their disagreement on any topic in our presence was signalled only by Lizzy studiously ignoring Kate, who for her part would give a wordless snort, roll her eyes, or dismissively shrug to signal her disagreement.

Lizzy regularly dropped in on Dad and me, often as a willing go-between for her mother. Kate, always less compliant with parental requests, we saw far less often at the cottage. She could be disarmingly friendly and open when she chose, but was equally capable of being abrupt or openly provocative with anyone she took against, a regular cause of friction with her parents and teachers. She often escaped the worst consequences of this however because, even as a young girl, she had a sensuous vitality that many people (particularlymen), found hard to resist. In her early teens this quality was enhanced by her developing what her mother called ‘a full figure’. She had fabulous, slighty wavy, ginger hair and a mobile face, dominated by blue-green eyes and a generous mouth, that could shift from a wicked grin, through good humoured but detached amusement, to a look of complete and somewhat unnerving attention, and back again, all in seconds. Dad had a soft spot for her, he once refered to her admiringly as ‘our buxom Kate’, perhaps because she tended to flirt with him. (She genuinely liked him, but she also did it to wind me up.) It was true that as a teenager her bust was everything mine was not and I remember his phrase precisely because, at the time, it cut me to the quick. I had a crush on Kate right from the start, and Dad’s observation pricked my somewhat shameful sense that maybe I loved her as I did because she was everthing I wanted to be and was not.

From the start Kate teased me, mostly in a friendly way, which I uncertainly took as a sign of affection. Then, when I was about ten, she started to take me into her confidence about personal things that I’m fairly sure she never shared with Lizzy. Perhaps that’s why she put up with the various irritations that flowed from my crush, at least for the most part, only occasionally getting sufficiently irritated to threaten me with ‘a right good slap’. (She never carried out her threat, but I absolutely believed she might). She also started sharing the ‘mucky’ jokes she loved and told me about her exploits with boys, which I only half believed. She gave me my first taste of alchohol, encouraged me to go skinny-dipping with the boys when, like Cat, I was too bashful to join in, and even allowed me to visit her sanctum in the old hayloft behind the house, where she’d hide whatever she didn’t want Lizzy or her parents to find.

My crush on Kate finally petered out in the summer of my fifteenth birthday. It had been waning anyway because of Hamish and when, out of the blue, she told me not to visit the hayloft, I flaired up at her peremptoriness. We had an angry exchange that ended with her telling me: ‘to just piss off and grow up’. The resulting coolness between us further fuelled my preoccupation with Hamish. My crush on Kate occasionally led me into various kinds of trouble, none of them particularly serious. I’m grateful to Lizzy for a lifelong friendship in much the way that a truculent younger sister might be. That is, somewhat coloured by the residue of childhood resentments, quarrels, and sulks. But I still feel deeply for Kate, despite her long absence from my life. It was she who recognised and encouraged my desire to draw and make things, urged me to do more and better. I relished and learned from her sensuous enjoyment of the world and I admired her ambivalence about our place in the world. She often said openly what I felt but would not allow myself to say.

Of us all it was Kate, followed at some distance by James, who was most openly critical of the narrow parocialism that coloured (and still colours) so much local life; who looked about her for what the wider world might offer. I remember a particular example of this from just before she moved to Newcastle. She came to collect some money Dad owed her for a set of photographs for the practice. She had wait and we got into a conversation about ‘Martinmas Time’, which I’d left playing while I made her a coffee. It stays with me because Kate asked me about the song and, when I told her I admired its heroine, she asked in a genuinely puzzled voice: ‘So what does she do next, this girl? She’s tricked them all and taken their money, so what? So she can marry some local farmer’s son, have six kids and die of the seventh at forty-five? What’s the use of her canniness if that’s all that happens in her life?’

As so often with Kate, her questions felt like a personal challenge.

Mr. and Mrs. Oliver were as different as their daughters. Mrs Oliver was kindness personified. She invited me to dinner and tea each weekend almost as soon as we arrived. In part simply because I was distantly related and so ‘family’ in the broad Borders sense, and in part to take me off Dad’s hands while he was busy establishing his new practice. Mrs. Oliver never said much particularly memorable to me, other than to encourage me to eat. If I occasionally protested out of politeness, she would exclaim about my being ‘all skin and bones’ and insisted I eat more of everything. (Despite this I remained thin as a rake.)

If the solid and welcoming Mrs. Oliver seemed the most straightforward of souls, her husband, tall and thin with longish chestnut brown hair brushed straight back, seemed rather the opposite. At first I thought I simply didn’t register with him, just another of his daughters’ coterie of friends. But later I realised that everyone registered with Mr. Oliver, the personification of a quiet watchfulness that then made me nervous. I rarely saw him except during mealtimes at Homehaugh but sometimes I heard his voice, urgent and firm, late in the evening at home, back from the pub with Dad for a final drink. I always liked that voice.

Early on Lizzy explained her father to me by paraphrasing something her mother must have said when the sisters were little. When her father was at home he took sanctuary in his study like a bear in his den, leaving it only to feed or sleep. The family didn’t disturb him there, because ‘with bears you don’t’. I assumed Lizzy was paraphrasing her mother when she said her father only came alive when he was at work.

I remember feeling patronised by what seemed to me Lizzy’s childish characterisation of her father, so I didn’t tell her she’d got quite the wrong animal. Mr. Oliver was not a bear, but a big, rangy, sly wolf. He sat quiet and attentive at the head of the table, a glint in his eye and the shadow of a grin lurking in the corners of his mouth. I would have sworn he took in everything, although he rarely joined any conversation for very long. I knew he heard every word because, when he said anything, it was always very much to the point. He would drop slyly into a converstaion to follow up some half-hidden thought or attitude. He was never sharp, although I’m sure he found James’s tendency to pontificate irritating. Occasionally he asked probing questions, usually addressed to the twins or his daughters, that made us all stop and think. When I once asked Dad what he talked about with Mr. Oliver late at night he gave me a dark smile. ‘Politics, pet, and history, and the ways of this strange old world. Oh, and about his charity work with his war-time Polish friends, people who can’t go home’.

It took me many years to realize that Homehaugh being so special had just as much to do with Mr. Oliver’s unjudgemental attitude as it did with his wife’s hospitality. He silently gave us permission to be more ourselves, more open, in a world where almost everyone else tended to focus on our need to conform. What really puzzles me to this day is how this apparently calm and reflective man could come so completely off the rails later.

The watershed

I’ve thought a lot about my late childhood and early teens, far too much perhaps. That started in ernest when Lizzy got so ill, after Peter died and Sarah was born, during one of the most difficult periods of my life. I spent long, desparate days helping Mrs Oliver with Sarah and trying to help Lizzy keep herself together, to keep us all sane.

Lizzy became ill just weeks after Sarah was born. She had a difficult delivery, was in deep shock over Peter’s death, and desperately worried about how she was going to keep the farm going. I now think she stayed ill for so long because she couldn’t get to grips either with all that led up to his death or her own misplaced guilt over what she saw as her failure to be honest with him about aspects of her own life. When she was ill Lizzy became seriously depressed and made matters worse for herself by insisting on reading all the old Reed estate records that she and Peter had unearthed when they cleared out the old farm office.

It began as a way of distracting herself but it had the opposite effect. She was shocked to the core by the deep-dyed stain of calousness and exploitation, the hidden face of our local lowland clearances referred to as ‘improvements’  that, as a trained historian, she read between the lines of those documents. That came to seem the inheritance the old Reeds and Peter’s father had bequeathed Peter and herself. Her sense of upset at what had been done in the name of ‘progress’ was fully justified. Ironically, however, it came at just the moment when her neighbours, the present representatives of the class responsible for that history, were rallying round. They did what they could to help Arthur Graham, her mother, and myself to keep Lizzy and Sarah’s livelihood from falling apart. Her newfound grasp of the traditional realpolitikof regional land management, which she’d ducked before, now gnawed at her until she couldn’t bare it. For releif shelost herself in listlessly rummaging through old course books or holding long, meandering telephone conversations with historians she knew through the genealogical research she’d taken on when Peter was alive, a hobby that kept her old academic interests alive and earned her some pin money.

To escape the weight of the Reed estate’s predatory dispossession of local cottars, she developed a string of strange and unconnected obsessions. These would usually flare up, last a few weeks, and then disappear without trace. But while she was in their grip she could think about nothing else. The only one I remember wasthe longest-lasting and most disturbing.  It had to do with the perceived immorality of her mother’s generation during the war. She would get sudden bursts of energy when she would read, make phone calls, then endlessly quote statistics at us. Eight point threemillion British infants delivered between 1939 and 1945, of which over a third were illegitimate. As many as one in five of all pregnancies during the period ended in abortion, and so on. She assumed all this to be proof absolute that her mother’s generation had treated the war as one long opportunity for illicit sex. This obsession also signalled a real and abiding change in Lizzy’s character. She lost her old liberalism and became increasingly reactionary. Suddenly all the immorality was the fault of the Americans, a claim she justified by quoting a 1943 Home Office study that showed ‘absolutely beyond doubt’ that American GIs were a major stimulus for the rising wave of wartime ‘sexual delinquency’. And so it went on, one quote or statistic piled upon another.

Only when I learned about Lizzy’s crisis when she was a student at Durham did I guess that the cause of that particular obsession was ‘reaction formation’, the obsessive reaction that allows someone to repress an earlier, now unbareable, preoccupation. I think Lizzy was masking the acting out of her student preoccupation with Kate and James. Whatever the case, her mental state after Peter’s death slowly deteriorated to the point where the doctor warned Mrs Oliver that, if it continued, Lizzy might have to be sectioned. We made renewed efforts to rally her through the spring of that year but without any very visible effect. Then overnight her mental state changed drastically for the better.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 29, 30 & 31.

Mike and Patsy Scott

 Mike was the first boy who spoke to me when I arrived in the valley. I’d been nervously chatting to his sister Patsy while I waited for Dad outside the Post Office. Mike had joined us, a tall, handsome, thickset lad with pale skin and ginger hair who asked simple, direct questions. After that I’d often speak to him briefly, at school or when he was in the village running errands for their aunt. Initially Mike disconcerted me simply because I was thrown by being asked a direct question by a boy. This never bothered him. Perhaps the third or fourth time we spoke, the issue of freckles came up for some reason. He proceeded to tell me proudly he had far fewer than Patsy and that his didn’t cover him ‘absolutely everywhere’ like hers did. ‘Just like spots on a leopard’. As an only and rather sheltered child, I was shocked and fascinated by the fact that he knew his sister had freckles ‘absolutely everywhere’. This added to my being disconcerted around Mike but, like everyone else, I was impressed by him, something he simply took as his due.

Later I discovered from Patsy that he was notorious among the boys for stuff we girls weren’t supposed to know about. Like having the biggest ‘thing’ and being able to pee highest up the wall in the boys’ toilet. (The first I confirmed for myself when, much later, we all went skinny-dipping, along with the accuracy of Mike’s claim about the extent of Patsy’s freckles). Later Cat and I would try hard to pretend we despised boys like Mike because they intimidated us. But we liked Patsy and so, by default, rather admired Mike because he looked after her at school in a way other brothers simply didn’t bother to do.

Apart perhaps for the leopard freckles, there was nothing remotely feline about Patsy. Small, plump, and blond, with a pretty, almond-shaped face, she had a slightly impish air that sometimes got her into trouble for things she hadn’t actually done. When that happened she would blush furiously and start to stutter slightly, which she never normally did. As Mike’s little sister she escaped most of the teasing and horseplay inflicted on younger girls by the older primary boys. Nobody in their right mind would risk antagonising Patsy’s big brother. (Mike was in fact slow to anger but terrifying when roused.) Patsy’s immunity from these daily irritations could be irritating to those of us less fortunately connected, but we overlooked that because of Mike’s genial attitude to Patsy’s female friends. But looking back now, it’s perhaps little wonder Patsy’s emotional life turned out to be complicated, given that for years her identity was inseparable from her brother’s status as ‘dominant male’.

Mike and Patsy stayed on the edge of the group, partly because as orphans they were very close, partly because they lived with an aunt who ran stables and so got more chores to do than Cat, Hamish, or me. But they were still our good friends. Mike was essentially a gentle soul but, because he was never entirely comfortable indoors, seemed rougher than he was. He’d been taught early on how to handle a shotgun by a retired keeper and was a better shot than either Peter or James. Sir William had never bothered to teach the twins to shoot, offhandedly telling the keepers to give them lessons when they could. Inevitably these, when they happened, were

By the road to Langleeford.

somewhat perfunctory. When their father suddenly announced that the twins must now keep the pigeons and rabbits down in the fields near the Big House, it was Mike who helped them master the necessary skills. He encouraged them to borrow the clay pigeon trap and directing their practice. At one point, he even tried to teach us girls to shoot too. Lizzy hated guns, but he started the rest of us off trying to shoot cans off a wall with an air rifle. We were supposed to progress to spuggies but only Kate ever got the hang of the rifle and even she never hit a spuggy.

Initially, although I liked Patsy, I somehow assumed she was included in the group just because she tagged along with Mike. I was quite wrong. The older ones genuinely liked her, not because she was Mike’s sister, but because she was generous with her time and affection. Later she would patiently negotiate with her aunt so that Cat, Hamish, and I could sometimes borrow ponies to ride with the others in return for helping with stable chores.

Patsy and Mike had lost their parents when they were very young and were adopted by a somewhat eccentric aunt. She ensured they were clean and fed, but when Patsy was old enough expected her to take on much of the housekeeping. The aunt’s great passions in life were ponies and the beautiful brindled whippets she bred to show standards. Patsy took it upon herself to provide her older brother with something like maternal support. She was always genuinely concerned for his welfare and clearly took great pride in his various achievements. I came to see her as more grown-up than me in many ways and sometimes to wish I too had a brother to care for.

First car

 The other boys (Peter, James, and Hamish)

Oddly, and almost from the start, I felt I knew just where I was with Mike; but it took me a long time to feel I knew where I was with the other three boys, particularly James.

Only a boy, and probably only James, could have used the phrase: ‘hell is other peoples’ families’ (to response to something Hamish’s father had said or done). James smoked French cigarettes when he could and had obviously dipped into Sartre at some point. A good deal more extrovert than his twin, he set the benchmark for our musical tastes and could be relied on to pronounce on anything else cultural that appeared on our radar. He was younger than Peter by a bare five minutes and, perhaps because of this, was always anxious to demonstrate his superior knowledge of the wider world. He could be rather dogmatic and dismissive, particularly with us younger girls, but he was also strikingly good-looking and could be very charming when he chose to be. In all this he rather took after his father. But he also had an unexpectedly thoughtful, even sensitive, side that kept him from developing the untouchable self-confidence and sense of entitlement so obnoxiousin Sir William. Peter was physically and temperamentally more solid, quieter and plainer-mannered than his twin, less strikingly handsome, and with his mother’s darker complexion, high cheekbones, and rather disconcerting sense of humour. Normally serious, he would sometimes make deadpan but very funny observations when you least expected them. To begin with I had trouble telling whether he meant to be funny or not, since he always kept an absolutely straight face when he did this.

Apart from Kate, who once or twice quoted it sarcastically against him, we girls didn’t use James’s phrase. Personally, I felt that whatever hell was probably had more to do with the absence of families than their presence, and I knew Patsy would feel the same. But I wasn’t really sure what James intended by the phrase and I certainly wasn’t going to ask. Why risk feeling more stupid around him than I often did. I think it unsettled me because it appeared about the time the question of boysas boysreally came up for me, prompted in no small part by Cat’s kissing Mike. I felt I didn’t really know what proper families, made up of people like Hamish with a mother and father, were like. But I was starting to like Hamish, so I wondered about it. We’d always got on well enough, but now we started going in for affectionate pushing and shoving like the boys at school. I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that with any of the others and, while I was wondering why, I found myself talking with Hamish on a regular basis.

Hamish was a little taller than me, thin (like me), usually quiet (unlike me), had blue-green eyes, and lots of lovely, fine black hair that flopped down over his narrow face. Because he’d been seriously ill when he was little he had to take pills regularly and was sometimes unwell for up to a week at a time. As a result he tended to be a bit on the edge of things. In the last year at primary I used to talk to him during break, about books we were reading or how things were at home. Although his mum was nice, we all disliked his father because of his sermons. Hamish told me one day that his father wasn’t kind to his mother. He looked at his shoes when he said it and I thought from his voice that maybe he was going to cry. Instead he swallowed and said he felt that he didn’t have a proper father. I said I didn’t have a mum, so maybe that made us similar. He seemed to agree and, despite our later going to separate schools, we kept talking. Hamish fascinated me because he loved reading and writing and spent hours with books his parents had inherited but has father had no time for. Peter, Lizzy and James were, in their different but conventional ways, quite ‘bookish’. Peter and Lizzy because they were interested in natural and human history, particularly in relation to our region, and James because he liked playing with ideas, which he treated like fireworks to entertain and dazzle. But Hamish’s bookishness was different.

I sensed he loved the sound of words and, while he admitted to me that he wrote stories and poems, he made me promise not to tell the others and would never let me read any of them. His fatherwas dismissive of ‘intellectuals’ and ‘arty’ people, but had inherited a considerable family library, later augmented by the more valueable first edition books in his father-in-law’s collection. I sense that he saw this library as both a tangable sign of his own authority and a vague threat to a properly Christian life. Hamish, hoever, secretly plundered this library and got drunk on its contents. When he talked about his secret raids to obtain reading matter, I felt I was listening to some brave and intreped explorer. I became intoxicated by proxy. Hamish dipped into everything from early Ninteenth Century theological tracts and the works of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, to Dickens andthe plays of George Bernard Shaw. His most treasured discovery, however, was: ‘Des Imagistes: An Anthology’, edited by Ezra Pound. There he had found poems by, if I remember right, people like Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence and H. D.

I became caught up in Hamish’s intoxication by accident. He had found me in tears on the stairs at Homehaugh and asked if I was alright. Ashamed, I explain I’d just read Charles Hamilton Sorley’s ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’ for a school project. My tears over a poem led to his confiding in me. It was the first time I’d seen Hamish really animated about anything and had a powerful effect on me. Later, after he’d admitted that he wrote poems, he told me shyly that I was his muse. As often happened in conversations with Hamish, I wasn’t sure what the word meant and had to look it up later in the old encyclopedia at home. Along with the dry-as-dust definition there was a little faded picture of nine women, some with their breasts showing. I was puzzled, having no breasts to speak of at that point, but also obscurely flattered.

Hamish’s passion changed our friendship by initiating a tentative connection between a shared life of the mind and a desire for creative work. His passion gradually fire up my own creative interests. The contents of his enthusiasms, which often left me secretly struggling, mattered far less than the intensity with which this normally near-silent boy pursued them. Initially I found this disconcerting, but slowly I found my way to safer ground. I realized that there were other things about Hamish, his way of holding his head, his quiet determination, and his lovely black hair, that were hppily familiar. He reminded me of one of my beloved rooks. I increasingly found myself always on the lookout for him and, when he was there, wanting him to notice me too. Having listened to Kate and older girls at school, I adopted a word they used to name my own uncertain feelings. I decided that I ‘fancied’ Hamish. I then set about trying to ensure that, muse or not, he would fancy me. In short I was out of my depth and, understandably enough, traded the disturbing mystery of a shared interest in the informed creative life for the safer ground of a schoolgirl crush.

‘The tower struck by lightening’.

I became increasingly fascinated by Hamish. For example, although he and Mike were in many ways opposites, they got on really well. He was also disconcertingly perceptive. For example he noticed that, while Peter always acted older than he was and so appeared our natural if unofficial, leader, it was actually Lizzy who did most of the leading. Hamish said it was almost as if they had some kind of pact about it. When he’d pointed this out it seemed so obvious, but had never occurred to me before.


Locally everyone knew that Peter was ‘a steady lad’, and James wasn’t, having inherited his father’s temper along with his charm. Hamish and I agreed that people usually noticed James first and agreed that, although we admired him, we felt he was unpredictable and so a bit scary. We also noticed the way he would play up to Lizzy, deliberately siding with her in any small disagreement between her and Peter, who sometimes assumed too much just because he was older. But, as Cat and I soon discovered, while Peter might be predictable and we were never sure what James was thinking, that didn’t stop james from being unexpectedly thoughtful. One day he casually said that he’d heard from his mother that we liked folk music and he’d borrowed a half dozen LPs from a friend for us to listen to.


Learning the ballads

Cat and my learning the ballads had started earlier, when by chance we found a discarded box of records, ‘Border and other old Ballads’, with the lyrics printed in a scholarly grey booklet. It had been an unwanted Christmas gift from a business contact to Mr. Oliver. Cat, who loved singing, asked if we could play it. We were both puzzled and fascinated by the songs, and started to read the lyrics in the sober booklet. We got hooked and were granted use of Mr. Oliver’s record player in the sitting room, on the strict condition we were careful and kept the volume down. We then spent hours listening to, and then learning, ballads. After a few weeks, and whenever we could, we’d sing what we’d learned. Over time we learned ‘Martinmass Time’,‘The Elf Knight’, ‘WillieO’Winsbury’,‘Lucy Wan’, ‘The Broomfield Wager’, ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’, ‘(When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen’, ‘Long Lankin’, ‘The Duke of Athole’s Nurse’, ‘Tam Lin’, ‘Clerk Saunders’, ‘The Cruel Mother’, ‘Eppie Moray’and more. We sang them together quietly in the livingroom at Homehaugh and then, out and about, as we walked.[1]

However, we soon heard from Patsy there’d been comments in the Co-op to the effect that the songs we were singing might be traditional, but they weren’t proper in the mouths of young girls. Mrs. Oliver had tried, half-heartedly, to defend us by saying there was little harm since we wouldn’t understand half of what we were singing. Lizzy knew better. She suggested we should be more circumspect in future, adding that if word got back to Mrs. Douglasthere’d be no more ballad singing. Because we knew exactly what we were singing about, we did as she suggested. While we relished the fact that tradition licenced us to sing about illicit sex with plow boys, unprovoked violence, incest, sibling murder, pregancy, and attempted or actual rape, but we also knew that there were limits to local tolerance. The ballad tradition, something of which we’d been entirely ignorant, might inadvertantly have providing us with the means to express our own particular form of teenage revolt, but our rebellion would have to remain with strictly circumscribed limits.

At some point I think Mrs. Oliver must have said something to Lady Aitcheson. She certainly mentioned our singing in a letter to the twins. So, unbeknown to us but very much on our behalf, James borrowed a whole clutch of LPs from schoolfriends over a couple of holidays. As I remember (and I may well have this wrong), these included Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s ‘Traditional Songs and Ballads’,MacColl’s ‘Ballads: Murder, Intrigue, Love, Murder’, Joan Baez’s ‘Farewell, Angelina’,Fairport Convention’s ‘Liege & Lief’, Pentangle’s ‘Sweet Child’ and ‘Basket of Light’, Trees’ ‘On the Shore’, June Tabor’s ‘Ashes and Diamonds’, the Mr. Fox LP and Steeleye Span’s ‘Please To See The King’. We were stunned and then electrified by these records, June Tabor’s ‘Clerk Saunders’ still makes the roots of my hair prickle, as we were astonished by James’ going to so much trouble on our behalf. These records not only cemented our interest in the ballads, but also opened up a whole new world of folk music.

[1]Readers unfamiliar with the balladsFlora refers to may be interested in listening to the following, (not all of which are versions she would have heard). Anne Briggs: ‘The Bird in the Bush: Traditional Erotic Songs’: ‘Martinmas Time’; Phil Cooper, Margaret Nelson & Kate Early: ‘Hearts Return’: ‘Lucy Wan’; Shelagh Mcdonald: ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’: ‘Dowie Dens of Yarrow’; Karine Polwart: ‘Fairest Floo’er’: ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’; Fairport Convention: ‘Liege & Lief’: ‘Tam Lin’ & ‘Matty Groves’; Emily Portman: ‘The Glamoury’: ‘Long Lankin’;June Tabor: from ‘Ashes and Diamonds’: ‘Clerk Saunders’;from ‘An Echo of Hooves’: ‘Fair Margaret and Sweet William’, ‘Bonnie James Campbell and The Duke of Athol’s Nurse’;from ‘At the Wood’s Heart’: ‘The Broomfield Wager’;Ewan MacColl ‘Ballads: Murder, Intrigue, Love, Discord’: ‘Clyde’s Water’;Fotheringay: ‘Fotheringay 2’: ‘Eppie Morrie’; andfrom Alasdair Roberts ‘No earthly Man’: ‘The Cruel Mother’.