Category Archives: Assorted mappings

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 44, 45, & 46.

A small pink geranium (listening to the dead)

 As I’m sure I’ve said, all this writing was originally meant to be a way of listening to the dead, to the ancestors of my life, and was vaguely conceived as a missive to both yourself and Sarah as representatives of my own and the next generation. But then I remembered that there are things it’s far better not to tell the young. After that you, and the ancestors themselves, became my addressees. Not ancestors in a literal sense, of course. What I’ve been trying to do, if I’ve understood our discussions correctly, is to interweave many of the voices that have ‘made up’ (in both senses of that phrase), ‘my’ narrative identity in a multiverse.

It’s almost a year since I wrote the little snippet below in my diary. Hard to believe now that I still hoped then that I might pass through all this illness and return to old habits, whereas now my entire previous life appears to have happened to someone else entirely.

“Mrs. Oliver very frail now, but her mind’s still good. The doctor told her yesterday she may have a few more winters in her yet. We sat quiet this evening, three generations together. I didn’t ask Sarah to sing. I’m still glad I taught her the ballads, even if she learned them largely to please me. Maybe she’ll value them in time. There’s two I’ve not taught her: ‘Lucy Wan’, (I’m still uneasy about Patsy and Michael), and ‘Bonny James Campbell’, (because of her mum and Peter). Time yet, maybe.”

Those thoughts seem rather maudlin and somewhat naïve now. But it’s hard to let go of my investment in the old songs because, in one sense, they’re more real than we are, sing us rather than the other way around. In that other world, only a year ago, Mrs. Oliver was still with us and Sarah going back to the farm for the odd weekend, not staying with herArvid in preference to coming to sing with me!

A pair of lapwings.

I think all this is coming to an end now.

We are, of course, all far more porous than we allow. I have written about different people I knew but each, in her or his way, is also a partial ancestor of the compound, loosely woven personage who writes this page. We’re all just shifting currents in the same sea, Po-souls who’ll sink back into the same earth.

The public Lizzy still goes confidently about the region, and all the other ones I’ve known or glimpsed over the years appear to have gone to ground, down into the dark. Those bright echoes of her mother’s youth and of the strangeness of Elizabeth Reed who, limping through life, did so much to set Lizzy on the path that led to Peter when she was still only a girl, somehow gone. (Or so it seems to me.) I hear Peter’s voice still. Not the poor drowned Peter who, if he’d lived, would now be indistinguishable from any number of other ruddy, thick-set and aging farmers, gathered in some corner of a cattle mart, each dressed in neat but faded tweeds, to debate the price of yearlings. Quite another Peter, both quick and dead who, as boy and young man, kept coming back for Lizzy, although whether to save her or himself I can’t know. Yes, I still occasionally hear him, like an undertone of uncertainty in the early morning song of a blackbird. I suppose there may be a corporeal James out there somewhere, his body now running to fat, maybe pontificating over the Financial Times at the nineteenth hole of some exclusive Home Counties golf course and so, finally, the perfect embodiment of his father, son and heir. But I keep another James alive so that, when the deals have been done and he’s back in the blank space of some airport executive lounge, for a moment he’s still the youth who sat silent with Lizzy and me one evening, watching stars fall and die. The boy who helped two young girls on the cusp of change connect with a clutch of strange old songs, gifted them in a discarded box, with a whole wide, vital and varied world of music-making. I will no longer distinguish the slurred, alcohol-roughened growl of the deeply troubled Mike we buried at Wooler from the young schoolyard hero who championed, and was loved by, his plump, confident little sister. I’ve let them both go to be themselves now, finally setting aside the purulent speculation I’d attached to Mike’s telling me that Patsy’s leopard freckles covered every inch of her body. As for Patsy, I can hear only the smiling girl child who, for a few brief years, sparkled within the protective aura of her brother’s reputation. I cannot, or cannot bring myself, to hear the burdened, haunted girl whose wellbeing caused Cat and Mike to take opposite sides in some struggle that will always remain unknown to me. Cat whose singing voice, like both her shallow breath sweetly brushing my neck as I fell asleep and her tragic death, I keep close to me now. All the shades who are both themselves and the lively ancestors of my present self, who whisper to me, along with my mother and father and the innumerable and glorious birds and beasts most clearly experienced in my childhood; the whole wide world of my kith and kin (and not only in dreams and memories.)

And, of course, there’s all the others too. The Kate with the wicked pirate’s laugh, bad fairy and mistress of dangerous secrets, whose other, adult voices are lost to me, drowned out by life in an antipodean world about which I know nothing. The mercurial Kate I loved, envied, and somewhat feared because she spurred me to override my fears and innate caution, somehow imbued me with the calculation necessary to challenge my own desperation, even if that led to my childish attempt to seduce Hamish. (I know now that childish self would have gone through with it if he’d wanted to, that sexually inquisitive girl/woman that Kate had birthed from her cocoon.) That momentarily brave girl/woman who knew in her heart that anything was better than to drift into being the distant, untouchable, disembodied, angelic, (and so sexless) muse of a secret poet and latent priest. Dear Hamish, so wounded and confused by his father’s frigid, angry dualisms, whose musings and troubled and tender silences, as much as his tentative explorations of my flesh, woke me to my own unruly desires. Bodily desires, yes, but also a sowing of other possibilities; of entry into a world of fully sensuous, deeply tactile, imaginings made flesh – the strange fruit, perhaps, of Tam Lin’self-queen’s ‘eyes of wood’. Kate and Hamish, earthy seductress and erstwhile saint, the twin yet incompatible anchors in the tug-of-war that forced me to reinvent myself through acts of imaginative making. And then Mario, unbidden friend and casual initiator of my European citizenship, the secret lover of no doubt beautiful boys I never knew; Mario star in a distant city who then fell and died alone.

Also, first among the living, my dear Sarah, the whole bright arc of her from helpless bairn, through flowering child, to the bright, brave young woman who, with warmth and care, is negotiating her way through the traps, rewards and tangles of a life of research and action. And my briefly beloved Andreas, golden one, the brightly burning gift of a kindly Fate, a wholly unexpected feast and refuge in my last real London days. Old now, with deep smile-lines around his eyes no doubt. But then, a softly furred, honey-coloured, spice-scented being, a mouth warm, wet and tasting of Nykteri; my post-coital purveyor of breakfasts of fresh figs, galaktoboureko, and sweet black coffee in the sanctuary of his tiny Highgate basement flat. Of late dinners: tirokafteri, tzatziki, or dakos, followed by kolokythoanthoi, spanakopita lamb, soutzoukia smyrneika, spanakorizo, or maybe tiropita; then grapes and melomakarona or maybe baklava to finish. Meals lovingly prepared and followed by the long slow walk up the twilight hill and back, before falling into the pleasures of the still unmade bed.

The Andreas who would leave me, exactly thirty-three days after we became lovers and just as he had told me he must. Left for the waiting penthouse in Houston and the marriage to Ariadna,to which his father had committed him at fourteen as the seal on the partnership of two families. Andreas who I allowed to become my first and only dealer and who, in less than ten years, turned Papadopoulos and Ioannou into the most respected gallery for makers and up-market crafts in Texas, perhaps the entire American South. The Andreas who is a loving husband and the doting paterfamilias of four girls and a boy; whose Christmas letters always overflow with their news and achievements, always radiate a simple pride, and never mention the vicissitudes of the business. And that other Andreas, the punctilious businessman who unfailingly pays me my annual artist’s retainer as agreed all those years ago, punctiliously calculating the proper percentage to be passed on to me for each sale. A man who has served my work so well I’ve never needed another dealer.

Iain, you may wonder why have I never bothered you with my maker’s life.

Initially, I think, because I had no wish to risk being labelled a ‘craftswoman’. Later, simply because it would have involved giving you a wholly predictable account of my craft – the making of two or three small wooden pieces a year in whatever spare time I had left over from my mending work; my small, highly intricate wall pieces like puzzles made for the delight of fitting together different woods chosen for their distinctive colour and grain. What could be less interesting that that production, or the business of shipping the outcome off for sale. Pleasurable and necessary respectively, of course, but still a set of entirely self-contained practices that had little to contribute to exchanges outside the small world of my art. My dear, I simply had better and more interesting things I wanted to explore with you.

And, of course, I have listened to you, all your various voices in our various exchanges. (We’ve written often enough of them and I’ll not bore you by going over that ground again.) So, here I am, waiting for the inevitable and, meanwhile, listening to these and all the other night-selves, ancestors, shades and kith who are good enough to visit or even stay with me.

I should have liked to be a braver soul, somebody about whom you could have said when she died, as the poet Robert Bly did of James Hillman, that: ‘Flora threw enormous parties for the spirits’. I know only too well that I’ve had neither the courage nor the necessary generosity, although I have on occasion made real efforts in that direction and tried at least to lend the spirits a sympathetic ear. For that, and for the many pleasures of our friendship, I hope you’ll remember me kindly, will continue to speak with me in your head and heart when my body’s gone.

Enough. There’s a small pink geranium in a pot on the shelf below my window here, second cousin maybe to the wild one you found surviving on the sea wall. I’m not supposed to have it but my kindly Nigerian nurse, Wanda-May, pretends not to notice it. She even surreptitiously waters it for me, since I can’t do that myself now. It has that squat, slightly hairy look that I find endearing about geraniums. Sometimes if the sun is out and a nurse comes in to close my curtains so I can sleep, he or she brushes against it. Then its distinctive smell drafts across to me here in bed. I can’t say I particularly like the smell, but I do like that sharing, a reminder that the geranium and I, like all living things, have a common need for light, air and water, and that something, in consequence, is always being exchanged between us all. I find that extraordinarily comforting just now!

Improvised drinking trough, Side Head.

I’m tired and can hear the nurses starting their evening rounds. Again, enough, enough.

With love, as always

Flora

 

Fly-tipped bath in Bristol suburban woodland.

 Postscript

 In analysis you work to turn the ghosts that haunt you into ancestors who accompany you.

Bruce Springsteen[1]

I see little purpose in writing anything more about Flora, other than including here a quotation from a book she recommended to me right at the end of her life, Octavio Paz’s Sor Juana. Flora was neither a poet nor a nun, but this passage seems to me to summarize something essential about her. Paz writes of Sor Juana that she was not ‘a simple person cut from whole cloth’, rather she was ‘a complex and dynamic being, in conflict with her world and herself.’ He adds:

The obstinacy with which she insisted on being herself, […] her fidelity to her inner voices, the secret and proud pertinacity that allowed her to bend without breaking, […] was (and is) an example of intelligence and will in the service of internal freedom.[2]

What follows here does not, then, directly concern Flora herself. It’s a very partial explanation of, and perhaps a summary of, the trajectory of a period of my work that began back in 1999, before the Debatable Landsproject, of which this is intended to be the final part. Work in which she played a vital part. In offering this account I am also coming clean about Flora’s claim to provide ‘heart work’ as a counter-point my ‘head work’. Less a post mortem as ‘conclusion’, then, than a setting out of certain concerns.

Those readers who do not feel the need for any such prosaic explanations may wish to stop reading at this point.

The main purpose of what became the Debatable Landsproject was to carry out a series of linked forays into unknown territory, forays that acknowledged, engaged with, and tried to interweave, the plural interests and energies of the porous, conflicted constellated self I found myself to be and its places in the world.

Those constituent concerns included those of a university lecturer trained as a visual artist who, while necessarily engaged in the professional activities of those two ‘worlds’, was also personally entangled in thinking that was marginal to the orthodoxies of both. Those entanglements included a long-standing preoccupation with the post-Jungian or Archetypal psychology associated with James Hillman; a powerful identification with the rural uplands of the North of England, the Scottish Borders and the Highlands and Islands; and a passionate curiosity about the power of certain forms of traditional and contemporary popular music. These concerns gradually generated resistant to what, following Crawford Brough Macpherson, might be termed‘the culture of possessive individualism’, a culture that artists and academics were increasingly expected to internalize if they wished to thrive. That resistance may have been partly due to temperament but, more centrally, it was a response to unusual and demanding family circumstances. The resulting dissonances generated the tensions that have framed the Debatable Landsproject.

By 2012 that project was losing direction because my energies had been diverted into generating a discourse around ‘deep mapping’ (hence Flora’s comment). Early versions of the present text appeared, in consequence, to belong to some quite other order of concern, and were written out of a period of considerable professional, family, and personal change. That period began with a diagnosis, in early 2013, of advanced bowel cancer. A major operation saved my life but had ongoing consequences; health issues arising from chemotherapy and the end of regular academic employment. As a family, we also needed to undertake the drawn-out process of finding, buying, and adapting a smaller house to our needs. All this impacted on, and gradually modified, my sense of place and the ‘deep mapping’ I’d been involved in since 1999. Only very slowly did I come to intuit that the amorphous text on which I was working, almost despite myself, might have some relationship to the Debatable Landsproject and, despite its apparently very different nature, provide its resolution.

This work is, then, a going through, a giving form to, a modification of (?), my senses of place as reconfiguring an ongoing project. One way to describe what I’ve attempted here would be to say that I have taken William Least-Heat Moon’s ‘PrairyErth (a deep map)’ as a starting-point but, rather than focus on an external, geographically defined, location, instead set out to map a composite internal set of place-based relationships. An indication as to why this work might provide an appropriate conclusion to the Debatable Landsproject, previously always closely aligned to the teaching I no longer regularly do, came on 23rdJanuary 2017. I received an email from a friend of a friend who, three years earlier, I’d helped in a small way with her doctoral work. This communication resolved the indecision and doubt that, for some months, had prevented me finishing this text.

My correspondent had read Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig: a borderline episode, the first work in the series this book concludes, and wasusing it for a workshop on ‘landscapes of the imagination’ she was helping run. What had inspired her to do so was the chapter ‘Everyday magic: singing walking writing’. This, she told me, had enabled her to identify: “what is missing from my academic training”. Coincidentally, she had also become fascinated by stories of wolves in a region she was researching for a piece of creative writing she never seemed able to finish. She goes on: ‘Perhaps the wolves have become a symbol of my own imagination and its repression through academic training’!

Wolves, and human attitudes to them, play a central role in Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig, which begins as follows:

“For much of my childhood I suffered a recurrent nightmare. It began as I took the route of a familiar daytime walk – a muddy, flint-studded path that leads away from the house into a wood. I follow it through the well-thinned hazels and out onto the edge of the farmland beyond. I am alone. Arriving at the fringes of more established woodland, thick with young saplings between vast, smooth-trucked beech trees, the path takes me along the edge of a rough strip of grass between the wood and a large, L-shaped field. In the distance, there is an orphanage where, on daytime walks, I sometimes hear children laughing and playing together. Now there is only silence”.

“Where the path turns a corner towards the lane I pass an old wooden shed that is gradually disappearing under nettles and briars. When I reach the point where the path crosses the narrow lane a vast black wolf confronts me. It stands at least as tall as myself. It always appears as if out of the air, materialising at the edge of the shadows just where the lane runs in under overhanging trees. I know instantly that my only hope is to lie down on the road with my eyes closed, hold my breath, keep absolutely still. I must play dead, as I have done in this dream hundreds of times before. On each occasion, I wait to see what will happen next. Usually, after what seems like an eternity of the wolf sniffing around me, I wake in absolute terror just as it starts to eat me alive.”

What I did not say then was that this same wolf sometimes behaved very differently. For example, it once spoke with me at length (I don’t remember what about), while a great city burned in the distance behind it. In short, its place in my childhood was more ambiguous than the passage above suggested.[1]In one sense, then, Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rigwas an extended ‘staying with’ just one aspect of that dream wolf by following its sense of uncanny violence via the history and geography of the former parish of Southdean just north of the English Scottish border. That process of ‘staying with’ the wolf,a process borrowed from James Hillman[2], provided the basis for an imaginative, image-based connectivity across time and space between a wide variety of topics; childhood sites, etymologies, histories around Borders place-names, the ethnography of an old song still sung today, scape-goating, land rights, otherness, and terrorism, for example. But it did not begin to exhaust my listening to the figures that appeared through that work.

The sense of returning to something still potent in my concern with the reanimated image of the wolf, revived by that email on January 23rd, 2017, became linked to observations made by Octavio Paz. These concern the implicit ‘authorisations and prohibitions’ that, in any society, institution, or professional world, become the tacit basis for an automatic and unthinking obedience predicated on self-censorship. An obedience further guaranteed by all those figures whose institutional authority is ultimately dependent on perpetuating those authorizations and prohibitions. Paz suggests that a creative work may tell us something that can only be understood if we realize that, as an ‘utterance’, it is ‘surrounded by silence: the silence of the things that cannot be said[3]precisely because its creator has internalized those prohibitions.

One of my primary concerns in Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig was to find a way to interweave scholarship and fieldwork with the types of testimonial imagination (in Richard Kearney’s sense) I felt were prohibited. Both by an academic training predicated on Modernist notions of rational, self-sustaining, and consequently reductive, disciplinarity, and by the hyper-criticality of the Postmodern. I wanted, in addition, to draw attention to athing-that-could-not–be-acknowledged’, the wolf in imagination, while still working as a teacher/artist/researcher. This seemed to me to involve engaging with, and validating, the contemporary relevance of, traces of what I took to be a vital tradition of quasi-pagan vernacular animism alive and well within British culture; something articulated through our singing and listening to the ‘supernatural’ Borders ballads. Interwoven with all this there has been the issue of the repression of testimonial imagination by a culture obsessed with novelty.

The situation indicated above is not, of course, simply personal; rather it reflects a significant social phenomenon. The journalist Paul Mason, in a long article on the protest marches world-wide following the inauguration of President Trump, writes:

“So the challenge for the truly liberal section of the elite is – as in the 1930s – what to do. If you work for a bank, a law firm, an Ivy League university or a Silicon Valley giant, and your employer is systematically accommodating the new, post-factual reality, you are – even now, just weeks into the Trump era – living a double life.”[4]

While I largely agree with the substance of his article, I think the link between having to live a ‘double life’ and Trump’s arrival in the White House misrepresents a situation that has a much longer history.

It was clear before the turn of the twenty-first century that university employees were being required to live multiple and conflicted professional lives. As lecturers, we were expected to square educational values with the demands of an increasingly authoritarian management culture based on quite other values and imposed by diktat. The research activity that had animated our teaching and kept it current was no longer to be determined by our interests and expertise, but by instrumental institutional responses to a system of state audit predicated on economic control. To borrow from Hannah Arendt, our ability to actwas being reduced to a passive capacity for directed work. Not only that, but institutions were beginning to adopt quasi-totalitarian strategies; the endless reorganisation of departments and faculties, revisions and de-democratisation of committee structures, and so on, all of which increased the power of management.

I made ‘Between Carterhaugh and TamshielRig’ to articulate the convergence of a physical and psychic landscape. A convergence necessary to the multiple possibilities of creative work and able to sustain my engaging with, and teaching about, the constellation of memory, place and identity through testimonial imagination.It was then a response to an increasingly repressive and alienating educational context. The body of work around that book then mutated into the larger ‘Debatable Lands’project. By the time ‘Debatable Lands Vol 1’ was published in 2007, I was also heavily engaged in co-ordinating informal networks that created the space necessary for such imaginative work, collective or otherwise, to survive. The ‘Debatable Lands’project had, by then, taken on a more political inflection following the Border ballads, and the conflict of mentalities they helped illuminate, west across the water – first to the Ireland of the plantations and then to the USA. What I had understood, from reading Geraldine Finn, James Hillman, Felix Guattari and others, was that the psychic, the social, and the environmental must all be thought together, from a ‘place-between’ the contradictory life-worlds in which I was by then enmeshed. From the perspective of that place-between, Trump is simply a by-product of a crisis that has overwhelmed the academy, the dominant culture, and society at large. A crisis in no small part generated by the wholesale internalisation of possessive individualism. Trump is, after all, only a gross articulation of possessive individualism in its most extreme, monomaniacal, form.

By 2007 the Debatable Landsproject made it possible for me to articulate an ‘open’ deep mapping, one that attempted:

“[…]speaking from the space-betweenrepresentation and reality, language and life, category and experience: the space of the ethical encounter with others as the other and not more of the same – a space and an encounter that puts meinto question, which challenges and changes me, as well as the other (the otherness of the other) and the socius/the system that contains and sustains us.”[5]

The resulting preoccupation with academic discourse also began to cut me off from (Laura)/Flora/Faun as kith, as invisible friend. ‘She’ became the aspect of ‘placed-between’ I had increasingly neglected, its psychic dimensions personified, the constellation able to facilitate renewed conversations with multiple qualities and selves. Some sense of the ancestral roots of her persona can be evoked by listening to two thematically related songs: Alastair Roberts’ ‘I went hunting’from his Farewell Sorrow(2003) and The Handsome Family’s ‘Hunter Green’ from Last Days of Wonder (2006). Both reach back to the ancient folk supposition that there are men and women who are not constrained by their human form alone.[6]The supposition Hamish imaginatively realised in and through Laura.

Running through this work, then, is the tacit contention that we cannot properly engage with our current psycho-social-environmental situation until we learn to live with the cognitive dissonances attendant on acknowledging that we live, not by the reductive mentality implicit in the notion of a universe, but in the much greater complexity of a polyverse. In Roger Corless’ discussion of our many realities and selves, the voices of Helen Rhys-Jones, Cornelius Yang, Gregory Hinsdale and George-Michel de Saint-Hilaire allow him to conduct (in his own words), “an exercise in heteronomy, in allowing aspects of myself to emerge as semi-autonomous characters and act out a drama on the stage of my imagination”. He notes that these characters: “say what they wish” and that he exercises “no particular control over them”. While he identifies to a greater or less extent with them all, he does so most strongly with Professor George-Michel de Saint-Hilaire and “least of all with Helen”. He adds:

“Perhaps this is because I self-identify as an intellectual and am uncomfortable in the presence of persons who are strongly connected with their feelings. Never-the-less Helen exists, and she brings me back into my body when I get too professorial and lose my heart.”[7]

This returns me again to Flora and suggests that Hamish and Roger Corless may have had more in common than just a religious vocation. This postscript is, then, a brief exposition of Laura/Flora/Faun’s desire for a counterpoint to the scholarly plundering needed to create the other book works in the Debatable Lands series that, in turn, drew me into debates around deep mapping. This final piece is our‘heart work’, offered in the spiritof testimonial and empathetic imagination and as a small act of defiance in the face of their increasing repression.

At the edge of the old world (Orkney beach).

This book concludes with two images from the abandoned book on imaginary friends that Flora and I had just started to work on when she became terminally ill. I only have the photographs in which she arranged for Sarah Armitage to stand in for her younger self. She did not feel able to sit for a second series, which would have shown her wearing the same mask but as an adult.

 

[1]Quoted in John Lahr, ‘Greasers and Rah-Rah’, London Review of BooksVo. 39, No. 3 02.02. 2017 p. 29.

[2]Octavio Paz (1988) Sor Juana,Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press pp. 296-297.

[1]My relationship with this dream wolf would eventually find a resolution in an extraordinarily vivid waking dream that occurred entirely unexpectedly during a session with a therapist. On a beach flanked by low, crumbling cliffs, I watched two wolves play in the space between me and the sea. This brief vision appeared to take place in a space just beyond the room in which we were sitting and had an air of tranquillity and peace.

[2]See James Hillman (1979) The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper & Row

[3]Octavio Paz (1988) Sor JuanaCambride, Mass., The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press p. 5.

[4]The Guardian(G2) 24.01.17

[5]Ibid. p. 176.

[6]An example of a male variant on the theme of transformation in the two songs referred to would be Mr Fox’s version of ‘The Gay Goshawk’ from Join Us in Our Game 2004. Record label.

[7]All quotations are taken from: Roger Corless: ‘Many Selves, Many Realities: The Implications of Hetronymy and the Plurality of Worlds Theory for Multiple Religious Belonging’, originally given on October 6th, 2002 andreproduced at:  http://www.pcts.org/journal/corless2002a/many.selves.pdf

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 41, 42, & 43.

The Judgement

The whole village soon knew we’d been caught drinking and simply assumed, as I did, that that was it. What first got people asking questions was that the ‘innocent’ James had immediately been sent away to stay with Sir William’s sister in Brighton; supposedly to concentrate on his revision. There was also gossip about the ‘guilty’ Peter not been summonsed to the police station for an offical warning with the rest of us. That was largely put down to his father being a local JP and so was seriously resented in some quarters. Our parents collectively grounded us all for varying lengths of time and then either restricted our socialising together or, in Hamish and Peter’s case, banned it. Kate, when I saw her, kept resolutely silent about the whole event. All this was incomprehensible to me. But with Lizzie, Peter and Kate silent, I could only guess that perhaps something else had happened about which I knew nothing.

‘Shake hole’.

Contradictory rumours abounded. Then Mr. and Mrs. Oliver were not invitated to the pre-Christmas cocktails at the Big House, seen as a direct attempt at public ostracization that supported the rumour that Kate had led ‘young Master James’ astray. In mid-January it became public knowledge that Lady Aitcheson was divorcingSir William for adultery, followed by renewed gossip about his relationship withthe doctor’s wife, an excellent shot who had often joined the summer shooting parties. This seemed vindicated when the doctor and his wife sparated and moved away from the village. Sir William now spent most of his time in London. LadyAitcheson was increasingly staying in the family’s second home in York, where she was said to be consulting lawyers. Peter spent the summer holiday with his mother in York and did not come north. James came up for the shooting in August with his father but we didn’t see him to speak to. Cat and I started using the term ‘the Judgement’ for all this after a thunderous sermon from Hamish’s father on that topic which, in addition to drawing attention to the terrors of the last Judgement, contained a number of references to poor parenting and the dissolute behaviour of the young.

All this felt to me like a very painful, drawn-out ending to my childhood and a bitter withering-away of my sense of belonging. Our close-knit group simply evaporated. Kate left school early to study photography at a sixthform college in Newcastle, made new friends, and spent as little time as possible at home. Her absence led to new rumours, the most lurid being that she’d left because she was pregnant with James’s child. Lizzy, meanwhile was trying to get a place at Durham to read history and had her own worries. And I was starting to focus on my my interest in art, and all the practical problems trying to pursue that interest would throw up. At that time I knew very little about the larger consequences of the Judgement; that Mr. Oliver’s business declined due to a number of significant accounts, including those of the estate and most of its tenants, being switched elsewhere. Nor that Arthur Bell, a very capable man but now increasingly left in limbo by his absent employers, was heard to say that he felt like a man fighting with one hand tied behind his back. Since the estate is central to the village economy, everyone soon shared his anxiety.

‘Shake holes’.

I went on a short walking holiday organised by the parents of school friends down in the North Pennines that summer. One day we came across a series of big sink holes off to one side of the path. I was impressed by them and, weeks later, they came back to me in an extraordinary dream, an emblem of how things now were.

A last tryst

My last tryst with Hamish required lengthy and maticulous planning, but by that time I was desperate to keep his attention and prepared to go to any lengths. I had absolutely no understanding then of the contradictory causes of my desparation or that I was trying to ward off the inevitability of changes that, unconsciously, I think I probably longed for. And I had no sense of how confused Hamish and I were by our various conflicting desires. What I did intuit was that my relationship with Hamish was midwife to my trying to be an artist. Anyway, in the event I got Hamish spectacualary wrong.

I’d had great difficulty contacting him and making plans, but was encouraged by the fact that he did at least want us to meet. I forged a letter to get him off school early on the Friday. I engineered circumstances that required an early lift for myself and invented a good reason for a friend’s mother to drop me off before we got to the village. That enabled me to double back to my arranged meeting-place with Hamish, the old bus shelter at the little crossroads where he would naturally get off. All this so that we could spend about fourty minutes alone together before his expected arrival home. Above all, I had made sure to obtain the one personal item critical to my plan, (aquired with considerable difficulty and at substantial cost).

I thought we’d been very careful after our meeting, emerging onto the path from the little abandoned building on the edge of the wood some time apart. But because things had not gone as I’d hoped, we had argued and so were running late. He must have followed me sooner than he should. I don’t know who rang the vicar. (Although later it did occur to me that Mrs. Purvis’ kitchen window virtually overlooked the end of that path.)Nor do I understand why they rang the vicar and not Dad. I do know that when I went to change out of my school clothes, there were traces of dirt on the back of my skirt and blouse. In a village now alerted to the moral terpitude of the young, someone must have speculated on cause and effect. In the ten or so minutes it took Hamish to walk home that person rang his father. Weeks later Mike would tell me that what frightened Hamish the most was his father’s insistance that any further disobedience about seeing me would result in his damnation. It’s no wonder then that Hamish dumped me.

At the time I thought the business of him joining the church was just a lame excuse, but it turned out that he did, and even became something of a radical. I must assume his God really does move in mysterious ways, although I can’t help wonder whether it was damnation or my offering to have sex with him that scared him more. Anyway, when we parted I sensed deep down that my offer had been a last straw.

What astonishes me now is what I can and can’t recall from that day. I remember almost nothing of our meeting itself. Of course I know factually exactly what happened (or rather didn’t), but it feels unreal, stilted, like a scene caught in an old, hand-tinted photograph. Yet I can vividly recall my long wait for the bus, all of twenty odd minutes hunkered down among the fag-ends and litter behind the bus shelter. It felt like several lifetimes.

I can feel the rough wooden planking of the bus shelter against my lower vertibra as I shift my weight; there’s even a slight tenderness from my bra strap rubbing a patch beneath my left armpit. Under the smell of creasote from the shelter there’s the faint, sickly-sweet odour of rotting flesh that comes and goes with the breeze, probably a dead ewe in the next field. There’s a low hum of insects and the persistant trickling sound of water, making me wonder if I really need to pee or am just rediculously nervous, or both. Then there’s the sound of a solitary car going slowly along the top road, a sound that, as it fades, blends into the bird song. While I listen to all this I’m rubbing the little scars and scabs on my right knee where it sticks out beyond the hem of my skirt, trying to distract myself from my butterflies. I’ve now convinced myself that Hamish’s bus will never come or, if by some miracle it does, he won’t be on it.

At some point my nervous fingers find a little swollen bump on the inner side of my knee that’s tender and, adjusting my weight again, I begin to rub it harder. To my horror a long curved black shape then suddenly pushs its way up through my skin. For a second I think it’s some awful parasite, then take courage and gingerly tweezer it from my flesh. A fat drop of blood and milky pus wells from the exit point. It’s a big thorn. I then remember the thicket of brambles Dad and I’d cleared away the previous weekend.

It had been fun attacking the brambles and discovering the junk they’d been hiding for years. I’d had a bill hook and worn work gloves, Dad’s old leather jacket, and my thickest jeans. We worked all afternoon, clearing and burning the dense bramble patch threatening to take over the sunniest corner of the back garden. (Afterwards I watched the pale grey circle of ash from our fire darken and lighten each day in response to the changing weather). But all my precautions that day had been in vain. I found myself caught on a long, arching, thorn-encrusted caneand, half falling, it ripped a short but bloody gash through my jeans on the inner side of my right knee. I could see thorns embedded in this wealt and went into the house to remove them. I clearly missed one. That thin black arc rising inexorably from my flesh is almost as vivid now as when it happened. 

Cat

I had very little warning that Cat was leaving for France, a move her parents told her they’d been contemplating for a while. She and I wondered, of course, whether it was just another consequence of the Judgement. For a while after she left we wrote each other increasing stilted letters, each shorter than the last, until we finally agreed to stop. She had tried to give me the impression that all was well with her, but I could tell that everything had changed for the worse.

Cat was always a little in awe of her Mama, but on easy terms with her Papa. That didn’t stop her from belittling him to me for not standing up to his wife. Cat, like her relationship to her parents, was as lively as she was complicated. What I remember most often now is her singing, the quality of her voice. I also remember the girl with the long chestnut pigtails I first met, her big dark eyes flashing with excitement at some story or game. An excitement just held in check by the sense of personal dignity she’d absorbed from her Mama. Her ready excitement, her smile, and some of her physical gestures were her father’s, but in most other respects she took after her mother. This was most obvious in her neatness and sense of her own worth. So much comes back now from the period when we were close. Stuff I forgot, or maybe turned away from, for years.

When I first played Maddy Prior and June Tabor’s ‘Silly Sisters’, I burst into tears. It was so perfect, sounding just as I imagined, entirely unrealistically, that Cat and I would have done if we’d kept on singing together. Absurd. And then I discovered that there was a wholly other Cat, and another Michael and Patsy too, people I didn’t know as I’d thought I had then.

In the last months before Cat left our friendship had cooled and I saw less of her. I told myself this was because of the Judgement, which was partly true. But I was also increasingly preoccupied with Hamish and, after that finished, with my art homework and working out how on earth I was going to get to a Foundation Course. In any case, after the Judgement, her mother kept Cat away from us all, except Patsy and Mike. That exception was purely pragmatic. Cat was spending long hours practising her fiddle, and this was clearly better done in an empty barn of their aunt’s than in her bedroom at home. We were now mostly in different classes at school, and made no real attempt to find out how things were with each other. My curiosity about what had happened during those last days before she left for France only started many years later, after I bumped into Mike, down from Glasgow for an old school-friend’s silver wedding anniversary.

He’d changed almost beyond recognition and, when I asked after Patsy, he ducked the question and started a long rambling monologue about Cat. He seemed rather drunk and I suggested coffee. Eventually he told me that everything had become increasingly difficult for Patsy when his own hopes of becoming a trainee gamekeeper on the estate were abruptly ended. Sir William, who had initially been agreeable, simply announced that he didn’t want to see ‘that boy’ with the keepers again. Mike’s future evaporated in that moment but, a proud boy, he didn’t tell any of us what had happened. Instead he took his disappointment home with him.

 

He’d had enough practice driving to pick up an HGV license without too much difficulty and worked for a while as a driver for a local haulage firm. He admitted to me that his anger and frustration often boiled over, making life increasingly difficult for Patsy. He and Cat fell out when she persuaded Patsy to see the doctor, but he also seemed to blame her for going back on a promise. I couldn’t get any sense out of him about the connection between these two things. What I did discover was that, after Cat left and I’d gone to London, their aunt started going into the paddock at night to remonstrate with the unseen dead. Then she had a full-blown breakdown, went into a home, and the house, stables, dogs and ponies were sold off. Patsy went to live with a relative near Wooler, while Mike moved away to Glasgow. It was in Wooler that Patsy started to pick up again. I heard no more because at that point Mike insisted he had to leave for work.

A couple of years after that wedding I got a card care of the estate telling me Mike had died. There were only a handful of us at the funeral. Sarah Kirkwell, Mike’s second cousin and a former nurse, sat beside me, clearly pleased to be in contact with someone who’d known him as a boy. (Due to some protracted family quarrel, she’d seen almost nothing of him then.) All due rites observed, we went for a cup of tea together. She gave me a potted version of what she knew of Mike’s adult life, which had included a spell inside for possession of an unlicensed shotgun used to threaten another lorry-driver, years on the outer fringes of Glasgow’s trade in fenced goods, and increasingly serious alcohol abuse. Mike eventually inherited a relative’s house just outside Wooler and moved back east. By now he had liver trouble. She suspected he’d been borderline depressive for much of his adult life and had dealt with it by drinking.

I asked if she knew anything about his sister.

It appears that after Mike moved to Glasgow Patsy came off antidepressants and started working at a local hotel. She’d met and then married an Australian who’d had a temporary job there and gone back home with him. They had a boy and a girl. Michael had letters from her, all of which he’d burnt before he died, but would never talk about her. Sarah had asked him for a contact address when he was clearly terminally ill but he’d ignored her and she’d been unable to find one among his papers. There was no will. I told her what I knew about Michael, Patsy, and Cat, and my feeling he’d never told me the whole truth about what had happened between them. She was silent for a long time.

‘I think from things he said that maybe Michael and Patsy got a little too close and Cat’s getting involved triggered some kind of crisis between them. Mike once let slip that he’d never forgiven himself for what happened before they moved, something involving a friend. Maybe that was your friend Cat’?

Iain, that’s as much as I know. I told you way back how Cat’s life ended.

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 38, 39, & 40.

Mender and Maker

 I’m not sure I ever explained properly to you about how I earned my living as a mender and maker. I used to be asked to mend every kind of thing you can imagine and, having been both a sculptor and art school technician, I found I could do a surprising amount of what was asked of me.

It began by chance, because a school friend married a man who ran a little auction house and dealt in old furniture. She had seen a chair I’d restored for another friend and the carved walking stick handles I was making then and told her husband, who started giving me work mending and re-upholstering items he picked up cheap. Word got around slowly and it went on from there. I’ve done everything from remedial taxidermy, through delicate welding jobs on jewellery, to restoring genuine antiques. In lean times, I’ve also decorated houses and fed, exercised and otherwise attended to people’s dependents: elderly relatives, children, dogs, cats, hens, and horses.

My workshop was in a converted byre at the Reed Estate home farm. I leased it, like my little cottage, for a peppercorn rent, but with it came various conditions. I helped Lizzy, Mrs. Oliver and Sarah juggle the various demands in their lives, including helping to maintain and repair the home farm buildings. This arrangement was made considerably easier and more practical by the fact that the workshop was within shouting distance of their back door.The workshop, with its white walls, cool north light and, when it warmed up, rich mix of subtle and not so subtle smells, was my sanctum. It required me to keep it tidy (unlike my cottage), and to respect its tools and various materials. There was a ‘clean’ mending room, dominated by my big worktable, a little area off it with a tiny fridge and a Baby Belling that heated size, glue or soup. A long second room held a saw bench, plainer, lathe (all acquired second-hand) and a woodworking bench and repair area for delicate stuff like jewellery, the one divided from the other by thick transparent polythene curtains. A loft space ran the whole length of the roof, with the small ‘making room’ tucked away at the back under a skylight. The rest was taken up by a tiny office and the small ‘strong-room’ required by the insurance company, all accessed by wooden stairs.

I used to think that if I went blind I would be able to read my post-London working life from the surface of that worktable; every dent and score-mark a story. The network of little cut lines down the ‘paper end’ from back when I first started and hadn’t yet bought a proper scoring mat. The smooth irregular area of glass-like surface, slightly raised, the consequence of a particularly resinous glue leaking from a damaged container over a long weekend. The deep dent from where Barbara Crozier and I somehow managing to drop her little kiln after I’d so painstakingly welded back some broken elements. (We’d been laughing too much about something she’d said about a neighbour). And the surface of the table itself, smooth but for the raised knots, whorls and eddies of its convoluted grain, each plank with a history all its own. I made that table myself, helped by Willie Southgate, a local joiner now long dead. We got the heavy pitch pine from a yard he knew that was selling reclaimed timber – mostly pitch pine – taken from demolished Liverpool warehouses.

Willie helped me tongue and groove, smooth, and then fit each two-and-a-half- inch plank snuggly into its neighbour. But despite their metamorphosis from rough flooring to glowing plank, some still carried deep reddish discolorations from their previous existence. Before that the pitch pine would have found its way across the Atlantic from the northeastern United States, where the tree has a reputation for being able to survive in very poor conditions.

When I get depressed, which happens more frequently now, I go up in my mind to my little making room and spend some time sorting wood, just as I used to do. I had a collection of small off-cuts picked up from timber yards, along with bits and pieces salvaged from broken furniture. There were pieces ofmahogany, walnut, oak, yew, elm, ash, cherry, pear, pine, maple, ash, birch, rosewood,hazel, and holly, some in ‘raw’ form and some in the form of a section, say, of an old chair leg. I kept these along with lengths of blackthorn I’ve been cutting locally for years now, ever since I went on a course on how to make traditional walking sticks. Handling all these, with their variety of grain, weight, and colour, if only in imagination, never fails to lift my spirits.

There was another aspect to my workshop, which had to do with my relationship with clients. Most of the people who came there, whether bringing or collecting things, were women (although often bringing something on their husbands’ behalf).

I had a nice old leather armchair, acquired as part-payment from a client who went bust, that sat between my wood-burning stove and the little space with its kettle, various teas, coffee

 percolator and biscuit tin. Its broad well-worn arms provided an inviting perch and, for those brave enough to descend into its depths, an enfolding embrace. I often needed to finish a task in hand when someone arrived and, if that was the case, asked them to make themselves tea or coffee, take a biscuit, and sit awhile.

When we were ready to do business, they would be relaxed and, if I could do something on the spot, were happy to sit and talk while I did the job. Through Lizzy’s interest in local history I’d picked up enough knowledge to ask the right questions about their family or work. After that they just kept themselves amused by talking to me. Since most people like talking about themselves, I learned a lot, often things I couldn’t believe they were telling me. (Obviously, I was careful never to repeat anything they said.) For a long while I wondered why it was that they felt able to speak to me so freely about personal matters.

Abandoned picnic area at the site of the battle of Otterburn. 

Some of it was simply that I’m a pretty good listener and, because I’d be working and not appearing to be paying too much attention, they felt free to be more open. But I think it’s also more fundamentally because, for them, I existed as a function rather than as a person. I was an artisan and a woman with no husband, lover, children, or family in the region. I had no social influence and owned no property, land or animals. I simply didn’t register in terms of their basic social coordinates. Lizzy goes to church, takes her place on the committee for the Annual Show, navigates Sarah through the Byzantine politics of sleepover invitations and Pony Club events, while I have no part in all that. I imagine old family servants probably found themselves in much the same situation. That is, their employers felt free to say whatever they liked in front of them because they saw them as functionaries, not as persons like themselves.

Fifteenth birthday party

We had the party at the beginning of the summer holiday, well after my actual birthday, and at Homehaugh because our cottage was far too small. Dad had given me a beautiful deep blue tunic dress, short and embroidered with little dark red flowers around the neck and hem, something that Kate and I saw in a magazine and I had hankered after for months. I wore that and, because Kate had persuaded Dad to relent on his usual make-up rule, enough discrete eye-liner and lipstick to feel almost sophisticated. James brought lots of records and acted as our DJ. We rolled back the carpet in the front room so we could dance, and Hamish, usually so reserved in company, claimed the first dance with me.

Hamish and I had circled each other as sexual beings for a while. Although I was still trying to work out what had changed in how I felt about him, in addition to talking we’d now done a little tentative handholding and even kissed a couple of times. I had been unnerved by how my body responded but hadn’t talked to any of the girls about it in case they teased me. Hamish seemed to sense my uncertainty and had recently been rather wary of me. However, he clearly saw my party as an opportunity to change things. He not only asked me to dance straight away but then insisted on partnering me all evening. I was a little surprised but happy at his insistance.

During the first slow record,he began very tentatively nuzzling my neck, which I found odd but exciting.No doubt emboldened by my making no protest, he was giving me proper kisses by the third slow dance and, by the fourth or fifth, we were experimenting with tongues. I had neither the wish or the will to resist this new, passionate Hamish, who had now guided me down the darker end of the room. In what seemed no time at all his left hand finished its migration down my back and arrived on my bum. At around this point Mrs. Oliver, who kept coming into the room to keep an eye on things, turned the lights up and suggested to James that he play more ’lively’ music. (We weren’t the only ones who’d migrated to the dark end of the room). Hamish then suggested we get something to drink and I followed him out of the front room and turned right but, instead of going on down the corridor to the kitchen, he took my arm and quickly led me up the little back stairs to the dark landing above.

I was more excited than nervous but, remembering Kate’s stories, managed to be firm when he tried to put his hand inside my knickers. To my surprise he seemed relieved. But while I found it easily to control Hamish, I struggled with my own desire and was almost glad when, some minutes later, I heard my dad’s voice saying he’d come to collect me. I tidied my clothes, slipped down to get my coat, and said my goodbyes and thank-yous. Hamish, meanwhile, vanished along the upstairs corridor.

But what most stays in my memory from that year, far more vividly than my party evening, is the Friday evening six weeks later when we got caught drinking by two police officers, initiating the disastrous consequences of what we’d come to call ‘the Judgement’.

One immediate, if ultimately minor, consequence of the Judgement was that it caused real confusion between Hamish and me. After the party I had told anyone who would listen that Hamish was now my boyfrind. But in practice even meeting up became a real challenge after we got caught drinking. I had told girls at school how much I enjoyed kissing and cuddling with Hamish, not least because that was expected of me. But the deeper need, inscutable to me then, was not strictly sexual at all. It had to do with being the focus for Hamish’s intellectual enthusiasm, being what he’d once shyly called ‘his muse’. I certainly enjoyed the physical stuff and being the object of his affection, but behind that there was the business of shared imaginings, that quite other aspect of our relationship. Part of the confusion came from my awareness that our kissing and hugging involved a degree of self-deception on my part. I did enjoyed it, but I also insisted to myself that I must keep Hamish in check or he’d push me into doing something I’d regret. In truth, and from our few minutes on the landing at Homehaugh onwards, I was secretly far more worried about my own desire than his. When a school friend asked if I’d ‘do it’ with Hamish I said: ‘no, or at least not until I’m absolutely sure he loves me.’

But I knew perfectly well this expected response was stupid. I wasn’t really sure where love came into it. I certainly enjoyed basking in Hamish’s attention and desire; I probably enjoyed anticipating my own desire’s satisfaction without any of the complications that might follow if that should actually happened. I couldn’t, of course, have talked about any of this with Hamish. Sex, although it haunted our every moment together after the party, remained quite literally unspeakable. We both knew that local convention dictated I had only to say the word and he’d find a way to get hold of condoms but, like most of my peers, I said nothing. Nor did he press me, although he was certainly passionate enough within the limits I’d set him.

The reason we’d become close in the first place had to do with the shared vulnerabilities of our interior worlds, a mutual revelation that had felt extremely intimate. His confessions in that respect deepened my admiration of his love of poems and poets, of a vocabulary – words like ‘soul’ and ‘angelic’ – we would never have dreamed of using in public. For his voracious appetite for reading as an almost spiritual passion, something that corresponded obscurely with my first intimations of wanting to be an artist. My confessions, he told me in a hushed and stumbling voice, had given him hope of finding someone to share his secret life with, a soul-mate, spiritual fellow-traveller, muse. He even referred to me shyly as ‘a sort of guardian angel’. I, of course, lapped all this up, wholly unaware of the consequences of being placed on such a high pedestal.

I did not know then that traditionally both souls and angels are sexless. Had I done so I might perhaps have saved myself a certain amount of trouble and unhappiness, although I rather doubt it would have made any difference. We were caught between two conflicting desires, between the needs of body and mind, in a way we could not possibly have understood at that age. Between our budding physical desires and an obscure need for what we’d internalized as something ‘higher’ and ‘purer’, an elevated life of the creative mind. A tension that, briefly but memorably, lit up everything around me and made being the focus of Hamish’s attention somehow vital to my emerging and very vulnerable sense of the artist I hoped to become. 

All of this became increasingly irrelevant when, after we were all caught drinking, his father explicitly forbade Hamish from having anything further to do with any of us. This made communication between us increasingly difficult. I quickly came to see less of him and feared he would soon find another muse. To try to prevent that happening I contrived a secret meeting between us, despite almost insuperable difficulties. But two days after we met he sent me a note saying that he’s decided we must stop seeing each other. He added, almost as an afterthought, that he now knew he wanted to follow his father into the church. At first I thought I was heartbroken, then I felt humiliated, something which quickly turned to plain anger. However, my preoccupation with Hamish was soon overshadowed by other, less personal, issues.

Dad had not been entirely well for some time before the Judgement, although he consistently denied that there was anything wrong with him. It didn’t help that the practice had been slowly falling off, the inevitable result of greater competition in the region. This meant that I needed to do more to help at home, as well as focus on school as part of the process of getting myself to art college. Despite Dad’s half-hearted protests, I also took a Saturday job at the Co-op to help pay for my keep. When I did get offered a Foundation place at Newcastle I lost my nerve, deferred for a year, and then spend it doing the practice’s paperwork, cooking, general housekeeping, and worrying about his health which, fortunately, did begin to improve. During the three years between Hamish dumping me and my going away to London, I stopped going to church and, in consequence, I don’t think we exchanged more than a dozen sentences together. We simply chose to politely ignore each other. It was horrible but, despite feeling increasingly abandoned and lost, I passed my Foundation year and was offered an interview at Chelsea School of Art.

‘Waiting’

 One Friday evening

On a beautiful clear Friday evening, a couple of local police officers took the little road above the village on their way back from a half-day training session. They stopped for a leg-stretch and a cigarette and heard voices arguing in the little plantation below the road. Given the place and time of day, they sauntered down to investigate. That’s how seven of us were caught arguing heatedly with Maggie Hunter, who supplied us with booze, along with her two brothers, Charlie and Eric, who had come along in the hope of cadging a beer. We were drinking lager and, apart from Lizzy and Peter, were under age. We were arguing with the Hunters because James, who had the money we owed Maggie, had not turned up. Neither had Kate.

The two policemen were local. The more senior of the two was a strict Methodist and knew our approximate ages. We were asked for our parents’ phone numbers, the lager was confiscated, and we were sent home.

For years I believed our being caught drinking was the cause of  the Judgement. I was almost entirely wrong.

One of the policemen rang Mr. Oliver, who was working late at his office, within half an hour of leaving us. Mr. Oliver rang his wife and, when Lizzy got home, she was sent straight to her bedroom to wait for him. Shortly after Lizzy got to her room Kate crept silently across the corridor, swore her sister to absolute secrecy and, uncharacteristically tearful and frightened, told her what had happened.

Mrs Oliver had been out but returned home earlier than planned due to a confusion over an appointment. She went to her bedroom to change her shoes and, as she did so, heard sounds in what should have been the empty attic room directly above. She went up the back stairs in her stockinged feet and pushed open the attic room door. On the small bed in the corner she saw James and Kate having vigorous sex. She told them to get dressed. As they did so, she noticed James try to push a large fishing bag that had been partly hidden by his clothes under the bed. This turned out to contain a miniature bottle of vodka, two six packs of lager, and an estate wages envelope containing the money we owed Maggie. Telling James to stay in the attic, she took Kate downstairs and demanded to know how long this had been going on. Thrown by her mother’s uncharacteristic anger, Kate finally admitted that they’d been having sex all that holiday, either in the old hayloft or, when nobody was around, in the little attic room. Mrs. Oliver then questioned James about the contents of the bag. He told her the alcohol was for our gathering that evening and the money to pay for it. Mrs. Oliver then rang his mother, who immediately drove over. After further interogation about contraception and the guest list for the drinking party, followed by a private discussion between themselves, the two mothers issued very clear instructions that had nothing to do with morality and everything with damage limitation.

Jamie was driven home and Kate banished to her room. The two mothers quite reasonably assumed that, since James would not now arrive with the alcohol, we would abandon our intended party and drift back to our homes with no harm done. But Michael happened to have been given a six pack of lager in return for a favour by a school friend. It was this that we’d started on to placate Maggie and her brothers while waiting for James.

Mr Oliver returned home incensed by the call from the police. He summonsed his daughters, telling Kate to wait while he interogated Lizzy. For ten minutes he made it abundently clear how angry and disappointed he was at her irresponsibility, then sent her to her room. Despite her resentment at being blamed for everything, Lizzy had quickly sensed her father was more worried about Kate’s absence from the drinking party than her being there. What Lizzy did not know was that Kate had recently been in serious trouble for playing truant from school and had come within a hair’s breadth of being expelled.

Kate told her father exactly what her mother had instructed her to say: that she’d not joined us because she’d been been unwell. He questioned her at length but she stuck tearfully to her story. Mr. Oliver, having discussed the whole matter with his wife, then told Lizzy he’d decide on her punishment next day.

‘Our drinking den, seemingly still being used (2001).’

Years later Lizzy heard from Peter what happened between the twins and their father. Sir William questioned them together. Peter confirmed what the police had said, while James gave the story agreed with his mother. This proved disastrous because Sir William knew something that his wife did not; something that James, in his confusion, had entirely forgotten to tell his mother. After lunch Sir William, hearing James say he might go into the village later, had casually asked him to deliver a small package to the doctor’s house. James had agreed and delivered the package on his way to pick up our alcohol, which Maggie always left in the old stable-block nettie. He then met Kate as planned. But James stuck to the agreed story that after lunch his mother had caught him reading comics instead of revising as he’d promised to do and had grounded him for the rest of the day. This didn’t tally with what Sir William knew, since he’d received a discreet phone that told him the small package had been delivered. So James was clearly lying. Reminded of the delivery, James clumsily tried to modify his story. At which point Sir William sent Peter to bed and called his wife. He must then have arrived at a more accurate version of the afternoon’s events. Peter could hear the row going on from his room, although not its content.

Early next morning Sir William went to Homehaugh and confronted Mr. Oliver on his own doorstep. Mr.Oliver was still in his dressing gown when he opened the front door, while Sir William was in tweed three-piece suit and old school tie. He proceeded to make it abundantly clear what he thought of Kate’s seduction of James and of Lizzy organizing a ‘drinking den’. Mrs. Oliver, still upstairs in bed, could heard every word. Sir William then announced that the twins were now expressly forbidden from any further contact with the Oliver family. From this confrontation a sequence of events unfolded that had very serious consequences for a great many people.

Lizzy believes that Mr. Oliver, a proud man now seriously wrong-footed by someone he heartily disliked, simply lost all his usual calm, somehow convincing himself that James had in fact seduced Kate and that, in consequence, Sir William’s behaviour in confronting him on his own doorstep was a gross insult to both his daughter and himself. We both knew this explanation didn’t really fit with her father’s character, but it was all she could come up with. To the best of her knowledge her father never asked why Kate and his wife had lied to him. It may be, however, that the knowledge that they had done so helped explain why he completely ignored everything they and Lizzy said on the matter. That included their pleas that he let the whole affair rest. A bitter feud then began between the two men that, in time, would effectively shatter not only the world we had grown up in but the assumption of continuity taken for granted by the local community.

 

 

 

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 35, 36, & 37.

Visitation

One morning in late May that year I called at the farm and, to my astonishment, Lizzy was up and eating breakfast. She seemed completely changed. I blurted out something like: ‘was she feeling better?’ She told me she’d had a vivid dream. Peter had come into the bedroom and, standing at the end of their bed, told her how much he loved her and that she must stop grieving for him now, get herself better, and look after little Sarah. She sat up in bed and begged him to kiss her, but he’d insisted he had to go. She heard his footsteps on the stairs and the click of the back door shutting, exactly as she had done when he’d go out early. Then she woke up to hear the cock crowing. I told her how delighted I was to see her up, grabbed whatever I’d gone to collect, and went out to find Arthur.

That’s the official account of how Lizzy started to mend. It’s not, however, quite the whole story.

As we were finishing moving the sheep I noticed a police car parked outside Arthur and Nessa’s cottage and said something to him. We finished up and then went down just as Nessa came out with the young copper who’d just transferred from Hawick. Arthur asked if everything was alright and the young man explained he’d just taken a statement from Maggie, who’d seen a man looking around the farm in the night.. There’d been a series of recent thefts from farms, so the two men went to check the yard. I then noticed Nessa looked very pale. She hurried me into the kitchen.

Nessa and Arthur’s daughter Ruth had recently returned from Canada with her six-year-old daughter Maggie. The daughter, a nurse, had an interview so had left Maggie with her grandmother. In the night the little girl had got up to go to the bathroom and, on her way back to bed, opened the curtain to see if it was getting light. This gave her a good view up towards the farm. As she looked out she’d seen a man come out from the back porch and walk through the yard, looking left and right, then down to and past the cottage. She’d seen his face very clearly and in the morning she’d told her grandmother what she’d seen. Nessa remembered the spate of recent thefts and rang the old police sargent, but warned him it might be nothing. He’d been concerned enough to send the young constable to take a statement.

‘He was very good with the lass and she told him exactly what she’d told me, near enough word for word. But Miss Flora, he asked her to describe the man she’d seen and it was Master Peter. But Maggie’s never seen him, nor any photograph either. Of course the young man just wrote it all down and praised her for her memory. I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing. I sent her to play and was taking him out when yourselves arrived. Whatever am I to say to the sergeant, I’m afraid he’ll think it’s some terrible bad joke’.

I told Nessa about Lizzy’s dream. She looked at me wide-eyed, shook her head, and walked out of the room. I rang the sergeant myself. He’s a traditional singer I know quite well. I don’t remember now just how our conversation went, but I started by asking if he remembered ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well.’[2]

Whatever you make of all this, and I swear it’s true, Lizzy’s depression eased off, at least to the point where eventually we were able to return to something like our old lives. But after that I had a real sense that I didn’t know the half of it when it came to Lizzy. That, of course, turned out to be entirely true.

I suppose I should also add this.

You may possibly remember sending me a little booklet,A. R. Wright’s ‘English Foklore’(1928), number twenty-three in a series called ‘Benn’s Sixpenny Library’, that you’d found in a second hand bookshop. You almost certainly won’t remember writing that you were disconcerted by what seemed to you my excessive gratitude for such a small gift. My reason, which I didn’t feel able to share with you then, can be found on page twenty-three.

The dead seem to have been carried feet foremost from ancient times, in order to prevent their seeing their home and door and so being able to find their way back as revenants.

This brought to mind something that happened when the undertakers came to remove Peter’s body. There was an altercation between an old neighbour who’d come to help Nessa with the laying out and the undertaker’s men. I only caught the low, insistent, tone of the old woman’s voice, not her words, and then an incredulous refusal from the undertaker; then the old woman again, now openly angry, before I had to attend to something else. When I looked out of the window moments later I saw Peter’s coffin carried out of the house head first. After I’d read that passage in Wright’s book, I asked Nessa if she remembered that day. She looked away and tried to change the subject. When I pressed her she admitted that old Miss Kerr had had words with the men, but insisted she couldn’t remember what the old lady had said. This was the same Miss Kerr who, when I asked about her brother one day, told me he was all upset about a tweed suit bequeathed to him by a former emplyer because it had inexplicably rotted. She’d added: ‘what did he expect, silly man, it fretted for old Mr …, who’d worn it on and off thirty years’.

After reading Wright it’s not hard to guess the cause of the altercation, but I do wonder about her motive.

I know neither of us, as intelligent, rational people, believe in such things. But, as we each know, our intelligent, rational selves are hardly in the majority.

The Reed Estate

 Of course it’s hard for me not to admire Lizzy as the localsee her; that is as Peter’s widow and ‘mistress of the Reed Estate’, since she’s genuinely had to overcome very real difficulties in order to keep the farm going and bring up Sarah. Although there’s something ironic about that view of Lizzy, since the Reed Estate as was realy only exists in memory now.

Originally it consisted of the home farm and a cluster of five smaller tenant farms, all a world away from the intensive agriculture of the lowlands. A parcel of haughs (meadows) along the river and patches of dense woodland in its steep valleys, hill pasture and moorland that’smixture of bog, heather and cotton-grass. In the old days, all this grazing land was treated by its owners, at least in terms of public rhetoric, as ‘for sport’, that is as primarily for grouse and pheasant shooting. As ‘gentry’ the Reeds preferred to see the estate as a recreational site and the income it brought in from farming as a secondary matter. From this point of view once the shooting was rented out ‘the estate’ became, in the eyes of the more hidebound of Peter’s peers, a farming business and Peter a farmer rather than a gentleman who owned land. Of course, nobody would be so vulgar as to put any of this into words, least of all say anything to Peter or Lizzy themselves. But that didn’t make the judgement any less real in the minds of some in the region. It’s difficult to explain the nuances of all this to outsiders. Particularly now when the presuppositions involved, which are essential to preserving an identity predicated on archaic distinctions, would be bitterly defended if ever made explicit. They are, of course, all but invisible to those that hold.

When I first came north I thought the Cheviot uplands were just an endless, undifferentiated succession of dull and very empty hills. Initially it was Lizzy’s schoolgirl pride in both the natural and human history of the region that carried me beyond that first impression. I learned that the upland landscape was differentiated into fields and rough pasture; that the second consisted of bog, patches of dull green sedge, occasional dwarf shrubs and massive hummocks of sphagnum moss and, higher up in the dryer areas, white headed cotton-grass and drifts of heather. In a good year, these drifts turned a wonderful purple in early to mid-August and were often interspersed with cloudberry and ling. She pointed out to me the notable inhabitants of this highland, the hares, lapwings, curlew, assorted raptors, and both black and red grouse. She insisted I understand other, more esoteric, differentiations too. I learned that the Reed Estate did not host relic communities of arctic alpine flora, the dwarf cornel, chick-weed, willow grass, alpine willow herb, rose root, hairy stonecrop, and alpine scurvy grass, that survive in some of the deep rocky ravines of estates further north. A relic flora that brings with it various environmental restrictions to vex its owners.

Even in its heyday the Estate’s farming side never made the Reeds much money beyound the tenants’ rents, but it enabled them to maintain a certain view of themselves. Lizzy’s public persona is now a strange afterglow of that former identity, a sense of self that’s genuinely invested in the farm as a livelihood for Sarah and herself. But it’s all muddled up with a ghost: the former social role of mistress of an estate as it once was; a roll that her mother-in-law wore like a glove.

Lizzy and I have never seen eye to eye on the role of shooting in the whole business of estates here. I dislike the various, largely bogus, claims that this somehow contributes ‘to the conservation and maintenance of the countryside’. Claims made by an industryonly interested in protecting its own interests, including the social status of landowners, and heavily subsidised by the tax-payer.

At the risk of boring you half to death, I’ll give you an indication (albeit a bit dated) of what’s involved, based on notes I made back in 2009. At that time 80 percent of estates were involved in grouse shooting, although grouse numbers had declined by nearly 50 percent compared to 2001. However, the fee levied per brace had increased by over 30 percent in real terms over the same period.Grouse shooting was estimated to account for 46 percent of permanent employment across the estates surveyed, but only 43 percent of reporting estates made a profit on their grouse. I think this confirms my view that maintaining the status of ‘gentleman landowners’ is a significant motive in all this.

The stone heap

That said, more estates were making more profit in 2009 than previously. It wasestimated that they spent almost £11 million on wages, operating, and maintenance expenditures. However, it’s not clear how much of this was offset by other benefits. (An ecologist friend thinks the offset is very considerable, not least because estates are able to collect substantive Government subsidies.)Much ‘everyday’ estate expenditure is on routine countryside management, including predator control (some of it highly suspect, if not illegal), pest control, and heather and bracken management, which to a degree may also benefit agricultural activity. But this is, as you’ll know, environmentally problematic. There was of course no mention in the report I’m quoting from of such environmental issues, nor of the relationship between all this activity and watershed management, or of the social and economic cost to the nation of having to deal with flooding. Nor was there mention of the very substantial subsidies paid to the owners of grouse moors by the State.All of which needs to be understood in the context of other facts, for example that over half of Scotland is owned by just 432 people, the most concentrated pattern of land ownership anywhere in the developed world.

Change

Everything here began to change when the day-to-day management of the estate was passed over to Peter, who by then had graduated from agricultural college. He immediately began worked closely with Arthur Bell to pull the farming side of the estate business around. Some three months after he moved back north he and Lizzy got engaged and she became privy to the financial and other implications of his mother’s battle with the trustees. She would only tell me

so much but, reading between the lines, I think when the lawyers investigated the trust they discovered various irregularities. Whatever the case, the trust agreed to amend its own terms of reference and real managerial authority was largely devolved to Peter. The whole business was probably as costly as it was unpleasant and, at least initially, Peter ran into endless problems created, directly or indirectly, by his father. Not the least of which was that people on the estate he’d grown up with had been ‘let go’, which had naturally generated a lot of bad feeling locally.

 Peter began at once to set in motion a plan that, to many people locally, was simply unthinkable. He put the Big House on the market and then sold it to a business syndicate, part of a package that also gave them exclusive rights to the shooting. The syndicate then turned the house and outbuildings into a small exclusive hotel that, by providing some much-needed local employment, helped to mollify local feeling. In parallel, Peter moved Arthur and his wife Nessa into a renovated estate cottage, taking over the factor’s[1]house at the farm for Lizzy and himself. All this allowed him to pay off virtually the entire estate overdraft. He then established a management company, with his mother and Lizzy as partners to sideline the trust. He and Lizzy then married quietly at a civil ceremony at the Jedburgh registry office. There were only about a dozen of us there, but Kate had come home especially. That was, to my knowledge, her last visit to the UK.

 

‘Picking up’ dead grouse after a drive.

That was in July. Early in the morning on the first Tuesday in December the following year, Peter took the old estate Landrover out onto the hill to liaise with a contractor assessing the value of a plantation with a view to felling it. The plan was that Peter would then meet Arthur and Graham Watson, the cattle man, by nine. At half past nine Arthur called in at the farm to ask for Peter.

It took a long afternoon to get Peter’s body out of the remains of the Landrover and bring it up from the river, which was high from several days of intermittent snow and sun. The police concluded that Peter had braked going into the second of the hairpin bends, that the brakes had failed, and that the vehicle had then skidded and the front hit a low boulder. At that point, the Landrover had turned over onto its side, slide down the rest of the steep, snow-covered bank, and dropped the ten odd meters into the freezing river below. The local mechanic who maintained the farm’s vehicles told the inquest the Landrover had only just scraped through its M.O.T. back in March and he’d suggested it be replaced. Peter told him he hadn’t the funds. The coroner recorded death by drowning. Lizzy, six months pregnant with Sarah, started having the most terrible nightmares and, after a very difficult birth, developed what began as post-natal depression.

Mrs. Oliver and I organized a wake for family and close friends at the farmhouse.

Arthur, normally an abstemious man, drank steadily. Knowing him as well as I do I sensed something was brewing and went to find Nessa, who was holding court among the local women in the kitchen. I told her my suspicions and suggested she get him home.  She was in the process of bustling him into his coat when he turned and said to Lizzy, across the room and loud enough for all to heard: “He might as well ha’ killed him his self”. Nessa, blushing furiously, pushed him out of the door before he could say another word. Everyone knew exactly what he meant. Coming from Arthur, normally the mildest and most discreet of men, that outburst was taken as a judgement. Nessa might tell everybody she met how mortified she’d been that he should say such a thing in front of Lizzy and ‘herself’ (Lady Armitage) but, as I told her, he had only put into words what we’d all thought.

In the year and a half that followed, Mrs. Oliver and I looked after Lizzy and Sarah and did what we could to help Arthur, Mike, and Graham keep the farm going. My father had died of cancer two springs previous and Lizzy’s father of complications following a stroke that same summer, so we were all of us already feeling bereft. Kate was largely out of touch, living a hand-to-mouth existence in Australia, loving it, but poor as a church mouse.

My childhood world, the foundation of so much in my life, was in real danger of becoming something so distant, so prelapsarian,as to be wholly unreal; my oldest friends were distressed or scattered, and Cat was dead. My musing on that childhood began, perhaps, simply as an attempt to reconstruct, to rewrite perhaps, a substantial part of my identity. Historically, disaster of one kind or another has almost been the norm, so we’re used to having to telling things again, but differently, just to keep ourselves going.

 

[1]In Scotland, a factor is an estate manager. 

[2]This is perhaps the most explicit and detailed of all the various ‘supernatural’ Border ballads that provide an account of a revenant,a ‘living ghost’, who returns from the grave to warn or instruct the living.

 

Post-script to “Eco-poetics and art as ‘wild’ conversation / ’wild’ conversation as art”?

Richard Kerridge’s journey by train to Bath via London on Saturday night was made impossible when his train from King’s Lynn was cancelled. So I drove him home Sunday morning, since I was coming south to Bristol anyway. It was good to have a chance to talk to him on his own because he’s very knowledgable and very well-connected in the nature writing world. He had some interesting things to say, for example about differences in approach between Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie. In the light of my deep mapping interests I was particularly taken by his account of Jamie’s discussion of Macfarlane’s work in the context of “the lone enraptured male”, which is set out in her review of Macfarlane’s The Wild Places. 

This is very well worth reading.

Personally, it helped clarify for me why I’ve always been slightly irritated when people assume that, because I am interested in deep mapping, I am going to like Macfarlane’s books. (See also my earlier post on this). By and large I don’t particularly and, on the whole, for reasons close to Jamie’s reservations. Deep mapping is precisely not about “the lone enraptured male” but about re-discovering such things as lost or marginalised communities of memory, exposing and exploring contested histories and identities, working with the intra-wovenness of the supposedly mundane and the extraordinary, and much more that, it seems to me, is largely marginal to Macfarlane’s interests.

This speaks to something very much on my mind. I have  recently been pondering work by Lindsey Colbourne and Merched Chwarel(in English The Quarry Women), a group made up of  Colbourne, Lisa Hudson, Marged Pendrell, and Jwls Williams. Their collective work  focuses on the quarries of North Wales – Bethesda, Dinorwig, Nantperis, Llanberis, Penmaenmawr and Blaenau Ffestiniog.

This has involved Merched Chwarel (now joined by the curator Jill Piercy) walking together, experimenting both individually and collaboratively through various media, and presenting the resulting work so as to instigate dialogue within a larger community.The questions they ask themselves include: Who are the quarry women of the past, present and future, and how their own aesthetics, identity and connection to place, culture and language are mediated by the quarries? By searching out traces of women’s presence in an environment generally viewed as the domain of heroic men, they are questioning the current relevance of: “the relationship between women (Welsh, English, incomer, indigenous, holiday maker) and the quarry legacy”, together with wider connections to “relationships to identity, language, place and nationhood” 

Their work has been exhibited specifically to evoke debate; among those personally connected to quarries and quarrying, artists, archaeologists and individuals involved in women’s studies. However, as personal histories of members’ walking make clear, there is also a learning-through-walking involved here that reaches back into childhood is a key factor in the project. They notice, for example, that their collective walks differed from solitary walking in being more complicated. “We were not at all like the classic ‘walker’ (male – from Caspar David Friedrich’s image of the ‘Wanderer’ to the Situationalists to Richard Long), unfettered or separate from the world. It was quite the opposite, most conversations about life complexities, relationships, stories”. Initially uncertain as to whether this difference was problematic or illuminating, Lindsey Colbourne opted for the second. Firstly, because their life entanglements speak to ‘the political potential of a walking that mobilises social relationships’, and to a ‘relational politics of the spatial (without aspiring to an idealized notion of the free man, or free-footed nomad)’. (See link above)) Secondly, because it provides a way of ‘avoiding the prioritizing or opposing of distance and dislocation over locality and rootedness; focusing on (confusions of) scale rather than the freedom of the epic task’ (See link above).

All of which seems to me to closely echo Kathleen Jamie’s critique of the presuppositions on which so much of Robert Macfarlane’s writing seem to depend.   

Eco-poetics and art as ‘wild’ conversation / ’wild’ conversation as art?

On Saturday Sept. 1stI attended a day workshop – Conserve? Restore? Rewild? Art and Eco-Poetics Rise to the Challenge, organized by Veronica Sekules, director of the GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn. The speakers were the poet Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, the author, nature writer and ecocritic Richard Kerridge, the poet, editor and ecocritic Jonathan Skinner, Harriet Tarlo and Judith Tucker (poet and artist respectively, who co-organized the day and were showing work at the gallery, and the eminent environmental scientist Andrew Watkinson (who has just been made an Honorary Member of the British Ecological Society).

The text of my talk is given below.

I’ll start with some background to what I want to share with you. Forgive me if some of this appears to be stating the obvious.

In 1989, Edward Sampson wrote: “there are no subjects who can be apart from the world; persons are constituted in and through their attachments, connections and relationships”. That’s to say, we exist only as entangled in multiple and dynamic ecologies. We are, in one sense, a conversationbetween those ecologies. So my starting point is this quotation from Monica Szewczyk:

‘… if, as an art, conversation is the creation of worlds, we could say that to choose to have a conversation with someone is to admit them into the field where worlds are constructed. And this ultimately runs the risk of redefining not only the ‘other’but us as well’.

Monica Szewczyk  ‘Art of Conversation, Part 1’

Understanding conversationin this sense is helpful because, as Mary Watkins reminds us, thinking itself is ‘a mosaic of voices in conversation’. Really listening to our voices in conversations is an important aspect of how we are changed by experience. As in any real conversation, listening is primary – otherwise there’s just the din of competing monologues. Listening to that mosaic of voices is a key element in making art work because it makes a conversation possible with the attachments, connections and relationships that make up an artist’s world. It’s through such collaborative conversations– whether they’re internal or external – that artists are able to tap into the creative tensions that animate their work.

The types of conversation that animate art have been changing. We’re coming to realise that we need to listen betterand more widelyto the world at large. That we need to listen to voices marginalised or silenced by ways of thinking that set humans above and apart from the world. By a thinking that still assumes that the mind is a unified, rational system working according to logical laws or principles, where meaning is linguistic, and language exclusive to humans. This rook has language– both audible and embodied – we just haven’t learned it.

That’s the background. Now I want to link listening to wilderness, wildness, and, perhaps, re-wilding.

The Canadian eco-poet Don McKay writes that: “before it becomes a speaking … poetry is only a listening”. A listening, he suggests, directed to the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations. It’s the quality of wilderness in all things that makes this possible. It’s a sense of this wilderness that allows our listening-to-the-world to bypass our desire to organize everything into fixed categories and neat concepts – and then, all too often, to claim that they represent reality. Listening to the wilderness in things is vital. It keeps us open to the infinite ambiguity, paradox and complexityofthe world. That openness makes empathetic imagination possible because it reminds usthat we, and the world, are alwaysbothmore andless than the categories that name and divide us.

I’m now going to take up these thoughts in relation to two of my own works, which I see as conversations-through-making, which relate to deep mapping.

Arguably,deep mapping or wild cartography originated as an approach to writing based on the same concerns as eco-poetics. Named after William Least Heat-Moon’sPrairyErth (a deep map),it offers an extended, interwoven but open-ended, evocation of ongoing conversations in and with a particular place in all its fullness. That’s to say, it allows us to see a place as what the geographer Doreen Massey calls a ‘simultaneity of stories-so-far’, including its often unheard, ignored or suppressed eco-stories.

Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig: a borderline episodeis the first part of a slow deep mapping project made into a book. Based on fieldwork on the English Scottish border, it began as a conversation with two places. One was a late Bronze-age farm site called Tamshield Rig. As you can see on the slide, it’s still marked on the OS map, although it was ploughed up and overplanted by the Forestry Commission long ago. The other place, Carterhaugh, is a fictional site at the heart of the old Borders ballad Tam Lin. However, there happens to be a Carter Burn just north of Tamshiel Rig with low lying meadows, or haughs, along its banks. I spent some three years in conversation with these two place. This involved exploring the history of wolves in the UK, delving into archeological and parish archives, reading ethnographies that link roe deer to the ‘good neighbours’, finding spectral traces of a proto-feminist wisdom encoded in very old ballads, and a whole lot else besides. The resulting book entangles texts, documentary photographs, maps, and collaged images. Ultimately, it’s about finding McKay’s sense of wilderness hidden beneath the surface of the former parish of Southdean; about eluding the mentalities that govern the tourist industry, the Forestry Commission, family history enthusiasts and Regional planning authorities, and so on.

For various reasons,I can’t do this kind of deep mapping anymore.Instead I’ve been making a series of small works in a series called Notitia.They’re about noticing, listening, or paying close attention to a place as a ‘simultaneity of stories-so-far’. Each work has a framed section with at least three photographic images related to the place. The rest of the framed space is given over to my conversation with those images. Beyond the frame there’s a related, fragmentary field, with extensions suggesting paths, rivers, or lines of flight that could be followed elsewhere. Each piece tries to condense a mosaic of voices concerned with particular attachments, connections and relationships.

Staying with this idea of place as a simultaneity-of-stories-so-far,I want to share one such simultaneity from South Africa. This work – Raaswater – shares its Afrikaans name with what was once a farm. A farm where, in the 1940s and 1950s, the maternal grandmother of the painter and performer Hanien Conradie grew grapes for export. It’s where her mother grew up. The farm was named after the raging sound of the river that ran through it, the Hartebees River. As a child, Hanien was enthralled by her mother’s stories about Raaswater, imagining it as an earthy paradise. A few years back she returned with her mother to see the farm,which she herself had never visited. They found it unrecognizable – the river silent and all indigenous vegetation gone. European farming methods had so radically destabilized the water ecology that the river is now dry for much of the year.

Deeply distressed, Hanien salvaged some clay from the river – clay like her mother had played with as a child – and took it into her studio. She created an imaginal ritual that allowed the river’s water to re-sound, to run wild again, which helped her evoke a new story. That story – Sporeis about land ownership, about loss of indigenous habitat, and about the importance of mourning the intersections of personal history and environmental irresponsibility. Astory that reminds us of the importance of listening – to water as much as to people – of paying close attention to what lies beyond the human.

 

In his book, How Forests Think: Towards an Anthropology beyond the Human, Eduardo Kohn shows how the world of an Amazon tribe speaks. But we’ve largely lost the ability to listen to the stories a landscape and its people tell. Stories that acknowledge wilderness, that keep active the empathetic imagination necessary to articulate a truly ecological vision of ourattachments, connections, and relationships. We’re now suffering the psychic, social and ecological consequences of that loss. To redress that loss we need to acknowledge that listening to the larger conversation with the world is frightening. It brings with it all the uncertainties of wilderness, the need to accept the risk that this conversation with the world will redefine us in ways beyond our understanding.

In a recent interview, Seamus Heaney’s daughter Catherine suggested her father:“must have cut himself up in order to do his civic duty, his poetic duty, his family duty and everything else.” I think that’s mistaken. A poet is, in the first instance, a listener to a mosaic of voices and develops empathetic imagination by listening to the dissonances and discomforts that flow from, among other things, the tensions between what she calls: “different duties”. It’s that process that enables what Karen Barad calls our‘emerging through and as part of our entangled intra-relatedness within the universe’. From an intra-relatedness that’s always more complex, untidier, and more ambiguous than our analytical and conceptual frameworks will allow.

So, when we hear a pair of lapwings call in flight, do we attend to our mutual entanglement with them? One that includes creating an environment that’s steadily reduced their numbers since the mid-19thcentury.

 

 Recently, I’ve engaged more directly with the eco-poetic possibilities of deep mapping by working with Erin Kavanagh, who is also engaged in deep mapping. She works as a poet, photographer, artist, and on the edge of academia, an ensemble practice that’s focused around creating narratives that open productive spaces between science – including ecology – and myth. In addition to deep mapping we share an interest in corvids – particularly ravens, rooks and crows. Last year we put together a performance lecture – TheCrow Road– for an eco-poetics conference at Sheffield Hallam University, organized by Harriet and Judy. (We performed it again more recently at Bath Spa university). The Crow Roadis partly an extended meditation on the phrase kith and kinand partly, as Erin puts it, an attempt to “plough up outmoded ways of thinking”.

 

A sample of Erin Kavanagh’s drawings from The Crow Road

We use a hybrid approach – somewhere between an animated graphic novel, a poetry reading and an academic presentation – to conjure up and involve our audience in a certain sense of wilderness. One in which Erin’s crow-girl, a changeling second cousin to Ted Hughes’ Crow,goes wayfaringthrough a kaleidoscopic landscape. A landscape made up of traces of upland country, scholarship, folklore, song lyrics, theories, farming practices, and personal histories. The crow-girl’s wayfaring enables each  topic the chance to resonate with possibilities in the others. We want to shift the relationship between our audience and crows closer to one of kith and kinand, in doing so, to shift more fundamental presuppositions about how we’re related to the world. That’s to say the work is, among other things, an attempt at educational re-wilding, something I believe we badly need in our current culture.

I’d like to end by say that I think this educational re-wilding – or reattending to wilderness in Don McKay’s sense – is vital if we want to expand our ecologically empathetic imagination. I’d also suggest that this should be our first priority. It’s more important than, for example, imposing our human ideas of what species of non-human being should – or should not – be allowed back to live with us in any particular landscape.

Indicative bibliography

Karen Barad Meeting the Universe Halfway, Duke University Press

Erin Kavanagh ‘Re-thinking the Conversation: a geomythologicaldeep map’ in Mark Gillings, Pirate Hacıgüzellerand Gary Lock (eds.) (2019) Re-Mapping Archaeology: Critical Perspectives, Alternative MappingsRoutledge.

Eduardo Kohn How Forests think: Towards an Anthropology beyond the Human University of California Press

Doreen Massy For Space SAGE Publications.

Don McKay Vis-à-Vis: fieldnotes on poetry and wilderness Gaspereau Press

Edward Sampson quoted by James Hillman ‘”Man is by nature a political animal” or: patient as citizen’ in SanduShamdasaniand Michael Munchow(eds) Speculations after Freud: Psychoanalysis, philosophy and cultureRoutlege.

Mary Watkins ‘Pathways between the multiplicities of the psyche and culture: the development of dialogical capacities’ in John Rowan & Mick Cooper (eds) The Plural Self SAGE

Nicholas Wroe ‘Seamus Heaney’s family on life with the great poet: ‘He was always just Dad at home’ The Guardian Sat. 30thJune 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.

‘Singing.’

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’.

 

 

 

 

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 26, 27 & 28.

Sharing with Cat

It was difficult in those days for me to know where ‘we’, both human and non-human beings, each stopped and started, and to a degree that remains the case even now. Sometimes I seemed to overflow into other people or animals, and them into me. With Kate, Cat and, in a different way Hamish, in particular.

It is still hard to write about Cat, even now. It’s as if she crawled inside my skin when she died and, as a result, became so close as to be invisible. As girls we would tell each other everything: share gossip, dissect the grown-ups stupidity, discuss clothes we liked, food we didn’t, people in the village, the weather, songs we’d heard, everything that made up our world. We also fretted endlessly together about ‘what to do next’: about my skinniness and hair, about how I might deal with Mrs. Purvis,about our spots, Cat’s sweet tooth, and her Mama’s controlling strictness. All exhaustively andwithout restraint. Cat was less than three months older than me but started puberty well before me and, enjoying her advantage, kept me up to date with every detail. We had become friends soon after I arrived, then best friends, so I believed we had no secrets from each other.

Sometimes when we had a homework project to work on together, Cat’s papa – who had a trim black beard and was, so I firmly believed at twelve, the most handsome man in the world, would bring her over to stay on Friday night. After we’d been sent to bed and, having tried unsucessfully to gentle us into settling, dad would eventually put on his stern voice and call up:

‘Enough talking, put that light out now, please’.

Cat would slip quickly out of the the little truckle bed always Dad pulled out for her and turn out the light. Then she’d turn, pause, and whisper:

‘Faun, can I come in with you, please’?

And, happy at the trace of pleading in her voice, I always said:

‘Yes, of course’.

There was hardly room for the two of us in my little bed but somehow we fitted ourselves together like two spoons, usually with her hand over my heart. Once or twice this arrangement led to kissing and some chaste mutual touching, but it was nothing more than curiousity, not as I remember. Mostly I recall falling asleep to the slow rhythm of her breathing against my neck.

Later, whether through choice or carelessness, I forgot those nights close to Cat, something which seems inconceivable now. Then one evening staying with friends in London we had to lift little Freddy out of his bed and back into his old cot so I could userp his place. In the early hours I woke, balanced precariously on the edge of the bed, to find Freddy positioned like a car jack between me and the wall. After some gentle pulling and pushing we compromised and shared his bed fifty-fifty. His fat little stomach, impossibly hot against my back, must have triggered old memories and, a few days later, my nights shared with Cat rose back into consciousness.

When she was staying over and our school work was done, we’d spent hours in complicated worlds that spilled out of my room, across the landing, and either slipped sideways into the bathroom or else cascaded down the stairs. They grew from whatever was to hand. Chairs, a wooden dryer and blankets became a castle. A cardboard box, washing basket, and mop, a ship. A stool, pillows and old skipping-rope, a great white horse.

‘Faun, you be the great soldier who defends the castle and keeps all the women and children safe from the enemy.’ ‘Faun, you be the captain and guide us through the storm.’ ‘Faun, you be the prince and rescue me’. Somehow she always had me take on the traditionally male roles, although this never stopped her being in control or from coming up with the most violent interventions into whatever I was having us do. Maybe she just liked to maintain her new-found woman’s status.

As we started to get bored with such adventures, we spent more time locked in the bathroom while we strained to catch the wobbly music on my tiny transistor. We washed, dried, and combed out each other’s hair, swapped cloths and studied our changes, trying to make sense of their mysteries while speculating about becoming the kind of sexual beings we glimpsed elsewhere, mostly via magazines and Kate’s stories. All this in entirely unnecessary whispers. We acted as mirror images of each other, were inseparable until a month or so after Cat’s fourteenth birthday. Then, within the space of a few weeks, that entire world started to evaporate and our adolescence began in earnest.

The trigger was two quite different events. One was discovering the Borders ballads. We were mesmerised by their account of a great, raw, tragic, yet uncannily familiar world in which a lord’s wife picks up a beautiful boy outside the church and takes him home to bed. (So then they both get killed, but at least she tells her husband what she thinks of him first and, we told ourelves, had no regrets). Where the husband insists the murdered lovers are buried together, but with her on top because she was posh. Where a girl meets her dead boyfriend as a revenant, then follows and frees him so he can die properly. Where a young woman disobeys the people who tell her what she can and can’t do, runs across country to argue her property rights and gets a lover. A young woman who argues back, takes responsibility for her own fate, acts on her own choices. Who was just like we were going to be, except that maybe she turns out to be The Dame of the Fine Green Kirtle in the end, and not an ordinary girl at all.

‘Gordon Moss’.

A dangerous, very real if semi-magic world of wild rivers, vivid prophetic dreams, incest, bloody fights and murder; of canny girls who outsmart and outride soldiers, or win back their child’s father from the Elphen Queen. What, as an American said to me recently: ‘isn’t to like’ about such songs, particularly if you’re two teenage girls who need to rebel but don’t know how or against what.

Before we found the ballads we had had very little to help us imagine our way into the world where our bodies meet our particular places; no ‘young adult’ books, as Sarah had Janni Howker’s much loved Martin Farrell, a tale of the Reivers. We had no Anne Eliot, no ill-fated Bess Graham, to give us imaginative keys to the hardness and bodily hurt, the hills and black moss, the bloody world of (usually) men’s violence, the meeting of the natural and supernatural worlds in a pig’s heads or a swarm of flies. Beyond Kate’s stories (which Cat always wanted to discount), we had no way to intuit the fate of women, the particular gendered nuancing of sex, suffering, death and haunting that is the invisible marrow in the cold bone of our Borders. The ballads were our Songs of Experience by proxy.

Later we came to believe that Annie Briggs, Jacqui McShee, Maddy Prior, and Sandy Denny had bequeathed these songs specifically to us, not to boys caught up in the noisy posturings of rock music. Finding the ballads freed us from the uneasy hold of the fund of generic tales that all seemed to have been written for boys, or in which the girls’ job was to be a suffering sister or daughter. What we craved, and found in the old ballads, were stories which firmly put girls like us, brave and canny, at the heart of the story, and did so in our own familiar landscape.

The second, and initially far more unsettling, trigger was that Cat kissed Mike, shifting the whole shadowy issue of sex from theory to practice. There had previously been intense discussions after games of Doctor and Patient and, later, after we’d gone skinny-dipping with the boys. And there had always been Kate’s stories of her adventures. But this was different because it was Cat, not Kate, doing the kissing. What she told me was that she and Michael had found themselves hiding together in the big upstairs walk-in cupboard during Sunday’s game of sardines at Homehaugh. She’d whispered: ‘shove up, you’re squashing me,’ but he’d just shushed her. So she kissed him. She added, in an indigent voice: ‘to stop him shushing like that.’

When I questioned her she wouldn’t say if anything else had happened but, because she blushed furiously, I knew it had and pressed her to tell. Eventually she admitted there’d been some ‘touching’ but absolutely refused to go into detail. A refusal that, by excluding me from her experience, cut me to the quick. Our friendship never really recovered its former intensity after that. In a deliberate act of revenge I broke my promise to Cat and told Patsy everything. A couple of days later she reported that she’d asked Michael if what she had heard was true; that he’d touched Cat’s titties and she’d touched his thing. He’d stomped out of the room without answering.

Everything began to change. Cat and Michael had secret knowing that Patsy and I didn’t, bodily secrets that both fascinated and hurt us. The privilaged world Cat and I had built around ourselves began to fade. We remained good friends, but I knew we no longer mirrored each other. To make things more complicated, Patsy initially bombarded me with questions I couldn’t answer. Secrets between Michael and Cat made her quite uncharacteristically cross. That unsettled things further because for a while she obviously thought I was keeping secrets from her too. (It only came to me much later, when Michael was dead, that maybe she was jealous.) Although Cat and I remained close, our attention started running out in parallel towards our other friends, the world of the ballads, and the actualities of village life.

The day world

I think I always slightly resented that the twins’ parentsowned everything around us, with the result that they really belonged to quite another world to my own. Another world that, through Mrs. Oliver’s friendship with their mother, had always pretty much included Lizzy and Kate. As little children they’d all four gone to the same parties, played the same games long before I’d come to the village. I knew I should be grateful that I was now part of: ‘the Oliver girls’ menagerie’, as the vicar called us. (He had also been overheard to say that we: ‘let the side down’, although it was never clear to us what he meant). But sometimes my anxiety made any such graditude difficult. I also knew from Mrs. Purvis that Sir William didn’t like the Olivers, which suggested to me that ‘the menagerie’ was always somehow under threat.

I was also worried about my own status. I felt myself to be an outsider, a late-comer. As the last addition to the menagerie, I naturally became its most ardent devotee. That led me to ‘not seeing’ all manner of tensions, not least between Kate and Lizzy and between the twins. Only with The Judgement did I really begin to notice how much those tensions, many of them handed down from the adult world, simmered just beneath the surface of our childhood.

Dad and I weren’t ‘locals’ like Lizzy, Kate, Hamish, Mike and Patsy but nor, in my view at least, were we just ‘incomers’ like Cat’s parents and, in Mr. Oliver’s view, Sir William. We were, after all, distantly related to Mrs. Oliver. In my private but passionate view Peter and James were ‘inbetweens’ just like me. But then the Aitchesons were a Name, a sept of Clan Gordon, and Lady Aitcheson(née Reed) had been born here and, more importantly, was what Dad called ‘County’. At eight I simply didn’t understand these adult distinctions but, while the others, even Cat, seemed to accept them as given, I struggled to make sense of what I resented. All this was further complicated by school.

There were about thirty children in our little Victorian primary school and we did a great deal together, without any very obvious social distinction. Either as ‘the primary’ or, when necessary, as ‘the little ones’ or ‘the big ones’. Nature walks, day trips out together in the old bus, and school plays where almost everyone got to do something. All of this initiated by Miss Richardson and Mrs. Roberts but, I am certain, discretly supported by Lady Aitcheson. Not, I think, out of any desire whatsoever to promote social equality but paternalistically, because she saw all local children collectively as ‘Reeds estate children’. So I did not have to confront the mysteries of class head on until Lizzy approached eleven.

That year Lizzy went to a local private school as a weekly border where, in due course, Kate and later Cat and I, would join her. First, however, Cat and I had to sit scholarship exams. These were the final act in a mysterious process, initiated by LadyAitcheson,that involved letters to an educational charity and our having gone to church each Sunday. Nobody bothered explained the details to us, and we did not ask, but we knew our parents could never have afforded the fees and, once again, understood that we had acquired an unspoken debt of gratitude. At eleven Peter and James went away to their father’s old boarding school in Yorkshire, while Hamish, Mike and Patsy did the 18-mile round trip to the big comprehensive school, with Mary, Barbara, the two Maggies, Charlie, Eric andthe rest of our former classmates. Hamish, quick to learn if slow to speak, was happy enough. Michael, only truly at home with what he could do with his hands, was never much interested in school and indifferent to the new situation. Only Patsy really suffered. Diminished when transplanted into a bigger, less initate world, she became quieter, less assured. Once among the livliest at primary, she gradually came to dislike everything associated with school, leaving as soon as she could to help her aunt and, building on her Saturday work at the Co-op, to establsh herself in a proper part-time job.

During the holidays we initially simply reformed in our old group, walking, and occasionally riding, the woods and moorland together. We talked in an animated huddle well away from our elders and met for approved and illicit activities as before. But although there was never a clear-cut division, after a while Lizzy and Kate, the twins, Cat and I grew a little apart from Mike, Hamish and Patsy and, more radically, from our other former classmates. The sisters and twins remained the nucleus around which we all gravitated but, by the time I turned twelve, we were only occasionally nine. More often there were just the six of us.

We still met regularly in the shabby former playroom next to the kitchen at Homehaugh. That big greystone house – two spacious main floors, a small stone cellar, and three little attic rooms – stands back from the top of the village street behind a mossy lawn and neglected flowerbeds. The old, southfacing, walled vegetible garden running down the right side as you face it has, however, been renovated and a little home garth on the left is now grazed by a resident pony. The walled yard, stable block and hayloft that run along the lane at the back of the house remain unchanged to this day, as does the small home field beyond that. Built in the eighteenth century, it’s all of a piece with the church and the Big House, where Peter and James lived (located at the end of a long drive in a private domain of its own that I rarely visited).

Homehaugh was the center of our late childhood and early adolecence and the locus of the bleak, if sometimes beautiful, world into which we grew. A world of great whale-backed and seemingly bare hills; deep, twisting, hidden cleughs full of steep fast-flowing burns; rivers that carried a restless cargo of gravel and stone torn from their own banks and are bordered by green haughs. Running up from these were clusters of fields, which I later learned only appeared around eighteen hundred. Each field is defined within an irregular grid of lichen-covered dry stone dykesleading up towards the White Lands above. All this part of a larger lacework that includes the tracks, farms and other buildings, along with irregular patches of natural woodland ofoak, birch, alder and hazel, and the great dark, roughly rectangular plantations of managed forestry that, close to, remind me of the scary illustrations in a old and treasured book of folk tales in Russian belonging to my mother.

Abandoned forestry hide.

Dad passed it on to me at Christmas the year she died. (Although she never knew own her parents, my mother ‘Anna’ had actually been christened Anastasiya). The book, with a text neither she nor I could read, had beautiful, vividly coloured pictures of wolves, bears and strange beings like Baba Yaga, with her cabin on chicken legs but no windows or doors. A perfect match, somehow, for the hides to be found at the edge of any young Sitka spruce plantation.

At first this larger world seemed inpenetrable. I only began to feel differently when we walked or rode the ancient tracks and drove roads that cross the Cheviots. I learned that for centuries these had been busy routes, with drovers taking herds of cattle from the western Isles to southern markets, peddlers bringing goods and gossip, or beasts being hurried away after some raid. As I developed a sense of the histories that still haunt the region, as dense as they are invisible, I began to feel less displaced. But I remained divided between my love of the natural world that presented itself to me and the hidden world of adult power that seemed inseparable from it.

 Off the coast

 We rarely went to the sea when I was young and, perhaps for that reason, it always fascinated me. The second summer after I left London I badly needed both money and a change, so I got a summer job working in Oban. For three months, I cleaned and helped re-stock a variety of sailing boats hired out by the week. Towards the end of the season things went quiet and, when there was a sudden last-minute cancelation, my boss Ted decided to take a trip around Skye and Lewis with his wife, a young couple they’d befriended, and their two sons. He offered to take me with them as a galley hand and general crew. It was quite an adventure and, at one point on our return journey, we stopped in the mouth of a secluded sea loch so that Ted could gather scallops.

It took a while for me and one of the sons to row out from the boat, while Ted guided us to the scallop bed. Even when he’d found it we had trouble keeping the little dingy steady and in the right spot, given the constant tug of wind and swell.Ted, masked and wet-suited, then took his knife and basket and disappeared down into the weedy darkness.

Within moments they arrived, bobbing up to watch us with big, liquid eyes. The light was already starting to fade and, at intervals, a big black muscled head and shoulders would rise ghostly quiet out of the inky water, always disconcerting me because a seal would never appear in the same spot twice. To cut resistance to the wind we kept our bodies low and our heads down, listening to the slap of water on the side of the dingy and the dull swish of the kelp moving in the swell. The seals were so close and so curious that it was impossible to ignore them and, with the dingy sliding and twisting in the wind and tide, it became increasingly hard focus on holding the little craft in the right place. I started to feel an unexpected panic rising in my stomach.

The root of my panic was simple enough. An image in my mind had pulled me back to my childhood reading of Scottish folktales about the Selkie Folk. Then a question had risen and insinuated itself into my consciousness. How, in the gathering darkness, could I be sure that when the next great round head rose out of the sea and moved to climb over the gunnels and into our little dingy, that it was Ted coming aboard and not some vast water-black male Selkie?

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 23, 24 & 25.

Plantation, late winter (sketch)

Only now the thaw’s well advanced can I allow myself to remember that mid-winter walk.

The plantation track, March 2004.

I climbed the last length of the hill road and arrived at the short stretch of road that runs under the southern lea of the plantation, my lungs seemingly full of ice. Until I reached the lea there was only the driving snow and the road beneath my feet. Everything else was invisible. Then suddenly there were a series of dramatic aural discontinuities and transformations that meant I almost stopped looking where I was going. My resistance to the wind’s hold on my inner ear was disrupted by an acute silence that cuts off sound like the blow of an axe. In that momentary vacuum, before the sound of the wind, my footfalls and breathing returned, I knew just how punched out by the unrelenting wind my hearing had become. I stepped into the relative shelter of a big Sitka spruce, becoming part of the dramatic monochromatic patterning of trunk, branch, and snow as a momentary shift in the cloud bathed everything in bright sunlight. All around the tree tops still roared, a shaking, raging sea. Then the cloud closed in again and the light vanished.

Foolishly, I allowed the tracks of a hare to lure me off the road and into a broken, snow-covered clearing between the little self-seeded trees that fringe the entrance to the plantation and the wood itself. I followed the increasingly hesitant tracks despite sensing that my body had been losing heat since I had broken the steady rhythm of my walking. The tracks disappeared as suddenly as they had started. A mystery, deep among the sheltering trees, where the air was somehow still and crystalline, despite the wind roaring above. The flare of light off snow had undone the usual look of things, a brief ecstatic moment of disorientation that quickly turned to fear. What I believed was the beginning of the path that would lead me out to the road was in fact a narrowing cul-de-sac. I also knew that I was dangerously cold, and, retracing my steps, I left the trees’ siren shelter for the road. Somewhere in the wind’s orchestration I detected notes of mocking laughter.

 I lost the high hill’s fearful soundscape as soon as I turned onto the bridle path back down towards the valley. Part-sheltered by the drystone wall from the driven snow, I could see the track’s uneven surface cross cut with long ruts that regularly expanded into half-frozen pools running almost wall-to-wall. Jumping from stone to sodden tuft to mud bank failed to carry me forward fast enough to restore my body heat. I took to scrambling along the wall’s protruding lower stones to avoid the chill and the chance of my boots filling with icy water. My feet and legs ached.

I lost the fear that came with the fading of the hare’s tracks when my attention contracted against the wind chill and I focused on maintaining momentum for warmth, allowing my feet to find their own way. My momentum was only broken twice. When a four-wheel bike passed me, the driver seemingly unaware of my presence, and left the sourness of diesel in the air long after its snarl was lost to the wind. The second time, when a cock pheasant exploded into the air from under my feet.

Only at track’s end could I look up and around again, allow the larger soundscape to flood back in.

Patternings

After Sarah collected me from the Borders General Hospitalafter my first discharge, I re-read Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Out of Exile’? If you don’t know it, it takes as a starting-point a drive through the Borders towns. I’ve always responded to its honesty and the range of our experiences it acknowledges; to its ‘shadow foxes running in the sky’and her recognition of our ‘inventing things as they might have been’. Perhaps remembering my own experience of being a child at the door, ‘with bags and coats, telling stories, laughing, coming home.’ I badly needed to assure myself that I wasn’t doing what she warns against in my writing; simply inventing things as they might have been. But, of course, that assurance is impossible. I can only continue as best I can, keeping my ears and eyes open.

My first clear memory of being here in the valley is of going with Kate, Hamish, Mike, and Cat one Saturday in late July to find the others, who were helping with the hay at the Grahams’. I felt very shy because they all knew what to do and I didn’t. I was even frightened of riding on top of the bales, something I loved doing later. Dot Graham made space for me in the tractor cab next to one-eyed Meg and asked me to watch for cars at the gates. It was my first experience of a now familiar smell: that mix of diesel, dung, oil, old dog, hay, rubber boots, and sweat. I became happy just as soon as I felt necessary, and perhaps it was then that I started to absorb lessons about the relationship between shared work and community.

I know I had meet and spoken with Mrs Purvis the day before, as she was ending one of her particularly nasty exchanges with poor Anthony at the post office. But the less said about it the better, since it earned me her undying disapproval. I must have blocked it out of my memory almost as soon as it happened. I was still recovering from it that Saturday. It makes me shudder even now.

I woke up on another Saturday, about four months later during that first year, just knowing something had changed in the night. I’m now so familiar with the muffling of sound and change of light from sudden overnight snowfalls that I take them for granted. But that first time I was transported. I looked out over the snowcovered fields from the end of my bed, wrapped in bedcloths and my old quilt, knowing that to watch, from a warm bedroom, that vast white world coming to life in the morning light was to know I was both safe and loved. I could happily have sat there all day but if I hadn’t needed to pee.

When to face the cold and pee was a constant preoccupation on winter mornings. I always put off leaving my bed until the very last moment and then, desparate, jumped up, shoved my feet into woolly slippers, and rushed next door. (If it was really cold I wore my socks in bed and skipped the slippers). Knowing Dad would be downstairs I didn’t bother with the door, slid over the linolium, pulled down my pajamas and squatted just above the icy plastic seat. The sight of our old linolium still brings back a sense of that intense relief and the oddly sweet smell of my own urine.

My bladder empty, I would run the hot tap and have a ‘quick lick’ – how quick depended on the temperature. Then a dash back to my room to struggle into whatever clothes came to hand, while exposing as little of myself as possible to the air. Dressed, I’d drag a brush through my hair, find a hair band, shove my feet into shoes and, without lacing them up, clatter down the stairs into the kitchen.

I remember some things so vividly, yet much of my childhood hovers at the edge of memory like the faint smell of Dad’s liver, bacon and onions in the kitchen curtains. That elusiveness disconcerts me, particularly when I can’t place an event. It leaves me uneasy, although why I don’t exactly know.

I fell in love with the rooks and their attendent jackdaws simply by looking out of my bedroom window that autumn. I would gradually become fascinated by all the birds, but they were my favourates. I particularly liked those that lived by the water; the busy dippers, mallard, and pied wagtails that swam and hunted along our stretch of riverside, and the tall gray herons that rose ghostly silent through the morning mist if disturbed. But above all I loved the rooks. Morning after morning I would watch their ragged emiscaries cross from the rookery behind the graveyard and fly their sorties out across the fields. I loved both their noisy gegariousness, their tattered black forms buffeted by winds that, in winter, carried long plumes of dry powdery snow up off the tops of the dry-stone walls and towards them high into the air. I’d even risk the cold to open my curtains in anticipation of their arrival and, while I waited, listen to the house waking up.

First the floorboards would creak gently as the electric booster warmed the pipes, then the various noises that meant Dad was up and, before long, would be in the bathroom. But before that happened the first rooks would already be in the air.

It’s possible that my fascination with following the rooks’ regular voyaging while in the bath somehow led to my becoming fascinated with the idea of baths as boats, of a bath/boat/bodily little voyaging world all of its own. One that could at a pinch be shared with another body, as when I would occasionally share a bath with Cat, but essentially a solitary warm space in which to voyage whereever I wished in imagination. Or, of course, a boat/coffin, a possibility that only came to me after we did the vikings at school. Because of that childhood fascination I’ve always kept an eye out for re-cycled baths, particually those that hint at viking ship burials.

Summer holiday mornings were, of course, quite different from winter ones. I’d be up very early and into the day, usually without bothering to dress. Dad would come downstairs to find me sprawling on the big hooky-proddy rug, either reading or drawing and still in my nightie with, as he’d say, my ‘thin bits’ sticking out in all directions. (In winter I wore thick striped boy’s pygamas and  sometimes kept my vest, pants and socks on for extra warmth, particularly during weeks when condensation left wonderful patternings of ice seemingly etched into the inside of the window each morning.) Not in summer, when Dad always half-heartedly protested about my lack of sense and decency.

‘Put some proper clothes on that scrawnly little hide of yours, daftie. And for goodness sake do something about that bird’s nest too.’ (Referring to my frequently uncombed hair.)

Until I reached publity we had a daily summer holiday ritual. Usually I’d jump up as soon as Dad reached the bottom stair, stick out my tongue, and scamper up past him, knowing that if I was too slow I’d get a playful smack on my bottom. But if he looked tired or worried I’d stay put and wait until he came over, before asking him for a hug. Then he’d scoop me up, hug me for a moment or two, ask how his ‘daft skinny little lass’ was and, before I could answer, give me a kiss on my cheek that always turned into a wet raspberry. Then he’d unceremoniously dump me back on the floor and send me up to dress. I liked that he could so easily lift me off the ground, his bear-like hug, his newly shaved smell, and the familiar feel of the hot wet raspberry on my cheek. So I was sad that, when I got to be ‘a young lady’ (his euphemism for puberty), he gave up on the rough and tumble closeness we’d had before. I sensed this distance was the price I paid for my little half lemon breasts and the shadow of hair starting to appear down below, which only added to my general confusion about it all.

Perhaps that’s why my pre-pubescent self and her shadowy look-alike brother still lurk among the night-people who visit me?

Poor Dad. He tried so hard with me after Mum died, in his funny, slightly gruff and sometimes absent-minded way. He took good care of me, made sure Mrs Oliver or my Aunt Claire dealt with things he didn’t feel able to, listened fairly patiently to my endless prattling and, when I was still a child, giving me the cuddles I needed whenever I asked for them. He even did his best to kept Mrs Purvis’ encroachments on my fierce sense of personal dignity to a minimum. But my reaching puberty was somehow just too much for him. As a wiry, androgynous little tomboy, my ‘girl bits’ didn’t come between us and I believe he treated me much as he would have a son, although perhaps with more tenderness. But when his little stick-insect daughter started to develop a proper bum and a chest that could no longer pass for an ironing board, not to mention all the related complications, he went into slow retreat. I think now that my changes meant I reminded him just a little too much of Mum, since Aunt Clare always said I was her spitting image. That must have made things hard for him in ways no twelve-year-old girl could possibly imagine.

Perhaps that’s why he was happy for me to spend so much time at Homehaugh. I knew deep down that he loved me just as he’s always done, but the shift in our relationship was unsettling. Sometimes when I was doing school work, drawing, or darning socks, this one of many tasks Mrs Purvis did for Dad but flatly refused to do for me,he’d stand behind me, gently kiss the top of my head, and then give my hair a playful little muss. ‘Goodness pet, you’re growing up so fast’ he’d always say, with just a hint of sadness. But, apart from that and a bedtime peck on the cheek, there was no longer the physical closeness between us there’d been before. No morning bearhugs, no more of the playful smacks on my bottom that I’d always rather enjoyed, and none of the mock fights over nothing that always ended up with him tickling me until I squealed for mercy.

 

I could not have begun to say that what I was missing was something physical, bodily, given that it involved Dad and my growing sense of being a girl. But it was around that time that I started having little shoving matches with Hamish. I probably needed that physical contact to get a proper sense of myself, of where I ‘stopped’ and ‘started’ as this person who was not just ‘me as I’d always been’ but, more and more, also this new person: ‘me as a young lady’. Of course I talked to Lizzy, Kate, Cat and Patsy about this, particularly Kate and Cat. But all that talk was quite different from what my body mysteriously learned from its initial tentative contact through those little push and shove holiday sessions with Hamish.

 ‘Love’ and other puzzles

 In those days of whirlwind changes  in my feelings, the non-human world was often much easier to deal with than the human one. Most people, most of the time, just tended to confuse me, even the ones I would have said I loved, like Dad.

I knew without a shadow of doubt that I loved our rooks, something I felt particularly keenly in winter and early spring when I was most aware of them. And I felt much the same about next-door’s cat, Minnie, and the stocky little black pony with one white ankle, Charlie, who I rode as often as I was allowed. I think I also knew this love was far from unconditional. The only demands the non-humans might make on me were of the simplest, most immediate, kind. The rooks, like the roe deer and rabbits, simply needed my attention, my noticing them. The rooks, of course, also needed an audience, someone to hear their numeros and varied exchanges and admire their airial gymnastics, or so I firmly belived. Minnie and Charlie needed to be stroked or patted, given immediate, physical attention which, each in their own way, they returned simply and directly. I also loved them because I could imagine something of what it must be like to be them, something I found much more difficult with adults.

Since I had regular and extraordinarily vivid dreams of flying as a child, it was simple enough to imagine feeling the wind under my sleek black wings, to imagine twisting, gliding and flapping out over the fields with my companions. It was equally easy to sense cantering round the field shaking your mane when there was too little wind to keep the flys off. (I did something very similar when the midges were bad.) Or sitting on one of the big flat stones that topped a wall warmed by the sun and methodically lick myself clean all over, as Minnie did. I used to think how I could so easily have been a rook, a small tabby cat with one broken ear, or a stocky little black pony.

Roe doe in a field near Chesters.

Rabbit on a wall, Morebattle.

Loving people was, by comparison, much more complicated. Even Dad expected me to behave in ways that had little or nothing to do with what was actually happening that moment. Instead of going on doing whatever I was doing, people always expected me to second-guess what they wanted. That usually involved breaking off some important imagining to do things I didn’t want to do. But in the late spring and early summer of the year I turned thirteen there was much to distract me from my resentment and confusion.

The whole mysterious panoply of the non-human world seemed particularly vivid and beautiful that spring. At sunrise there’d be dew-bejewelled cobwebs festooned with points of trembling light as the breeze tugged at them. These would throw the faintest dots of light onto the bathroom wallpaper with its scattering of unfeasably crimson pomegranites contained within a barely visible decorative grid. Outside there would be rabbits on the back lawn, patient ewes and their lambs with legs like pipe-cleaners, maybe a resplendent cock pheasent or, later in the year, a clutch of black cows with their sloe-eyed calves as suppliment to my usual pleasure in the rooks. This kaleidoscopic world, which tugged my senses out beyond the human, all seemed to hang together in some unfathomable way, a coherent patterning of innumerable connections. It was my attempting to share something of this that started Hamish and I on becoming more than simply friends.

Now, of course, I recognise the difficulties of this child-like, kaleidoscopic sense of love for the world, something I have to weigh in the balance against what I know of the world as a citizen. That process of weighing-up is complicated further because there’s a certain, not always wholly separable, childishness that the valley also perpetuates, or so it seems to me, something that I think keeps people like Lizzy from seeing this world straight.

But my need to engage with that balancing act was still far in the future when my little cottage bedroom was still the certain centre of an expanding world.