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Congratulations to eco-artist Cathy Fitzgerald

I’m delighted to pass on the news that Cathy has just had confirmation that her PhD project – The Ecological Turn: Living Well with Forests to Articulate Eco-Social Art Practice – has been accepted and that she will shortly receive her doctorate from the National College of Art and Design, Dublin. Her thesis uses Felix Guattari’s ecosophy, along with action research, to create a transferable framework that can be developed by artists with similar concerns. Her overall orientation as an eco-artist and Green activist are reflected in numerous papers available for download at http://ncad.academia.edu/CathyFitzgerald 

It has been fascinating and informative to work with Cathy as one of her supervisors and I wish her all the very best in her future activities.

 

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.

 

Liz Crow’s ‘Bedding Out’

I was alerted to Bedding Out, by  Liz Crow, by a good friend who, rightly, thought l might be interested in her work around a particular kind of disability and the way it has been demonised for political reasons interesting. I know from our own family experience just how frightening and difficult the situation she evokes is, and wish more people could see this piece. They might them empathise a little more, and even challenge the ideology that has created the PIP (Personal  Independence Payment) system which, as Liz points out, is actually a form of State-sponsored terrorisation that is having, literally, lethal consequences.

I find it extraordinary that there is almost universal condemnation of President Trump’s treatment of the children of migrants going into the USA illegally and yet, thanks largely to the tabloid media, the UK Government gets away with supporting policies and practices that are every bit as inhumane, including the forceable removal of children with ME/CFS from their parents on the basis of the same kinds of demonisation Liz Crow describes. There is a tendency among a certain group of people to describe this kind of thing as ‘fascistic’ but, in fact, a much closer analogy would be with the chronic abuse of psychiatry in the USSR, given that the treatment of these children has been supported by a group of UK psychiatrists, among whom is one who holds the highest role in that profession.

I absolutely understand why people wish to protest against Trump and his policies, but can’t help feeling that they might use their energies more effectively by addressing some of the abuses taking place in a ‘democratic’ State of which they are citizens by protesting against policies enacted in their name.

Thank you, Anne Enright

I have just finished reading a piece written by Anne Enright for today’s Guardian Journal (Monday, 28 May, 2018), called Thank you, Britain. You were there for Irish Women

Having seen something of the anti-abortion lobby’s tactics when in Ireland at the beginning of May – they claimed, for example, that “1 in 5 babies in England is aborted” –  it was a joy to read this piece. How often do we read a long newspaper article that focuses, not on praising the winners of some conflict, but on thanking people – in this case in Britain – for their basic humanity and decency in dealing with Irish women seeking abortions over many years. Or that identifies and praises a positive aspect of the British psyche, albeit one largely embodied by people working in the NHS?

Perhaps it’s because  Enright is not a journalist, not someone whose job is framed by the economics of selling newspapers, but an Irish novelist. As such, she will have had to engage with the extraordinary sprawl of tensions that runs through everyday life in contemporary Ireland. A country navigating the ambiguous historical legacies of colonialism, Catholicism and, more recently, the boom and bust associated with the Celtic Tiger years. As a novelist, she will have had to sift, weigh and balance the effects of all the paradoxes, the contradictory character traits, that these legacies throw up. Without doing so she could not write as she does. A patient skill that I can only wish was more in evidence in our public media.

So,  thank you Anne Enright.

 

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3: Parts 17, 18, 19 & 20

London

I was excited about being called for interview, but nervous about what would happen if I actually got a place and had to live in London. I wanted to believe my Foundation tutors, who had told me my work, ‘the broken necklace of a teenage troll girl’ as Dad once affectionately described one piece, would get me a place. I knew I had always worked really hard and, much to my own astonishment, also managed to overcome the innumerable logistic problems of attending a Foundation Course. At home I felt I’d earned my cofidence and was prepared for anything. But my old nervousness returned with a vengence when I was faced by the jostling crowds on the Tube and the sophisticated second-year students who directing us to wait to be called to interview and ticking me off on a list. I felt like a heffer in a holding pen.

I’d been waiting about twenty minutes when the only other girl in the room came over and whispered that, since obviously we weren’t going to get interviewed before the coffee break, maybe we should retreat to the loo and take stock? Suzie, who looked vaguely Chinese to me but spoke with an Irish accent, was clearly working as hard to hide her nerves as I was. We reassured each other and then shared her bright red ‘lippy’ to boost our morale. (Later my aunt told me I looked like ‘a tart’, much to my secret delight). With that simple act of sharing Suzie and I became two young women against the male art world. We agree to meet after our interviews and compare notes. Mine went by in an anxious blur and afterwards I found myself laughing about it with my new friend. I’d never met anyone remotely like Suzie. My wry account of the interview made her laugh so much that, as she proceeded to tell half the canteen, she ‘nearly pee-ed herself’. I quickly realised I must be as much a pleasing novelty to her as she was to me. Before she went for her train we promised to stay in touch whatever happened.

To tackle my fear of London I stayed an extra night with Aunt Claire. Armed with an ‘A to Z’ I set out to explore and discovered Foyles and the second-hand bookshops off the Tottenham Court Road. There I found a copy of Hamish Fulton’s‘Pilgrims’ Way’, which I took as an omen that, if I was granted a life here, it would not just be possible but might even be enjoyable, despite all I would have to give up.

Top Road, January (sketch)

Under snow the quality of sound changes up in the high hills. This has less to do with changes to the acoustics of the physical landscape than with the practical conditions regarding clothing imposed on anybody who ventures out in these conditions.

Walking the top road today all the usual early spring sounds are muffled, truncated, by the clothing necessary to function at over three hundred meters above sea level. Today a violent north wind intermittently blew snow horizontally across the land. All the usual taken-for-granted differentiations and qualities by which I navigate were subject to a single overwhelming distinction: in or out of the wind.

I needed two layers of headgear for warmth and dryness and that produced a new soundscape, one dominated by the scratchings and rustlings of woolen cap moving against waterproof hood, the rhythmical thump of boots on wet road that seems to travel up through the body itself; and the squeak and scrunch of wet snow, occasional bird cries, distant vehicles.

All these present themselves as filtered and limited by the degree to which I turn to face, as a satellite dish might, the source of the sound. This baffling or muting of all sound serves to synchronize hearing and line of sight, so that to be able to stand bareheaded out of the wind is to be returned to a three-dimensional world, to once again become the center of a circle of sound.

 Mario

Mario, an Italian student at the art college who was some years older than me, befriended me almost as soon as I arrived. By the end of the autumn term I’d rather fallen for him. It wasn’t reciprocated, but it took me months to fully accept that fact. Mario was kind, funny, and knowledgable. He introduced me to his beautiful cousin Desideria, a design student, who in turn introduced me to their wide circle of European friends, most of whom were students studying Social Science subjects. Mario was warm-hearted and tactile in what I came to see was the usual Italian way, something I chose to misintrerpret for desire held in check. When, in due course, it dawned on me that he really wasn’t going to make any attempt to move things on between us, I felt lost and confused. I had long since worked out that my attempt to seduce Hamish had simply scared him off and wasn’t about to make the same mistake again. I became increasingly miserable.

Then, just before start of the the summer term, Mario sent me a rather sweetly-worded invitation to his twenty-fifth birthday party. We met as agreed. He complemented me on my dress as we walked into the club that his friends had hired for the evening and seemed genuinely pleased to have me on his arm. I tried to believe that, after all, this was the night I’d been waiting for. He danced with me to start with, but then increasingly left me at our table while he chatted to old friends or greeted acquaintrances; all with the clear expection that I’d follow his progress and smile when he pointed me out. Suddenly I felt beside myself with anger, fetched my coat, and left.

On Tuesday morning the following week someone told me they’d seen Maro put all his work into a van and leave. On Thursday Desideria met me as I arrived at college. She said Mario had gone to New York, that his uncle had asked to see me to explain, and that I simply must go. Bemused I agreed and taxi was duely sent for me. The meeting was, to say the least, bewildering. The moment I walked into his office Mario’s uncle, a diplomate of some sort, started talking, fast and in rather stilted English. He told me about the standing of Mario’s family; that he thought Mario a talented artist and a fine young man, despite his politics. (Which puzzled me since, unlike most of our circle, Mario showed scant interest in politics.) I was told Mario’s circumstances had changed, that he had moved to New York. I was assured his family were as upset by this as I must be; that they had been very much looking forward to meeting me in the summer. (I grew increasingly astonished. Mario had never talked about his parents to me, let alone about us all meeting.) Then Mario’s uncle got up, thanked me for ‘our conversation’, gave me a little nod, and showed me firmly out. I had had no chance to say much more that ‘hello’.

Desideria was waiting for me when I got back. When I told her how the meeting had gone, she was furious.

‘Basta, they said he’d tell you.’

‘Tell me what?’

Desideria was on the edge of tears but insisted she had promised Mario’s parents to say nothing. It was not her place. Eventually she relented a little, telling me Mario had inherited a lot of money when he turned twenty-five and had used it to go to New York. Pressed, she then admitted he’d apparently told his parents he wanted to get engaged to a beautiful Catholic girl called Flora. They had been to come to London in July to meet me. Later she discovered he’d also told some of his male friends we were sleeping together. I was speechless. The only other response I got to all my other questions was a derisive snort when I asked her about Mario’s politics. About ten days later she came to find me at lunch-time and handed me an envelope. It contained a letter of from Mario’s parents and a cheque for five hundred pounds.

The letter acknowledged that Mario’s behaviour must have been very hurtful to me and my family and asked that I accept the family’s profound apologies. The enclosed cheque was a testament to their regret and distress over what had happened. It was all very formal and felt vaguely threatening. Desideria asking me to sign a receipt to acknowledge that I’d received both letter and cheque. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I said I couldn’t take money from the family of a man who I fancied but didn’t fancy me, who’d told his parents he wanted to marry me and his friends we were sleeping together. It was just crazy.

Untitled image [1]

Desideria managed a nervous laugh, but insisted I sign the receipt. I didn’t understand. It was a question of honour. They were genuinely worried about how my family might react. In Italy to talk about getting engaged was a very serious business. She assured me they were good people who, by their own lights, where trying to do the right thing, and so on.

In the end, I signed.

I swore I’d avoid entanglements with men until I’d graduated. Not knowing to which, or how many, people Mario had spoken about us before vanishing, I saw less of our mutual friends. Then, towards the end of my final year, I started going out with Quentin, a painting tutor, and became part of a crowd of postgraduates and younger staff. This included a beautiful young Irishman who, Suzie told me, was her head of department’s lover. After a while I noticed that he had ‘adopted’ one girl in the group in much the way that Mario had me. It finally dawned on me how naïve I’d been. When I next saw Desideria I asked her straight out if Mario was a homosexual. There was a long pause before she answered ‘yes’. She insisted that she’d not been able to tell me before because, when his family discovered he’d gone to New York with a boyfriend, they had made her solemnly promise to say nothing to anyone about it, particularly not to me. I felt foolish, angry and relieved in equal parts.

Later the money they’d insisted I take would enable me to set up my workshop.

Years later Desideria and I met up again and, over a long morning drinking coffee in the William Morris room of the V&A café, she told me what happened to Mario in New York. (Also about her own complicated personal situation during our student days. But that’s her story). Mario, it seems, had become a rising star of the New York art world before he died of AIDS, abandoned by his former lover and the group of artists he’d been associated with. They had discovered that after he’d left London, a student on the edge of our group had been arrested and deported back to Italy. Press articles had suggested this man had been involved with left-wing extremist groups and had been blackmailing various people to raise money. His friends believed Mario had been implicated in this man’s arrest and broke off all contact.

I simply didn’t know what to say.

 In the park (sketch)

I walk between the trees and up the hill early, through green dappled sunlight and shadow and out into the open parkland. The cool air and sun both bath my face. There is a moment of intense closeness to him, but not as something separate from my walking up and out into this space where the grass has started to brown in the summer heat. I breath him in with the cool air and, with it, a sudden understanding that, whatever happens, it will always unite us. And then an overwhelming sense of tenderness followed by desire so sudden I stop and lean my back against a tree.

 While he slept, his hair rumpled and his body sprawled across the chaos of the bed, I remembered climbing the orange-red sandstone that dominating everything on that distant childhood day, its colour so much stronger even than the miraculous blues of sky and sea. I remembered its heat on my sides and stomach, chest, neck and face as I twisted and turned, slippery with sweat from the effort of my climbing. The texture of the coarse-grained sandstone under my fingers, its weathered little ridges and shelves, the harder bands sometimes stained with traces of iron. All this texture hospitably available to my fingers and toes. And I had found my way up, much as I had just found my way with his body the previous night, our shared heat filling the feral darkness of his tiny basement flat.

My body held me completely and at no point did I start to think during that whole long climb; a self-contained organism that happily edging its way up until it found a place where heat and cooling breeze met in perfect balance, the summit its own natural climax.

 

[1]The young woman at the top of this image is Flora and I would guess it was probably taken when she was living in London.

 

 

Please listen to and watch this.

This video has been put together by the community of ME sufferers of which my daughter is a part. It is a collective articulation of a situation that is in every sense as desperate as that of the Windrush generation.

RIP Ursula LeGuin

I have always had the greatest respect for the work of Ursula LeGuin, above all because of her astonishing Always Coming Home, which I regard as a classic example of textual deep mapping. News of her death at 88 is all the sadder for the fact that her son reports that her intelligence was, even in the last days of her life, “as sharp as a tack”, suggesting that she might well have had more wonderful narratives to offer had she lived longer.