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.