Category Archives: Changes

Life in Songs

I don’t know if you are familiar with this enigmatic song but the lyrics came back to haunt me recently. It’s been recorded many times but my favourite version is by Dusty Springfield.

I think I’m goin’ back
To the things I learned so well in my youth.
I think I’m returning to
Those days when I was young enough to know the truth.

Now there are no games to only pass the time
No more colouring books, no Christmas bells to chime
But thinking young and growing older is no sin
And I can play the game of life to win.

I can recall the time
When I wasn’t ashamed to reach out to a friend.
And now I think I’ve got
A lot more than a skipping rope to lend.

Now there’s more to do than watch my sailboat glide
And every day can be my magic carpet ride
And I can play hide and seek with my fears
And live my days instead of counting my years.

Let everyone debate the true reality
I’d rather see the world the way it used to be
A little bit of freedom’s all we lack
So catch me if you can I’m goin’ back.

Written by Gerry Goffin & Carole King the words seem to describe lost innocence using iconic images like skipping ropes and colouring books and magic-carpet rides – freeze-framed elements of childhood in the sixties.

While visiting my sister in Kent, we decided to take a walk around our childhood. It was a fine spring afternoon and we dabbled in nostalgia as our walk recalled the extraordinary freedoms with which we were blessed ‘in our youth’.

Upchurch, the village where we grew up, lies on the southern shores of the Thames Estuary and is set on a small, low-lying peninsula where the ragged shoreline breaks into a maze of tiny inlets. These muddy, virtually unnavigable rivers, are ruled by the tide and we’d spend most of our summer holidays playing in the ribs of rotting barges, imagining the lives of those who came before. When the tide came in we would go and dig for treasure amongst piles of Victorian rubbish originally shipped as ballast and dumped beside the old jetties in days when boats, not cars, governed local transport. Amongst our best finds were a bronze Roman coin and half a mammoth’s tusk, all donated (unwillingly) to a local museum.

‘Going back’ to our childhood made us realise how little the region where we grew-up had changed. But times have changed and I doubt any mother today could permit such freedom without being accused of negligence. Not that we realised the dangers, we were too busy having fun.

Perhaps this song does sum-up the best things in childhood. Certainly that’s what Carole King captures in her bouncy, up-beat recording of 1966, made at a time when she was still ageless with youth. But listen to Dusty Springfield’s soul-ridden performance and the words resound with sadness, this songstress wants to hold onto the past because she’s terrified by the prospect of growing old.

But the fact that really sparks my interest is how the same words can be performed in such a way they generate very different emotional responses. Like the past, it means different things to different people. And that is the enigma which makes writing about the past so very fascinating. We can only visit the past when we’ve experienced the future.

North Kent Marshes

North Kent Marshes

“CliffeCreekFleet 0312”. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CliffeCreekFleet_0312.JPG#/media/File:CliffeCreekFleet_0312.JPG

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Filed under Changes, Family, Growing, Interpretation, Kent, Marsh, Nostalgia, Writing

Convalescing

It’s been a long time coming this year, our summer. We had the heating on last night and there was ground frost carpeting the lawn at dawn on Monday. I know, because I was up.

Three weeks today I got a new right hip. Three weeks of staggered recovery. In fact the days roll along pretty well – busy with writing and reading and projects. But the nights are proving a trial. Until the new joint is settled and strong I must sleep flat on my back, except I never sleep in that position and it takes an age to settle. I toss, I plump the pile of pillows one-by-one, have a sip of water, try sliding my legs gently to the left and then the right – ouch – bad move. Another sip of water, review my medications (what’s left in the arsenal?) take a spoonful of morphine (well it was prescribed for emergencies), try and relax again. Wriggle, slide, wriggle, twist, slide…

I wake before dawn with a full and pounding headache which nothing seems to quell (even morphine). Best get up, have a walk round, but I’m too wobbly to attempt the stairs. Then comes a craving for a cup of tea but I slide back under the covers. Wriggle, slide, twist…

I dream. My husband and I and his brother and his wife are driving a huge silver camper van touring the Australian outback. But we’ve crossed a toll bridge and none of us has the correct currency to pay the attendant. Shoes, bags, clothes are tossed down onto brick-red sand – we’re turfing out all the contents of the van looking for money, any money, and then a policeman comes and says we needn’t worry…it’s a wonderful dream. And then I wake. And reality hits me. My brother-in-law is dead and I’ll never see him again in this world. How can a dream make him so alive, so real?

Queensland travels

Queensland travels

I’ve learned a lot about myself these last few weeks. I’ve learned to suppress every impulse to tidy the house (I’m not permitted to bend or lift anything for 12 weeks minimum) – and so far the place hasn’t disintegrated into chaos. I’ve learned to be more patient with myself, especially when I dropped both walking sticks out of reach and couldn’t move from my chair until my husband came home. Most importantly I’ve learned to say ‘I can’t’ without feeling I’ve failed.

It’s so easy to repeat the same daily patterns of life, to slip into other people’s expectations of who and what I am. But this period of convalescence has given me space to remember what it is to be me.

Queensland after the floods

Queensland after the floods

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Filed under Changes, courage, Family, fulfilment

Pain

Pain dissembles every aspect of life, of living.
It eats away at who you are, devours independence yet leaves you isolated, despite every firm resolve not to let it.
Pain is the four letter word I hate most. A source of rage, of indiscriminate actions.
Pain negates life. It culls the heart, smears the spirit, wounds resolve.
Life is lived differently when you endure constant pain. Pain drains hope, it makes you feel hollow, unworthy.
It is ten years since an injury caused my right hip to seize-up. Gradually inflexibility became disability.
But on 29th May I had a new ‘bionic’ hip installed. Today I can stand tall again.
This is the beginning of a new chapter of my life. The act of being ME changes.

Meeting friends I never knew I had.

Meeting friends I never knew I had.

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Filed under Changes, courage, endurance, fulfilment, hope

Fully Tested

Spring in Cumbria

I’ve just received results from my first DNA test. I say first because I’m sure the science is still in its infancy. Having dabbled in family history research I already know (on paper) I have relatives in every corner of the British Isles. At first glance I thought my results confirmed what I’d always feared, I am entirely British. How very boring! I was hoping to discover at least one wildly romantic and exotic strain in my ancestry.

But now I’ve studied the data more thoroughly I discover I’m only 73% Brit. So there’s some hope. Actually with mother’s Northumbrian roots it’s no surprise to discover 5% of my genes are Scandinavian, the Vikings were known to love that particular coast. And 5% Celtic, something I’ve always suspected but never been able to prove. And finding Eastern European strains, with trace elements of Jewish, Spanish and Finish/NW Russian probably explains father’s ‘foreign’ characteristics.

But what’s fascinated me most is finding 3% of me comes from the Caucasus. Practically far-flung! Historically many an exotic race fled this contentious region and some infamous ones remain – like the Chechens, a very passionate people (such as my dear friend Ondrei). But this leaves me thinking – what truly defines race? I believe the various places I grew up, and the place where I live now, have made me who I am. Nationality defines character, and the landscape of the British Isles defines my spirit, but it is history which defines my soul. Which is why I wanted to explore my DNA?

Caucasus Mountains

As far as I can see Britain is peopled by the progeny of various waves of immigrants and invaders. There is no indigenous race, nobody who can prove their ancestors have native possession. The only thing my DNA test proves is how I’m descended from a cacophony of ancestors who most probably arrived on Britain’s shores before history was conceived, never mind written.

So what is British? First and foremost an island race who often travel beyond their surrounding seas but generally decide to come home. Otherwise we feel the need to make a ‘little Britain’ wherever we put down roots. It’s inevitable I suppose, to take what’s best and evolve.

I spent most childhood summers on the untamed beaches of Northumberland, near my grandmother’s home, dabbling in rock-pools, careering down seamless sand dunes, splashing the crystal cold waters of the North Sea, wondering when the last invaders beached their boats in the bay.

But my parents lived and worked at the opposite end of the country, in Kent. But it might surprise outsiders to learn that the broad sweep of salt marsh that skirts the Thames Estuary is as remote and unknowable as the wind-swept beaches of Northumbria. Charles Dickens used to walk these ancient sea-walls in search of inspiration. During the sixties, when I lived there, Upchurch was still surrounded by ancient orchards of fruit trees and autumn scaffolds of hops, quilting the northern chalk Downs. Life in Kent revolved around harvest, except nobody liked picking hops; they stain the skin and leave clothes tainted with their pungent smell. No wonder the first history I researched (age 11) was all about the production of beer!

For the last thirty years I’ve occupied a place of outstanding beauty – Cumbria – land of mystery and legend, where two nations meet but never merge. This landscape has its own timelessness, past and present conspire and inspire. But living here requires a particular kind of endurance, because we can experience all four seasons in a single day. True border people are tuned to prevail, I’m sure its distilled in the local DNA.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I know where I belong. Take me away from my habitat and I’m nothing, or rather what remains is insignificant to who I am or whatever I might be.

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Filed under Ancestry, Changes, DNA, Family, History, Landscape, Research, Roots, Travel, Writing

Spring Clean

February is not an easy month even in the best of years. In my corner of northern England it’s generally dark, and dreary, damp and cold. Spring hasn’t yet sprung although ice-white snowdrops carpet the hedgerows and sturdy-limbed lambs are leaping in the fields. It’s hard to get motivated.

New Year is a time of hope, a time to reflect and make plans – lots of reasons to be happy, lots of reasons to be thankful. While I trust everything will turn out for the best (in the best of all possible worlds) I haven’t put fingers to keyboard of late because I’ve been experiencing troubled times. But I belong to a generation that doesn’t think it proper to air their dirty washing in public

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Am I alone in thinking we’re not as tough these days? Perhaps that’s because we don’t have to be. Despite owning every labour-saving device invented for the job I know I’m not half the housewife my grandmother was. Her home was her dominion. She baked her own bread, grew her own fruits and vegetables and prepared every meal from scratch. And everything inside her cottage and garden was spick and span as she could make it. When I was a small child I watched in fascination as she draped all the rugs and carpets in her cottage across the washing line and beat them mercilessly with a special fan-shaped stick. Clouds of dust drifted across the fence to coat the neighbouring vegetable patch. Possibly that’s why old Mr. Forster always won Best in Show for his cabbages – no self-respecting moth feeds on dust-covered brassicas.

I also remember how Monday’s were devoted to ‘washing’. In gran’s house it was critical as attending Sunday Chapel, and equally sacrosanct. A huge galvanised tub was wheeled ceremoniously into the centre of the kitchen, the gas was lit underneath and while the water boiled everything deemed dirty was ‘cooked’, rubbed and then put through the wringer. The cottage steamed with coal-tar soap and we children knew to play outside as long as possible, whatever the weather.  Gran would apologise that dinner must be cold leftovers but the reason I dreaded washday most was because everyone was exhausted by the sheer physical effort involved.

Mrs. Forster and Gran

Mrs. Forster and Gran

I’ve only known automatic washing machines. Throw dirty clothes inside, fill the soap dispenser, turn the knob and get on with life. Clothes go from dirty to clean without so much as a whimper. And I’ve never beaten the carpets, Henry the Hoover does that, guided by any hand that happens to be home. I’m thankful that house-keeping is no longer viewed as woman’s work. My memories remind me how hard life could be but going to stay with gran felt cosy as a warm, soft blanket. She never, ever complained because no matter how tough her life seemed it was ten times better than her grandmother’s.

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Filed under Changes, Education, Family, History, Life, Roots, Spring, Tradition, Winter, Writing

Ice Friends

Listening to the radio a few years ago, I heard this story recounted. I’m only sorry I didn’t take note of their names but still, I believe, it’s a story worth telling.

At the beginning of the Second World War two English children were sent to live in the USA. Their father lectured at an Oxford college and Princeton University had a scheme offering families of British academics temporary homes away from any danger of bombing raids. The children, then aged eight and eleven, arrived with their mother during the autumn of 1941.

While the older brother settled easily into a new way of life his sister struggled. She didn’t like the curriculum at her new school and she missed her English friends, but her favourite pastime was ice skating and most afternoons, after school finished, she would go skating. Her brother didn’t skate but accompanied her as chaperone and generally sat at the side of the rink doing his homework. As the weeks went by his sister befriended an elderly gentleman who also had a passion for ice skating. Gradually a friendship formed and the two would skate and chat together incessantly.

One afternoon, after their skating session ended, the girl asked the old man if he would like to come home for tea. The old man had previously informed her that he was quite good at maths and she was having a problem with her maths homework. The brother, worried by this sudden invitation to a complete stranger, raced home to warn his mother, concerned mainly that she wouldn’t have enough food prepared. Imagine the woman’s surprise when she opened the door – to Albert Einstein. After that he came to tea regularly, and helped both children with their homework.

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Filed under Changes, Family, Friendship, Ice Skating, Life, Loneliness, Wishes

Momentous Times

In the King household the year 2015 is going to be marked by ‘milestone’ birthdays and ‘special’ anniversaries. I should probably be anticipating these occasions with great joy but I wish it was possible to slow the pace down, just a little.

When my daughter was at university, studying psychology, a professor suggested she should write her obituary – To make you aware of what you want to be remembered for.  I thought that was very dark indeed – almost like tempting fate but, for me, birthdays have exactly the same effect. Inevitably I wonder how many more ‘milestone’ birthdays will there be? I’ve tried to ignore the fact that 2015 has already begun but before we get close to celebrating I want to reflect on my reasons for having reservations.

Twenty years ago, with another ‘milestone’ birthday looming, I decided it was time to take a break from pushing my academic boundaries. I’d spent four years studying with the Open University and absolutely enjoyed the challenge but was finding it increasingly difficult to find a balance between my goals and those of my husband and two children. I wasn’t good at half measures and every spare minute was dedicated to reading and research, especially at weekends. At the time we lived ‘over the shop’ and our bespoke craft business had been expanding steadily. With an increased clientele came the need for me to be more available, more hands-on. And our children were growing up, they would soon both be teenagers and I wanted more time for us to do ‘things’ together. In short I felt guilty.

Then, during the first week of that year, life was sent into turmoil when my son fell ill with pneumonia. He’d been suffering from tonsillitis for weeks but the morning I opened the door to his bedroom and found him too sick to respond my instincts went into overdrive. I rang our GP immediately, telling him I was coming to the surgery whether there was an available appointment or not. I scooped my ten year old into my arms, laid him in the back of the car wrapped in a blanket, and drove like a fury into town. David was prescribed three different antibiotics for the next month, but he recovered. And just to help his recovery we took him ice skating.

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Ten years later another ‘momentous’ year loomed. Our business had expanded, everything seemed rosy. We rented a villa in Spain and invited my sister-in-law and her family to join us. The idea was to celebrate together in the sun (except our son couldn’t make it because he was training in Poland) prior to the ‘occassions’ in November. Without trawling over particulars the effective event was that one day my husband nearly drowned while helping to save two little boys and their father from drowning. A vicious rip-tide nearly wiped away our future. Thankfully everyone survived with only minor injuries (and twenty-four hours in a Spanish hospital) but the drama of that day sits in my memory as clearly as any movie and our lives were changed in the knowledge that everything could so easily have turned out differently.

Spain 2005 near disaster

Each of these events led to a tidal change in our lives, driving us towards new goals, new directions which were ultimately more demanding but immeasurably enriching. So forgive me if I approach this year tentatively. I have good reason. And I refuse to make any resolutions, but I’ve written the obituary, just in case.

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Filed under Changes, Family, Life, Travel, Wishes