Tag Archives: belonging

What do I know of hate?

A ricochet fire-crack splits the night streets.

The sound chills my soul.

I have never fired a gun but the media have taught me this sound and I recognise its tyranny.  It is synthesized in my knowing as the sound of terror.

The distinctive stutter of mechanical death.

What do I know of hate?

During the seventies I worked in central London. In 1978 a car exploded immediately outside my place of work. After the rancid bellow of explosion I stood with my colleagues in a vacuum of silence. The window of our office had become a gaping hole and a cold December chill was biting my face.

Within minutes an army of police arrived. They cordoned off our road. Dover Street, the heart of Mayfair, where things like this should never happen.

We were told to go home. Gianni pointed from the sandwich shop across the road. I looked up to see a helicopter hovering above our building. The police had found body-parts on the roof. The event was barely mentioned in the news – nobody died except the perpetrators.

Later we learned the men who died were delivering the bomb to a destination never discovered, or revealed. The London papers reported they were Iranians but quickly fell silent as another story, another crisis, grabbed the public’s gaze.

I was angry my comfortable world had been invaded by somebody else’s war.

tunnel life (2)

What do I know of hate?

Last month we visited, as tourists, the place which most represented war during my childhood – the Chu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. As we followed our guide Michael through the maze of jungle paths he explained how the ‘communist rebels’ survived in these inhospitable conditions for twenty years. His father had died fighting on the ‘other’ side, for the South. He described without emotion how his mother was forced to abandon him and his brother to a Catholic orphanage. He said the priests had made him a scholar. He was proud of his country – ‘we look forward, never back’.

During our tour the sound of Kalashnikov gunfire echoed above our heads. The sound was unnerving, adding a distinctive edge to our visit, but we never felt afraid. Michael led us finally to the firing range, a small clearing squeezed behind the café and gift shop. For the price of a bullet, anyone could have a go with a gun – no rules, just pay the man and he’ll load the gun with live ammunition. It’s an easy gun to shoot, Michael said.

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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

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

A Sense of Belonging

When I was a child going to stay with my Nan was sublime. She lived three hundred miles away, in Northumberland, not four miles from the best beach in the whole wide world. Staying at Nan’s meant freedom. My younger sister and I would go exploring the boundless sand-dunes and rock-pools on what we thought of as ‘our’ beach, because more often than not we were the only souls there. An infinity of childhood memories survive in Druridge Bay.

 

Druridge Bay Northumberland National Park

Druridge Bay Northumberland National Park

Nan’s house was tiny; a miner’s cottage in a remote and rural village where the mines had long since closed. Our visits were cramped, my sister and I shared a bed in the box-room, but to a child who lived most of the year in a faceless, frenzied city it felt safe and comforting as a big, warm hug. Nan’s village had a tight-knitted community and everyone seemed to know we ‘belonged’ to Nan. It didn’t matter if family had migrated to Newcastle or the Blue Mountains of Australia (like great-aunty Jean) if they had roots in the village they would always belong.  

 

I realise that living a whole lifetime in just one place is extremely rare. Over time most people get ‘displaced’, work and relationships drive them to search for a better life. Yet that intrinsic sense of belonging seems to beat at the heart of humanity and too much suffering is rooted in the sense of not belonging or in not being able to belong. Staying at Nan’s was one place I felt I belonged as a child because it was where I was accepted unconditionally, and unconditionally loved.  

 Grannie Wright's cottage

It’s not surprising the sense of belonging spurs many writers. Shakespeare often referred to his roots in Warwickshire and unlike contemporaries wasn’t embarrassed to set some of his plays in rural England. It is likely he never thought of London as anything more than a bachelor pad because he didn’t invest any of his hard-earned money into buying a home there. There is a rumour that young Shakespeare had to leave Stratford abruptly after being accused of poaching (fish?) from Charlecote, an estate belonging to Sir Thomas Lucy, a prominent squire. The story bares more than a ring of truth because William’s family were near destitute at the time but the case never came to court so there is little in the way of evidence. Early in his career as an actor/playwright William uses a scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor to suggest that ‘luce’ (a type of fish which famously appear on the Lucy coat of arms), might actually be ‘lice’. No doubt Shakespeare’s audience enjoyed the pun at Lucy’s expense but the very fact William chose to point his pen at the family’s emblem seems to indicate a deep and lasting hurt.  

 

A writer’s job is to synthesise facets of life through the medium of words. And the sense of belonging is something most people experience at some point in their lives, pining for a particular time and place where the future is never in question, where the living is easy, the fish are jumping, and the cotton is high.     

 

I’m sitting in the railway station.

Got a ticket to my destination,

On a tour of one night stands my suitcase and guitar at hand.

And ev’ry stop is neatly planned for a poet and a one-man band.

Home-ward bound.

I wish I was,

Home-ward bound.

Home where my thought’s escaping,

Home where my music’s playing,

Home where my love lies waiting

Silently for me.

 

In 1965 an unknown singer-songwriter came to England to perform in pubs and clubs and fell in love with a young lady who was to become his muse. Paul Simon wrote down the words to this song while waiting to catch the ‘milk’ train from either Liverpool or Widnes Station (Paul says Liverpool but Widnes claim the glory). Travelling alone between gigs this New Yorker thought of home as the place where Kathy was waiting for him, Brentwood in Essex.

 

 

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