Tag Archives: childhood memories

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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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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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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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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Frozen Lakes

ImageWe visited Dove Cottage last month, a small damp cottage at Town End, Grasmere, world famous for being home to William and Dorothy Wordsworth. I’ve never been a fan of Romantic poetry but given his reputation, and the fact he was one of the first to promote the grandeur of Cumberland (now part of Cumbria, my home county) for its wild mountain scenery and ‘savage’ natives (I’m told it means un-contaminated) I felt it was time I learned a little more about him than his famous reflections on spring bulbs.

 

Orphaned before he reached his teens William was flailing for a profession when a small legacy meant he had money enough to support his ambition to write poetry. In late 1799 he rented the former Dove and Olive Bough public house, a native-built stone cottage set beside the main road from Keswick to Kendal, and moved in with his sister Dorothy, who he hadn’t lived with since childhood. But she shared equal aspirations for William’s genius and managed to supply all the practical support he required, which was essential because Will preferred to recite his thoughts while someone else did the writing. They lived in the tiny cottage for eight years, squeezing in with William’s new wife and her sister and then, by-turns, three children, as well as many famous and frequent visitors. When Walter Scott came he gave them one of his dogs, Pepper, whose portrait greets visitors when they first enter the cottage.

 

Men such as Coleridge, Southey and de Quincey, would call for afternoon tea and emerge weeks later bowled over by the Wordsworth’s hospitality. And when the Wordsworth clan moved to Allan Bank in 1808 De Quincey became the tenant of Dove Cottage, a tenancy he held for the next twenty-eight years. It seems strange the Wordsworth’s eight years trumped poor De Quincey but he failed to be respectable after publishing his Confessions of an English Opium Eater. The publicity machine which drove Wordsworth’s popularity meant the former public house was bought by the Wordsworth Trust in 1890 and opened to the public the following year as Dove Cottage.

 

It was during his very first stay in Grasmere that De Quincey noted, when the lake froze over, how William embarked on his other great passion, ice skating. William was particularly proud of his great skill on the ice but his friend was less impressed and wrote in his diary, ‘he sprawled upon the ice like a cow dancing a cotilion’.

 

Taken from ‘The Prelude’ by William Wordsworth

 

And in the frosty season, when the sun

Was set, and visible for many a mile

The cottage windows through the twilight blaz’d,

I heeded not the summons:—happy time

It was, indeed, for all of us; to me

It was a time of rapture: clear and loud

The village clock toll’d six; I wheel’d about,

Proud and exulting, like an untired horse,

That cares not for its home.—All shod with steel,

We hiss’d along the polish’d ice, in games

Confederate, imitative of the chase

And woodland pleasures, the resounding horn,

The Pack loud bellowing, and the hunted hare.

So through the darkness and the cold we flew,

And not a voice was idle; with the din,

Meanwhile, the precipices rang aloud,

The leafless trees, and every icy crag

Tinkled like iron, while the distant hills

Into the tumult sent an alien sound

Of melancholy, not unnoticed, while the stars,

Eastward, were sparkling clear, and in the west

The orange sky of evening died away.

 

 

Next-door to Dove Cottage a dedicated museum displays artefacts relating to William’s life

and times. While I truly hope he didn’t actually use the cock-spurs the basket full of  

pace-eggs was a delight. At Easter many children (and adults) still go pace-egging in this part of the world and it was interesting such beautifully-decorated (and very delicate) hard-boiled eggs had survived. But what really caught my attention were William’s ice skates. Not one pair but several! The man really did love to skate, as illustrated by his words. And I share his passion.

 

Taken From The Prelude, Memories of Ice Skating on EsthwaiteLake

 

Not seldom from the uproar I retired

Into a silent bay, or sportively

Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,

To cut across the image of a star

That gleam’d upon the ice: and oftentimes

When we had given our bodies to the wind,

And all the shadowy banks, on either side,

Came sweeping through the darkness, spinning still

The rapid line of motion; then at once

Have I, reclining back upon my heels,

Stopp’d short, yet still the solitary Cliffs

Wheeled by me, even as if the earth had roll’d

With visible motion her diurnal round;

Behind me did they stretch in solemn train

Feebler and feebler, and I stood and watch’d

Till all was tranquil as a dreamless sleep.

 

William’s giddy words define the peculiar exuberance of ice skating – as pertinent now as when he composed them, and obviously based on first-hand experience of skating by star-light on a frozen lake. But I wonder if Dorothy was skating right behind him with her notebook and pencil?

 

 

 

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