Tag Archives: childhood

Saddling the Imagination

I’ve always been compelled by history. Imagining the past helps me escape from everyday burdens. It’s always been that way, ever since I can remember. My safe haven is finding a book and curling up in another time and place. Always was. Always will be. But while books feed my love of history the addiction was nurtured by the landscape of my childhood.

Rather like Merlin I was gifted with a means of travelling backwards through time. Though I grew up amongst the bustle and throng of south-east England my mother is a native of Northumberland and like swallows we’d fly north every summer to the wild lands ‘north of the wall’, to a place firmly locked in the past.

Northumberland was my stepping stone into another world. Staying with nanna was like snuggling into a warm cosy blanket and the fact she didn’t have hot-running water or an indoor toilet made the adventure seem even greater. There was never any sense she was poor, nevermind deprived, she just lived in a different world, untouched by the twentieth century.  

Nanna was a miner’s wife and the village where she lived had sprung up around the pit. It was a tight-knit community where everyone knew your name, so much so it always felt like we were coming home rather than just visiting. We fitted in, unlike the south, where we were always strangers. I don’t remember grandda’ but his presence filled every room, as though he might return at any moment. Nanna never forgave him for leaving her alone. I realize now what I didn’t know before, that she clung to his memory because she loved him more than life.

Living in a first-floor flat in London meant we couldn’t have a pet but nanna had a dog. Prince was half Alsatian and half wolf, or so we were always told. Though he never harmed a human he liked to pick a fight with every dog in the village. The only time I ever heard nanna raise her voice was to yell at Prince as she dragged him home by his collar. Then she’d bathe his wounds. She had big hands, like a man’s, but her touch was gentle as an angel’s.

I think I was ten when the mine-workings were dismantled. The pit-wheel disappeared but the scars of industry remained, framed by gentle hills and an endless stretch of beach which we thought of as our private playground. Back then we were often the only visitors enjoying the rolling sand-dunes of Hadstone. We’d walk from the village along an abandoned rail track and spend the day climbing amongst the rock-pools, digging for crabs and lobsters and winkles. We didn’t know the rocks were actually a petrified forest or the beach a ‘site of outstanding natural beauty’. Since the bay came into the hands of the National Trust it has been renamed. They’ve built a visitor centre and a car park and charge a fee to enter and our once empty beach is like Margate on a summer’s day.  

Also within a hand’s throw of nanna’s cottage was a ruined water-mill. There, in the sand-bottomed mill-pool, my sister and I learned to swim. Sliding down the moss-lined dam gave us better thrills than any mechanized theme-park. The mill had once belonged to the monks of Lindisfarne and I felt the holy men ‘tutting’ as we skinny-dipped down the falls.

A huge ochre-stone castle stands barely a mile up-river. Warkworth’s vacant tower crowned our farthest horizon. When he was home ‘on-leave’ from the navy, mum’s baby brother uncle John, would tease us with tales of the Percy’s who once ruled this county like gods. If you look carefully, he promised, you might see the ghost of Harry Hotspur riding home from battle. He also told us that Coquet Island, which can be clearly seen from the castle ramparts, was infested with ruthless pirates. What better lair for a band of privateers? We never questioned why they’d think to raid coal-boats going to and from Amble.

Uncle John also told us that our ancestors once smuggled whisky from Scotland to England. Like most of his tales it bears an element of truth. Nanna’s father came from the village of Ford, a tiny hamlet which lies very close to the Scottish border. During the eighteenth century the government raised the tax on alcohol so many illicit stills across the border increased production (which is why Robbie Burns found good employment as an officer of the revenue). But however much I discover of the truth, history will always be a cocktail of myth and reality. Where living in London meant being cooped up indoors Northumberland represented freedom and the stones of its landscape formed the foundations of my imaginings and writing is the counterbalance of my sanity, as necessary as breathing. 

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Katherine Mansfield – Child of the Sun

The last time I visited New Zealand in 2011 I caught up with an old friend from college days. Remembering my intense passion for Katherine Mansfield he suggested we visit the house where she grew up. I didn’t like to admit I’d long forgotten Katherine. Forgotten she came from Wellington, forgotten the woman who once inspired me so profoundly. But I’m forever grateful to that friend for rekindling my passion. And subsequently re-reading KM’s ‘Letters and Journals’ took me back thirty years, to the time when I was young and eager and ambitious and totally convinced that one day, I too would fulfil my ambitions and become a writer.

 

‘How to be a writer – is everything……People have never explored the lovely medium of prose. It is a hidden country still – I feel that so profoundly.’ (July 1919)

 

 

Open to the public, Katherine's home in Wellington.

Open to the public, Katherine’s home in Wellington.

Born in October 1888 Kate was a disquieting and precocious child. Her parents decided to send her away, to the other side of the world, to study at Queen’s College, London. It was 1903. She was 14 years old. They probably expected the experience would tame her wild spirit, however, by the time she was ordered home following reports of ‘difficult’ behaviour, she had formulated a lifelong plan to ‘gain experience at all costs’.

 

I am full of a restless wonder but I have none of that glorious expectancy that I used to have so much. They are draining it out of me.’  (Nov 1906, returning home on board the SS Corinthic)

 

When I first discovered KM I was researching ‘Bohemian’ artists of the early 20th century for my final (graduation) project at Art College. Her writing sparkled with open-eyed honesty. Her letters and journals illustrated the minutiae of her life with sensual and acute observations. More particularly she described her emotional experiences; her passions and insecurities, her disappointments and fears. I was eighteen years old and found we had much in common. Her descriptive prose seemed to mirror the creative ideals of artists such as Matisse and Picasso but despite my enthusiasm for her work the tutor in charge of my course didn’t think she caused enough ‘creative impact’ to warrant further study. Yet I’d fallen under the spell of Kathleen, the rebel. Not merely did I sympathize with her rejection of middle-class conservatism I felt she knew what it was like to be me.

 

‘Damn my family! Oh heavens, what bores they are! ….I shall certainly not be here much longer.’ (Oct. 21, 1907)

 

Katherine’s letters and journals inspired me to explore my own talents and gave me the courage not to grasp at conformity. She grew up in a colonial villa in a street full of like-minded buildings set upon the only piece of flat land between Government House and the harbour. It was the heartland of colonial respectability. Wellington sprawls awkwardly over craggy outcrops and mountains, a scenic yet impractical city. Flat land remains at a premium; an airport was only possible after new land surfaced during an earthquake (it sits precariously across a major fault line). But whatever your social standing New Zealand was remote and plebeian, at least for a girl like Kate, who always dreamed of better things.

 

Botanic Gardens in summer, full of colour.

Wellington Botanic Gardens in summer, with plants imported from Europe.

Also lying between the Mansfield home and the harbour are large botanic gardens founded during the late Victorian era boasting elegant cast-iron conservatories and technicolour flower beds. In modern New Zealand they represent an unchanging past, cream teas and archways bowed with roses, but in Mansfield’s time it was a tangible reminder of England. She begged to be allowed to return to London and left New Zealand finally in 1908.

 

‘I feel that I do now realise, dimly, what women in the future will be capable of… They truly as yet have never had their chance…..we are firmly held with the same self-fashioned chains of slavery. Yes, now I see they are self-fashioned, and must be self-removed….Here then is a little summary of what I need – power, wealth and freedom.’ (May 1908)

 

I understand KM in a very different light since visiting her homeland. I believe that once she left New Zealand she never really belonged anywhere and what she had absorbed of her country, and its native peoples, inspired every single word she wrote. She arrived back in London just as expressionism was becoming fashionable amongst the rich and avant-garde. It must have seemed perfect timing for a woman who thrived on emotion. But life was never that easy, or that simple, for Kate. Her father finally settled her with an annual allowance that allowed her to exist without the need to work. She adopted a Bohemian life-style and wrote fitfully, her writerly ambitions constantly thwarted by her restless soul and a driving need to attain perfection.

 

‘I begin to wish to God I could destroy all that I have written and start again: it all seems like so many ‘false starts’. (July 1918)

 

It was the fact that this week marked the centenary of the beginning of the First World War that made me think of KM today. It should be noted that not one of her male friends returned from fighting in the Great War. Her young brother was amongst the first casualties. Her spirit declined and yet she became more restless. After being diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis she went to live in France, hoping the climate would offer a means of remission. She died at the Gurdjieff Institute in Fontainebleau. It was January 1923. Katherine was 34 years old.

 

What is this about the novel? Tell me, thou little eye among the blind……the more I read the more I feel all these novels will not do. ….And yet I feel one can lay down no rules. It’s not in the least a question of material or style or plot. ….I can’t imagine how after the war these men can pick up the old threads as though it had never been. Speaking to you I’d say we have died and live again. How can that be the same life?…..Now we know ourselves for what we are.’ (16 Nov 1919)

 

 

Cast-iron conservatories and afternoon tea.

Cast-iron conservatories and afternoon tea.

 

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