Tag Archives: writing

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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Filed under Books, Family, History, Imagination, Writing

Detecting the Past

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

I’ve always loved history. To me the past is like a giant jigsaw crazed with missing pieces which I feel compelled to find. However, despite trawling through countless records and digging in archives, it’s often a case of having to admit that the piece has been lost to time. Except I’m addicted to solving mysteries, that’s what draws me to the past.

At this point I should make it absolutely clear I’m not an historian. Although I love history I lack the focus and discipline to be an academic. When there’s a hole in my knowledge I rely on instinct to fill in the details. Which is the reason I write stories. The need to find answers, even when the truth is clothed in myths and lies. Or rather, because it’s cloaked in myths and lies. History blazing with colour, not boring black and white.

It’s only recently, through liaising with crime-writing friends, I discovered historians are very like detectives. Both have to consider every piece of evidence in order to reconstruct what actually took place. Using this analogy during my research proved a revelation.  First-hand sources are just like eye-witness accounts, both are written after the event and flawed with discrepancies. Historians base their research on ‘primary’ materials which are habitually contradictory but treating the past as a crime-scene gave me a fresh perspective.

Just as a detective always goes to the scene of the crime so must a writer of historic fiction. Obviously in my case any evidence has long since disappeared but visiting a particular location gives a unique experience of place, even if the site has been damaged by time and tide. For years I believed Mary Queen of Scots watched the Battle of Langside from a nearby hill – but when I visited that hill it proved too far away, and too low, to allow her such a view, even when seated on a horse.

But the most enlightening aspect of treating the past as a crime-scene came when I turned to seeking motives. The past is always out of reach but motives haven’t changed – greed, lust, envy, pride and vanity. Considering who gained what and why proved a revelation.  

For example, on the very same day Mary Queen of Scots escaped from forced banishment on the fortress isle of Lochleven, her half-brother James, Earl of Moray, was delivering her precious jewels to the highest bidder – who just happened to be Queen Elizabeth I. The Medici pearls were priceless and now they belonged to a woman who coveted them so much they feature in every subsequent portrait. Not merely did this leave Mary penniless it gave her half-brother and Elizabeth very strong motives for keeping her out of Scotland.

Queen Elizabeth adorned in Medici pearls

Also, on 8th December 1567, while Mary was cooped up in Lochleven Castle, she celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday. Another critical motive. A long royal minority was traditionally used by the Scots aristocracy as a time for self-aggrandizement. When Mary reached twenty-five years of age she had the right, under Scottish law, to demand the return of any wardships and property which had been commandeered during her minority. Mary couldn’t be permitted to win back her throne or half the Scots nobility would be made penniless. Much better to retain a ‘bairn’ as the kingdom’s legitimate monarch and take advantage of another twenty-five years of minority rule. So it seems the poor girl was doomed from the day she returned to her homeland.

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Filed under History, Interpretation, Past, Research, Scotland, Tradition, Writing

Fixed price for cash and no returns

To many the name Tiffany is synonymous with the showiest means of displaying wealth – Diamonds. Founded in 1837 Tiffany, Young and Ellis went from strength to strength by catering to the tastes of New York nobility. The new captains of industry (and their wives and daughters) wanted to flaunt their success.

By the time Truman Capote wrote his novella ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ the company’s reputation was beyond question. The business had been founded on the promise – Fixed Price & No Returns. Capote wrote the part of Holly Golightly for Marilyn Monroe – whose sultry rendition of ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ seemed to epitomise his muse. But Miss Monroe refused the role in the 1961 screen-play and, against the author’s wishes, Audrey Hepburn was cast. But I wonder if the author realised how much Tiffany’s road to riches reflected the rise of Miss Golightly?

Roll back the clock to mid 1800s France. Think Les Miserables. Of a country torn by turmoil following the fall of Louis Philippe. Even those canny citizens who’d survived the First Revolution were suddenly made destitute. Into this chaos came John Young and Thomas Banks with a remit to purchase fancy goods for Tiffany and Co. They were hoping to make a deal for exclusive rights to ‘French-paste’ (a form of crystal glass cut to imitate diamonds), an essential requisite for their company’s range of fashionable and affordable jewellery. While the metalwork could be manufactured in their New York workshops ‘imitation’ diamonds could only be sourced in Paris.

Young and Banks were determined. In pursuing their business they were arrested on a number of occasions but still managed to collaborate with Royalist supporters desperate to sell their jewels – as long as they were paid in cash. When the two men returned to New York they’d managed to purchase a generous slice of the French Crown Jewels. Although details of the acquisition have always remained uncertain it was known that a number of important jewels were missing after the mob surged through the Tuilleries Palace.

Whatever the truth Tiffany’s learned a lesson. When the Second Empire collapsed in 1870 the royal collection had been restored to its former glory. But Empress Eugenie was determined it wasn’t left behind when she fled the country. Sensing trouble she had most of her jewels crated and dispatched to the port of Brest, ready to ship to London, but a number of crates had to be left behind and these were eventually claimed by the new French government and returned to Paris. After long and careful deliberation they decided to sell the bulk of the collection in 1887, in a sale held in the Hall of State, in Paris. Tiffany’s practically swept the board, buying all the most important pieces.

The 1880’s and 1890’s were the heyday of American society and the new millionaires of industry and commerce displayed their wealth with the kind of opulence which had formally been reserved for royalty. Tiffany’s reputation soared by catering to the new elite and diamonds ransacked from the royal treasury soon adorned the wives of New World millionaires. Although the purchase was dubious the American Press loved the story and the resulting publicity secured Tiffany’s position as America’s foremost jewellery store.

When the new Metropolitan Opera House opened in New York in 1883 the first tier was quickly dubbed the ‘diamond horseshoe’ because the diamond jewellery worn by its patrons outshone the house lights. Buying the French Crown Jewels gave Charles Tiffany the opportunity to transform his Lower Manhattan store into a ‘palace of  jewels’ (according to The New York Times).

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Filed under ambition, aspirations, Books, Changes, Culture, Experience, History, innovation, society, Wishes

What is a writer?

Someone once told me a writer should act like a key which opens the door to another world.

While I rather like the analogy it’s my understanding that a writer needs to do more than simply provide a key. Having means to unlock a door simply isn’t enough; you need something to tempt the reader inside. A photograph is a flat rendering of a captured scene but we trust its reality. However, engaging with a story isn’t simply a matter of ‘beam me up Scottie’ and you arrive in another time and place, stories require you to step inside the world of imagination.

Scary thing imagination.

Writing is an infinitesimal spell created out of words and wonder, therefore entering a story requires a certain leap of faith. No matter how well written, or finely observed, nothing in a book will live if the imagination doesn’t commit wholeheartedly to its magic.

Therefore, I believe, the business of writing stories is tantamount to being a magician who conjures with imaginings – an imagineer.

Without imagination not merely stories die, imagining provides a ratchet to our soul.

It isn’t so much dancing in the rain as feeling the water on your face and not getting wet. Isn’t that truly magic?

 

 

 

 

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Filed under aspirations, Books, Entertainment, fiction, History, Imagination, magic, Make Believe, Understanding, Writing

Getting Back to Work – Phase One and Two

PHASE ONE

The official period of recovery is over and I’m back to the day job and wondering where on earth summer has gone. While time is tightly spliced with family and work and trying to batter the garden into some sort of order and failing I feel I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, exchanging the luxury of time spent reading and writing with the need to do things I couldn’t attempt during convalescence. It’s not a bad thing, taking a step back, but being recovered I’m finding it harder to justify. As soon as there’s space in my schedule I notice something else that must be done and recent weeks have flown by without much time for writing.

Anyway I decided to seek inspiration by reading some of my fellow writers’ blogs. Last week the Crimson League (http://crimsonleague.com) had an interesting article about creating successful characters using something called the Myers-Briggs type. This device for assessing character came as a complete revelation but rather than discovering how to improve on writing about people I discovered something fundamental about myself. For those unfamiliar with psychology it basically suggests our character is divided into four dominant forces – sensation, intuition, feeling and thinking – and that only one of these functions can dominate most of the time.

The third continuum reflects the person’s decision preferences. Thinking types desire objective truth and logical principles and are natural at deductive reasoning. Feeling types place an emphasis on issues and causes that can be personalized while they consider other people’s motives.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers%E2%80%93Briggs_Type_Indicator

Revelation! Now I understand every bad decision I’ve ever made. The very fact I act on feelings renders me incapable of making rational decisions. And for years I’ve been blaming mother! Freud eat your heart out, I should have been looking to Jung.

Mum and me

Mum and me

PHASE TWO

Only recently I’ve come to realise the very practise of creative writing is quite absurd. Putting words into a sequence in which they can be recognised and interpreted by a reader to such an extent they can impose the same images into their imagination is completely illogical when you really think about it. Why not just stick to pictures? Words are a form of code, and the essence of a code is that it requires translation and excludes those who cannot understand. When a writer puts a story into words the anticipation is that whoever reads that story will comprehend what is being described but it’s impossible to know what feeds the imagination.  I believe the real art of writing is explaining enough that the reader is transported to another time and place – every scene must have a setting –while giving no more detail than required. I have to trust that readers (like writers) have very active imaginations but what if they have no personal experience of the time and place involved? What really breathes life into a story is something far beyond words.

Shakespeare's Seal

Shakespeare’s Seal?

I write about the past because I love history. I enjoy unravelling the uncertainties of a time I can never experience. History is mystery but I can become so completely lost in researching my subject that the stories slide further and further from completion. While I prefer to have some semblance of reality I can never describe the past as real, however delicious or detailed the research. So how can I make something that only exists in my imagination come alive through words?

Shakespeare seal ring

Ring found buried in the garden at Shakespeare’s home in Stratford upon Avon.

I feel like the traveller who, having got lost, asks directions from a local only to be told they are starting their journey in the wrong place. Perhaps I should turn to writing about the future? With the tramlines of the past erased there is total freedom to invent. Actually that’s rather scary and never forget the very first Star Wars movie begins with the words – A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – George Lucas framed his tale in history, not science fiction!  Projecting into the future may seem a very good way of escaping the present but I doubt anyone would be interested in my fantasies. Some believe Shakespeare’s Tempest was the first work of science fiction but I’d rather have my stories rooted in actual events because, as they say, truth can be stranger than fiction.

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Filed under Feeling, fiction, Imagination, Understanding, Writing

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

Maps and Mary, Queen of Scots

FullSizeRender

Whether looking for the best means to travel from A to B or going in search of treasure you can’t do without a map. And I don’t mean some GPS enabled app, that just doesn’t have the same scope. I mean a large paper sheet that refuses to close down even when you want it to and has a satisfying radius that sets your position on the planet better than glaring at Google Earth. Maps are the key to an ‘otherworld’, they lead to somewhere else, facilitate journeying beyond familiar places to places where one may be inspired and astounded. Maps are really quite remarkable.

Over the last few months I’ve been trying to determine the most likely route Mary Queen of Scots followed after landing from a fishing boat on a beach near Workington during the evening of 16th May 1568. But the truth is proving elusive, not least because after her death she became something more than human, she became a figure of romance, a legend. Every Tom, Dick or Harry with an eye to a profit has claimed she came to call.

Mary-Queen-of-Scots

There is no question where she slept that very first night because the evidence is indisputable. Imagine the furore when the Queen of the neighbouring country unexpectedly comes a-calling? Unfortunately the Curwens who resided at Workington Hall were taking the waters in Bath but a servant recognised Mary because he was French and ‘knew her in better times’.  That evening letters were being dispatched to the four corners of the land (and beyond, Mary wrote a letter to France begging assistance). Just before dawn next day Richard Lowther, deputy keeper of Carlisle Castle, arrived with a company of men (between 200 to 800 depending on who composed the letter) to escort the unexpected visitor back to Carlisle Castle. The argument being this was for her own safety.

Lowther was right to worry about Mary’s situation. The Earl of Northumberland wanted Mary under his control, and with Lord Wharton, military governor of the region out of reach in London poor Richard had to make all the decisions. He obviously knew who he could trust and called on a wealthy merchant called Henry Fletcher. Now while most records agree that Fletcher was Mary’s host during her second night in England he owned several large houses in the region. The earliest written record I can find claims Mary stayed at Clea Hall but that didn’t seem to make sense because it’s so far off the beaten track…at least nowadays. Perhaps that’s why most modern tomes agree Mary stayed that critical night at Cockermouth Hall, another of Henry’s homes.

Then, while debating my next step, I happened to bump into John Higham, a retired history teacher who’s written several books on local history. When I told him of my dilemma he pointed me towards the Saxon map of Cumberland which was published in 1579. It came as a surprise to discover that the main road to Carlisle, in fact the only road which would accommodate a large party of men and women on horseback, skirted the hills and passed through the villages of Ireby and Dalston, a very different route from today. And this made it apparent that Clea Hall is in a much better position, especially if you want to ride in ceremonial triumph into Carlisle next day and not look too frazzled. The grounds of Clea Hall also offered space for the few hundred soldiers who needed a place to lay their heads, something far less feasible in Cockermouth town centre, especially with the Earl of Northumberland’s men breathing down your back (but that’s another story).

So my journey hasn’t ended. I have an inkling the records are wrong, but I do know for certain that Mary made the wrong choice in coming to England. But then, had she remained, as was most likely, under house arrest in Scotland, she would have faded into history rather than blazed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Looking NW from a farm lane near Crosscanonby across farmland and the Solway Firth to the Galloway Hills.

  © Copyright ally McGurk and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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Filed under Cumberland, History, Research, Scotland, Sources, Writing

Not Writing

I’m writing. I write most days but rarely aim to publish. And it seems to me that’s the problem. I love to write but I baulk at publishing, going public. It’s like exposing your soul, I think. But that’s the point surely, writing must be read. And I agree, but not by someone else, it’s mine, secret and safe. Except I’ve recently lost my work-in-progress notebook, worse I think I left it in a hotel in Kelso…someone, a complete stranger, could be rifling through my notes right at this moment and thinking…well I hate to wonder what they might think.

It seems to me there are many reasons why people write. I’m the worst kind, the writer who locks herself away and reels off page after page of passionate prose, and edits it down to a sentence next day. I’m constantly appraising my work, destroying one set of words and replacing them with another. That’s the trouble with word processors, it’s the literary equivalent of a chalk board, but I do scribble copious notes in my notebooks and, truth be told, that’s where the bones of my stories are placed.

Now anyone looking at my desk at this very moment might think I’m in complete and utter meltdown. Although a larger than average desk (it came from a public library) very little green leather surface can be seen because it’s littered with notebooks. But each of these hand-written tomes are used for a different purpose – I keep notes about the craft of writing in one (all the tips ever received from other writers and writing workshops) which obviously I need to check regularly. The second contains source materials and references to facts, so when necessary (and more than once a day) I can find my original sources of research. And then there’s the largest (and the only one with scribblings on every page) which contains the very first outline of my pending novel, except this recently flowed into a second volume, now inconveniently missing.

I’m reminded of a handbag for all the wrong reasons. What handbag? The one in which poor Earnest was deposited when his nurse misplaced him for her novel. That poor woman went unpublished. Perhaps Oscar Wilde was right; women haven’t the temperament to write novels and remain sane.

This one’s dedicated to you Scott, wherever you might be.

Mess or management?

Mess or management?

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Best Laid Plans

Busy family life

Busy family life

Well both grandsons are off to school (Reuben’s first year, Oscar’s second), summer is drawing to a close and I’m all fired up ready to proceed with my Grand Plan – back to writing that novel again. Seriously!

Eight thirty in the morning I’m sitting at my desk, fingertips at the ready, but almost immediately the phone rings.
‘You’ll have to come to work’ – husband’s voice – ‘there’s a couple of things I need you to look at urgently’.
OK. So I jump into the car and drive straight to our business premises five minutes away.

All the problems are solved quickly but once at work I decide I might as well open the day’s post and sort through some invoices and then I remember I need to pop into town to get some food for dinner. And might as well drop off the ironing – after a houseful of visitors last week it’s all piled up and there’s this wonderful local business where the ladies are better than fairy godmothers.

Lunchtime already? I’m just settling down for a quick snack before starting work on my Grand Plan when the phone rings again.
‘Are you doing anything’ – daughter Sam’s voice – ‘only I need to pop to town for an appointment and Delilah’s asleep?’
No problem, Sam promises she will just be an hour – I grab my tablet, proving I’m trying hard to succeed with the Grand Plan and it makes me seem like an avant-garde gran.

Delilah wakes after less than half an hour. As soon as I pop my head around the door she takes my hand and leads me on a route march around her house, a guided tour, discharged in a language of her own making which she assumes I comprehend. As we enter the kitchen she waves a finger at the tap – time for a drink of water? Already, at one year old, her nature leaves me in no doubt she had a previous existence as a headmistress.

Sam arrives home. Relieved of duty I can shoot off home but as I leave she hands me a bag of freshly picked damsons surplus to requirements…if I don’t want them perhaps great-gran would?
It seems sensible to take the damsons straight to mum’s, it’s not very far, almost en route, and they’ll only go rotten if I take them home. Having had a spectacular harvest this year we’ve got piles of ripe fruit gently going rotten in assorted bowls and we can only eat so much jam and chutney and the freezer is full.

Dad’s mowing the lawn. As soon as I appear he stops work and leads me to the garage, a look of smug triumph on his face. Ever since my parents moved here two years ago the garage has been full to bursting with household goods and furniture deemed no longer useful. We suggested they give all the stuff they no longer want or need to charity shops but old furniture is bulky and unfashionable and even local auction houses aren’t interested in taking it. However dad has discovered a man with a van (a community charity) and he is coming to take everything away later today, so last chance if I want anything.

I’d been meaning to grab their emergency fridge –newer and smarter than the one we have at work and doesn’t need defrosting. And then there’s the brass coffee table – can’t let that go because I have its twin. But it’s hardly fair not to take them away immediately. Dad’s been waiting long enough to park his car inside the garage – it’s so untidy cluttering up the drive.
Husband isn’t too pleased but comes immediately. Another essential job done and dusted.

Now where was I? Better make the dinner…..best laid plans and all that. I’ll just have to start on my big plan tomorrow.

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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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