Monday, 24 September 2007


I have been ‘MeMed’ by the lovely Crystal Jigsaw, and, having been completely floored at first, (never the quickest to catch on), but having eventually worked it out, I think, here is my attempt – and the lesson learnt is, don’t give yourself a long cyber name.

S is for Suffolk, of course. As I’ve probably written before, my love for this unassuming yet beautiful part of the word happened late in my life. I had no connection with East Anglia, or so I thought, and barely knew it before moving here seven years ago. At first I missed London and thought the countryside unexciting and too demure for my tastes, the pace of life too quiet and slow. But then I learnt to slow down, and I looked around me properly. Beyond the vast swathes of corn lay low gentle hills, remnants of ancient forests, and some of the most beautiful medieval towns and churches in the country. Looming out of seas of grain, the vernacular really takes your breath away. I am spoiled now and used to half-timbered, colour-washed houses, empty countryside and villages that time forgot. I love watching my children growing up here and enjoying a rural childhood that seems to be disappearing across swathes of this country. I loved discovering that my great great granddad was born close to where I now live, unbeknown to our family, who’d never known where he’d come from. I love putting down roots.

U is for uplands. At the risk of seeming a little contrary, given what I’ve written above, I still admit that my heart lies with mountains. I can live – and happily, too – in the lowlands, but give me a taste of northern moors and hills and I’m refreshed again. Apart from Northumberland, I love the Lakes, the Scottish highlands, Dartmoor and Ireland. I’m sure I’d love Wales too, if I ever get there. “Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen” – that’s me on my perfect holiday.

F is for food. I used to be secretly proud of my inability to cook, or to care much about food at all, given that I thought I was a terribly important career girl who existed on diet coke, red wine and restaurant meals. Me and the kitchen eyed each other with suspicion. Then I had children, and realised I wanted to nurture them. What they – and we – put into our bodies suddenly gained the importance it should have had long ago. I can’t say I pureed organic food exclusively, or that I am even now a slave to the Aga. But I try, and I enjoy it, and food has become central to the rituals that we as a family love. The kitchen table is used for chatting, for homework, for drawing, and for arguing, as well as for eating. Please don’t get me wrong – we’re not the Waltons (though I always quite fancied that house). We’re far more like the Simpsons (especially when it comes to Doughnuts). But, just to jump on a passing bandwagon, we do grow a lot of our own food, and we all have a go at cooking it, and plan our meals for big occasions with huge relish. I hope it makes my children healthier then me. And just as greedy.

Another F – this time for family. Not just my husband and children, but the wider lot – and particularly those no longer with us. I’m lucky in that I have always loved the company of my parents and sister and cousins etc. But like most people, and as is entirely natural, I was quite happy to form my own ‘new’ family from friends in my teens and twenties. My closest friends are still hugely important to me. But as I’ve got older, I’ve found that you really can’t escape your family. They turn up in your children, in the expressions that come out of my mouth, and probably the expressions on my face. They’re always there, in the background, the ones in the sepia photographs, and the ones still at the other end of a phone. After all, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.

O is for Oak. It’s hard to choose my favourite tree – I love so many, and for so many different reasons. Beeches and willows and rowans and birches and maples leap into my mind, and there is the most beautiful ash tree that I can see swaying in the wind as I write. But I’ll settle for oaks – I am English, after all – on the basis that I live in a timber framed house, made mostly of oak. So I feel extra protected by this most protective and paternal of trees, and marvel daily at the huge thick timbers all around me that creak and shift in a high wind.

L is for Lad’s Love, the old name for the herb Southernwood. My fingers were hesitating over the keyboard, not sure whether this was a bit heavy, a bit maudlin, for a blog post, but I can see its feathery leaves from where I’m sitting, and it won’t leave my mind. For there was someone once who meant the world to me, and who died when he was little more than a lad, and although as far as I can recall he couldn’t tell a herb from a lettuce leaf, I think of him when I see this tall, gentle, beautiful plant, and remember its old name.

K – A hard one this. Kite, kettle, kitten? My daughter, whose name begins with a K? But if I choose her, then what about my boy, who’s initial isn’t in my cybername? Anyway, I’m sure I’ll get them in somewhere. So having talked about old loves, I’ll move onto current loves, and K is for Kent, where my husband comes from. The word brings to mind the North Downs, and apple orchards, and weatherboarded houses, and market gardens and blossom. And of course my husband, who is apparently a Man of Kent, rather than a Kentish man. It matters. It also stands for Kelpie, the old name for a water sprite, because our cottage is bounded by a stream, and even this little, insignificant stretch of water weaves its very own magic.

M is for motherhood (I told you I’d get the children in somewhere). It still amazes me that my identity as a mother, which is so vital, now, to my sense of self, is still so recent. Nine years ago I had no clue, and although I’d always wanted to be a mother, ‘some day’, I didn’t really know why. I just thought I’d have a go, a bit like taking up a new sport. The laugh was on me, of course. In many ways, I am still astonished, when I stop to think about it, that I am somehow old enough to have responsibility for these vibrant things that I helped to create. I mean, of course I know I’m plenty old enough – I was no spring chicken when I had my first. But like most of us, I muddle along, crossing my fingers that I’m doing OK, still feeling about twelve, and constantly bowled over by these beings who I’ve known for such a short time, and who now dominate my life.

Another U – I’m running out of inspiration, but think I’ll plump for Umbria. I’m not sure that I can pinpoint an exact time when my love affair with Italy started, but certainly studying for a few months at the vast university in Perugia didn’t get in the way. Softer and greener than Tuscany, perhaps a bit less endowed with architectural wonders but no less lacking in natural beauty, Umbria doesn’t need me to sell it. But what stays in my mind most of all isn’t the baked earth or the hilltop towns or the sun, or even the food, but the cold winter nights in the town, the smell of roasting chestnuts, wandering through medieval arcades, pressing my face against the most fantastic chocolate shops, Italians muffled elegantly against the cold, steaming cappuccinos in tiny, noisy cafes.

And last, another M – this time for the moon, and mystery, and magic – all the things, along with love, that make my heart beast faster.

Hell, that was hard work. I guess I’m supposed to pass the baton on to some others now, but I’m never sure who’s already done it, or who wants to, so I’ll leave it at this – if you’re reading this, and haven’t yet had a go, be my guest!

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

We Plough the Fields and Scatter ....

It’s a bit of a cliché, I suppose, to talk about the first whispers in the air of autumn and the effect it has on me, but since it is by far my favourite season, I’m going to mention it anyway. I just love this time of year. The light is softer, kinder, there’s the merest hint of parting and melancholy, and a blue autumn sky is one of my favourite sights. It feels as if there is a new energy taking hold as the year races on and we strive to catch the last of the light, before the long night falls. I always feel as if I’m in a bit of a race against time, that I have to tidy, sort out, put things to bed. I get far more of an urge to clear out now than I do in the spring. The garden, having reverted to wilderness because of the neglect it always suffers in late summer, teases me with delights hidden behind mountainous weeds – late-flowering roses, borage appearing again, dahlias and nasturtiums peeping out from dense foliage. I don’t even want to think about what needs doing to the house, but inside too I have this pressing, insistent need to organise and sort. I think of it as a late flurry of activity before the desire to hibernate takes hold; I could cheerfully sleep in front of a fire all winter, I’m sure I was a dormouse in a previous life.

Yet for the children it’s a time of new beginnings, a new year far more significant than January 1st. I watch them setting off, my son twice the size of my daughter, calm, protective, dependable. A quiet and thoughtful boy, I get flashes of the man he may become, and almost cry. Seeing my daughter trot alongside him, pleased as punch with her new school uniform, reminds me of the lyrics to one of my favourite Bert Jansch songs: “Fresh as a sweet Sunday morning, like a high-stepping pony, trotting and prancing, ah she’s so full of life, sparkling with tiny red roses”. There’s heartbreak at the classroom door, but smiles at playtime as she’s reunited with her brother, and a beaming face greets me at pick-up. Fourteen more years of going to school every morning; an era is over, for her and for me.

Yesterday I was wiped out with a migraine. Not fun. Blind spots in my vision heralding the agony, then jagged bright lines ripping the world apart. The throbbing pain, when it arrives, is as instantly familiar and unwelcome as the contractions of childbirth, and I’m just as powerless to stop it. No gorgeous babe to suckle at the end of it – although today the pain is reduced to a dull thud, and I have the prospect of pain-free sleep tonight – I told you I was a dormouse.

A long time ago as I was asked to write about the sounds and smells that might reach me, were I to be in a coma. I promptly forgot all about it, and am now, as ever, just about the last to complete the task. I fear mine will be repetitive, but just to ease my conscience, and in no particular order, here goes:

1. Birdsong, preferably the evening chorus which always seems to be more contented, more replete. If I were to pick a favourite bird call, it would probably be the lone cry of a curlew, high on the moors, but I’m also partial to the mellow cooing of a wood pigeon on a summer’s day, and the melancholic hoot of the barn owl on a winter’s evening, as he circuits the house.

2.Possibly a bit of a strange one, this, but I’ve already instructed my husband to play me a tape of the football scores, should I ever be in said coma (cheerful thought). Not because I will particularly want to hear how Newcastle did – I’m not that devoted – but because there’s something reassuringly familiar and cosy about the ritual of reading them all out. It reminds me of being a small child and falling asleep on the sofa late on a Saturday afternoon, with my Mum in the kitchen and the men all gathered round the TV, the printer on the television whirring in the background. I’m not Scottish, but for some reason it was the romantic names of the Scottish teams that penetrated my subconscious – Queen of the South, Heart of Midlothian, Motherwell, Hibernian.

3. Of all the flower smells I love, including lilac, sweet peas and freesias, I think I’d plump for Lily of the valley. The scent of the perfume Diorissimo always gets me right in the solar plexus.

4. The Kinks singing Waterloo Sunset. Reminds me of being young, ambitious and in love with life and London.

5. The scent of Christmas trees. Never fails to inspire me with the magic of Christmas

6. The smell of Rosemary, crushed between my fingers. I love all herbs, but Rosemary can transport me in an instant to star-lit Mediterranean nights, and mountains sweeping down to the sea.

7. The sound of crickets, for the same reasons.

8. The sound of water rushing over stones – so fresh and clean sounding, so joyful and impatient.

9. Either of my children calling Mummy – but preferably in their happy, loving, voices, not the imperious yells that sometime penetrate my subconscious at 4.00 am.

10. The smell of clean sheets. I suppose I ought to say fresh and wind-blown from the line, which is lovely, but actually fresh from the dryer will do just as well, and reminds me of the excitement of going to the launderette with my Mum as a tiny child (we didn’t get out much as toddlers in those days!)

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

The North Wind Doth Blow ....

… but brought with it only sunshine. I’ve just spent a happy week in Northumberland, my favourite part of the UK, and my home when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I could wax lyrical about the beauty and grandeur of Northumberland - those windswept, empty beaches, the haunting calls of the sea birds, the sense of mysticism, of history, of holiness, that permeates those northern shores. Not to mention the river valleys with their rushing water and purple hills, where often your only audible companions are the bleats of sheep and the lonely calls of curlews. But there are other bloggers who make their lives there, who know it all much better than me, and who are perhaps less prone to the romantic view I hold of the North East, as is the wont of exiles.

So what impressions can I share, that won’t make any readers yawn? It’s quite an emotive journey for me, that long drive up the A1, as it brings back so many memories of heading ‘home’ after we’d first moved down south. The mounting excitement felt as roadsigns appear announcing The NORTH. (Funny to think that my children will feel ‘home’ when they see The EAST). The sense of relief at being among people who talked like my sister and me, who said spelk for splinter and clarty for muddy, and who didn’t think my Mum, with her strong Geordie accent, was foreign, and who wouldn’t laugh at my flat ‘a’s (that was before the need to conform took hold of me, though my ‘a’s still change from sentence to sentence). Memories of family gatherings in Newcastle and the villages of the Tyne valley, at Christmas and Easter, then our annual two weeks on the coast in summer. The smell of seaweed and fish and chips. Making sandcastles that mirrored the imposing fortresses that loom over the beaches in this part of the world. Rough grey seas with tiny fishing boats bobbing madly on bad weather days, blue green sea with white sand to rival the Caribbean on good days. Heading back down south, to what eventually became a much loved home, but which for a long time was a foreign land. Listening to my Mum crying at night, when she thought we couldn’t hear, because she was so homesick for the north. Sitting in assembly one day at primary school in the South East, singing Jerusalem, and the headmaster explaining that the line ‘dark satanic mills’ apparently meant the area around Newcastle, where it was ‘grimy’. The other children tittering, and my big sister putting her hand up to explain, politely, that there weren’t any mills there, but being ignored.

But I digress, as ever. Back to the week we just spent, and the pleasure I get in seeing my children playing, each year, where I used to play, discovering the same things, feeling the same wind (sometimes cutting, it must be said, though not this week) on their faces. Seeing them wander around the limekilns at Beadnell, digging with their bucket and spades in the shadow of the castle at Bamburgh, watching and listening for the seals on Holy Island, eating fish and chips at the harbour in Seahouses, flying kites at Alnmouth, hiding in the dunes at Embleton. Playing on the stepping stones at Ingram in the Breamish Valley, and falling in, as I always used to. Taking a picnic to the heart of Coquetdale, and for once not have to wrap up in a fleece. Standing in silence looking out over Whittingham Vale. We didn’t get as far as the Roman Wall this time, my son’s favourite bit of England, but still, a perfect week. And Michael Owen even started scoring again, just for us, it seemed.

But what was different, this time, was making new friends. Meeting people who I’ve got to know from the internet, via blogging. Not something that I would ever have thought I would do, and how weird it feels to write that I did, to have travelled a few hundred miles to meet perfect strangers. And yet strangers were the last thing that they were. It’s funny to think how long it can take us to make new friends, once we’re past our sociable teens and twenties. The first espying of someone who looks like we might like them; the gradual building up of acquaintance, seeking out opportunities to meet, the delight in finding mutual likes and dislikes. On meeting these two Northumbrians, it felt like the groundwork had already been done, that we were just picking up where we’d left off. Fabulous to meet two such warm and friendly people, fantastic to think we might all meet again. Thanks again for your hospitality to me and my children, you two, and my heart soars whenever I think of you both in your beautiful part of the world.

I don’t stay on the A1 all the way to London any more, but turn left and east to get home now. Funny how I’ve made my home by another eastern shore, in another sparsely populated, quiet land, with the same vast, vaulted skies and lonely farms. We have ancient hedgerows instead of dry stone walls, timber-framed houses painted mellow pink instead of fortified stone bastles, and stunning medieval churches soaring from the prairie fields, instead of purple hills. My heart always breaks a little when I leave the hills of the north, but starts to mend as I come back to this gentle, verdant land. It’s good to be back.