Sunday, June 13, 2021

Blue and grey and all the colours in between.


Last week I visited Newcastle and the North East of England. It's where I grew up, where I lived until my late twenties and where my son is now a few weeks from completing his architecture qualifications. His presence there for eight years has been simultaneously a wrench and a magnet, a tear to the heart and a stitch that binds the soul. The sense of love and loss has lingered since the evening I left him at his halls with two suitcases, a wedge of cash and strict instructions to spend it all on partying not books.

In truth, the rent is more than the miles between us. 

For all it is distant, Newcastle is no more than a day's journey by car, and this dreadful pandemic aside, driving north has become a regular family trip, uniting us in more ways than one. A love of the region has crossed the generations and even filtered its way into Jane who looks forward to our visits as much as me. But neither she nor my son can share the depth of belonging that comes from what I guess we call roots— a word that hints at the gravity of the ground from which we grow.

The picture above is of Tynemouth Longsands; my childhood home was a mile beyond the prominent spire on the horizon. When we visited one evening last week, Jane laughed at the 'proper hard' Geordies, taking a dip in the slate grey waters, a chill wind blowing in from Norway. I told her this was where we'd learned to swim, in costumes my mum ran up on her sewing machine. Cold came with the territory—and now I come to think, I've no fixed memory of the ocean here ever being blue.

But I have other recollections: of crabbing in the rocks, of picnics on the sands, of lifeboats and bonfires... of times with my brothers and friends, always by the sea.  And later, of days walking this coast, escaping from a father with manic depression which we didn't understand and a temper I thought that all dads had. It's strange that for a place I miss so much, the resounding echo could so easily have been one of fear.

That it isn't, is in large part a choice I made. For our memories—good and bad—are always a fiction of sorts. My narrative is that this is the place I came through; and that further north especially, in the hills and moors of Northumberland, where I found my strength, became fiercely independent, and understood that moving on requires letting go too...  

It's astonishing that I should write those words so fluidly and without prior thought; that thirty years since I left the North East something so obvious seems like a revelation. The irony is that in my pursuing a new and better future, I moved so far from the place that draws me back.  

Only recently I read that to transplant a shrub is traumatic to its growth, the more so the longer it's established— evidently, a fair proportion will not survive. To do much the same to ourselves is similarly stressful, with an equal need for care and attention to timing.

Could I move back to the place I left in order to get to where I am now?  Would returning to the land of my youth be a coming full circle or a wretched retreat? Is the pull I feel an irresistible truth, or a nostalgic lament, that like Houseman's blue remembered hills, cannot come again?

Only this week I was talking to a friend who said he felt something of the same about Devon; that he was never more at home than when the soil was iron-red; when walking the land where generations of his ancestors had lived without question.  He too felt the counterweight of a yearning to belong and the pull of a new life found and now founded elsewhere.

In a few weeks, my son will complete his training; in a handful more the lease on his flat expires. I might come home for a while, he said; he was referring to Wales. There's a part of me delighted at the prospect, and another that's willing him to remain, to find a job up north—to plant his mark in the earth which I dug up. 

The truth is, I shall pine if he stays and ache if he leaves.

Last week as we sat in the dunes watching the light fade, I was thinking of all these things. And it occurred to me, in the way that coincidence takes us unawares, that my son is almost the age I was when I left for Wales. I thought of the turns I've taken, of the skies and seas— blue and grey and every colour in-between—that have passed over my head and under my feet with the turning of the years.  

And I smiled.

There's time I reasoned, for these matters to resolve; for the roots I've laid down—and those my son will in turn—to grown deeper or be replanted as we wish.  

It was twilight when we reached the car and took the road along the cliffs, passing the streets I still know by name. Turning west I couldn't have said if I was heading for home or leaving it behind. After all these years, the sense of love and loss is as real and charged ever. 

And long may it continue—for there are few things that make me feel more alive.  

Monday, May 31, 2021

Somewhere, beyond the sea...


Do you ever get one of those earworms that play in your head regardless of mood or moment?  

Yesterday, as we walked the ten miles or so of headland on the western edge of Wales, my mind, for once, was not on bigger things: I was with my family, barely feeling the pace, looking for butterflies in the bright spring sun...  

And all the while, Bobby Darren was singing in my auditory cortex: 

Somewhere, beyond the sea.
Somewhere, waiting for me.
My lover stands, on golden sands.
Watching the ships, go sailing.

Sometimes, the sea has a weight we cannot bear; sometimes it buoys us up.  

Yesterday was not for drowning.

Enough - back to proper blogging next week.







Sunday, May 23, 2021

A love of paintings - and of homemade crumble


There are many reasons to own an original work of art, but among the best are because we love it; because it gives us joy, and because our lives are the better for being in its presence. That the art might also be a financial investment is beside the point. To look every day at a painting that uplifts us is not reducible to price; its value is diminished if we relate this to money.

Over the course of my adult life I've collected many paintings—all have a story to tell. And I'd gladly relate them, were it not that Jane has brought to my study a bowl of her homemade rhubarb crumble... so tart and delicious that I need to pause a moment...

... oh boy, that’s good...

But returning to my pictures...

The one above is by the late John Cartmel-Crossley. I commissioned it shortly after moving to Wales from Northumberland.  A watercolour of the Simonside Hills as seen from the road between Rothbury and Alnwick, it's exquisitely done. If you look closely there are two tiny figures which appear in many of his works.

Nearly all of my paintings have connections with my past.  

The two below are by Richard Gowland, another Northumbrian artist, but about whom I know very little: the beach is one near where I lived and the nocturne of the Tyne Bridge reminds me of the time I worked in its shadow They were framed by a distant relative, my second cousin on my mother's side. I bought them from his workshop gallery, which if memory serves me right was near to where the artist lived. 



In preparing this post, it was tempting to reproduce the images more carefully: to photograph the pictures in flat light, cropping their frames in the way of a book illustration. But this is not how we view paintings in our daily lives. The seascape hangs in the kitchen, the bridge on the turn of our stairs—the glass on the moorland landscape reflects the coming and goings of our walk-through dining room.

I like it this way—for art is so much more than the works we see in galleries or the rarified way they present it. The true value of any painting—or for that matter sculpture, or music or literature—lies in inspiring us to live fuller, richer lives. That's best achieved by it being amongst us, making a difference every day, whether we notice it or not. 

My son, who's an architect, said of the new office I'm currently building, 'spend money on the items you'll touch the most.' It's good advice. I've owned all three of these paintings for almost thirty years and never tire of their presence. Recently I had the Cartmel-Crossley reframed; its absence for some weeks left more than a gap on our walls. 

For the art we love helps us see (and feel) the world anew. The paintings I own are each a part of my past, but they are also a spur to living; their tangible presence connects me to a world that's beyond our touching. Most of all, they give me reason to pause and savour life's delights—a sort of visual rhubarb crumble... with cream of course.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Best of the Bikeshed — from the archive

This autumn my long-overdue next book will be published. It will be a selection of the best writing from Views From The Bikeshed, together with some new material on blogging for writers. In preparing and editing the drafts I've re-read hundreds of post, many of which won't make the cut, but perhaps deserve another airing. 

Yesterday the Times carried an article reporting that house prices had risen to a new high, with the average price of property reaching £330,000.  By coincidence, I also read the piece below which I first published in  November 2009. It is part of the 'Past Imperfect' series (see sidebar) which looks back on aspects and incidents in my life. How little has changed!

Past imperfect - Argyle Terrace

In July 1982 I bought the ground floor of a Victorian terrace on the edge of North Shields in Tyneside; I paid £7,700 including legal fees. In return, I became the proud owner of a spacious flat with high ceilings and original features, a great view over the fields and a neighbour with a punk daughter who played the drums at all hours of the night!

I was twenty years old and had just returned from my third year at university; there were three million people unemployed and yet somehow I landed a job as a sales rep for a newspaper. That break allowed me to buy the flat and in so many ways altered the course of my life.

Putting the price of the property into perspective, it was exactly the same amount as my first annual salary. I  borrowed £300 from my mother to cover the deposit and was so determined to repay her that I barely ate for the two months it took. Looking back, quite why I was so fiercely independent I can't say, but I don't regret it—or what it taught me. I have remained so ever since.

I lived at Argyle Terrace for three years before moving north to Northumberland. They were good times—formative, fun, and a long time ago in more ways than one. It would be almost inconceivable today for a young person to buy a decent first home for the equivalent of a year's wage.

And you know, it is not a good thing they can't.

I feel immensely lucky to have reached adulthood at a time when buying a house wasn't the crippling expense it is today. A blog isn't the place to discuss detailed personal finances, but in the twenty-seven years since I bought Argyle Terrace, I've never had to take a mortgage more than twice my salary. That combination of good fortune and circumstance (and huge a slug of prudence) has afforded me a freedom from debt that many people only a decade younger, and for no fault of their own, have struggled to achieve.

The view from my window - and my first company car!

My Grandfather lived not far from Argyle Terrace. He bought his first house when he was in his twenties and never thought to move until he was seventy-seven. His house wasn't an investment; it was somewhere to live and raise a family. That might sound old fashioned, Romantic even, but it has always struck me as the right way to look at it.

There is little that dismays me more than the property boom of recent years. At times I've wanted to scream. We are not richer when house prices rise - and certainly, we are not richer as a society. Even at an individual level the 'personal equity' school of thought seldom stacks up. In my case I have made a handsome paper profit - but what about my three children who will each need a home sometime in the future? As a family, we are immensely poorer.

A typical home in the UK is worth three to four times its price in 1995. But how does that wealth manifest itself? It's not as if we can cash in and live for free elsewhere. In practice, the real wealth of home-owners of my generation (providing they have been prudent and not borrowed against their equity) is in having a smaller mortgage - something everyone could have enjoyed if prices hadn't risen so aggressively in the first place!

And none of this even touches on how the housing market has skewed our economy, left millions in a mortgage trap, warped our values about what's important. I could make jokes here about  TV programmes like Home Front and Location bloody Location having a lot to answer for - but it's way too serious for laughter.

Most of all I feel sad for those starting out. Young people thinking of buying at inflated prices are to some extent damned if they do and damned if they don't. A friend of mine said recently, ' Perhaps they should rent like everyone does in Germany.'  That's unrealistic: we don't have their housing infrastructure and in any case, cultural norms are an important part of our self-worth—in the UK owning a house is, for the vast majority of aspiring people, a central aspect of making progress in life.

But if ownership is legitimate, a lust for rising prices and the putative wealth it brings is destructive. It has always struck me as perverse that housing is the only essential product we want to see increasing in price—imagine if we had the same attitude to energy or food. I could go on, but I'd probably scream after all.

Of course, every generation has its challenges to face. But as I look again at the photo of my first house, I'm struck by how fortunate I was to have been starting out then. I hope one day the cost of housing will return to something near affordability—though I doubt my particular definition of that word will be possible.

More's the pity, because I suggest we'd be better off if it were.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Poly-mathematics - and the need to let go.

Towards Strumble Head - M Charlton c. 1998

Every so often a friend or fellow blogger will ask if I still paint.  The honest answer is that I don't, though I will usually fudge it by saying something like I occasionally draw, or only for fun. In many ways, this isn't a total deception: I take an interest in images; I love art shops; I think in a visual way... In my mind, I could pick up my brushes tomorrow.

But it wouldn't work.  

Painting seriously takes practice and dedication—as does running, or chess, or physics... Occasionally, people refer to me as a polymath (one blogger did so yesterday), but in truth, I mostly focus on one thing at a time. If I want to lose weight it will obsess me till I‘m thinner; if work is busy I tend not to write for pleasure; when I learned to play the saxophone, it consumed me for two years—in retrospect a bad idea. 

Why? 

Because I'll never be any good at jazz. Sure, I can bash out a tune and fake the odd riff, but deep down I'm not a musician—and no amount of practice will change that. What's more, it's an all too easy distraction from those projects that in my heart I know are more important. Writers are notorious for finding excuses to delay; sometimes we need simply to focus and type—in my case, with the music turned off. 

Not that I shall sell my saxophone. For I've learned to stop playing when it matters and to see that as something gained rather than lost. The same is true of painting: to begin again wouldn't be right, but that doesn't mean all interest has gone. My love of the outdoors is similarly slimmed-down: I still kayak and cycle and climb mountains, but all in a more relaxed and less obsessive way. 

This is good, I think.

For there is pleasure in learning and letting go. 

Life drawing 1997
Until I was fifty, I had no technical knowledge of music—but while it's satisfying to have an understanding of scales and chords, I have come as far as I can.  Five years ago I taught myself basic French, but let's be honest, I'm never going to be fluent. Similarly, mountains and wild places have been a joy of my life—in some ways they saved it—but to continue quite so full-on, might well end it prematurely.

I could say much the same about poetry, or fiction: I wrote them for my degree and learned a great deal, but they are not my genre. Though interestingly, I write often in a 'fictive form', constructing my blogs and essays not dissimilarly to short stories. I obsess too over words, in the way of a poet. 

And this illustrates how in letting go, we don't lose all that we've gained. It's forty years since I studied economics, and yet in drafting this piece I originally wrote a line in a paragraph above: '...it's like the law of diminishing returns: once optimal capacity is reached, further growth requires disproportionate resources... '  Thanks for that are due to my teacher, Mr Johnson; I owe much the same debt to Ms Davies who taught me to draw.

But for all it's good to have a reservoir of knowledge, the fact I chose to reposition the words is due to an experienced eye, which saw that they might add more elsewhere. That judgement—and intensity of focus—comes only with practice, and were I more rusty, I'd probably have missed it. This is the dilemma we face in pursuing our passions; how to balance the breadth and depth of our skills and understanding. 

Though actually, that's not quite correct, because a true dilemma is a choice between two outcomes, both of which are bad. There is no word for its opposite, so it seems to me that in our choosing depth over breadth (or vice versa) we are more in the realm of preference. Both are equally good. And they can feed off each other, as do music and dance, science and nature... or for that matter, writing and painting.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Marram by Leonie Charlton - a tale of coming through

Sometimes coincidences are too many and too strong to resist. Just occasionally they're so close as to give rise to discomfort; the best resolve themselves into a fortuitous delight as if their happening —and our finding—was written in the stars.  I feel this now as I fumble my way into reviewing the excellent Marram, by Leonie Charlton.

It was the author's name that first caught my eye—there aren't many Charltons writing about nature. That she's also, like me, published by Cinnamon Press was coincidence number two. Having missed the online launch of her poetry collection (thanks to a traffic jam on the A40), I'd ordered Marram as much in atonement as surname solidarity. 

I'm glad I did.

The book recalls a journey Leonie made across the Outer Hebrides. Travelling with her friend and their two ponies, they trek from Barra through the Uists to Harris and Lewis. It's a logistically challenging trip, requiring ferries and route planning, the help of friends and fellow horse lovers...  Her prose is well crafted, lyrical but not cloying, and sufficiently sparse to leave space for our imagining of the wild places she portrays.  

But if that were all Marram was, it would be yet another book on the pile of pleasant(ish) nature writing that now fills a table of its own in most Waterstones' stores. I'd feared it might also be a 'book about books' in the way that so many of the putative new-nature authors use the landscape as a foil to show how clever and literate they are. Thankfully, it avoids that trap.

Which isn't to say that Leonie's not astute or well read—rather, it's that in Marram she has the confidence of her own words and story, quoting others only for context or inspiration. One review on Amazon compared her writing to Robert Macfarlane but I sense more the influence of Kathleen Jamie, a far finer and more authentic essayist, and as it turns out, a tutor at Sterling University where Leonie took the MA course. Coincidence number three: studying writing a little later in life.

And it shows.  

In travel and nature writing of any quality, there are always two tales. Firstly, there's the outer story: the getting from A to B, the paths travelled and the trials overcome; if there's a climactic tension then much the better, which is why mountaineering books can be so compelling. And then there's the inner story; the one which reveals why the journey has meaning, how it changes the author... the lessons they learn and the truths they find.  It's this reflective quest—not the physical journey—that's the reason we care, and which speaks to our lives, regardless of whether or not we'll ever visit the Scottish Isles, let alone with a horse for company.

This is the soul and strength of Marram.  

Leonie Charlton set out not only to traverse the Hebrides but to come to terms with the relationship she had with her 'impossible' late mother.  The story of Marram is one of finding our strength and accepting our shortcomings—it's a universal tale of love and sorrow, and how to come through (not 'get over' or 'put aside'); of how we might leave our parents and yet be trapped by them too. 

This was almost a coincidence too far. My book Counting Steps is a series of essays on the power of landscape and fatherhood, and more deeply, a coming to terms with the ghosts of my past. Leonie's mother wasn't violent like my dad, but she'd led a lifestyle and exerted an influence that had cowed her daughter's flourishing.  When I read the date of her mother's funeral I almost dropped the book—the exact same day as my father's. 

But these connections are mine and not why I think Marram is so good. That's because of Leonie's skilful spinning of the threads of her life and the weaving of those into a tapestry of place and feeling; the recounting of a journey that's both physical and heartfelt. There's climax too, and tension in its unfolding; a coming through in more ways than one. 

I'm conscious, in re-reading what's above that I've not said much about the trek, or for that matter the ponies—but in a sense, these are details and beside the point. I should say that on occasions the reading takes some effort, in part because the place names don't naturally sound in our heads; it's a problem with Welsh, but even more so with Gaelic. Aside from this, the twin stories progress with a pace and ease that belies their crafting.  It is beautifully done.

As a life writer, essayist and blogger I'm acutely aware that one of the hardest things is to write honestly of ourselves, but in a way that speaks to others. It's not really about me, I try to explain to those who ask. This little review is almost a reversal of that rule—but then I didn't write Marram. I just read it and felt the connections and am reeling from its elegant notes. Like those of the whisky from the Western Isles, they will linger a long while yet.

Friday, May 7, 2021

The class of '79 - and seeds in the wind

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying
 Robert Herrick

There's a famous scene in the film Dead Poet's Society in which the inspirational John Keating (played by Robin Williams) tells his pupils to look closely at the photographs of old boys on the walls. His instruction follows a reading of the poem above, lamenting the brevity of life, and urging us to seize the day.  Look at those faces, says Keating,  they're just like you...  the same haircuts, same hormones...  full of hope...

Yesterday, I dug out my own alumni picture: the sixth form class of '79 at Whitley Bay High School. I'm on the back row, fourth from the left, arms folded and tie askew. Of the 120 or so faces I could perhaps name 30 and no doubt more if prompted. My girlfriend and later wife is to the right of the middle row; my best man (twice now) has his face obscured.

Other than Rebecca and Ken, I have no contact with any of the others. I learned yesterday that there is to be a reunion in September; it will be 49 years since we started high school together. Some of those pictured were my friends in primary too; one was my desk mate on the very first day. How strange that we might meet again?

Here in Wales, Jane and her family have closer connections to the community; it helps perhaps that her father was a headmaster. But more than that, by staying relatively local the interweaving of lives is more traceable; the network of paths less easily lost. Thirty years ago I moved 300 miles south and west, severing the threads if not quite the ties to my past.

In that experience, I won't be alone. At least half of those facing the camera went on to university; few will have returned to the town we grew up in. Opportunities and progress are more dispersed than in the time of our parents, and of theirs before them...  In a sense, all our histories are diasporas of a sort.

And it's this thought which fascinates me most about the photograph. 

If I think of the hopes and talents that are captured in its pixels, the possibilities are infinite. What roads have we all travelled—what roots are laid down?  Did our futures play out as predicted by our teachers—or as we ourselves had planned?  Somehow I doubt it.  And if we were to stand together again today, how many of us would there be—surely some will have been lost? 

But none of this is maudlin. For life is good, and we cannot undo the choices we make, or for that matter our fates. Did we go on to have extraordinary lives? In many respects—and certainly, in historical terms—we will all of us have lived remarkably. That we are now approaching our sixties is itself an astonishing thought. So too, how swiftly we've travelled, how fragile the footprints we leave. 

I was thinking all this as we walked in the woodland near our home yesterday evening. Jane asked if I was with her at all; her forbearance of my inner world as patient as ever. On the rise of the hill, we sat listening to birdsong, and all around us were countless seeds floating in the air. Some were falling nearby, others being carried on the breeze... what plants will they sow I wondered; where and when will they flower?

And what of my sons; two of them older now than I was in the picture? As parents, we might wish for our offspring to spread like tendrils, but there’s a reason why seeds disperse in wind or water. Few trees grow tall in the shadow of others; it's their scattering afar that allows them to flourish. They must do so also when the time is right.

Herrick's poem is often twinned with Shakespeare's warning that Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May / And summers lease hath all too short a date...  In the famous film scene, Keating tells his pupils not to wait for chance or circumstance. The old boys in the pictures, he says, are now fertilising daffodils—we are all of us, 'food for worms'. 

That's true, but not quite yet. 

The faces of my classmates were full of promise. I hope our reunion is as much a celebration of life still to live, as that which has passed. After all, there's much to be said for an Indian summer.