Tuesday, 19 August 2008

"The Amazing Flying Sky"

I am very glad to be back in the flatlands of Lincolnshire, I have become very fond of the open nature of this countryside, much of England's landscape seems very closed and claustrophobic. While Lincolnshire may be flat, it has plenty of trees and features, and it has 'the amazing flying sky' (Donovan, "Starfish on the Toast") which is very important thing for me, after my time in Orkney.

I love to be able to watch the weather coming and going, to see clouds form and dissolve and melt into veils of rain. To see the sunlight plunge in shafts through the sculpted clouds, and watch roiling formations gallop across the sky. This delight in watching the sky is, I think, one of the many reasons I'm not happy in bricks and mortar - the sky and the weather are simply too distant and inaccessible. This weekend we will be in Shropshire - very different country, rolling, thoroughly man-dominated farming country, and plenty of post-Victorian industrial landscapes, too. Not that those latter are always a bad thing, some councils have made laudable efforts to ensure that old industrial areas have been transformed into glorious wildlife havens. Indeed, some of them have been turned into fascinating 'living museums' which can provide an absorbing and full day's entertainment, Ironbridge being a pioneering and shining example. We visited when it had only recently opened, and was a very new, and revolutionary concept, and have watched it blossom, over the past quarter century, with intense pleasure. The people of our past, and their work and achievements, deserve our recognition and respect, and we have much to learn from their experience, not least, to treat our resources with much greater care!

Next week we shall be in Scotland, in the Borders and around Edinburgh. A beautiful area, with plenty of dramatic vistas, but not my favourite part of mainland Scotland - that lies much farther north, in the wide, open spaces of Caithness and Sutherland, where man has left a wilderness behind, after the Clearances, for sheep farming and game hunting. Sheep are still there, but not in the same numbers, as is game, but there are also wide swathes of monoculture forestry, though these are widely separated by sweeping vistas of moorland, with lochs that shelter such glorious creatures as osprey. If I had my 'druthers' we'd go to Orkney, where the landscape is mostly sky - you can see the weather coming in plenty of time to prepare for it! Orkney manages to be wild and fertile at the same time, man has gained a good living there for millenia, and the food is fabulous! The beef is flavoursome and tender, mostly raised by farmers on small farms, who care for their 'beasts' like their children! The cabbages grow to the size of footballs, and all the vegetables are bigger and tastier than I can recall any where else, while the seafood is to die for! The traditional dishes, such as bannocks, farm cheese and 'clapshot' are a gaping hole in my gustatory life, and Stockans of Stromness make the only oatcakes worth eating!

Oh dear, my homesickness is showing, change direction! The great joy of a travelling lifestyle is the wealth of new experiences, most of which are free - the views are always different, and always have something special, and, even in such a small island, the people in each area are different - possibly because the landscape itself imposes different lifestyles, and therefore, dispositions. So far, the only people I have found it difficult to like have been city dwellers - it always seems to be 'rush, rush' and no empathy or time for any other viewpoint, 'number one' always comes first. Today, my home is creaking gently in the wind, and the clouds are like grubby lumps of cotton wool, rolling and fleeing across the sky, with delicate patches of pale blue breaking up the lumpy texture of the clouds. If I lived in a house, let alone a city, I probably wouldn't even notice, let alone be uplifted by it.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Houses, good thing/bad thing?

"And tell me, people of Orphalese, what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors?

Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power?

Have you remembrances, the glimmering arches that span the summits of the mind?

Have you beauty, that leads the heart from things fashioned of wood and stone to the holy mountains?

Tell me, have you these in your houses?

Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master?"

Kahlil Gibran 'The Prophet'

I'm not about to pretend that we had such worthy thoughts in our minds when we gave up living in houses, lack of liquidity and a need for flexibility had much more to with it! However, the truth of Gibran's words have come home to me more and more, particularly over the past year, since we have returned to the road after 3 misguided years in bricks and mortar, which cost us money and much heartache. Neither am I going to pretend that we don't have a very high degree of comfort, ours is a brand new caravan, with heating, electricity and all that that brings with it, but it does limit how much 'stuff' we carry with us, literally and metaphorically, and requires us to prioritise quite carefully how we apportion space and weight quotas.

I remember when we first took to the road, there was a phrase being used in the media and amongst Friends (we were Quakers at the time) that talked about 'knowing the difference between need and greed' Our current lifestyle certainly helps us with that! An ex of mine used to say that 'one expands to fill the space available' - just for once, he was quite right! (actually, he was right quite often, but don't tell him) There is a wonderful freedom about reducing not just the space in which to hoard things, but also the capacity to distance yourself from the power of nature. In houses, when there is serious rainfall you are hardly aware of it until you step outside and find yourself knee deep! When so much of your identity is tied up with your home, and all the stuff in it that announces to the world what kind of person you perceive yourself to be, losing all or part of it is devastating, not just on a practical level, but on a personal, identity level. I watch the flood victims in Britain on TV with an aching heart, and see these interviews with those returning from their caravans to their bricks and mortar with equal sorrow, for they are returning to an old identity for themselves and the old vulnerability. Don't think I'm being superior here, I'm more sad that they have been given a chance by life to look at themselves, and the world, through a different lens and have rejected it. Instead of treating their stay in a caravan as if it were a holiday, a window on a different life, and an opportunity to learn how well they can cope without all their comforts and 'stuff', they have reduced themselves to 'victim' status, seen themselves as helpless. "Whatever you believe, it's true" were the words of a wise man, whose name I can't recall, and believing themselves to be helpless and suffering, they become so - we all do, if that is what we believe.

This week and last, we had some spectacular storms here, and there has been some flooding elsewhere, I believe. For me, these storms were a delight, snug in my flimsy walls, I watched the light show with wonder, and the play of water and wind with delight, rather than fear. My walls are very flimsy, in every sense, although we are insured, disaster to the van would be a misery indeed, but mainly on a practical level. It would be enormously inconvenient, and, despite the insurance, costly in financial terms, but what matters to me most cannot be taken away by natural or physical upheavals, it's internal. Kahlil Gibran closes that passage about houses with these words:-'For that which is boundless in you abides in the mansion of the sky, whose door is the morning mist, and whose windows are the songs and silences of night.' To many, this will seem like mystical double talk, for me, it's a profound truth at the heart of my world view. It has liberated me from years of fear and uncertainty, and the anxiety of seeing myself through the eyes of those who would judge me by what I own/have/how I dress etc. I hope that any who read this can also find that freedom and peace of mind, nothing beats it.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Everyone agrees that it's impossible . . . . .

Everyone agrees
That it's impossible
To have a real relationship with one's parents,
But the same ones, becoming parents,
Never think
For one moment
That it will be impossible for them to have a real
relationship with their sons and daughters.

Margaret Tait "Origins and Elements" 1959

For many more these days, this poem seems to sum things up, and I have been reflecting on my own parent/child relationships, from both sides of the equation. I think that I am extremely lucky in my parent/child relationships, in that I had much more of a peer to peer relationship with my mother than most, due to my father's early death and my early admission to boarding school, and that of my 4 children, I can count 2 of them as not just much loved, but amongst my dearest friends - that I have much in common with, and would choose as friends if we were to meet as strangers because of our common beliefs and values. This is not to say i hold my other 2 children less dear, simply that they have much more of their fathers' genes and characters of that side of their family, so they are simply different kinds of people.

Once my father died, my mother needed me to be less dependent on her, emotionally - not a demand that she deliberately or consciously made, simply that she had no reserves left. This created a different kind of parent/child relationship, with me physically dependent, but having to give as much as I took on an emotional level, much more like a peer-to-peer relationship. In many ways this could have easily become little more than what would today be regarded as child abuse, but, for me, it became a positive thing. It gave me faith in myself, in my own ability to deal with whatever life threw at me, at an early age. This coping was not always easy, pleasant or wildly successful, but I did cope, and came out the other side having learned useful lessons, and with an interesting and unusual relationship with my mother. When she died, at the sadly young age of 65, I lost not just my mother, but a friend to whom I was becoming closer all the time, and coming to respect in a way few children respect their parents - not simply as parents, but as an amazing person, whose achievements left me open mouthed.

My own children, 3 daughters and 1 son by 3 fathers, are a very mixed bag of characters, all having coped with their difficult childhoods in different ways. I was far from an ideal mother, suffering long bouts of serious, untreated depression for most of their childhoods, and it has, of course, left its mark on all of them, as well as on me. I don't feel any guilt about the ways in which I let them down, because I know that I held their welfare dearest at all times, and that I always did the best I could at the time. However, I am deeply saddened by the price they paid for my incapacity, as I paid for my own mother's, and do whatever I am able to redress the balance - but one can never go back and one can never change the past, nor how it affected people. At the same time, I can see that, in many ways it made them stronger personalities, as it did me, so there is a balance which is hard to assess in terms of good/bad. If my children hadn't felt protective towards me as children, would they be able to see me as clearly, as an individual, as 2 of them do now - the other 2 are gradually coming to the same point, too. When I compare my relationship with my children, it actually seems to me to be less dependent and more intimate, than those of many of my acquaintance, and, generally, a more honest and open one, with more mutual respect. I may be deluding myself, I'm perfectly willing to acknowledge that! But I do feel that we have more of a 'real relationship' than many.

So, where does that leave me? And the truth about my parent/child relationships? I can only give my perspective, you'd need to hear my children's, and my mother's, stories, to have even a part of the full picture. Again and again I return to Margaret Tait, and and question myself. It's really got no answer, no resolution, and I'll never know if 'everyone' is right.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Thunder of memory

Shortly after I posted yesterday's gibberish, we had a series of magnificent thunderstorms. These sent all the campers scurrying for cover, but did not appear to bother the 2 men putting up the large, new toilet/shower block, who continued to clamber around on the roof, wielding their electric drills etc, while magnesium-white flashes illuminated their work!

The sky had been bright while I posted my blog, but over a space of less than 5 minutes it turned darker and darker, till I needed to put the lights on - then, a stupendous white flash, that blinded me for 3 or 4 seconds, the sound of a heavy oak cupboard falling down a long spiral staircase and a rattling on the roof that I assumed to be hailstones - but no, it was large, individual raindrops that I was very glad to be protected from. This bout lasted for about 45 minutes, then we had a break of blue skies for an hour or so. Then, equally suddenly, the next one arrived, heralded by squally gusts of wind that threatened all the tents and awnings, twisting and lifting them so they struggled like terrified torture victims, when the torrent hit, the wrenched canvas flung the water in fountains and cascades that a designer of 'water features' would have envied! When the wind dropped, the water ran off the excellent modern waterproofing in distinct snakelike formations, looking remarkably like a display of trickling mercury - quite entrancing.

It's a long time since I last remember experiencing storms like this (they continued most of the night, a wonderful light show that I was glad to be awake to enjoy) The last time I recall storms of such impact was in my early teens, at my first secondary boarding school, Bearwood. This was the senior department of the Royal Merchant Navy School, to whom I owe a great debt, they gave me a far better education and standard of living than my mother could have afforded, had I stayed at home, and continued to pay for my education at a fine Girls' school, once the girls section of Bearwood closed (when I was 14) The school was in a fabulous 19th century mansion, built by the family who owned the 'Times' newspaper, and donated, with its enormous grounds, to the Royal Merchant Navy Orphanage when they found their original property, at Snaresbrook, no longer up to the job. A modern block of classrooms had been added to the original building - a long corridor, with rooms off, and I vividly remember standing in this corridor one summer term, with hailstones the size of golf balls crashing onto the sky lights, and wondering if the glass would stand up to this assault! Suffice to say they did, and I got into trouble (again!) for being late for my lesson, standing around contemplating the weather.

Bearwood has a special place in my heart, along with several members of the staff there. I won't pretend I was happy there, on the contrary, I was very miserable indeed, but this was not the fault of the school or its staff, or even of the other children, many of whom teased me unmercifully. The problem was that I was shy, gawky and deeply insecure, too much had happened in my short life, and I was a bully's dream! Some of the boys only needed to look at me hard, and I'd burst into tears! I was very frightened of life itself, having lost my father at four and a half, found myself sharing my remaining parent only 7 months later, and then packed off to boarding school at nearly 8 - the world didn't look like a very safe place to me, and I remained bewildered and confused by it all for many years, right into adulthood. Nonetheless, Bearwood was my rock for several years, and many of the deeply caring staff did their level best to fill the yawning gap left by our absent parents, they went way beyond the call of duty in the support and love they offered to children partially orphaned by death, and deprived of their remaining parent by circumstances.

The basics of simple survival were much more of a priority in those post-war years, and, although they cared as much as any modern parent ( maybe even more than some?) simply keeping a roof over their heads and food in our mouths was foremost in their efforts - there was little in the way of State support in those days, and charitable bodies served an even more vital role than they do now, in this country. In the early years in our little house in Canterbury, SSAFA (Soldiers, Sailors and Air Force Association) were vital to my mother, providing us with many basics, such as clothes, furniture and even food, sometimes. Many I talk to about going to boarding school at such an early age are aghast that my mother could send me away so young, they find it hard to understand, in this age of minimum wages and charity shops, not to mention food being thrown away, that she was doing her best for me, ensuring that for 3/4 of the year I was fed, clothed, warm and housed to a standard way beyond what she could manage, and, furthermore, given a higher standard of education than the local school would have offered. My mothers' generation had suffered the Depression and the Second World War, what emotional damage did they suffer? In comparison to that, what was I suffering? I have no right to complain, but to be grateful that I was given so much by people who owed me nothing.

As the thunder clouds roll over again, I sit in my caravan home, with more than enough food in my cupboards, a modern gas cooker, a fridge, a heater and loads of modern comforts, and I'm deeply grateful. What's more, I have this wonderful machine, through which i can inflict my thoughts on you, the reader - isn't life magic!

Thursday, 7 August 2008


Living, as I mostly do, on caravan and camping sites, I'm a bit of a 'Peeping Tom" on how other people enjoy their leisure time. Only a particular portion of the population, granted, but fascinating, nonetheless. There has been radio time given to 'staycations' lately, the idea being that the 'credit crunch' has caused people to turn away from going away on holiday ( be that going abroad or going away at all) and to stay either in their own homes, or remain in their own country. The impression seems to be that this is something new and original, but I have to say that from my perspective, it's going away that's more of a 'flash in the pan' idea.

I can recall few holidays in my youth, either for myself or for the majority of those I knew (including the comparatively wealthy at my boarding schools) The first true holiday I remember was taken when I was in my early teens, and my stepfather converted an old Bedford van to a camper, by installing 2 bunks, high on either side for my sister and myself, space being kept on the floor for a mattress for him and my mother. We packed basic camping gear and headed for the south west of England, Dorset in particular. I don't remember how long we were away, but I do remember it being very exciting, and, despite various rows and disasters, having an hilarious time - at least one of the disasters being the cause of some of the greatest hilarity! This incident took place in the New Forest, and proper caravan and camping sites were few and far between in those days, there was much more of what is known today as 'wild camping', so we were driving through the Forest, quite late, in the twilight, looking for am open, flat space to stop the night. My mother was at the wheel and Tom, my stepfather, spotted a likely area off the road. Mummy headed off-road into the dusk, and soon came to a small stream. "Drive straight through, there's a good, flat bit on the other side" said Tom, and so, cautiously, my mother went forward - perhaps too cautiously, because we soon had our back wheels stuck in the stream, with the front of the van up on the bank! Suffice to say we had a very uncomfortable night, bunk occupants only held from shooting out the back by the closed doors, and our parents getting wet feet!

To many, today, this would seem like a very unsatisfactory experience. I watch those around me on site, with their enormous TVs, microwaves etc, in enormous caravans with awnings even bigger, and a still larger area staked out with windbreaks, and wonder if they realise how privileged they are. Even those with modern tents seem to take a level of comfort and convenience for granted that I didn't have in my home as a child! I recall, vividly, helping friends to set up their tent in their back garden, prior to going away, when I was about 15. They were a Scouting family and had a big, canvas tent that seemed as big as a marquee to me! However, they set it up in the back garden of a small terraced house, so it can't really have been that big. It took 2 people to carry this tent, not counting the poles, I suppose it must have been about as big as most caravan awnings these days, but so much more complicated and heavy. No lightweight aluminium poles, let alone carbon fibre, in those days, these poles were long and made of wood, with metal caps and fittings, and did not provide a frame over which you draped the canvas - the guy ropes' tension held it all up. I watch old films of Hillary and co. climbing Everest, and my admiration is unbounded, simply because of these heavy, complex canvas tents they relied on for shelter! It took serious skill to set up a tent at all, let alone do it so it stayed up in all weather.

I have unbounded admiration for people like Ray Mears, who learn, preserve and pass on the skills of simple, hunter gatherer style living. We light our barbecues, and kid ourselves we're enjoying the outdoor life - gas barbecues? Outside a caravan that cost several thousand pounds? Pull the other one! Don't misunderstand, I'm not diminishing the value that caravanning or camping holidays offer, quite the reverse, I wish we would all be more grateful for the leisure and comfort we all have in our lives these days, and see them in perspective. So many are feeling hard done by because they can no longer afford to go to Spain, or Bali, even. We live in a wealthy enough society that we can have free time to do with as we wish, without wondering how we'll feed ourselves during that time - that's magical. I'm not that old, only just old enough to claim a bus pass and pension, but I'm old enough to remember having to put cardboard in my only pair of shoes, because my mother couldn't afford to get them mended, let alone buy new ones, and that's, thankfully, a much rarer experience these days.

I was listening, this morning, to an interview with 2 men who work in the City, 2 of the cogs that make up the financial motor of all our lives. They were asked why the 'credit crunch' happened, and they both said 'Greed' - not just the greed of the Banks, but all of us, including Government, determined to have what we wanted, whether we could afford it or not. They were right, if you can afford any kind of holiday, be deeply grateful, and hope that it continues to be the case - we have sown the wind, and there's whirlwinds galore on their way. That doesn't mean life won't be enjoyable, but we all need to learn to get more pleasure from the things that have nothing to do with how wealthy we are, what gadgets we have, how big and glamourous our homes are . . . . etc.etc.etc. We have followed Mammon, and starved our hearts and souls - there's no financial price on joy, success, contentment, and while money is useful, it's only a tool. The value of a tool lies in how it is used, how are you using yours? Or are you too frightened of losing it to put it to use?

To return to vacations/staycations, whichever you are lucky to have, I hope you will value your time more than your wealth, and the people in your life most of all - they are the real wealth of the world, although there are far too many of us, these days! And please remeber that it is harder for a rich man to get into the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle - and I don't believe that Jesus was being mystical when he said that, he was talking about here and now. (And in case you're wondering, I don't see myself as Christian, I just recognise good advice when I hear it!)

Having re-read this, I feel I sound a bit 'preachy' - sorry, I don't think i'm wiser than any one else, but I am so sad that we don't seem to be learning from our mistakes, and my heart aches for future generations who will reap what we have sown. I'm no better than anyone else, but this is heartfelt, so I'll let it stand as it is, and hope you will forgive the impression of 'holier than thou'.

Monday, 4 August 2008

What's in a name?

I have a new granddaughter, who has been given the charming name of 'Inga", redolent of Vikings and fjords and other such Scandinavian delights. It set me thinking about all the names and nicknames that I, and those around me have carried, and the baggage that names carry.

I was named Michele (only one 'L' as my father didn't know how to spell it) but rapidly became 'Mimi' to all and sundry - today, only my cousin Janice calls me Mimi. Mimi was a pretty, dark haired little girl, and she is now buried so deeply inside me that I can barely remember her - to be called 'Mimi' now is deeply disconcerting. When I went to school I was the only Michele for a long time, and no-one really knew how to pronounce it, I suffered the pain of being 'Meee-shell' for many years, usually in a nasal voice, that made me cringe. My mother, in my later childhood, affectionately reduced my name to 'Miche', pronounced 'Meesh', which later led to people calling me 'Midge', particularly grating, as I hadn't even granted them the right to call me by my christian name, let alone my family diminutive. Grrrrrrrrrr!

Now I am, happily, known by most of my nearest and dearest as 'Moomin', which recalls the fictional characters of Moomin Mama and Moomin Papa and their brood, a family of Hippo-like characters in a series of childrens books. Not that it came from them - my 2nd daughter asked me what I would like to be called, when I became a grandmother (I don't much like 'Granny,' or even 'Mum'if it comes to that, too de-personalising for my taste, I'm aperson, not a relationship.) I suggested 'Mim', after the mad witch in 'The Sword in the Stone' - Mad Madame Mim. At the time, I had a fondness for having pink hair, which Madame Mim also did in the film, and she was one very powerful, contrary lady, which suited my self image very well! Well, between having rather too much 'falling down water' and a family tendency to Spoonerisms, it got transmogrified into 'Moomin' and stuck. Since my shape is rather closer to a hippo's than I would like, and the Moomins were such an extraordinary family, it seemed to fit rather satisfyingly, so I've stuck with it.

My husband was named Jeffery, after a novel writer favourite of his mother's, and despite being slim and agile, for some reason had the moniker 'Jumbo' applied in his childhood. These days, he is often, lovingly, known as 'Jiffy', again a product of my 2nd daughter's creative wordiness. This, to me, seems to fit his gentle, giving and generous character very well, as well as his eagerness to get things done as quickly as he can - provided he doesn't get distracted!

My son was called 'Nicolas' (yes, no 'h', it's French) after the 'vin ordinaire' that was delivered to the door in Paris when I was an 'au pair' in the 60's. When little he was known as 'Nicky', and as the youngest, with 3 forceful older sisters, he found it very uncomfortable as he reached young adulthood - not surprisingly, he felt he was not being treated as an adult by those who called him by this diminuative, so he became 'Nick'. Around this time, he was also known as 'The Boy Wonder', which he self-deprecatingly turned into 'The Boy Blunder', which gives an impression of his state of mind at the time, I think. Now, he is indubitably a man, and has returned to being Nick. He's as fallible as any other man, of course, and has a long way to go, but I think he's found an identity with which he is comfortable, at last, solid ground on which to build.

My eldest daughter was called Annabelle, after my delightful next door neighbour, and this suffered little in the way of contractions. Nor did she have any nicknames in the family -though one 'stepfather' was prone to call her 'Belly' - not appreciated at all. (his name for me was 'Sludge Pan', I think that should have warned me, but I was slow on the uptake) Now she has moved back to her childhood home in Orkney, and everyone calls her 'Belle', which I find highly appropriate - although she is blind to it herself, she has real beauty.

I could go on listing names, but that's not what I want to get across. What interests me is how much we are affected by what we are called, and by who calls us what. Our identity is such a fragile and malleable thing, and if we are not very careful, we can end up not knowing who we really are at bottom, and being a composite of other peoples' ideas of us. This, I think, is why we need to be careful what we allow others to call us, we need to know what we stand for, what our values are and how these create our own vision of ourselves. Then, we need to do everything in our power to ensure that that we actually are that person, and names are a very helpful peg to hang this identity on. For me, 'Moomin' (or Mwmyn, if we're being Welsh!) suits me very well, no glamour, plenty of affection and comfort, with a streak of steel but no sharp edge! Maybe, like all of us, I am deluding myself, but it keeps me happy.