I went to the dump today, with the remains of my father-in-law. More accurately, I drove to the dump. My first drive in a while, and my first in many years in the towns where I used to live, and where I will soon live again.
Anxious about many things at present, and always anxious about driving, it took me a few attempts to reverse into a space, failing to get the car into reverse gear, and fearful that there would be men sniggering at me, and rolling their eyes. My imagination, of course. After attempting to get my husband to swap places, so he could perform the manoeuvre, he roundly told me that I would only get less nervous if I drove more often, and I deftly parked soon after.
I did not look behind me at the items in the back seat, the footwell, of the car. The green office chair, which had never been that comfortable, did not concern me. But the remains of my father-in-law did. Small, wooden items made by Reg Bradley, father-in-law from my first marriage. Little stools that he had made for my daughters when they were toddlers; a tile-topped low bench, which had served as a bedside table in the house we are leaving, and before that as a … what did we use it for? … in the house I lived in before, for twenty years, and where I raised my daughters.
Reg’s creations were square, sharp-cornered. Tights were often snagged, shins bruised. They were solid, well-made, and put together in his shed from timber bought for a song at auctions. They were popular amongst our friends, back in ’80s. They would say, ‘Would he make me one? I’ll pay him for it,’ and he’d make a coffee table, and only charge a fiver for it. Not much more than the cost of the wood, nails and glue that had gone to make it.
He made me a sewing box on legs for Christmas, one year. It had an insert, set in the top, with compartments lined in green baize. Win, my mother-in-law, added in a box of pins, a magnet for collecting pins, should they be spilled, a tape measure, and other sewing essentials.
Our flat, when the girls were tiny, and later our house, when they had grown a little, was filled with Reg’s woodwork. Reg did not live to see us in that house, in which he would have spent visits hammer in hand, workbench set up in the back yard. But he died of a heart attack (his second) in the time between us finding the house and moving into it.
When my first husband and I separated, we were each left with Reg Bradley coffee tables, tile-topped. The one that remained in the house where I stayed, with my girls, had bottle-green tiles on top with a mushroom motif, and was known as ‘the mushroom table’. Long after our daughters had outgrown the little stools, they were used as plant-stands, or to place coffee cups on, next to the armchair. One of them had ingenious, crossover legs, which allowed the stool to be collapsed flat; often when a child was sitting on it.
We are now in an in-between place, my second husband and I. We have nearly sold the house we have lived in for more than eight years, and have not quite bought another. In a strange symmetry, my husband has had a heart attack in this in-between space, as Reg did twenty-nine years ago. Though my husband has survived.
Time to let go of Reg. No reason to keep his remains. Many items have gone over the years: my sewing-box-on-legs; my daughter’s wooden Tardis with a torch inside that shone a light through the plastic dome in the top; the mushroom table (offered to my ex-husband, who had quite enough of Reg’s tables already). The dark-stained bathroom cabinet, later painted white, which was left in the house I once shared with Reg’s son and his granddaughters.
I did catch a glance, in the rearview mirror, of the stool with the collapsing legs, before my husband took it, and Reg’s other remains, to the relevant skip. I knew it was time to let them go. Hoping that someone might pick them up, those little stools and that tile-topped bench, and take them home.
I went to the dump today, with the remains of my father-in-law. More accurately, I drove to the dump. My first drive in a while, and my first in many years in the towns where I used to live, and where I will soon live again.
William Trevor and I have connections, via a small town in Ireland, and two men. One of them was my father, another is now a friend, and was a catalyst for uncovering my past and a wealth of material that was to feed my writing for many years.
In 2007, a William Trevor story appeared in The Guardian, and in the biog it said that he was born in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork in 1928. In the same town and the in same year of birth as my father. It was a town I had never visited, and as my father had been dead for seven years by then, I had no cause to visit. We had few connections with that side of the family: Dad rarely mentioned his childhood, and his silence spoke of sadness.
I had not seen or spoken to my father for several years before his death, for reasons that I won’t go into here; stories that are not mine to tell. The truth is, you can never cut off entirely from your past, and my curiosity about my father’s past grew. I held on to The Guardian short story supplement for some months, spoke to a friend about writing to William Trevor, and the impossibility of doing so. I’m not sure what was holding me back from sending a letter, from writing the letter, but my friend said, ‘What do you have to lose?’
I found out that there was a short story competition to be judged by William Trevor, part of the William Trevor Literary Festival to be held in Mitchelstown. So I wrote a letter to William Trevor, care of the administrator of the competition, Liam Cusack. I left the letter to Trevor unsealed, placed it in another envelope, and enclosed a note to the administrator, asking him to forward it, and saying that he was welcome to read the letter before sending it on. I didn’t keep a copy, but from what I remember I asked if he might have known my father. Perhaps they had gone to school together. My dad knew William Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ by heart, and perhaps they had learned the poem together. I expected no reply.
A few days later, I had a telephone call from Ireland. Liam Cusack had read my letter. He said that Trevor had previously received ‘crank letters’, so he had opened mine. There was no point forwarding it, though, as Trevor had left Mitchelstown when he was five years old, and would not have gone to school with my dad. He would, however, do a bit of research for me, about my dad, as he thought there was a man who would have known my dad.
This led to a visit to Mitchelstown in 2007, and twice more, the last being in 2014 when I read a story from my collection As Long as it Takes at a Culture Night event, in the company of both Liam Cusack and Jim Parker, the man who knew my father, and with whom I exchange long, handwritten letters once or twice a year.
In 2008, I spent two days at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival in the beautiful setting of Charleston. William Trevor was making a rare appearance, a reading and a book signing. It was sold out, but I hung around the desk in the hope of ticket returns. Five minutes before the event, a few tickets were released, which had been reserved by people in the USA, and had not been collected. I took my place, and listened to a story set in a small town in Ireland, not unlike Mitchelstown, read in the same accent that I had heard throughout my childhood.
I queued to have my book signed, and had a few moments with the man. He looked frail, and the organisers were protective of him becoming too tired, and aware of the long queue of people waiting. I told him that my father was born in Mitchelstown, too, and in the same year, and that Trevor and I had a mutual friend, Liam Cusack, in Mitchelstown. ‘Oh, how is he? I’ve heard he’s not been well,’ he said, but I was moved along before I could say more.
William Trevor only lived in Mitchelstown for five years. His father was a bank manager in the town, and bank managers were moved from town to town. Then Trevor left Ireland, as my father did, as a young man, to go to England to find work, and never returned to live there. He was an outsider, a Protestant in a Catholic country, an Irishman in Devon, and this gave him a different perspective on the world he lived in. Liam Cusack told me that Trevor came back to Mitchelstown often, and was to be found sitting on a bench in the square, looking towards the Knockmealdown mountains, or watching people, making up stories in his head about small town people.
I would not dare to put my own writing in the same class as William Trevor, but we do have a connection. We cannot quite escape our past, even a past that is ours only tentatively, or is it in the blood, in the psyche? What do I know, really, of Ireland, having grown up in England, having visited, for only weeks at a time, the Ireland my parents were born in? Yet Richard Skinner wrote this of my stories, when he reviewed As Long as it Takes on Writers’ Hub:
McCarthy shares with William Trevor a profound melancholy and her tales, like the Irish landscape eternally showered with soft yet invasive rain, are similarly saturated in shame, sacrifice, and secret sorrow.
I was talking to my husband this morning, about an old boyfriend. The memories were happy, funny, and from a very long time ago. It brought me back to a time when I could not easily do that – share such memories, such thoughts – with a previous partner, without being accused of … mental unfaithfulness, I suppose you could call it.
I am feeling brave today. There have been times I have thought about writing a blog post such as this, and have shied away through fear. The last time I mentioned this man, not naming him or identifying him in any way, I was contacted by his present wife, threatening ‘libel, defamation of character’. She tried to comment on my post (comments are moderated by me) and sent me a Facebook private message. It mentioned that she had also read my Tweets. I have changed my surname since I knew him, and it has been more than 10 years since our short relationship ended, and yet he was following my blog.
The brief details are, and it helps to write this in the third person, a lonely woman, a single parent, goes on a dating website. She is about to remove her profile, fed up of the cattle market aspect of it all. Just before she does so, a message arrives from a man. They exchange messages for an evening, until she says she is off to bed. The next morning, the man has left several more messages, and wants to know where she went to, why she didn’t stay up to talk online with him. He wants to meet quickly. She doesn’t want to just yet, but agrees to it. They exchange emails, talk on the phone, and text constantly, until they meet for the first time.
She goes away on a pre-arranged holiday, to stay with a friend. He calls her on the friend’s landline, texts her all the time, and he persuades her to cut her holiday short. He drives to collect her from the friend’s house. His attention is constant. She likes the attention, at first.
Within a few weeks, they plan for him to move in to her house, and he does so, a couple of months after meeting. On the very first night, there is an argument because she makes a remark about how different the house looks. He has persuaded her to get rid of a lot of her furniture, so that he can move his in. Some of this happens when his ‘man and van’ arrives, and he has brought his sofa and says that she can get rid of hers, that the van will take it away.
He gets angry when she does not reply quickly to his texts. Gets angry quite a lot, in fact. She is confused by the loving, then the anger. His anger is not physical; he just talks and talks in a slightly raised voice. He is a good arguer, and she is left feeling that she has indeed done something wrong. That he is right. Like the time that she goes out, for two or three hours, with a couple of female friends, and is met by anger about her being late (it is 9.30 p.m. when she gets home). He throws questions at her, like, ‘How many lovers do you have?’ He accuses her of having a sexual relationship with a male friend.
She is in love; her friends have all noticed how happy she is, how different. She thinks she is in love. She has not had time or space to think for herself since this man came into her life.
A few months later, having planned a wedding to this man, she says that she wants to put the date back. There are good reasons for this, and what is the rush, in any case? He is furious, says he is leaving, that he has been brought there under false pretences. Look at all the things he has given up for her.
She is confused. She begs him to stay. He withdraws his love and attention, his constant contact with her, and she can think for herself again. She then realises that she wants him to leave. In a few weeks, he does so, taking his furniture, his washing machine, his TV. She hides in the bedroom as the van loads, emptying the house. He leaves his key. He leaves without saying goodbye. He refuses to tell her where he is moving to. He asks her to forward his mail to his place of work.
A few weeks later, she emails him about a big bill that has arrived, covering the time he was living with her. He refuses to pay anything towards it. He writes, ‘You are the most selfish woman I have ever met.’
He crops up again, some two years later. He sends her a letter, apologising. He says that he realised that they would not make good marriage partners, early on, and should have said so. He also says sorry for leaving her in a bad financial situation when he left, and that he could have made this right. He is writing this letter to ‘make amends’, as a recovering alcoholic. There is no return address, no contact details of any kind. She is thrown into a panic by this letter. She does not know what to do with it. She sets it in the sink, lights a match, and burns it.
This woman has friends and family who have been through similar experiences. Some with physical violence. One family member describes it as, ‘Like leaving a cult,’ when she left her abusive marriage. Another friend uses a pseudonym on social media, as her ex-boyfriend is monitoring her online presence.
We don’t always talk about it, those of us who have experienced what is now termed as Coercive Control, what is now recognised as a crime. There is a chance we will not be believed. We often appear to be in happy and loving relationships. We are intelligent people, known for standing up for ourselves. How could this happen to us?
Grammar schools: a leg-up onto the social mobility ladder for poorer children, or a kick down for those unable to pass a test at the age of eleven? They are back on the political agenda, placed there by grammar school girl, Theresa May. In Kent, where I live, they never went away.
I, too, was a grammar school girl, from 1971 to 1976. I lived on a council estate, just a few yards from the back gate to Rosebery County Grammar School for Girls. My daily walk to school was via the tradesmen’s entrance. I was the only girl from my estate that took that walk. There were only two of us singled out by the 11 plus test – me and Peter Mann, who had gone to the boys’ grammar a year or so before me. My brother followed him a few years later. We were oddities. Our elevation made us different, other; admired and reviled by the world we were brought up in.
My mum was a cleaner at the grammar school that I went to, and she also cleaned for a woman, Mrs S., in one of the big houses nearby. Mum was so proud when I got my place at Rosebery, the very same school that her employer’s daughter went to. I went cleaning with Mum during a school holiday. There were earthenware cups and saucers, and a bowl of brown sugar for the coffee we had in the lovely kitchen before starting on the bedrooms. Mrs S. came into the kitchen, and Mum told her that I had got into Rosebery. Her distaste was barely disguised. The daughter of her ‘lady that does’ getting into Rosebery? She just about managed a ‘Well done,’ before scurrying off.
I was excited about going to the school. It was a stretch, I am sure, to kit me out. I didn’t have everything I should have done. I remember not having the blue Songs of Praise hymnbook, and being told week after week that I must get my mother to buy a copy. We were supposed to have colouring pencils for Geography; I had wax crayons, which resulted in remarks on my homework about the need to have the right equipment. The feeling grew, as time went on, that I did not belong. I found a small group of friends who were also, in some ways, outsiders, and we survived. Most of us left before the sixth form, for the freedom of a local F.E. college.
I am one of five children. Two went to grammar, three to secondary moderns. We studied different subjects. In many ways, they were more prepared for the world of work, since the grammar didn’t teach typing or secretarial skills. But they were also steered towards certain, traditionally working-class careers. My two sisters (one with undiagnosed dyslexia, the other in hospital for long periods during her childhood) did not pass the 11 plus exam. They went on to gain university degrees in their forties and fifties; university was not suggested to them in their teens, let alone staying on at school beyond the age of 16. Only grammar school children did that.
When it came to choosing schools for my own daughters, I was filled with anxiety. My eldest passed the Kent Test to gain a place at grammar school, but as my own experience of grammar had not been good, I was in two minds. I sat with the other parents at an open day, on the verge of a panic attack. What should we do for the best? The school was smaller than the other schools we had considered. My girl would probably do better in that environment. In the end, both daughters went to grammar; both escaped for the freedom of an F.E. college instead of the sixth form.
There was a school reunion a few weeks ago. I decided not to go, as some memories – both of school and of my home life while I was there – are best left in the past. It has been fun, though, to see some of the old photos posted on a Facebook group. To see faces I still recognise, forty years older, at the get-together.
There is a photograph of Class 2H, which embodies my experience at Rosebery County Grammar School for Girls. I am sitting next to the teacher, the lovely Mr Stokes, who was the kindest form teacher ever. I have a class prefect’s badge pinned to my tie. I so wanted to help, to be good, to do well. My feet are tucked behind the chair legs. This is because I had holes in the top of my shoes, where my big toes had poked through the cheap patent leather. I wore those shoes to school for a long time, as there was no money to buy me new ones.
My time at grammar left me with a feeling of being a fraud, that I did not really belong there. Although I did go on to higher education, that feeling remained with me. This place, that kind of education, was not for the likes of me. I even felt like this when I returned to study in my forties, to do an MA.
I read something recently about Mr Spock from Star Trek. Half human, half Vulcan, he lived amongst humans on the Starship Enterprise, assimilated but not converted. That is how I felt, being plucked from my friends and background into an alien world.
We’ve all had break-ups. There’s the ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ scenario; there is often blame and recriminations of the other party, sometimes self-blame, whereby we examine what we have done wrong. There is usually some discussion, argument, sorting out of stuff – who owns the CDs, who gets custody of children and pets, a splitting of finances.
But what about friendships? In these days of social media, cut-offs can be swift and devastating. How easy it is to ‘unfriend’, to ‘block’ without discussion, leaving things unsaid, things unsorted.
When I think of friends I’ve left behind, they fall into different camps. We have moved apart physically, geographically, changed jobs, changed schools, just don’t get the chance to hang out anymore. I had my children when I was young, and lost many friends who were getting started on their careers whilst I was negotiating nappies. Natural progressions, my former mental health nurse called it when I mourned people I was losing at a time of great change, when chronic illness came into my life. I used to find it harder to let go than I do now.
There are friendships that end in a row. In hindsight, there were things wrong with those friendships from the start. I’ve examined why those people and I became involved. Was it that circumstances pushed us together when we had little in common? Were those things we had in common harmful?
Some friendships end with confusion. A friend I had been close to for many years suddenly starved me of contact. My emails, phone calls and texts all went unanswered. There was no incident before this, no indication of what was to come. Six or so years after she broke contact, I remain baffled as to what I might have done. It was painful for a long time, then I became angry. It was cruel to treat a friend that way. I deserved an explanation.
I am an explainer. I broke up with a very long term friend once. He had been around for so long, I accepted how things were between us, until new friends said, ‘Why do you let him treat you that way?’ I’d shrugged off some very unacceptable behaviour in the past, but when I came to look at your relationship, I actually didn’t like having him around. So I wrote to him and effectively ‘broke-up’ with him. He was hurt and didn’t see what he had done wrong, but there was no other way to do it.
Recently, I ‘unfriended’ someone on Facebook. Someone I have been fond of, but their comments on my threads were so much in opposition to my own thinking I couldn’t tolerate them anymore. Attempts at discussion went nowhere. It helps that I rarely see this person in real life; I know it will be awkward when I do.
I have been ‘unfriended’ twice in recent weeks, each time without discussion, though I can guess at the reasons. Both ‘unfriends’ are people I know very well, in whom I have confided in real life, and they have confided in me. These are acts of hurt and anger, which feel irreparable. In days gone by, they might have slammed doors or slammed down phones, or perhaps not spoken of their hurts. They might have kept away for a while; we would have made it up. But there is something final about wondering where your friend has gone, the friend that always ‘Liked’ or commented on your Facebook posts, only to discover that you have been ‘unfriended’, even blocked.
I can psychologise here. Perhaps these people grew up in atmospheres where it was not safe to discuss things openly. Perhaps there is a family history of cutting people off. Indeed, this is the case in my own family – aunts not spoken to for twenty years, people ignored in the street. It’s a strategy I have used, a learned strategy. Self-protection was an issue in some instances; in others, a lack of self-awareness as to what I was doing. It’s never to late to say sorry, I have found, and some of my previously cut off relationships have been restored, years after a break. True friends forgive.
Paul Simon wrote ‘There are fifty ways to leave your lover’. With social media and texts, there are even more. Separation and divorce involve a painful division of possessions, shared space, shared bodies. Friendship break-ups could, perhaps, go through the same process. It would help with the grief, allow people to eventually pass in the street, to think that was someone I was once close to, to wave and move on.
When I was seventeen, my German penfriend, Elke, sent me a page a day diary. It had a green leatherette cover, and she later sent me a pretty notebook, with a Chinese design on the cover, And so began the habit of keeping a journal. My recollection is of not writing in it for several days, then filling pages when I felt a bit down. I remembering recording watching the Fonz on Happy Days (appointment television in the days of three channels), or that I had seen the boy I fancied looking out of the window of his office, several floors up, as I walked to college. He had blonde, short hair, and I only ever saw him from a distance as I passed the telephone exchange opposite his building. Yet I built up a private fantasy about him, shared only with my journal. Now I think of it, he was always standing at that window when I passed. Perhaps he wrote about me in his journal.
My mother was not one for respecting privacy, so I kept my diary with me at all times, and slept with it under my pillow. No one read it but me.
My diary habit stopped when I left home, a week after my 19th birthday. I can’t remember why. Perhaps there was too much going on, little time outside of studying and socialising in my first year at Thames Poly. I didn’t start again until I was 40, a gap of over 20 years. Illness had forced me stop work, and I was adrift; I felt like I had lost my identity.
I was out with a friend when I saw a notebook I liked. It was A5 spiral bound with a picture of a parrot on the cover. ‘Let me get that for you,’ she said, and out of nowhere, I started writing poetry in that book, and keeping a diary.
It became a thing that I only wrote in notebooks that other people had given me. As I took on a new love, a new identity as a writer, the notebooks filled and accumulated. By this summer, with only one notebook cull since I began writing (again) in 2000, I had two large boxes full of notebooks, plus a pile on my desk awaiting a second read.
Faced with moving house, and the prospect of someone having to deal with my journals when I die (yes, I do think about such things), I decided to destroy them. I don’t think anyone else has read them. When my daughters were living with me, they didn’t seem interested. Current journals were left on coffee tables and never picked up by them. When I met the man who is now my husband, I said that he was not to read them, and he has respected that.
Over the years, I have read each one again, a while after completing them, to see if there was any material to develop into poems, stories or blog pieces. They have then been stored away. I saw no reason to read them again before destroying them, and I drew in the support of a friend to help me. ‘Are you sure; are you really sure?’ she said before and during the ripping, cutting and shredding. Writer friends on Facebook asked the same question. It seemed drastic, they said. But I was and am sure, and the hours we spent in my writing shed, going through the repetitive actions of notebook destruction, left me lighter. It also made me realise what a huge task this would have been for someone after my death. I have it written into my will that I want my notebooks destroyed without being read.
The paper filled a builder’s bucket and two black sacks, which have gone to be recycled. I picked out some shreds, read some words and phrases from the remains of the journals. My eyes fell on sentences as I tore pages out, which threw me back to certain people, certain times. But I was not drawn into reading further.
I don’t know where I shall write or where we shall be when we move. I’ve had the good fortune to have my own room, in a converted shed, for the past six years, and it’s doubtful that I’ll have that luxury again. I may have space for a desk, or it may be that the kitchen table becomes my space. I may become a cafe writer, as I used to be, or someone who writes on trains and buses.
There will be new journals, new gifts of notebooks at birthdays and Christmas. These will fill and be kept again, until the next cull. All that shredded paper, that’s the past. The future is ahead of me, with new notebooks to fill.
When you have an old cat, you know they are on borrowed time. One day, you have to make that phone call, get the pet carrier from the shed. Your cat doesn’t struggle so much as they used to when you lift them in, though they do cry a little. You have that conversation with the vet who has known her for nearly eight years, with the nurse who recognises your voice when you phone to order your cat’s food. You know what the conversation will be. You are ready for it. You sign a form. You stay with the creature, now twenty-one years old, who has been your friend for the last thirteen years of your life. You owe it to her. The vet is kind; the nurses equally so. They apologise when they offer the card machine to enter your PIN number. They offer tissues. They say to take it easy today. You leave with an empty pet carrier and your dear friend’s purple velvet collar.
There are people to tell – your children, now grown, who once lived with her and now have their own homes and cats of their own. The neighbour who, just a week ago, looked in on her and fed her when you were away. The friend who once stayed for a week to do the same. Then Facebook, you tell Facebook, and you know there are at least three people you know who have had to say goodbye to their dear friends in the past few weeks. You are not alone.
There’s the clearing away of things: her little fleece blanket on the sofa; the fur-covered cushion on the chair by the window; her food and water bowls; the stick with feathers on that she still played with up to a week before she died; the litter tray; the litter; her bag of food in the cupboard; the treats that she loved so much you wrote ‘Kitty crack’ on the shopping list each week.
You know it was the right thing to do, that it would have been wrong to put her through any more, and yet…
The next day, and the day after that, she is not on her spot on the sofa, she is not on her chair by the window, she is not getting under your feet in the kitchen, she is not crying her unbelievably loud cry at all hours of the day and night, she is not lying on your legs when you stretch out on the sofa, she is not stretching out her paw to rest on the TV remote control, occasionally changing channels or bringing up strange information boxes on the screen, she is not sitting out in the sun or taking a slow walk round the orchard, stopping to sniff at things.
You fill out a form. It asks if you own a pet. You click No.
“I heard the news today, oh boy…” of the death of George Martin. The cacophony at the end of The Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’ is magnificent, and I was hoping to hear that; the track that BBC 6 Music chose to play first, though, was ‘In My Life’, a nostalgic song.
I have been thinking about nostalgia recently, with the loss of so many of my cultural heroes this year. Also, because I was involved in the production of a poetry collection about the experiences and memorials of soldiers in World War I – Memorandum: Poems for the Fallen by Vanessa Gebbie. It’s an immensely moving collection, which brought me to tears more than once as I was editing it. It has also brought a rush of responses from readers, the poems resounding with their own family histories. It’s interesting to me, as it is a kind of removed history. My parents arrived in England from Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s, and although my father arrived in 1944, and later did National Service in England, Ireland was neutral during the war. My family’s war experiences were different from those of an English, or in Vanessa Gebbie’s case, Welsh, family.
There is a photograph that sits on the cover of my cousin’s pamphlet, The Men from North Clare and the Great War 1914-1918, by Guss O’Halloran. It is of Pte Patrick O’Halloran, 1st Battalion Connacht Rangers, saying goodbye to his sister Bridget and mother Mary at Ennistymon Railway Station early in 1914. He died at the 2nd battle of Ypres the following year. It is an intensely moving picture. Bridget is avoiding Patrick’s gaze as they hold hands; he is leaning out of the train window, she is on the platform. Patrick looks a lot like my cousin Guss. Mary’s face is obscured by Bridget, though her sorrow must have been as great. Guss has written ‘The Last Goodbye’ across the photograph. It can be viewed, along with the pamphlet, as a PDF on the Clare Library website: The Men from North Clare and the Great War 1914-1918
I didn’t know these people, nor know of them till recent years. Nor did I know of the part that Irish soldiers played in the conflict until I read Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. And being raised in an Irish family in England, I was steeped in nostalgia that was not from my own past, my own experiences. When Irish friends and family came round, there would be singing and the playing of records of sentimental songs about Ireland; the homesickness in the room would be palpable. An immense sadness, a longing for their homeland. It is not surprising that the origin of the word nostalgia is expressed in terms of pain. From the Concise OED:
Nostalgia – n. a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past … acute homesickness, from the Greek nostos “return home” and algos “pain”.
We are suckers for nostalgia, from the ubiquitous Keep Calm and Carry On posters to Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife. I must confess to watching the latter – largely undemanding, at times moving, and depicting the time when I was born and was an infant. It does feel like my past – the clothes the children wear being those I see in old photos of me and my family.
I am currently working on a poem based on a photo of a boy to whom I have no connection. A friend pointed it out to me on Facebook, knowing that I have been writing about the decline of the orchards in Kent. I have had some contact with the person that posted it – it’s of her uncle as a child, leaning on a cherry ladder in the now-felled orchard down the road from where I live. It was taken sometime between 1914 and 1920, she thinks, and I became a little obsessed with finding out about him. His history is not mine, nor the history of the orchards. I only moved to this part of Kent in 2008. It is not as if I grew up with the sight of sheep grazing beneath fruit trees, nor did my family occupy cherry orchards for a few weeks each summer to pick the fruit. Yet I am sad that these things are disappearing.
I wonder what it would be like to live in the present, to be concerned only with what is going on now, not to pine for a past that is not mine, not ours.
I do think that being an outsider helps us to see things more clearly, to record them. Being neither fully Irish nor English has given me an outsider’s view, standing aside and watching, not fully engaged with a nostalgia that is not mine to own.
On a cold Valentine’s evening, in a room above a pub where the old sash windows didn’t quite close, I heard Katherine Pierpoint and John Gallas read poetry. The week before, I went to the University of Kent to hear Katharine Norbury read from The Fish Ladder, her superb memoir, which was one of my favourite reads of 2015. What links all three, and got me thinking, is that travelling inspires their writing.
Katherine Pierpoint talked about winning a Somerset Maugham Award, which had to be spent on travelling, then read some poems, and recounted some tales, from her trips to India and Egypt. John Gallas – well, he just keeps moving, and the poems he read ranged from New Zealand to The Alphabet of Ugly Animals, which he wrote after seeing an exhibition at the Turner Contemporary, Margate. He has also worked on a book of translated poems from around the world, The Song Atlas, and read one from Tanzania.
Katharine Norbury walked and walked from the sea to the source of water. Will Self, he’s another one: walking, walking; writing, writing. And I wondered if there was something missing from my experiences, from my writing, because I haven’t been very far at all.
My writing came from enforced inactivity. It started a year into my illness, at a time where I hardly left the house. Journeys were short, and the I was only able to be away from the house for an hour or two. This is still the case, sixteen years on. I haven’t spent a night away from home in a year. I nearly did – to go away to a wedding – but I crashed the day before, and knew I couldn’t make the journey.
Yesterday, I went on a short trip alone. A ten minute walk to the station, a train ride of less than half an hour, and a wander round Rochester, where I used to live. It’s familiar, yet changing. The shops change ownership, a cafe where I used to write every Sunday morning has changed names twice since I moved away, and has knocked through to the next shop. Even the railway station has moved a few hundred yards from the old one, which stands strangely empty as we roll towards the new one, the waiting rooms and shelters levelled, just a sign saying ‘Do Not Alight Here’.
I am not alone often when I go out, but felt the need to undertake this bold expedition by myself. I notice things more when I am not in company. The wild orchards that border the track between Newington and Rainham; the passenger waiting on the platform in a thick puffa jacket, glasses tinted black on a bitterly cold day; a little girl in the next toilet stall with her mum, telling on Leah, who had ‘pulled all the tissue out and just thrown it on the floor, and that was a waste of tissue, wasn’t in Nanna?’ Nanna was in the next stall along from her. The small child in the Oxfam shop, who declared she was going to ‘inspect stuff’: ‘Hmm, this a very comfy chair’. How different the Cathedral looks from the platform of the new station, the perspex and metal shelters on the opposite platform obscuring the view. How cold the fingers of my right hand, texting my husband to ask him to pick me up at the station on the way home.
At the weekend, I’d heard Guy Garvey on the radio, at the BBC 6 Music festival, talking about living in New York for a year, and how being away had fed his songwriting. Again, the importance of travel to an artist. I listened to Guy Garvey’s solo album on my iPod on the way back from Rochester. I’d heard it a few times at home, whilst on my computer, my phone, reading, talking to my husband. I hadn’t really heard it at all. On the train, it was just me and Guy and the music, and staring out of the train window.
Perhaps it’s being alone that creates the experience, and travelling doesn’t need to be that far. My orchard poems, on Wandering Words, and new ones being written, started when I felt bereft after finishing my story collection. I wrote about what I could see from the window of my writing shed, as a filler-in thing, till the next writing project found me. They became that project. Like the shops and cafes of Rochester, the orchards are changing, disappearing. Here is a new poem – or perhaps two, about the boats that are docked on the orchard that backs on to our garden.
upturned on trestles
a milk jug draining
And now there are three
hour minute second hands
stilled round the dead tree
On a car ride from Faversham to home, I was shocked to see that most of an old cherry orchard had been chopped down; the second such orchard that has disappeared in the last two years. Last summer, we bought cherries from a stall in that orchard. A young woman was selling them, her toddler in a playpen under a tree, and a babe in arms, just ten days old. We asked what kind of cherries we bought each time – Napoleon Biggereau, Sunburst, Merton Glory. We bought some on the very last day the stall was open, on my way to an event where I read my poem ‘Know your cherries’. I used them as a prop, then shared them with my granddaughter. She accepted them silently, seriously, while the other poets read. The juice dripped down her chin.
If asked to create a Top 10 favourite songs of all time, I would decline. It would never remain the same. But if pushed, Pulp’s ‘Common People’ would be up there every time. Jarvis Cocker’s story of a posh girl wanting to slum it, to “live like common people”. He tells her to “rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job” to “pretend you’ve got no money”. Jarvis came from common people and so did I – thrown into the world of ‘college’ as we called it then (Thames Poly in my case) from a working class family that lived in a council house, the first in any generation to go on to further and higher education. I didn’t cut my hair, but I did get a job – several jobs – to see me through teenage years and college holidays.
‘Common People’ is on the album Different Class. It’s in my Top 10 albums, too (if forced to list those). It got me through a year of immense change in my life. It has a choice of album covers that you can slip into a frame. The main one was a wedding group photo, and this reflected my early marriage, a week before my 21st birthday. Some of the songs I could directly identify with, like ‘Misshapes’ – about those of us who didn’t quite fit in with the kids on our estate, about the boys at risk of being beaten up for being different. Like ‘Live Bed Show’ – “she doesn’t want to go to work, she doesn’t want to stay in bed.” As for other songs, I could only imagine what it would be like to be one of “twenty thousand people standing in a field”, having left my festival days behind, having never been to a rave, in fact being a thirty-six-year-old mother of two in a failing marriage. Let’s brush over the fact that Jarvis may have been ‘a bit of a perv,’ as a friend of mine put it at the time – hiding in wardrobes, watching girls. Let’s not examine that I got my young daughters singing along to ‘Sorted for Es and Whizz’ in the car. I relate that song to rushing to school in the car, crossing Rochester Bridge, knowing whether we were late or on time by how far the barber who worked in Strood had progressed across the bridge on foot, in the opposite direction to where we were travelling.
I once wrote Jarvis a fan letter. I sent it by email to his BBC 6Music Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service programme. It was probably never read by him, dismissed by some intern as the ramblings of a crazy middle-aged woman. But it was the writing of it that was important. I needed to tell Jarvis that he had got me through a marriage break-up, the most difficult year of my life. That I could still ‘dance and drink’ (‘and screw’) like common people in spite of all the pain.
I was asked by someone what I blog about. ‘Oh, all sorts of things, ‘ I said, struggling for a theme. I didn’t start blogging with the intention of it being ‘about’ anything – just things that interest me, that fire me, that get my goat, that make me feel. My first blog of 2016 was about a musical hero – David Bowie – and I think I shall carry in that vein, making Heroes an occasional theme. Stay tuned for the next hero. Or for the next thing that fires me, makes me feel.