Noticing the beauty in ordinariness: There are Boats on the Orchard

I am delighted to announce the publication of There are Boats on the Orchard. These poems began as a filler of time, after I had finished the final draft of my story collection As Long as it Takes. I was bereft, having lived with those characters for so many years, and spending time in my writing shed, staring out of the window, or walking the orchard that I could see outside. So I started writing about what I could see: the bunting I had made dripping in the rain, then drying; the arrival of boats, parked by the dead tree near our fence; a woodpecker in the snow, as I sat at my desk with a sleeping bag wrapped round me; local children trespassing, bouncing on a trampoline left out by the orchard owner after a family party.

I went away on a residential writing weekend with Lynne Rees, showed her some of the poems, and talked about my feelings of bereavement after As Long as it Takes was finished. Lynne was encouraging, and I kept going, observing and writing and walking the nearby orchards. Lynne is also an orchard walker, observer – in fact an orchard owner –  and I am delighted to read her review of There are Boats on the Orchardalongside her own thoughts on the changing face of orchards, and how humans deal with change.

And it’s the themes of ‘endings’ and being poorer for what’s lost that percolate McCarthy’s collection: disappearing cherry orchards, the loss of an inspiring view, the absence of seasonal visiting sheep, and the urbanisation of green fields accompanied by the inevitable decline in wildlife: rabbits, woodpeckers, kestrel. So the threads of resentment and sadness throughout many of the 25 poems are to be expected. In ‘Eden Village’, a housing estate built on a former cherry orchard, the children do not play in the natural paradise suggested by the title but “are in their rooms playing games.” In ‘Strange Fruits’ the hedgerows are littered with “Stella cans, a Co-operative bakery wrapper/”. 
 
But despite this tone and detail I do not leave this collection feeling bereft or hopeless and that may well be down to McCarthy’s lyrical language and syntax which, like the pheasants in the previously mentioned poem, are often “Joyous miracles.” 
 
In her previous urban home, “The quarter hours chimed with stolen light.” (from ‘Prologue’ p.1). Her home-made bunting survives, “Rain and shine, rain and shine;/ washed and dried, washed and dried.” (from ‘Drought’ p.11). And I’m particularly comforted by the poplars in the final poem, “Last” that “shush as they bend.” 
 
Because isn’t this how humanity moves forward with grace? By noticing the beauty in ordinariness? By accepting what cannot be changed? By bending but not breaking? And by celebrating and commemorating both past and present, its joys and griefs.

Read Lynne Rees’s review here.

I’d long wanted to work with an artist on these poems, and was delighted to find that Sara Fletcher, whom I knew as a friend of a friend, had wonderful skills in sketching. We walked the orchards together last autumn, which turned out to be our last year living in the house that backed onto the orchard. Sara’s drawings have made There are Boats on the Orchard a beautiful thing, as has Mark Holihan’s design work.

On the day that There are Boats on the Orchard was collected from the printer’s, news came through of plans to build houses on the orchard that I thought of as mine. I am glad not to be there to see this happen, but happy to have the poems and images in this pamphlet to chronicle the years of living next to the disappearing orchards of Kent.

You can only buy the pamphlet from Cultured Llama, for £7 plus p&p: There are Boats on the Orchard 

The Hungry Writer by Lynne Rees is also available from Cultured Llama.

There will be events to launch There are Boats on the Orchard some of them in orchards. See Events on the Cultured Llama website.

The river lies north

The past twelve months have been full of change, disruption and uncertainty. Writing has not come easily, and there have been times when words have deserted me. Writing is the one thing that keeps me sane, and deprived of that outlet, things have been hard.

What has been different from other bad spells, when I carried on writing through the worst of times, and about the worst of times, is the shifting of the very walls and ground that hold me, like a slow earthquake, with cracks developing beneath my feet, and dust from the tremors falling all around. Of late, these cracks, this dust, moved from metaphor to reality, as we moved to a new house, and channels were gouged into the walls to run wiring to replace that which had been in the house since it was first built, in the early 1960s. Phenomenal dust rose, settled, was wiped away, then more settling and wiping in a cycle that seemed to last forever. Like Sisyphus rolling his rock, so my damp cloth worked each day, only to see more thick grey deposits the next morning.

It is hard to think, to write, to give space to creative thoughts when living with dust, noise and builders; with your precious things still packed in boxes; when the walls around you and the roof above you are not those you have lived with; when the view from your window is not the one you have woken to for the previous eight years. And when the certainties of your life for the same number of years have been shaken: a dear cat companion declining and dying; a husband rushed to a cardiac unit in an ambulance, sirens blaring; financial difficulties forcing a move of house.

Writing and publishing is a long game, however, and there have been cheering moments when poems and stories have been published several months after submission, and an even longer time after they were written. Reminders that you can write words that others want to read, that the one thing that keeps you well is still below the surface.

This summer will see the publication of an illustrated pamphlet of my poems, There are Boats on the Orchard. These were some seven years in the writing, and for the past six months I have seen the orchards and poems recast in wonderful drawings by Sara Fletcher. It’s a bittersweet project, since I no longer write in a shed overlooking an orchard. In fact I had no permanent place to write for a couple of months, when one house was sold and another had not yet been secured. Then the struggle to find a space amongst dust, builders, and too-much-stuff that fitted in the old house but not in the new. But now I have a desk and a space in the house to write.

P1000072 cropped smallInstead of an orchard, I now have a view of the River Medway from my bedroom window, plus a view over the dips and rises of hilly Gillingham. There is a road, houses, and a factory that makes Jubilee clips. In the middle of the river there is a strip of land, Hoo Marshes, and on the other bank I can see the spire of the church at Hoo St Werburgh. It’s a moving landscape, as the tide comes in and goes out on the estuary, and small boats pass – sometimes larger shipping. The lights of the factory come on at 6.00, and people arrive by bicycle, in cars and vans, and on foot. The traffic climbs and descends Danes Hill all day. The landscape moves, and I remain still, as the floors and walls beneath me settle and stay.

Beneath the floorboards, raised by Dan the Sparks and John the kitchen fitter, there were packages and a yellow cash tin, hidden by the previous owner of the house, who lived here for 46 years. Amongst the documents and mementoes was a compass in a brass case. I opened the case and oriented myself in the house: the river to the north; the front of the house facing east; the back facing west.

Returning to the house after a week away, I first went to the bedroom to look at the river, my constant north. When my three-year-old granddaughter visits, it’s where she heads, too, calling to everyone, ‘Do you want to see a river?’ She dashes to the other rooms, to see if there is ‘another river’, but there is only one.

Taking Reg’s remains to the dump

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Christmas past, with Reg’s ‘mushroom table’ beneath the tree

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.

William Trevor, my father, and me

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.

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Liam Cusack, Jim Parker and Maria in O’Callaghan’s, Mitchelstown

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.

Coercive control: how could this happen to us?

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?

 

 

A Grammar School Girl: assimilated, not converted

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.

rosebery-class-2hI, 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.

Now there are more than Fifty Ways to Leave

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.

Rip it up and start again

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.

Research or a notebook obsession?

Research or a notebook obsession?

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.

Saying goodbye to Biscuit

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.

Biscuit enjoys her new blanket

Biscuit enjoys her new blanket

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.

Nostalgia – a longing for a past that is not our own

“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.

Leslie Ronald Harding, photo with kind permission of Jacquie Kirby

Leslie Ronald Harding, photo with kind permission of Jacquie Kirby

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.

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