Small steps to a bigger world

Twenty years ago I walked out of the charity where I worked, never to return. Someone had given me permission to do so. A stranger, a counsellor with Victim Support, whom I not only told about the shock of my car being set on fire, but spilled all the awful things that had happened in the previous year. Not least of these was my deteriorating health, and an intolerable work situation. I had gone off sick the previous year, for 3 months, and returned sooner than I should have done, under pressure from the board of trustees, and because of my own wish to ‘get back to normal’. I returned with promises of more support and a reduced workload. This did not happen. The stress piled up, and my underlying health problems became more prominent. But I felt responsible, knowing how the charity had struggled with my earlier sickness absence, so I struggled on, until I came to a halt.

I do not remember the name of that Victim Support counsellor, nor what she looked like; just her words. ‘You don’t have to go back in that place,’ she said. ‘You never have to go back.’

My world became small. I had hoped, after a few weeks recovery, that I could apply for another job, resume my life, but weeks became months became years. My functioning was severely reduced, physically and mentally, and although I have improved since those early years, my life remains restricted by low energy, mental tiredness and physical pain.

I am telling this story, as I am approaching a milestone – my 60th birthday. That day I walked out of the office for the last time, twenty years ago, I was a couple of months short of my 40th. A third of life has been restricted by illness. My small world has only become a little larger in those twenty years, and this has only happened because of small steps.

There is a lot of emphasis on big achievements in the media – I remember a TV programme where people with mental health problems were supported and encouraged to run a marathon. Some of them achieved it, but I recall a man whose anxiety was so great that even leaving the house was too much for him. He tried in the early stages of the programme, but dropped out of the big run. He had achieved something big, just giving it a go, just leaving the house. Of course, showing him leaving the house and walking to the shops and back would not have made great television. The runners receiving medals and being hugged by Nick Knowles were what the viewers wanted to see.

I don’t want to totally put down what that programme achieved. My daughter was inspired by it, and took up running as a result. I am very proud of her for doing so, and for completing the Great North Run. But what about those of us that can’t run? Can’t run at all, let alone attempt a marathon?

My small steps over the past twenty years have led me to do bigger things. Taking up part-time study, leading to an MA in Creative Writing, started with little bits of writing, small sessions of researching funding for my fees, short sessions of filling out application forms over several days. It took a year for me to recover enough energy to attend a two-hour class once a week: my first writing course. And there were backward steps, during my MA course, when I had to get extensions for assignments due to my health.

I was inspired in recent days by a friend who is fundraising, asking for sponsorship as she loses weight and gains fitness. Her goal is to achieve this in small steps – walking to the shops instead of driving, taking her dog for longer walks. How fabulous, I thought. No marathon to run, no mountain to climb; just everyday things.

I thought, then, of friends whose lives are limited by illness, and others who find achieving big goals too daunting to embark upon. Of how to celebrate their small steps, their achievements. I think this could become bigger – a book, a blog, an inspiration for others. Watch this space as ideas come together.

Meanwhile, I am working towards doing 60 things for the first time. These range from visiting all of Kent Country Parks to travelling through Transylvania by train, which I did in April of this year: ‘Travelling Fearlessly’. For someone who barely left the house twenty years ago, it’s some achievement.

On stealing shiny words and walking into gunpowder smoke


I have two conditions that force me into solitude – one is chronic illness, and the other is being a writer. I don’t want to push the tortured artist thing, or the tortured sick person thing, but I do spend a lot of time alone. I don’t have consumption and live in a garret – it’s a comfy 1960s semi, actually, and my husband is often upstairs in his study in the smallest bedroom, and would come to my aid if I needed company or help, often summoned by the magic of WhatsApp if I’m too tired to climb the stairs.

Oare Gunpowder Works: a bridge beneath which only Borrowers could pass

I have been brought out of solitude by working on collaborative projects. The first was being one of a group of artists chronicling a year in the life of Rainham Community Orchard. We mostly worked alone, making our visits to the orchard: sketching, taking photographs, writing down lines of poetry, but some of my visits were with Sara E. Fletcher, who was to work on ceramics, some of which ended up with the words from my poems on them, and those of Stephy Stanton. Sara and I also met away from the orchard, to spark ideas off one another, which changed my words and inspired her work. During our walks in the orchard – on a windy February day, and again in September on one of the pick-your-own-apples days – I noticed things that I would not have done so if walking alone, and Sara could always be relied upon to identify plants and wildlife. The weeds I called ‘tall yellow flowers’ were Oxford ragwort, and both definitions ended up in a poem.

Walking with someone you have not walked with before, even in a familiar place, brings new insights. I did so with Anna Bell, ‘Anna Outdoors’, when she asked me to write a poem for children about Oare Gunpowder Works, near Faversham. For eight years, I lived close to the woods in which the ruins of the gunpowder works stand. I walked there alone, I walked with my husband, I was an ‘Artist in the Woods’, at their annual event, for a couple of years. And yet, with Anna, new revelations came to light – a low bridge over a leat (a waterway built to transport goods around the site, on powder punts), which Anna said would only allow Borrowers to pass beneath; the scribblings of bark beetles on a moss-covered log; the two-tone moan of industry from the other side of the road that borders the woods.

Anna, like Sara, knows things about nature. Her experience added to my inspiration, her words became mine in the poem (poets are magpies, we steal shiny things and claim them as our own). Anna talked of the ‘chattering of bats’, and that phrase was too good to let go.

As a child, I spent a lot of time on Epsom Common. I was a member of ‘The Red Pea Club’, named after the berries of the hawthorn tree in the alleyway near to our house. We had a club song, ‘Acorn’s the Word’, and a tree that we claimed as our own, The Dragon, which had branches that were wings and a tail, and a ‘cockpit’ from which to steer the dragon’s flight. I couldn’t tell you what sort of tree the dragon was, nor could I have named a hawthorn. I knew the ferns, the blackberries, and the wild golden rod that flourished on the Common, and the lilies of the valley that grew in our garden, but that was the limit of my knowledge of the names of plants and trees. Lost Words? I never knew them.

Back to the walk in the woods with Anna. She was keen for me to emphasise the sensory details in my poem, both of the Gunpowder Works as they are now, and as they were when the site was a factory, producing the black powder for the munitions industry. A friend told me that someone we both know has a licence to make gunpowder, so Anna and I visited Dave Lamberton at his Faversham home, where he fired a pistol in his garden, so I could experience the smell of gunpowder smoke. I stepped out from his kitchen to the garden, walked into the cloud of smoke – nothing at first, then in the nose, then down the back of the throat and onto the tongue, a bitter tang. The smell hung in my hair for the rest of the day. And all for one word in my poem, ‘The Gunpowder Spell’.

So, what have I learned? Writing is not just sitting alone with a notebook. It’s about walking and talking with others, with those whose experience is different from yours, and it’s about stealing – taking shiny words, storing them in your nest, then sharing them with others.

More about Anna Bell here: Anna Outdoors 

More about Oare Gunpowder Works.

More about Rainham Community Orchard.

On rereading (or just reading) A Kestrel for a Knave

A Kestrel for a Knave, by Barry Hines, was first published in 1968, and the Ken Loach film, Kes, came out the year after. I don’t remember if I read the book or saw the film first. As I read, scenes from the film played in my head. I now wonder if I read the book at all, or just saw the film. I was rereading (or perhaps just reading) A Kestrel for a Knave, for a writing and wellbeing event. We were asked to bring along a book on the theme of nature or ecology; one that meant something to us. I am sure that this book brought about my lifelong love of birds of prey.

A Kestrel for a Knave is about the transformation of a boy’s life through raising a hawk – Kes. Billy Casper lives in a mining town in Yorkshire with this mum and brother. His father has left home, and Billy no longer sees him. Billy is coming up to school-leaving age, which was 15 in those days. He is expected to work down the mine, as most lads who go to his school end up doing; Billy’s brother Jed is a miner. But the only thing Billy is interested in is his kestrel.

Billy is no saint. He steals Kes from a nest, and when he tries and fails to borrow a book on falconry from the library, he goes to a bookshop and steals a book instead. This is a child who can barely read and write, yet he teaches himself the art of falconry from this book.

A Kestrel for a Knave is filled with the language of nature. At school assembly, hymn books ‘bloomed white across the hall as they were opened.’ At a football match, Billy is described as ‘growling like a little lion’, and the other boys as ‘ a herd of multi-coloured cross-breeds gambolling around the ball.’

Cinematic descriptions, with an all-seeing eye narrating, made the book just right for translating into a motion picture. An omniscient narrator is frowned upon in current fiction-writing, but Barry Hines does it so well. The voice does not feel all-knowing; it’s just that there is no singular point of view. And the reader can easily picture the settings, action and people.

The scene I remember most is in the classroom, where Mr Farthing is leading a session on fact and fiction. He asks the boys to tell true stories, and the first boy leads with a tale of filling wellies with tadpoles and then putting them on. The other boys then encourage Billy to talk about his hawk. Billy holds the class and the teacher in rapture as he talks about Kes. This is a boy who is seen as unintelligent, a write-off, but here he is, an expert on falconry. The boys are then asked to write a tall story. Billy’s, poorly written in terms of spelling and grammar, describes an evening where his father is living back home. They go to the cinema as a family, and have fish and chips on the way home. It’s heartbreaking. What should be an ordinary account of family life might just as well be a fairytale.

Of course, the book does not end well. Billy takes money, meant to place bets on behalf of his brother, and spends the cash. Both horses win, and Jed would have won a tidy sum. Enough to take a week off work. Unable to catch Billy, Jed tries to take Kes from the shed where Billy keeps him, and inadvertently kills the bird. 

The edition I read was published in 1998, thirty years after the book was first published. There is an afterword by Barry Hines. Hines went to a grammar school; his brother to a secondary modern, like Billy. He talks about the divisions this caused, with children condemned as less intelligent, less worthy. Billy is seen as a failure, but, ‘If there had been a GCSE in Falconry, Billy would have been awarded an A grade, which would have done wonders for his self-confidence and given him a more positive self image.’

I have written previously about the divisions of the school system, my own experience of grammar school, while my sisters were sent to secondary moderns. I can see why Ken Loach picked up this book so readily and made it into a film that tells so much about class divisions and education.

A Kestrel for a Knave is well worth rereading (or reading for the first time?). Next for me is to watch the film Kes again.

A well-turned ankle – thinking about feet and walking

I have just finished reading Baggage, A Book of Leavings, by Victoria Field. A memoir of walking the Camino de Santiago as a way of reflecting on and recovering from the end of a marriage. Earlier this year, a friend rang to say that he was going to be walking the Camino, or part of it, as he only he had two weeks in which to do so. ‘Are you going to find yourself?’ I asked, only half joking. This friend had been through a major health scare in the previous year, as well as his wife’s treatment for breast cancer the year before. He needed this trip. I followed his progress on Facebook, recognising the pain of blisters and fatigue, but also with envy. I couldn’t ‘do’ the Camino, unless someone offered to carry me in a sedan chair or on the back of a motorbike.

I realised that I had to make changes, make my own pilgrimage. And I keenly felt my inability to walk far, how I still miss going out for a trek 19 years into an illness that ‘put a halt to my gallop’, as my mother used to say. My mother died earlier this year. One of those things that makes you stop and reflect on your life. In the past two years, I have moved house, my husband had a heart attack, and I have lost a friend of a similar age to me. Lost as in died: let’s not sugarcoat it. I also lost the ability to write for a long time – now happily returning to me like an old friend whose company I have missed, but who often annoys the hell out of me.

Whilst reading Victoria Field’s book, I have thought a lot about feet as well as walking. There is a pilgrim with boots made especially from a mould taken of their feet, who nonetheless finds himself in excruciating pain. There are blisters, feet with flayed skin, and an account of a man who devotes himself, unpaid, to tending the feet of pilgrims by the side of the road. Before her pilgrimage, Victoria decides on a pair of ‘cheap and nasty’ boots that she has been wearing long before her trip, rather than shell out hundreds of pounds on a ‘good pair’, and these boots serve her well.

Maria at college, in her walking days

I have been writing recently about the difficulty of finding physical and psychological space, living in a large family in a small house when I was growing up. And I realised that I found that space when walking. It was always with a purpose, rather than going out for a stroll – to work; my Saturday job in Woolworth’s, or to college when I decided to leave the grammar school and go to an FE college to take my A-Levels. The school was yards from my house, and I had never experienced the bus journeys to school of my classmates, having also lived within a short walk of my primary school. When I told my mum that I was leaving the sixth form, during the first weeks of term, she firmly said that she would not pay my bus fares to college, so I walked at least one way every day – some three miles. I did this in plimsolls or flip-flops when it was warm enough to wear them. I had never had fitted or expensive shoes, and there was no question of buying good walking boots.

I got a certain rhythm whilst walking, and would pride myself on how far along the road I got before a bus passed me. Neighbours would often say that they had seen me ‘going hell for leather’ as they had passed on a bus. It was the only space I had to myself, between home and work, home and college, and I often walked late at night, coming back from parties or nights out. I was only ever bothered once, during these late walks, by some lads at the hot dog stand in town, and when one came over to me, I just mentioned my older brother’s name, hoping that they might know him, and was left alone to continue my journey.

Into my twenties and thirties, I continued to walk with a purpose, and found, after my marriage had broken up, that walking by the river and across the Rochester Bridge would help me to sort out things in my head. My body would loosen, my mood lift, and more often than not, something I had been trying to figure out would resolve itself as I walked.

Then illness struck and, slowed to a snail’s pace, I still walked until I reached a point of near collapse, like when marathon runners hit a wall, except the distance I covered was minimal. I was deprived of my way of creating space for myself, solving problems, feeling better. I dreamed of it still, of running for a bus, of walking, jumping, skipping.

I am treating my toenails at present. Stripped of their summer clothes of brightly-coloured varnish, I am tackling the thick and discoloured nails with a twice-daily lotion, applied like nail varnish with a brush. I have noticed that the nails on my right foot grow faster than those on my left. I have noticed the stripes on my feet from wearing the same sandals all summer: two broad white strips across the lightly tanned skin. The second toe on each foot is longer than the big toe. Someone once told me this is a sign of being psychic. My feet are quite long and slender, and I like the look of them. I think of the phrase ‘a well-turned ankle’. I think it was used at a time when women showed little of their legs, and a flash of an ankle could drive a man, or woman, to desire.

My ankle was well-turned in a fall down the steps of the house I used to live in. I sprained the ligaments in my left foot, which swelled up and turned from black to blue to yellow as the bruising progressed. This was some fifteen years ago, and I still get pain in that foot, that ankle, from time to time.

I no longer wear plimsolls or flip-flops. A year ago, I decided to take better care of that foot and ankle, and to buy better shoes. I spent £80 on a pair of comfortable yet stylish shoes, which are serving me well. My feet deserve it.

As for a pilgrimage, walking the Camino is not for me, but I am going to do some travelling in my sixtieth year. By train, mainly. I never had a gap year as a teenager, never went interrailing or grape-picking, and have seen little of the world. My aim, as part of my Sixty Firsts, is to ‘travel fearlessly’. The trips may be short and not as ambitious as others might undertake, but I shall be broadening my world, flexing my feet, and showing a well-turned ankle..

Sixty Firsts – Eating Gözleme in London Fields

Gözleme, a Turkish flatbread made of flour, water and oil, cooked dry on a hotplate, stuffed and folded with a choice of two fillings: potato and onion; spinach and cheese.

There are two women sitting on the floor in the window of the Saray Broadway Café, legs outstretched, making flatbreads, which they cook on a hotplate. The café has plastic chairs with tube-framed legs fixed to tables, which are also screwed to the floor, in the style of a greasy spoon. These women are not in headscarves in the window during the week, but the Broadway Market is on a Saturday with its artisan breads, cheeses and vegan brownie squares at £4.50 a go.

The market is crowded on a hot day. The sun is in its third or fourth week of belting down relentlessly, turning the grass yellow in nearby London Fields.

Radu, Jamie and Maria in Greenwich, 2017

We are four: my husband, my brother, his boyfriend and I, and we opt to take our Gözleme into the park, to sit in the shade of the London Plane trees. The Gözleme are £3 each. We buy cans of drink in a nearby international supermarket. The hot wraps are stashed into brown paper bags inside a blue plastic one. Even with the walk to find a combination of bench and shade, then opting for just shade, the Gözleme are piping. Jamie, my brother, advises eating the edges first, to allow the filling to cool from its volcanic temperature. It’s delicious, the spinach and unspecified grated cheese. Jamie and Radu, his boyfriend, are vegan, so have the only other option: potato and onion. As I suspected, filling enough without the vegan cakes that the boys had added to their lunch menu.

People are out on blankets with small children and small dogs, the latter occasionally invading our circle of folded legs and stretched out bodies to sniff and say hello. Balloons are attached to trees and party food is carried across the grass to other circles of bodies all over the park. Buff, tattooed young men, stripped of their shirts, display their athleticism on the outdoor gym equipment. The entrances to the Lido and café can be seen in the distance; a film crew set up by a row of houses at the edge of the park.

Jamie tells me that Broadway Market was very run down when he first lived in Hackney, before the hipsters moved in and property prices soared. A patch of wasteland outside his low-rise block of flats, where foxes once roamed, is now filled with new apartments, with the obligatory ‘affordable housing’ going for upwards of £450,000 for a one-bedroom flat. The social housing element of the development, what we used to call Council Housing, has a separate entrance to the privately-owned dwellings enclosing a gated square.

We stop by the building that used to be a Housing Benefit office, now called Mare Street Market, an open space of café, cocktail bars and small businesses. The hubbub is unbearable, with diners sharing long, canteen-style tables and paying £5 for a half round of bacon sandwich. On artisan bread, of course.

Back in Broadway Market, there is the odd café that has survived gentrification, including F. Cooke, an eel pie and mash joint, like the one I knew when I lived in Woolwich in the late ’70s and early ’80s, with white-tiled walls. An older man sits by the door at the end of the counter, waiting for a single customer to cross the threshold.

It is forty years since I first moved to London, thirty years since I moved on to Kent. The landscape has changed beyond recognition. As we drove from Kent to Hackney that morning, the crane-like roof structures on the O2 came into view on the East Greenwich peninsula, which was mostly derelict and empty when I lived nearby. The shining towers of banks and hotels rose on the other side of the Thames as we entered the Blackwall Tunnel. Some of the places where I lived where once considered undesirable. Bathrooms shared with other tenants, water heaters, cookers and gas fires condemned as dangerous. Now houses in those streets are beyond the reach of locals or students (as I was) staying on beyond the end of their degrees.

As for my brother, nearly twenty years in Hackney, his local authority rent is controlled and his tenancy protected. He would no longer be able to live in the area if he were to start over, find a new place to live.

Sixty Firsts

I shall be sixty years old in September 2019. I am aiming to do sixty things for the first time before that date, many of them small. This was the first time I had eaten Gözleme, and my first visit to London Fields.

I married a Muso

We are at a beer and music festival, and our ears are assaulted by the wonderful noise of Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society. I am somewhere between ‘Wow, this is amazing’ and ‘When will it stop?’ – I think this is what the band are aiming for. I find just the right description for it, and Tweet: ‘The Medway version of the Wall of Sound @stfes’. My husband Bob leans towards me and says, ‘You can’t hear [guitarist] Bob Collins’. ‘Go and speak to the sound man,’ I say. He looks uncomfortable. ‘They don’t like it when people do that.’

He squirms a little longer, then heads off to the speak to the sound man.

Our wedding cake, decorated with poetry and a guitar

Just as our ears are recovering and we have refreshed our glasses – Wantsum bitter for him, Dudda’s Tun elderflower cider for me – a lone guitarist takes the stage, Darren Hayman. He decides the stage itself is not intimate enough, and steps off the low blocks with his mic stand, into the audience. From the little I have learned from being married to a musician, and the buzz of feedback, I know this is not a good move, sound-wise. ‘He’s given the sound man a headache,’ Bob says, ‘With the mic in front of the speakers.’ I nod. The sound man does his best, and marital and musical harmony are restored.

Before we met, I knew that Bob was a musician. His profile shot on Dating Direct showed him leaning on a guitar. On the third date, he brought his guitar with him and sang to me in my living room. He was a member of several bands at that time. I called him a musical tart, as he’d pick up his guitar for anyone that asked. I wondered, when I first went to see him play, why the band’s other wives and girlfriends weren’t there. I soon learned that having a muso for a partner meant arriving hours before the gig and sitting at a sticky pub table, alone, while they set up, played, then packed up the equipment.

At our wedding – not so much a reception as a music festival – I had to remind Bob not to spend all evening on stage with the various bands that he played in. I decided, in the end, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, as I grabbed the tambourine someone threw in my direction and joined in with backing vocals on ‘Fisherman’s Blues’.

We don’t go to many gigs together, but when we do, I know that Bob wants to be close to the stage to see the guitar work. I often indulge this, bagging second row tickets for Loudon Wainwright III and Richard Thompson (billed as Loud and Rich) at the SouthBank. Front row tickets for Martyn Joseph at Whitstable Playhouse proved too much for my poor neck, head tipped back to see the man with the guitar on the high stage. We moved seats after the interval, causing Joseph to remark on the empty seats, and I, with some embarrassment, shouted out that we had only moved further away.

Let’s also talk musical taste. Bob and I don’t always agree. Martyn Joseph is not my cup of tea; Bob adores him. I have fallen asleep at two Martin Simpson gigs (technically brilliant; does nothing for me). I had a wider musical education than Bob, starting with the Irish bands played on the Dansette at home, through a love affair with Motown and Soul, exposed to ska and reggae by my siblings, and finally coming to heavy rock via my school friends. Punk was not my thing at the time (a kind of tribalism at play), but I later came to love it. The folk thing came a lot, lot later, and was what attracted me to Bob when I saw his profile on the dating site and sent him a message: ‘Are you a folk bloke? You’ve got the beard for it.’ Which he ignored for several months, leaving me thinking I had offended him.

Bob looks blankly at me when an old song comes on the radio that I identify within a few bars. (Who needs Shazam when you live with me?) Bob was pretty much a folk and Prog fan all along.

There is much we agree on, music-wise, though. Including that we don’t like jazz. Before Bob, I had a boyfriend who loved jazz. I went along to jazz sessions and gigs with him. Lovely people, the jazz audience, very friendly. Lovely man, too, the boyfriend. Trouble was, I couldn’t stand the music. I turned to the boyfriend after several minutes of what I’d describe as musical wanking, and said, ‘So what’s wrong with the 3-minute pop song?’ At a whole day of the goddamned stuff, a festival in a marquee by the river Medway, I stepped outside for a break and contemplated throwing myself in the river rather than returning to that tent and watching the admittedly skilful musician play two saxophones at once. Let’s just say, nice man, but the relationship was doomed.

One more thing about being at a gig with a muso – he just wants to be on stage with the other musicians. He’ll say, ‘They could do with a bass player,’ or the like. I know that, if he were invited to take an instrument and join in, he would leave me in the audience and do it. Our date night would become his gig night.

Bob only plays with the one band now, Acoustic Architects. Though he is quick to find other musicians wherever he goes. He left me for a good half hour recently, when he discovered the man running the Kent Wildlife Trust stall at a local event was also a musician. They exchanged numbers, and within a week Bob was off to the man’s house, guitar, mandolin and mandola in tow.

Anatomised – a life changed forever by Lyme Disease

A few years ago, I heard Andrew McGuinness read a story at the University of Kent. It was a funny tale, and his delivery owed much to stand-up comedy. McGuinness taught creative writing at the university, and at Christchurch, the other university in Canterbury. I saw him at many events, reading his own work, interviewing writers and hosting panels. And then I didn’t.

Anatomised coverLike Jack Mann (a stand-up comedian and the protagonist of Andrew McGuinness’s new novel, Anatomised), Andrew McGuinness was struck with a mysterious illness. I don’t like to assume that all of Jack Mann’s experiences reflect those of Andrew McGuinness. This is a work of fiction. However, my guess is that the research that has gone into Anatomised is borne of hard personal experience. The medical details, the intricacies of test results, and the psychological effects of having a life-changing illness that no-one can explain. Jack Mann is thrown from a comfortable life (albeit with family and bereavement issues in his background), having just relocated to the Kent coast, to a Kafkaesque nightmare of weird symptoms, hospital admissions and doctors who can’t see beyond their own specialties – stroke, MS – to alternative therapists who advocate positive thinking when the tinctures they give Mann don’t work.

I nearly stopped reading Anatomised, as Jack Mann’s experiences reflect some of my own as a person misdiagnosed, mistreated, disbelieved and ignored, both in the early days of my own chronic illness, and even several years on. The falling away of friends and relatives, the isolation, the unexplainedness of it all, the grief, the suicidal thoughts. Jack Mann, in a darkly comic scene, fails to throw himself on the right railway track, watching the train (which he has timed from hearing it pass at the end of his garden) speed past on the opposite track as he lays there, awaiting oblivion. My own (lack of) attempts were less dramatic. I walked by the river Medway several times a week, past some steps that descended into the water. I imagined stepping down and down to a watery grave. I never even took the first step down, but my dreams, when they came amidst years of barely sleeping, were of drowning, then a hand pulling me out at the last moment.

This isn’t a review. More of a reflection on lives that once were, altered forever – mine, Jack Mann’s, and Andrew McGuinness’s. And how writers can process their experience through fiction rather than memoir. McGuinness’s novel is not perfect – I felt the author’s anger at his mistreatment channelled through Jack Mann and his wife Alice. It was a little too noticeable at times. Would a reader who doesn’t know McGuinness’s story notice this as much as I did? Or a reader who hasn’t been through that kind of anger themselves, sometimes channelling it through poems and stories, which would have been better left until some of that anger had subsided? Perhaps a fictionalised account is the best one can do, given the closeness of the material, the pain. It gives the writer a distance from the awfulness of it all.

Anatomised has stayed with me, and given me a great deal of cause for thought. I read a lot, but needed a week before beginning another book, to process Jack Mann’s story, Andrew McGuinness’s personal story, and my own. I thought of it as I walked with my husband Bob on a recent holiday. Bob has only known me with my illness, as we met when I was some seven years into it. On this holiday, as I do in my daily life, I could only manage a couple of hours out everyday, then I slept and rested for the remainder of the day. ‘I’d understand if you wanted a wife who could walk further,’ I said, as I took Bob’s arm, struggling to walk back to the house where we were staying. ‘Nah,’ he said, ‘Think of all the bother of divorcing you.’ We laughed, but I thought of how holidays used to be, before all these years of illness; a third of my life lived like this.

I’m glad I didn’t take that walk down the steps into the river, because life is good, in spite of my limitations. I’m glad that Andrew McGuinness was able to recover enough, to fight enough, to give us Anatomised. It is lyrical and thought-provoking. I would particularly recommend the last few chapters, where … but I don’t want to give the game away.

Anatomised by A.F. McGuinness is published by  Red Sail Press and costs £12.99. A proportion of income from sales of the book will go to Lyme Disease charities.

 

The shed is dead

I used to be a sheddie. I had my very own writing shed that overlooked an orchard. I lost that shed at the end of January 2017 when we sold the house we had lived in for eight years. And yet the shed continued to feature as the header photo for this website … until today. And this blog page, which was called ‘The Word from the Shed’, has now been renamed ‘Written by the river’.

I miss my shed. Facebook often reminds me with Memories featuring the shed and the orchard; my latest book is about orchards, and features the shed. But the shed is dead, or now under the ownership of a lovely young couple and their baby. The shed is in good hands, and I must let it go.

Thames barges on the Medway

Thames barges on the Medway near to my home

Now my vista as I open the bedroom curtains in the morning is the River Medway. It lies just beyond the Jubilee Clip factory, with a view of Hoo Marshes in the middle of the river and Hoo St Werburgh on the other bank. I spend a good half hour after I wake staring at the river and the sky, watching the birds, the sky, and various shipping pass by.

My desk is now tucked downstairs at the back of the house. I write facing a wall, but if I turn, I can just see a sliver of river in the gap between the houses and the factory. I write in my house, down by the river.

The river and I have history. I used to live a short walk away from the Medway, when I first moved to the area nearly thirty years ago. I crossed it, via Rochester Bridge, to walk to work for a couple of years, then drove across twice a day when a new job took me further afield. When the Medway Tunnel opened, that served for more journeys than the bridge. When we drive beneath the river, the sat nav picture shows blue, as though we were swimming. And I was a kind of swimmer once, with Medway Mermaids women’s writing group. I still am. Mermaids only lapse; it’s like being Catholic.

I am written by the river. I write by the river.

Shall I tell you a secret?

Shall I tell you a secret? How weighted that phrase is. If I tell you a secret I am relieving some of the weight from my shoulders and bestowing it on yours. What would you do with that secret? Like the man from the story who had to shout into the ground, ‘The King has donkey’s ears’, as he couldn’t hold the secret any longer, secrets can rarely be buried.

Notebooks full of secrets

Notebooks full of secrets

I’ve been thinking a lot about secrets in the weeks since my mother’s death. Our family was and is full of secrets. My siblings and I were told, as children, not to talk about things outside the house, things that happened at home. We also didn’t talk about secrets amongst ourselves. Over the years, some secrets have oozed out, secrets some would know about and not others. ‘Don’t tell your father’ was a regular phrase we heard from our mother, often followed by, ‘It’d kill him.’ So the lesson was secrets can kill.

I am writing this, for once, without drafting by hand, in my notebook full of secrets. Without reflection, research and careful thinking. I want to watch myself. Who knows what could slip out. Whom I might kill.

I carried secrets for years, under threat of killing or harming others. The result was that I harmed only myself, and when I did speak those secrets, guess what? Nobody died. But people fell silent. Or blurted for a while before it was all zipped up again. Or told me I was to stop upsetting people by speaking my truth.

Notice I’m not telling you the secrets. There is still a chance that people might die (though not my father; he is long gone; nor my mother; recently departed).

I did not go public about my mother’s death on social media. It was a secret. Mine. But I have let the secret out little by little to those who know the bigger secrets, some of whom have secrets of their own they have shared with me. Some who, like me, have spoken their truths and found the truth was not a welcome guest.

Leaving and going back

 

9780992648510-Perfect-MH-cropped-FRONT-COVER-with-outer-edgeLeave-taking was not dealt with well, when my mother left Ireland for England, carrying a suitcase bearing two of everything. When one of many leaves, are they missed? Or was it one less soul to worry about when she, the eldest of fourteen, left?

My own leave-taking was dealt with badly. I remember my bags piled in the hall, awaiting an uncle to drive me to the halls of residence. My mum and dad were not there, and I don’t recall any of my siblings saying goodbye in a way any different to if I was going out for an evening.

I think my mother couldn’t cope with me leaving, so avoided it. Every time I came home for a weekend, I would leave on a Sunday evening, and she would be sitting in her chair, watching telly, unable to see me leave or wish me well with my life away from home. She did not know how to say goodbye, nor did she know how to grieve, or to teach any of us how to do so. Funerals back home in Ireland were not attended, even that of her own mother, and the pain was held within.

For the Irish that made that brave journey from their homeland to England, in the 1940s, 50s and beyond, their travelling often ended where they landed. For my parents, they landed in Epsom, where jobs awaited, and stayed there. So did many of their fellow countrymen and women. So, many of the Irish friends and neighbours I knew as a child are yet living in the same houses as they were  50 or 60 years ago. Now they leave in wooden boxes, set for their last Mass at St Joseph’s church, and on to be buried, as is not the fashion these days, but that is what Irish Catholics of that generation did and do. They bury and are buried, the mourners wear black, and the coffin is borne on the shoulders of the men of the next generation, or the generation below them.

So it was with my Auntie Joan a few days ago – come to Epsom from Valencia in Co. Kerry in the early 1950s, she met and married a man from Sligo, Jack, who knew my dad. In turn, Joan and my mother became friends, and we always thought of Joan and Jack as relatives.

Joan arrived in church last Friday, carried by men that included one of my brothers,  to the sound of my other brother playing ‘Danny Boy’ on the violin – a song of leave-taking.

I saw a group of Irish women in a pub in Margate two years ago. I tuned in to their voices, watched their eighty-plus-year-old heads, dyed black and red. The conversation never lagged. They spoke of parish priests, of sick friends, of those that came on the outing last year, but had taken their leave in the past twelve months. They were from an Irish club somewhere in London. They said the younger Irish don’t come along to their club, to their annual trip, where they lunch at the same pub each year. I could see that their outing would not happen in five or six years time. They would all have taken their leave.

And so it is with that generation of Irish parents, uncles, aunts and neighbours. Taking their leave, depleting the ranks of the Irish that arrived in the middle of the last century. Soon, we will be the older generation, that second generation of children born in England to Irish parents. Left to tell the stories that were told to us, or to write them down in books, as I have done.

I lived in Epsom for the first third of my life, and returned regularly for the second third. The past third has been a time of illness, for me, and a rift with some of my family. For reasons too intimate to go into here, I vowed not to return to that ‘home’, where my mother and eldest brother still live. But never isn’t always forever, and I returned to the town, if not the house I grew up in, for Joan’s funeral a few days ago. Things seemed smaller than I remembered; the town had changed. Yet I was recognised immediately as I entered the church, as ‘a McCarthy’, and was soon caught up in childhood memories at the wake, and in meeting some old friends that I hadn’t seen since I left home at nineteen.

My mother is frail now, and showing signs of dementia. Her time on this earth is not long. Many of her younger siblings have gone, and now her best friend, Joan.

It took me a long time to leave home in my head, in my being – many years after my physical leave-taking. For my mother and Joan, for my father and Jack, they settled in a foreign country, yet always remained Irish. I don’t where I really belong; I never have. But I have been back and settled a place in my mind that has loomed large for all my life.

My story collection, As Long as it Takes, is about Irish women and their daughters living in England. I asked Maggie Drury to draw me an image of two women linking arms for the book cover. These women could be Mary, my mother, and Joan, her best friend.

Footnote: My mother died a few weeks after her friend, Joan. Mary Catherine O’Halloran McCarthy, born 29 June 1931 in Ennistymon Co Clare, Died 2 March 2018 at a hospital near her home in Epsom.

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