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Life in the big smoke

My escape to Dartmoor

After the fire and the terror attacks I needed to leave London. I had to get away form people and traffic and cars and noise. I found an Airbnb near Dartmoor. I booked the cottage, I booked a train and I left for a week. Gerry was working, so I spent the first few days on my own.

I was going to write, but instead I walked. There were many maps in the cottage, some were old, some were new, some were laminated. I picked a smallish, laminated one and I picked a path. Then I walked.

I walked through fields covered in chest-height ferns, through forests where old oak trees lined the path and the Holy Brook bubbled alongside me. I walked on ancient bridleways and on small winding roads. I walked away from people and toward any place I could find that was green and quiet. I stopped and smelled the soil, the sunshine on the leaves, the growth and the decay.

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I sat on an old drystone wall, a bridlepath behind me, the ground falling away from me on the other side. There was a small brook in the valley below and I wanted to spend some time near it. The trees were heavy and green above. My phone and the map were resting on the wall next to me. Out of nowhere a happy spaniel appeared, jumped up on the wall and pushed the phone over the edge. I patted the dog, then scrambled down the stone wall, down the slope and crawled underneath a fallen tree covered in ivy to retrieve my phone. It’s still not working properly. I take that as a sign. Slow down.

Gerry joined me for the last few days and we walked some more. We walked to the most famous Tors on Dartmoor, we hiked to an old stone circle and had lunch among the standing stones.

standing stones, devon

I’m back in London now. I’ve been back for a couple of weeks, but the paths I walked stayed with me. They were made by feet and hooves over many centuries, perhaps over many millennia, and they can be walked still. That’s what keeps me loving this country. It’s old, its paths are old and there are many left to explore.

London, my London

I took the river boat home after doing interviews around London Bridge yesterday. I looked at the grey waves, the silt. This water, it’s seen tragedy before. It’s seen suicides and bombs and murders.

London has seen a lot. London has survived a lot. I saw some quote yesterday about how this old battle scarred city shrugs and moves on. But we’re fragile. Those of us who live and love and dream and hate in this city, we’re fragile.

I’m fragile.

I’ve seen the aftermath of terror attacks in two cities I love, in two cities I’ve called home, in the space of about a week. I’ve seen fear and resilience and strength and shock. I hid my face from the sweeping broadcast cameras at the vigil in Manchester, because journalists shouldn’t cry.

This is real. This is happening. This keeps happening. This white hot madness, like a pinched nerve running through society. Why does it keep happening?

I was at Borough Market on Saturday afternoon. I bought a coffee from one of the stallholders and then I got a train from London Bridge. A normal day.

A friend of mine left Borough Market a couple of minutes before the attack. A normal evening. Shattered.

Perhaps the people who look back at this time will find a narrative. We only catch glimpses of it, rushing forward and looking out at these events as they blur. In the future some sense might be made and some answers might be found. Until then we’re stuck with the blur and with our feelings.

This is what I thought yesterday. If we don’t take care of our societies they will break. If we don’t figure out what our values are and then stand up for them, what we have will crumble. If we’re not compassionate we engender hate. And if we don’t have honest conversations about fear and anger and who to blame for all kinds of horrors those feelings will crawl out like beasts from the most spiteful corners of our societies.

I wish I could have offered my sadness to the river. I wish she would have washed it all away. But she’s seen it before, she doesn’t care. It’s up to those of us who live along her shores to do that work for her.

Why I’ve been lying about the house

“I’m actually enjoying the mess, thanks for asking, it means I don’t have to worry about tidying”.

This is my stock answer when people ask me about the house. But I’m lying. The plaster on the walls is cracked and splotchy, every surface is covered in a fine dust, most of our belongings are stacked in randomly packed cardboard boxes behind the IKEA sofa which is missing its cover and has a fine collection of random stains. The kitchen is held together with tape. The bathtub is still full of random bits of wallpaper.

The biggest untruth is the word “enjoy”. A better description of my state of mind, underneath the sort of chirpy and cavalier “isn’t this an exciting adventure” type of attitude I tend to adopt in these situations, would be stressed, jaw-clenching, shoulder-aching, forehead-scrunching, stressed. Because this is the week when it all starts to happen.

Somehow I had managed to ignore it. The notes in my calendar saying “boiler fitter” and “kitchen arrives” were always going to happen at some point in the future. Well that future arrived sooner than expected. And the British prime minister has decided to call a new general election at the same time. So in between kitchen furniture getting stuck in our narrow Victorian hallway and men climbing up on the roof to drop down a flue for the wood-burning stove and the kitchen having to be emptied out and more things packed into more boxes (where are we going to store them!?) I’m keeping one eye on the UK political press on Twitter where there is also chaos and confusion. And it dawns on me that there won’t be any hot water for a while. And no hob, oven or washing machine. Where are we going to eat? How is it already the middle of April?

Perhaps I should just have titled this post first world problems. Perhaps I should try to figure out why everything always seems to happen at once in my life. Perhaps the answer is that underneath the stress there are bits I enjoy. These are the sort of days when there isn’t time to think too much and just about the right amount of time to act, it’s a kind of tunnel effect, a sharpened focus, or perhaps I’ve just had too much coffee and should have a little lie down. In a couple of weeks I can start worrying about tidying again. Now that’s something to complain about.

Photo by Martin Wessely.

The old yew tree of Runnymede

It sits in an ancient woodland near the river Thames and the meadows of Runnymede. It’s where the Magna Carta was signed over 800 years ago. It could be the place where Henry VIII proposed to Anne Boleyn. It’s old. Very old. Perhaps even as old as Stonehenge.

There are several places I want to visit in the UK. The list grows for every year and a recent addition is the ancient Ankerwycke yew west of London.

I discovered it in a book I’m reading about Anglo-Saxons, “The real Middle Earth – magic and mystery in the Dark Ages” by Jungian psychologist Brian Bates. Why did I buy a history book by a psychologist? Well I’m suspecting I confused it with historian Michael Wood’s “In search of the Dark Ages” (the covers are a bit similar) during one of my many Amazon binges. I also struggle to resist subtitles that contain the words “magic” and “mystery” and I quite like Jungians.

I’m yet to be totally convinced by the book, it seems to have been written to piggyback on the Lord of the Rings and the author tries to draw parallels between Britain in the dark ages and Tolkien’s middle earth. But, I wanted to start reading more about early British history, this is sort of a start.

In the book Bates attempts to explore the Anglo-Saxon mind and he visits the Ankerwycke yew to investigate why the old inhabitants of these isles regarded trees as sacred.

Runnymede, England

According to Bates the Anglo-Saxon word “treow” meant both “tree” and “trust or ”truth”. He mentions an old belief that walking or crawling through a tree that had been hollowed out, split by lightning or grown two separate trunks was to receive some of the nature’s power and protection.

On a recent trip to the forest near the house I found an ash with two trunks and decided to try this theory out. I climbed through the gap and gave the tree an awkward pat as I stepped over to the other side. Nothing magical happened, but I’d like to think the tree recognised the gesture. If trees can communicate with each other, perhaps they also have some kind of ancestral memory.

According to Bates the fields around the Ankerwycke yew were once a place where runes were cast and old kings came to listen to fortunes being told. Rune-mede became Runnymede. This is apparently completely false. Even so I’m sure the old yew tree has an interesting tale or two to tell.

How having a flu made me rediscover the wisdom of Gandalf

At the end of January I got the flu. I spent three days in bed with a fever, I hadn’t been that ill since we lived in Shoreditch. That was six years ago and I was floored by the swine flu.

We had a mezzanine in that flat and the only way to get up there was a rackety ladder. I was too ill to climb up the ladder and slept on the sofa downstairs. The flat was tiny, a small studio with a mezzanine, three narrow flights of stairs up and next to a train line.

I thought about that flat as I was laying in bed in January. I thought about how glad I was not to be living in Shoreditch where people from the bar downstairs sometimes made it difficult to get to the front door, where the cars and buses rattling by shook my whole nervous system until I started getting panicky in crowded places.

Before this winter’s fever got really tedious I started looking at my flu as a way of resetting myself. I did some mental rewinding and I downloaded The Lord of the Rings to my Kindle. I obsessed over the books when I was a teenager. I obsessed over the films. For a short period in high school I tried to dress like an elf.

What makes the books so special is that J.R.R Tolkien, this fusty old expert on Anglo-Saxon, had spent years creating a world, languages and his own mythology. You feel fully confident in the world and in the story because Tolkien made sure the stories rest on a solid foundation. There are hints of even more depth, of stories he has created, but decides not to tell the reader.

Reading the books was like catching up with old friends. Around the same time things started kicking off in the US and I was turning from my Twitter feed to Gandalf and Frodo having this conversation in the Shire.

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s father died when he was three. His mother died when he was twelve. His guardian made him choose between finishing his studies and marrying Edith Bratt, the love of his life. The objection was that Edith was older and a protestant. If Tolkien wanted to graduate from Oxford he had to break off all contact with Edith until he turned 21. He waited three years and on his 21st birthday he wrote Edith a letter. The couple got engaged in January 1913. The following year Tolkien enlisted in the army, he fought at the Somme, he was wounded, several of his friends from school died in the war.

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The story has a happy ending. John Tolkien married Edith Bratt, they had four children. Tolkien became an expert in Anglo-Saxon and was a popular lecturer at Leeds and then Oxford where he became a professor and hung out with C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings. He wrote the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings and plenty of other stories. He invented languages. His love story about Beren, a human, and the elven princess Lúthien, was inspired by his love for his wife. When Edith died he had the name Lúthien engraved on her tombstone, he followed her 21 months later.

His generation went through a lot. They helped lay the foundations for the slightly more compassionate society we created after the Second World War. I guess that’s a long time ago, I guess we’ve started to forget. But we can be inspired by what some people who lived through the horrors did with their lives and then decide what to do with the time that is given to us.

All photos from the amazing British Library Archive on Flickr.