A jackdaw is pecking at buggy nibbles beneath the slim outstretched arm of an oak tree whose trunk is obscured by dark holly. Pecking at live insects also, maybe, since the ladybirds often take shelter beneath the lid of that particular feeder. Earwigs, occasionally, too. The magpies appear to tolerate the jackdaws more than they once did. They are otherwise busying themselves with digging up chafers or whatever treasures the squirrels have buried in the lawn. The squirrels have already relocated all the peanuts and have turned their attention to the squirrel-proof seed feeders. There is no such thing as squirrel-proof. Squirrels are tenacious and smart. But magpies are smarter and regularly dine out on the efforts of their problem-solving, furry sidekicks.
It was two years ago this month that we (Bloke, Boy and I) slept our first night in this house. I remember coming down to the kitchen on our very first morning’s waking here and seeing, through the curtainless windows, a jay sitting still and tall on the (then broken) back fence, quietly attesting to what I already knew to be true, that we’d found our forever home. Home is a strange and complicated concept. Elusive even. Difficult to define and articulate beyond its sub-stratal rootedness in simply being safe. Feeling safe. Feeling free enough to be your truest self.
From the age of five I grew up on a council estate, though not much of it remains the property of the council anymore. Most of the houses and flats were tenant-bought under the government’s Right to Buy scheme and they’re not cheap to purchase in today’s market. Previous to that my folks had rented a dilapidated two-up-two-down from a private landlord who owned the stinking factory at the end of that terraced street. The house had one cold tap in the kitchen, no bathroom and an outside loo that squatted, amongst others, in an ugly back yard shared by the whole row. I moved into an overpriced bedsit, owned by an unscrupulous landlord, when I first ventured out on my own, in a tiny room in the eaves of an old, blackened building, half way up a hill, with a shared bathroom and a kitchen two floors down. It might have afforded me a good view over the town where I was born had it had a big enough window. Alternately, I spent time in other people’s rooms, in student digs and shared houses. I rented a mid-floor, one-bed tenement, built of pink granite, a fourteenth floor shit-hole (a stone’s throw from Sheffield’s infamous Park Hill) and a township prefab several decades past its expiry date. I’ve never in my life slept a full night without shelter, though I’ve often had to choose between food and heat because I couldn’t afford both. Twice in my life I’ve been relocated from properties that were condemned and subsequently pulled down.
And now I am home, in the kind of house I once thought only other people live in. A smart looking house of nineteenth century gothic revival heritage, with patterned brickwork and a large garden. People who don’t know the building’s history assume it was once an old schoolhouse or something similar but that makes it sound bigger and grander than it really is. It was actually built as the ‘trades’ entrance’ for a much larger Victorian villa, a little way up the road, itself carved up into more reasonably sized, separate dwellings during the twentieth century. In the thirties and forties red brick semis sprung up on the land in-between the two buildings. I have a soft spot for cosy thirties semis, having ‘nested’ in one when I was pregnant with Boy. That was our first family home, a sturdy steppingstone which I’m sure I will always feel some emotional connection to – and deep and sincere gratitude for.
In a somewhat unconventional celebration of our two-year moving-house anniversary we went into Tier-2, soon to be Tier-3, lockdown. Both levels of restriction are a far cry from the original national lockdown of Spring when we weren’t even allowed to make the twenty-minute drive to Sherwood Forest to walk the dog. The forest car park, for now at least, remains unlocked and accessible. Geographically speaking, it moved round about the same time we did – but only a short distance, across the road into Edwinstowe – when the shiny new visitor centre was built at the forest edge and the old one torn down. I thought I knew the forest quite well. Parts of it at least. It was disconcerting how strange it all suddenly appeared to me when I entered the trees along a less trodden path, just a short walk away from the place where I used to park the car which has now been fenced off to be returned to nature. The trees hadn’t moved. The sometime grazing spaces and cross-cutting bridal paths remained the same and the oil seed rape field still sat in the same edgewise clearing it always had. But the latterly erected trail signs, carved with unfamiliar trail names, pointing me in directions I hadn’t previously walked completely threw me. Everything looked different. I stuck to the official new trails to begin with, until I got my bearings and felt less disorientated. Then the dog and I went off-track, from the most easily relocatable starting point of Major Oak, in search of the parts of the forest we previously knew – the clearing with the little house carved from a tree stump, now almost completely moss-covered, and the fallen birches where Boy and Dog used to sometimes play and clamber on weekday afternoons.
A robin is bobbing about in the rocks, all laid out according to size variation, along the garden path. Slate slabs destined for mini-meadow demarcation, along the edge of the grassy path, at the top of the rubble bank. The last heavy gardening job of the year before Autumn gives way to Winter. Daylight saving ended yesterday and the clocks went back last night. The extra hour was well spent and the light is beautiful this morning.
A lot has happened in the garden this year that I haven’t got around to diarising yet. Pre-lockdown, five more mature trees went into the ground – four birches and a bird cherry – root-balled from the growing fields at a local tree nursery. As an afterthought I dug out a long lockdown border around them. I mounded the resulting turf tufts up into a small hillock near the kitchen window and sank a pre-formed rigid liner into the mound to create a raised pond in the hope that it would draw our garden wildlife a little closer to the house. It wasn’t long before a frog moved in. A hedgehog took up Summer day residence at the top of the garden and a young rabbit spent a couple of days ‘desserting’ in and around the strawberry patch after taking his extended main course next door in our neighbours’ broccoli bed. Small moments of pure gardening joy treasured all the more for their blithe, springy steps several leaps removed from the global covid crisis.
Gardening has kept, and continues to keep, me sane. Relatively speaking. Writing has been intermittently therapeutic for me over the years but is becoming less and less so. Writing anything of any real substance that is.
Before we moved house, I spent a lot of time walking around the Crags and surrounding farmland, at the South-Eastern edge of the typical-of-type ex-mining village which was built up beside it. I photographed the changing seasons there, incidentally, whilst out and about with the dog. At home, this home, during lockdown, I collated some of those photographs into an album of Winter snow, Spring buds, Summer skies and Autumn leaves – all together in one place – to depict a visual story of the passing of time at the Crags. I wanted to compose a poem to accompany the pictures – a love letter of sorts – as a gesture of appreciation and gratitude to the place we had called home for ten years. And so I set myself the task of writing a sestina and spent a long time wrangling with line-endings so the details of language would push out beyond the restrictive ‘rules’ of a sestina while still conforming to the accepted, pre-established verse structure. The whole process took a long time. I finally finished the poem and sent it out into the world and I am pleased with the end result. I am fairly certain that almost no one else who reads it will even be familiar with, much less notice, the oblique historical references embedded within the lines. Few people will recognise that the second stanza touches upon the fateful stories of the Canadian aircraft crew who crash landed there in 1944 and the local colliery disaster of 1950 in which scores of men from the village lost their lives. Or that the word “strongarmed” is a direct reference to the archaeologist, Leslie Armstrong, who excavated the caves with explosives; or that “ducal den” refers to the eccentric fifth Duke of Portland who hollowed out an entire network of interconnecting tunnels beneath his ancestral seat which, to this day, still collects ground rent on the land where the Crags sit. It might be more obvious, to someone with an interest in the archaeological significance of the Crags, that the fifth and sixth stanzas allude to the very recent discovery of the largest concentration of sixteenth-nineteenth century apotropaic marks ever found in British caves; and that some of the animals, named in the poem, can be found depicted along the walls of Church Hole, in the oldest verified cave art in the UK. But it’s likely that only a Creswellian would understand that Hamlet’s “Ophelia” is referenced in relation to a tragic event of more recent living history – the death of a local woman by drowning in the pond.
Each word was carefully and deliberately chosen, as they are in all poetry, and they are loaded with meaning. “Unbelted” refers to the trunk belt, that carried coal to the pithead, which tore through and started the fire at the pit transfer chute. “Byre” refers to the fact that some of the Crags caves were once used as cattle sheds and “earth-horned” is a nod, in translation, to the possible etymological taxonomy of the behemoth woolly mammoth. The words weren’t just breezily strung together because they already sat on the tip of my tongue and sounded pretty.
If I’m honest with myself, the pleasure of writing, for the most part, comes at the end – when a piece is finished. And the pleasure, or satisfaction, is transitory. And then I move onto the next thing – which is unlikely to be something requiring me to sit at a keyboard. It’s why my gardening journal contains great swathes of empty space. Gardening I love. Writing about it, less so. I will certainly endeavour to keep the journal going because I really do like having a written and photographic record of the garden – not only of the big structural changes that we’ve made and may continue to make – but also of the brilliant, fleeting perfection of individual blooms and ripe fruits, and of the myriad feathered, furred and spiked creatures who enjoy them. I take a lot of photographs in the garden but I tend to be as pleased with each original image, immediately out of the camera, as I am with the first words that directly come to mind whenever I’m attempting to write something. Post-processing photographs, though less cerebrally taxing than writing, still involves large chunks of time sitting before a computer screen on the premise that the time will have been well spent in the end. When the task is complete and I have successfully created something.
In the garden it is the creative process which satisfies my mind, body and soul. I’m constantly thinking forward towards how I imagine the space might look and feel – after a bit of planting, painting, rearranging – but the real motivation and therapeutic function is always in the doing. It is the act of gardening itself which is autotelic and therefore worthwhile. There are, of course, instances of sensory loveliness, along the way, for the aesthetic taking – but there really is no such thing as an end result to move towards. And nor would I wish there to be. Anyone who gardens will understand, from the inside, the concept of what modern psychology calls ‘flow’ – even if the terminology is unfamiliar. The contentedness of being totally immersed in an activity, outside of oneself, to which one ascribes intrinsic value. I’m not sure I’ve ever achieved a state of ‘flow’ whilst writing. It is true that writing requires intense focus – but I’ve never got lost in it, despite taking so many wrong turns.
Dahlias, in colours of ripple flavoured ice-creams, are still budding and opening. I planted out a handful of bare tubers of unknown variety after the last of the spring frosts – and they have been glorious. I don’t know whether I can provide them with the best environmental conditions to see them safely through the Winter. These are the first dahlias I’ve ever grown. It might be better to just leave them where they are, to seal their fate and let them feed the soil. I don’t know.
I’ve been contemplating the notion of regret. I’m deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to not have any regrets. I have many. I regret things I have said and done and things I haven’t. In terms of all the many things I have not accomplished (but which it might still be within the realms of possibility to remedy, before I turn fifty in a few years’ time) one particular thing – more than any other – has been increasingly present in my mind. I have never learned to play a musical instrument proficiently. Four decades ago, at infant school, we were all given recorders to blow into. Class sizes in state schools were not small even then so I expect we made quite a din. At junior school I joined the guitar club but I was never taught how to tune my own instrument because that was the mysterious and magical preserve of the guitar teacher alone and he only visited the school for one hour each week. So I very quickly became disillusioned with strings. I messed about with electronic keyboards at secondary school in ‘creative arts’ classes (and even mastered Hava Nagila, at speed) but music lessons, per se, were never actually taught to anyone who didn’t arrive at comprehensive school already ensconced in some extracurricular group or other. And I never learned how to read sheet music. At college I hung around with musicians – bands of various persuasions – but I was more of an experimental groupie and I got drunk and stoned a lot. Then, adult life proper happened. A few years ago I decided to teach myself how to play the diatonic harmonica. My car was the only place I was able to listen to – or practice making – musical sounds at any reasonable volume. So any instrument had to be small. In Winter I had to sit on it to warm it up first. That was never going to be a sustainable answer to cultivating musicality. I might have tried harder to make it work if I’d loved the instrument more but it irritated me (I’m not even sure why) that several harps were required to be able to play songs in different keys and it frustrated me that I was forced to bend notes, as a matter of course rather than stylistic effect, to produce sounds that the reeds weren’t actually engineered to make. And as much as I love listening to the blues, I didn’t really dig on playing blues chords as much as I thought I would. I found myself more naturally drawn to playing single hole melodies and I got a weird kick out of learning scale theory and the circle of fifths. So my late blossoming blues legend career never took off.
I have since discovered that jazz is where it’s really at! No more excuses. I might actually be a little bit in love with my chromatic harmonica – a bright, shiny 16-hole Suzuki. Infatuated at the very least. Four full octaves in a quarter kilogram of cool metal plating. The note arrangement is so much more intuitive to my well-ordered mind (ahem…) than that of the diatonic. I can play in any key on a single instrument and the slide opens up a whole new world of creative possibilities. These are somewhat inharmonic early days and neither my breath nor the breath savers hold out much beyond about 45 minutes, at best, but I’m filling the rest spaces in-between with a conscientious study of contemporary music theory – to satisfy those aspects of my personality which, if ever meaningfully coupled with anything approaching drive and ambition, might, in an alternative universe, have had pretentions to academia but which, in reality, are susceptible to fatigue, distraction and recalcitrance and will only ever cosy up with a book entirely of my own choosing.
Besides the every-other-daily ritual of refilling the feeders and refreshing the drinking and bathing water there will be little to do in the garden over Winter. I fear a mind like mine, left to its own writing devices, over what will surely be a dark and difficult lockdown, will find itself falling into a chasm of claustrophobia with no air to breathe, much less flow. There are a lot of photographs from this gardening year to be pored over. I’ll crop and rotate and adjust the light and colour levels until I have pictures I’m happy with. And then, for a little while at least, I think I’ll arrange them without words and just quietly let them speak for themselves. And let the notes flow where the words won’t.
My dog is the colour of Autumn at its most lovely. I want to walk with him, not with the black dog.