Saturday, 29 June 2013

Ode to 50

Am I really 50? So how did that happen then? Well, to answer my own question I guess my parents had sex, I was the result, and on 8th June 1963 I came into the world. Simple as that really.

The years have certainly slipped away easily enough since then. I have the same vague memories of toddler-hood that I always had (my older brother ramming me and my pushchair into a coniferous hedge in a park indelibly stamped) and my childhood passed smoothly enough in a string of memories of bike riding, card playing, swimming in outdoor Lidos with fountains and peeling turquoise paint, family walks, picnics and skateboards. Was it all idyllic? Probably not - I remember a 3-day stand-off that my parents once had and dropping the hamster cage (complete with hamster) down the stairs - but it was certainly relatively carefree.

Exams and university Finals are all distant memories and it's hard to reconcile that my own eldest is soon to embark on that particular trail of misery. Yes indeed, I am all grown up, but you know what? I've just had the best birthday ever after a month of diverse and wonderful celebrations with friends and family. I have my health, I have my happiness - can a girl really ask for more? I think not. Indeed, completing half a century of life has turned out to be rather better than I could possibly have imagined...

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Counting Steps - A Book for Father's Day

If you are looking for a present for Father's Day on 16th June, then 'Counting Steps' - the debut book from fellow writer and blogger, Mark Charlton (Views from the Bike Shed) - could be the answer.

It is a book rooted in nature, landscape and relationships, exploring through its 26 named chapters the experience of fatherhood and the light this throws on his relationship with his own father.

The evocation of landscape and Mark's physical relationship with it through cycling, climbing, walking, running and canoeing, runs as a theme throughout the book. It's Mark's relationship with the landscape which is also self-revelatory: he refers to the 'capacity of landscape to hold a mirror to our feelings, to embody our spirit in physical form' and how 'we return to certain places not so much to look at the view as to look at ourselves'.

Indeed, a few years ago I found myself doing just that. After a hugely difficult and challenging period in my life, I took 'time out' and went back to a childhood haunt in Cornwall. The north coast bays and beaches around Padstow had been etched on my soul during carefree holidays with my parents. Now here I was returning, battered and bruised in my forties, to use the constance of a beloved landscape as a haven in which to reflect on all that had happened and to reconnect with the person I once was. I was viewing the same scenes, but with different eyes - yet their unchanged nature allowed me to recall the essence of myself and to reaffirm my desire to retrieve the elements of my personality that had been lost.

Returning, though, can have its pitfalls. While one draws comfort from returning to certain landscapes, the memories they stir up - particularly when many years have passed between visits - can sometimes be painful: an acceptance is required, for example, that you have aged and that your physical capabilities are not what they once were. Mark, on returning to run along Stanage Edge in the Peak District, where once he easily managed the whole 17 miles, reflects: 'But that was 20 years ago, and though returning is one of my chief delights, I know that some things can never come again.'

The process of maturing is another recurrent theme through 'Counting Steps'. Mark records how his older sons have progressed through their childhood into the teenage years and how he has had to adjust his relationship with them accordingly - he too has had to change.

The loss of unborn children is also sensitively and painfully recorded, in tandem with a physically punishing mountain bike ride, in the chapter 'Push, Pull Through'. It will resonate with any parent who has had to go through this tragic ordeal.

The following chapter, in contrast, is a peaceful reprieve, a coda from the drama and pain which went before the happy arrival of his third and youngest son. It is an evocation of a father's unqualified love for his son and ends, quite simply, with 'Happy birthday Dylan, it's the least and most I can say'.

In poignant contrast, in the chapter 'True Geordies Cry', we are reminded that unconditional love in a parent-child relationship is not always a given as here Mark explores the difficulties in his relationship with his own father which in childhood were not comprehended but are more clearly seen through adult eyes.

Mark's quiet reflections throughout 'Counting Steps' are essentially a set of observations and responses to life before fatherhood, and life since; on the people and places that hold meaning for him and the shifts in attitude and perspectives which have taken place within him because of the love he has for his wife and children and the nostalgia he has for certain landscapes. Immersing himself in these landscapes allows him to better assess the changes that have taken place within him, together with an acceptance of the fact that there are some things he can't control; he also comes to understand that an over-immersion in work and the pressing need to 'progress' can result in a loss of self. The final acknowledgement is how becoming a father himself has transformed his life, taking him on the journey of a lifetime for which there are 'no maps'.


Counting Steps is published by Cinnamon Press and is available to buy for £8.99 through Cinnamon Press, from Amazon or from Mark's own blog page, Views from the Bike Shed

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Ten Years On

Saturday 25th May 2013

As we head south on the M40 on a beautiful sunny evening (long-awaited), it is strange to think that ten years ago this weekend we were heading up the same motorway in the other direction to start our new life in the north. Today in the back of the car, on our way to holidays, we have three distinctly growing girls: ten years ago we had a baby, a toddler and a pre-schooler. Where did those years go? I ask myself.

I struggle to accept that then I was on the cusp of 40, still able to kid myself that I was young; today, on the cusp of 50, I fear the same can no longer be said! The years have passed both in the blink of an eye - and slowly and surely. On the one hand it all seems like yesterday, on the other a lifetime of experience has been accumulated in a decade.

The friends we left behind are still there, of course, but new ones have been made and form the backbone of our happiness in the High Peak. For two of our girls it is truly home - it is all they really remember. For the oldest it is home too, but she has memories of our life in London which hover around the edges of her mind, coming to the fore in unexpected moments.

The year we arrived, 2003, was an exceptionally warm and sunny one (we have not seen then like of it since!). Already in London we had had hot sunshine since April, and I will never forget driving to our new house over the single track lane from Dove Holes into Combs: the yellow gorse glowing yellow in the morning sun, the roof of the car down, and the whole of the Combs valley and glistening reservoir stretching out below us. It was magical, truly magical.

Less magical was the fact I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders- and a mewling cat on the back seat of the car! The effort to make that move, un-looked for, unexpected, when I was not in good health and had just endured nearly four years of building works and house moves - one of them international - and new babies and a husband I hardly ever saw, was immense. And I had reached a point of such deep heartache and loss that moving somewhere where I had no connection and knew no-one was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. I was lonely enough already; I did not need my sense of isolation to be compounded.

Yet somewhere in all that muddle and confusion and distress I knew that this place I had come to was special. I knew that, with utter contradiction, this move was what I needed to start the healing process. I needed the calm, the beauty - and it gave that to me in abundance that first summer.

It is true that the healing process took years - and much effort - to be completed. After about four years I started to feel that I no longer felt out of place. I had made some lovely friends and built up my domestic world so it was working for me rather than against me. Some of my vowels were staring to shift - and I'd got used to the cold! The strangeness, the lack of belonging, had diminished; enough life experience had been built up to form the memory bank on which one draws when defining that sense of attachment. Finally it no longer felt weird to travel north to get 'home'.

So have I become northern - the premise of this blog when I first started it in 2007? Well, truth be told, vowel-shifts and blood-thickening aside, I can never be northern. Ten years is not enough. It takes generations - like so many of the people who live around me here - and I can't compete with that. Yet there is no doubt that I love this place, despite the wind and rain and its remoteness to so much of the rest of my southern and European life. Somehow it enters your soul. The best I can come up with right now is that I feel as much at home up here now as I do down south - and there are a great many things that I prefer about life up here. My range of friends is hugely diverse, people are friendly and down-to-earth, I breathe clean air and I travel around more freely.

The down sides are that I am a long way from my ever-ageing parents and mother-in-law, my brother and all my other friends and relatives; we are a long way from the sea and further away from the European continent - a far cry from my former lives in the Alps, the Pyrenees, Milan, Padua and Paris.

Yet every day that I wake up and see the immutable views of Combs Moss or Eccles Pike and Kinder Scout from my windows, I feel lucky to be alive. And that, truly, is something worth moving for.

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