Is it my imagination, or is my life turning full circle? Is the universe conspiring with my soul to tie up a thousand and one loose ends in readiness for moving on? And where do Ibiza potatoes fit into the scheme of things?
With a predicted long hot summer snapping at our heels, it seemed a meeting in London’s Notting Hill (http://www.lifelines-uk.org.uk/) provided a good excuse for extending it into a midsummer break.
My now Canadian daughter and grandson were here for the solstice. On the afternoon of the 21st, they paddled around Clunie Loch with Piotr Gudan who just a few weeks before, had been addressing the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh about the need to conserve this country’s unique environment through responsible tourism rather than slapdash and ruinous development. (https://www.outdoorexplore.org.uk/lochsriverssea)
As I watched them dip and splash off into the distance, I remembered how on my first visit to Forneth House in 1951 (my aunt had just married the laird), I had explored the loch by rowboat. I was eleven, my grandson Max (67 years later) just one year older. At that time there was no-one to tell me about the local wildlife, and the remarkable history of the area. Thankyou Piotr for two and a half hours of informative fun; apparently it was a high spot.
The next day, the three of us travelled to Edinburgh, while Akii stayed home to cat sit. I took the train onwards to Kings Cross (four and half hours of scenic bliss) while Buffy and Max signed into the Haymarket Hub Hotel; they had an early flight back to Toronto the next morning.
London is always a shock of the system these days. Funny to think I lived and raised my family there for 20 years and took so much for granted. Now it seems crowded, fast and very young. Maybe it always was, but then such things are always relative.
Very conscious of a new knee and far-too-large-a wheelie case (note: must buy something that is inbetween a weekender and six-week round-the-worlder) I arrived in Brixton and exited the station into chaos. In the 1960s and 70s, the population was largely Caribbean (where the Windrush generation had settled). Now it’s mixed beyond measure, and so loud. Very friendly though, and everywhere so helpful. Towards the end of my trip, I counted up half a dozen young-ish men who had carried my case up stairs at different points north and south of the river, each one saying “If I hadn’t, my mother would never have forgiven me.” (Still trying to work this out…)
I stayed three comfortable and relaxed nights with Tony (https://tonyrickaby.co.uk/) and Jack (http://jacqui-mclennan.com/) in the terrace house they have lived for over 40 years. I have known Jack since 1960, when she was a student at Coventry Art School, along with Roger Jeffs (who I subsequently married) and John Bowstead (who initially married Jack but [after she moved in with one of his students, Tony] I later lived with for near on a decade.)
It was a tangled web we wove in our youth, but amazingly we are all still in touch, and remain very fond. Jack and I spent many hours trying to fill in the gaps in our memories. For example, who was the Canadian student, a painter called Gary-something, whom they brought along to my 21st birthday party in Cheylesmore, Coventry, in May 1961? Gary Nairn, Jack recalled.
On the Sunday, after breakfast at Borough market, Tony drove me to Battersea, where I visited a friend from my Queen’s Park days. Maggie was one of several women I knew there, who all – including me – married their lodgers. Now nearing 80, she has Alzheimer’s, and Andy (20 years younger) is her self-appointed carer. While not remembering exactly who I was, she took my hand when we walked to the bus stop three hours later, so allowing me to believe there was a recognition on some level.
When I went to Japan in 1986, Maggie was my most loyal correspondent. I still have all her letters, those being the not-so-long-ago days when people still put pen to paper. She wrote in a tiny but beautifully clear hand, describing her day-to-day in minute detail… It’s a cruel condition that disallows such activities and memories…
On the fourth day I crossed London to Euston to take the train to Coventry. This is where I grew up (in what was then more a bomb site than a city), and after completing the required probationary year as an accredited teacher, was so relieved to leave in 1962. More recently though it won the bid for City of Culture in 2021 (https://coventry2021.co.uk/) so there is a quite a buzz.
I took a taxi to St James church in Styvechale. This in itself was a huge time-slip, passing Cheylesmore’s Quinton Pool, which in my childhood was a puddle around which rubbish was tipped. Now it’s a place of beauty, with waterbirds, and fringed with mature willows. I was driven past roads where primary school friends had once lived… past the end of the road to the croft where I grew up… past John’s own childhood home…
At the church, closed but basking in sunlight, I spent some time at the stone – a piece of granite, chosen by my mother to cover my father’s ashes after his death in 1962. Now she is there too, together with my sister; both died in 2007 within months of one another. I had carried a miniature rose bush from Euston, along with my case and shoulder bag, but decided to plant it in the garden of remembrance rather than close by the stone; no room among the leaf litter.
Then a bus to Pool Meadow, where the bus station always was, and still is, if much improved. There was even a very welcome gelateria outside one entrance! (It was so hot.) Waiting for the bus to Stratford-upon-Avon, another passed by heading for Nuneaton via Bulkington. This is where Roger grew up, with memories of his mother saving scrupulously all rubber bands and bits of string, and his father in the garden, teaching me about fruit and veg.
The route to Stratford was disappointing. I had hoped the bus would follow the route to school I took morning and evening, along the Warwick Road (past King Henry V111 grammar school where John, Mike and Rick went), past the stables where I learned to ride, past the convent where my sister was sent to school, past Canley Woods (birthday picnics) and on through Kenilworth, and so to Warwick. Instead it seemed mostly to hurtle along a motorway.
We did get to Warwick, but via Leamington Spa, looking very spruced up and smart: the Jephson Gardens, where my parents took us every summer to see the illuminations, preceded by an iced bun at the tearoom, and the bridge over the River Avon were so much smaller than remembered, but then they would be, wouldn’t they.
Crossing the bridge over the same river into Warwick again transported me into the past, and one that I could remember rather more clearly. So much of my early days are blurred beyond belief, with huge gaps in recollection.
There was the castle. There was my school (http://www.kingshighwarwick.co.uk/).
And not so much time after, there was Sarah. Crossing the road from her car (four door, with a clutch!) as I waited on the steps of the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre.
Sarah was one of my best friends at school. Others thought her whacky, eccentric… to me she was heroic, brave and subversive. She pinned up copies of Old Masters over sports fixtures, stayed behind after hours to take up floorboards and crawl under the hall floor to rescue a cat that our headmistress, Miss Hare, had decreed would find its own way out or meet a deserving natural end. Being a rather shy and fearful child, which is probably why I liked acting, putting on masks to hide insecurities, I thought her wonderful. And still do…(https://www.theguardian.com/money/2018/jun/09/charity-writers-room-of-ones-own-woolf)
Her parents and my own were also very much known to one another. While her mother was a sculptor, her father, Hugh Hosking, was head of Coventry Art School. Not only did he give my own mother a job at Hillcrest, a facility in a different part of the city, teaching fashion and dressmaking, but he was also in charge when Jack, John and Roger (and Gary Nairn) were students, seeing them off to the Slade and Royal College of Art in London with some old-school bemusement, scepticism even; were they really all so good? It was the time when Pop Art ruled rather than classicism.
It was Hugh Hosking who, having seen me onstage in various school plays, told my parents that they ought to send me to stage school. Sarah remembers me in ‘Matilda” as being “utterly charming”. Maybe he saw me instead in ‘The Winter’s Tale’? I rather hope so. As a seventeen-year-old, the role of Paulina would have been far more challenging.
Sarah and I each remembered meeting one another just once since 1957. I recalled visiting her in a cottage with a lot of cats (she still lives in a cottage with lots of cats, but in a different part of the country), with a pale callow youth lingering behind her chair. “Aha,” she guffahed, “that must have been when I was thinking to marry a curate.” (She never did, never married anyone.)
She then asked if I remembered bumping into her on north London’s Kilburn High Road in the 1970s. She was doing a course with the Arts Council. I was a young mum but also working for an American syndication company, Transworld Feature Syndicate inc. of NY, in Holborn: “You were wearing a long dark brown PVC mac, tightly cinched at the waist. “(Good to know that after two babies I still had a waist!)
Her studies at the Arts Council stood her in good stead when she set up a charity to help older women writers. (She’s had quite a career: academic, author, property developer and now philanthropist.) While I was in Japan, she was giving time, space and money to over 100 women to work on the widest array of literary projects imaginable. So impressive. (https://hoskinghouses.co.uk/wp/)
Walking back from dinner in town – a splendid vegan restaurant that looked after us very well, she being a well-known local figure – we passed the cottage where the current tenant (a poet) was watering the garden…. We then strolled down a path into the dusk, past Sarah’s chickens, to the River Slough, where a small rowboat was moored: another facility to be enjoyed by scribers seeking inspiration or simply relaxation.
Sitting out in Sarah’s lovely tangled garden as the moon rose above the roof of 22 Duck Lane, with dog Daisy at our feet, the cats strolling around, and more than a hint of Shakespearean magic in the air, I thought it the perfect end to an extraordinary day.
Travelling to Somerset the next day was a doddle until the train got to Westbury, where it decided to go into meltdown. Yes, the track and points ahead had so expanded in the heat that we could go no further. Staff were apologetic and after much hand-wringing got taxis organized for the nine of us bound for the stop ahead: Castle Carey. Here poor Sandy had been waiting for me for over an hour…
I stayed four nights with her and John (a demographer about to leave for India) in their beautiful home – a sixteen-century manor house with five acres in the Vale of Avalon – purchased a decade before with the proceeds of the sale of a terrace house in Shepherd’s Bush, West London.
My time there culminated with a lunch party for nine at which I found myself sitting next to Delia da Silva whose husband Peter Allen was chief technician at the RCA at the same time Jack had been there studying textiles and print. The poor man had just been told he could no longer drive, as his eyesight failing, so that burden also falling onto his already stressed-out wife.
It was a jolly bunch in the main. Swiss-Peruvian jeweller Solange Zamora I had met before, at the dinner party she had thrown a few nights earlier in her garden, with a distant view of Glastonbury Tor in moonlight under a starry sky.
Another local, American artist Candace Bahouth, was sharing an exhibition in Bath with the designer Kaffe Fassett. When Sandy and I knew him in the mid-1970s, working together on the book Wild Knitting, he was a knitwear and (like Candace) tapestry designer. (Sandy subsequently edited his most famous knitwear book.) Now he has a 101 creative fingers in as many creative pies, with a multitude of makers to support and implement his interests and talents. By contrast Candace works mostly alone, showing in this instance some of her marvellous mirrors with intricate mosaic surrounds. (mosaicbahouth.com)
Frances and Jamie Howard have a bookshop in Glastonbury. (Sandy and I had popped into The Gothic Image the previous day while shopping, but she had been elsewhere.) He organises tours of ancient sacred sites, largely in Scotland, so providing us with the possibility of much to talk about. But they all knew one another very well, and were much enjoying catching up. I was the outsider, and quite tired after a morning of helping prep the occasion. But it was fine; I was quite happy to sit back and speak only when spoken to.
It was on hearing the word Coventry at some point that Delia sat up and announced: “Oh yes, I was in the Coventry Mystery Plays in 1962, when the new cathedral was inaugurated. I played one of the wailing women.”
“Good heavens,” I replied, “I was in it to, I played Eve, (in a pale pink body-stocking loaned from the RSC’s wardrobe in Stratford).”
We could not remember one another (in the cast of hundreds), but she easily recalled the name of the director, Neil Stair (whose surname was another I had forgotten), while I have always been able to summon up that of his partner Rex Chell. What an amazing coincidence, she remarked, quite astonished. To which I stayed quiet, believing there is no such thing as coincidence, only synchronicity.
Much more truly amazing was the river view from the apartment in Canary Wharf, back in London, where I spent my last night.
Sarah – another Sarah, known since our babies were small in Kilburn, and who had also married a lodger – had only recently sold her house in Queen’s Park and now divides her time between the Isle of Dogs and a casita and orange grove in Spain. Adrian was back there while she waited for a knee replacement operation in London. (We are all at an age when our bodies are complaining, even giving up on us…) Obviously in a lot of pain, the misery of which I could remember all too well, time was passing slowly…
I’m not surprised however they felt no need for a TV! There was a fairground at Greenwich, and watching the river traffic kept us amused until late… tourist boats bustling to and fro, commuters heading home on river busses, a beautifully restored barge, and after dusk, a convoy of corporate party boats, with video screens, pulsing lights and synchronized reggae beats, accompanied by screams of laughter and (presumably) enjoyment. We were even able to swiftly report a fire – billows of dense black smoke – on the south side, and hear engines racing to the rescue; the remembrance of Grenfell Tower was too painful to do otherwise.
On the back north I say beside a woman travelling to Inverness with her husband. They were potato farmers on Ibiza.
“Is Ibiza big enough for potato farming?” I asked in a state ignorance, prejudiced by media reports of hen parties, stag dos, and partying as if there is no tomorrow.
“Oh yes,” I was told. “The mahem is pretty localized. Of course the island is more built up than it used to be, but there are still pockets of agriculture. Like the Jersey potato, the Ibiza potato is much prized.”
(Ibiza, pronounced by British tourists as Ibitha, was originally Catalan Eivissa, from the Arabic yabisa, from the Latin erebus, from Phoenician and meaning ‘dedicated to the gods’.)
It was amazing, we agreed, that earlier that morning she and her husband had been mucking out and feeding the animals before heading for the airport for the flight to Edinburgh. How small the world was. How crazy – how rooted in fantasy – the concept of Brexit; what was the UK thinking? How breathtaking it was for them to see such open vistas, such expansive landscapes. How beautiful was Scotland.
I had a lot to think about when I finally arrived home, having dedicated my journeying and safe return to the gods.
I am still thinking about it.