Over there they do it in wood

IMG_5124Our family have never been close.  Not particularly alienated, I just get the sense that we couldn’t be bothered.  There was a natural division, four boys then a girl.  Obviously, with bedrooms and all that, the boys went in two by twos.  My mother used to introduce me “This is Mary, my P.S.”  And I was, if not exactly an afterthought, a change of sex in the family, born four years after the last boy.  ”The first  girl born for 60 years”, said my mother through gritted teeth,  when I pulled on my favoured dungarees.

At some point, looking after her in her 80s (when, demented, she became a sweet old lady) I realised one of the reasons we were not close was she operated on a kind of divide-and-rule system.  She was a fantastic grandmother however, the sort that you find on all fours behind the sofa, or flipping pancakes in a sweat.  One that the grandchildren wanted to keep in touch with even when they grew up.

Which brings me to Nick, my nephew from the north, who escaped far west, and beached in Marblehead, Massachusetts.  Nick who diligently visited Judy whenever he came back to the UK,  and dined me finely.  Being the eldest son of my eldest brother, we are almost as close in age as I am to his father, and feel like mates.  When Nick married his long-term partner Jane in the summer I thought I’d go.  Then I revised this plan (how much do you actually see of a couple on their wedding day?) to visit a respectful time afterwards.  I didn’t really know Jane and I wanted to.  Now I do, and am the richer for it.

Coming from an area full of stone houses with walls a meter thick, and strange prehistoric bristle-tailed hopping silver fish, it was homey to see these early settler houses doing a good impression of villages round here in the Cotswolds.   I don’t know if Marblehead has weird silverfish, but they do have cockroaches, or, as Nick pointed out, Palmetto bugs.  (Which is what you have if they are in your house; in your neighbour’s house they are cockroaches.)  I examined the map before I left.  There was a Gloucester, Worcester,  Essex and Truro…hundreds of English names. Did the settlers land, and think “goodness me, this looks just like Gloucester” or did they think “know what, lets call this place after the old country” and wiped away a tear.  Maybe it made them feel less lost in a New England.  I think of them whenever I use a cup for measurement, carefully unwrapping little tea cups from protective cloth and examining them for chips after their journey across the ocean.

Marblehead is a little-tea-cup kind of a place.  Houses preserved in ‘revolution’ style by assiduously applied planning rules (even ones built in a later era).  Made of  clapboard, they are painted a gorgeous palette of colours (which I found to be rather more subtle without my sunglasses).  Much be-flagged and neat as a pin, it would be picture postcard perfect if  only they’d pick up after their dogs.

Being on the coast, Marblehead is all about boats, the Boston Yacht Club predominates.  Nick has a modest boat and we discussed plans the next morning over breakfast at the Driftwood Diner.

Blueberry pancakes at the Driftwood Cafe - child size portion

Blueberry pancakes at the Driftwood Cafe – child size portion

We would sleep overnight on the boat and make a 4 am start for Provincetown, Cape Cod.  I wondered about the wisdom of sharing a small boat with a honeymoon couple, but assumed they’d be past the heavy rocking stage having been a couple for ten years.  I worried about my usefulness on the boat.  The last time I sailed was at school on Frensham Ponds, where the limit of my technical lingo was ‘duck’, or ‘watch out’ or ‘oh shit’.  I wondered about the wisdom of having a barbecue on the boat.  I worried about my propensity to sea sickness, combined with jet lag.  But most of all I thrilled at the thought of possibly seeing humpback whales on the Stellwagen Bank.IMG_5121 IMG_5147 Continue reading

Excitement – Fever Pitch, Whales and shrinking New York

Boarding pass printed, let the trip begin…but not until I’ve picked a thousand plums that rain down on my writing cabin, and feed the farty badger each night.  Why, I ask myself, am I leaving during harvest?  Not just any harvest, bumper harvest: courgettes pushing to become marrows in a blink, green beans looking like Jack could climb them, blueberries double netted (hah, birds I don’t love you that much) and suitcase bulging.  That needs revision for sure, or where will my shopping go?  From my memories of Macy’s Americans do a  pretty good show of stuff for short people – oh delight – and narrow feet. ( Thank you thank you for your hispanics, who know what size people should be.)

My nephew tells me that we sail this weekend to Prospect, Cape Cod.  And if we go in a banana shape instead of straight, we just might spy humpback whales.  How can I contain myself?  Memories of a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, hanging over the side of the boat in a storm all the way out and back, trying not to be sick on my daughter who was hanging beside me….So I have patches to put behind my ear, bands to wear on my wrists and homeopathic pills.  Packing yesterday I felt quite sick.  Which just goes to show how much of it is psychological. (As a child I went through different phases.  Magic chocolate with the crunchy middle never worked, but for a while ice cream did the trick, and then I went through a crisps/ potato chips phase.)  I think what might work on this trip is adult pride.

Got myself in a right old state about New York.  Look at tourist information on the net?  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  With an ever growing list of things I want to do, it all seemed too vast, not to mention the expense and the queues. Then I discovered hopstop, a brilliant app that gives walking distances and times in Manhattan.  No problemo.  Finding that I can walk from Penn Station to the Whitney Museum in 45 minutes, and cross central park in 15 has shrunk New York down to a size that I can understand.

The insight that I am not that person who buys a pass to 10 attractions and tries to see them all and do them all in 3 days, a comfort.  As long as your buildings don’t burn me up (did you hear the news in the UK today that a new glass sky scraper/high rise is melting cars parked nearby and setting fire to carpets in offices opposite) I shall be just fine.  Crick in the neck I expect, hot to trot to a couple of cool bars I’ve heard of, and blissfully happy to just visit.  Be there.  Because when you are ‘there’ you find you are ‘here’.

Knowledge of the Land

IMG_5042Jay Griffiths in her intriguing book Wild tells of an Inuit man who got lost in a blizzard and died.  The Inuit elders worry that young people  don’t know the land like they used to.  They are concerned that when knowledge of how the land lies and where they stand within it is lost, it can become a frightening wasteland.  Is New York my frightening wasteland?

On Monday my grandchildren went home to Germany.  The house is deathly quiet – and sticky.  But I found my snow scene of New York under the sofa when I was clearing up.  I’ve had it for many years and it still has twin towers.  I heard the news driving back from the dentist, put on the TV and saw the second plane hit.  How often mundane events pair with the momentous.

I saw New York once in the distance, driving from Boston to Bear Lake.  An unusual view across fields as I remember it.  Tantalisingly close, and extraordinary, standing proud above the fields, and somehow weird that it too had an edge, a place where city turns into countryside.

Boston I know, and my trip begins with a stay near there with one of my nephews. Marblehead looks to be a cute little town, clapboard houses and more than a whiff of the sea.  As my American ex once said, ‘the west coast is like England but moreso’. The summer more summery, the fall – well everyone knows about the hot palette of a New England fall. The winter is a certainty with a depth of snow worth having, and spring simply explodes.  I will be arriving in the extra season the Chinese call late summer, which in England carries the hint of all the other seasons.  One day you sniff the air and think, ‘oh it’s just like spring’, another you shiver and think ‘brrr, winter’s coming’, others shimmer like full summer.

We have had an exceptional summer here with melting roads, and warnings to old people (who nevertheless insist on wearing a vest and thick stockings and closing windows against drafts).   Wasps are buzzing around me (now that conjures up a bizarre image, I suppose I must say ‘leatherjackets’ though that here would conjure up bikers…so much room for misinterpretation).  English people tend not to pack light.  Why would we?  So often local travel requires clothes for all seasons.  I like to say our weather makes us flexible, but it has burdened me with fat suitcases most of my travelling life, even when the family lived in Thailand.  Sometimes it’s been hard to imagine what hot weather feels like.  This glowing summer should prepare me for a Boston fall.

My nephew is a  yachty kind of guy, and has a boat.  I hope for a repeat of an experience I once had sailing in Boston harbour under the flight path of a jumbo jets barely lifted off the end of tarmac.  Whilst I  dread to think the toxins I breathed as I begged over and over ‘do it again’ it remains one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.  I will also enjoy conjuring up images of crates of tea bobbing about in the harbour.  Spain and the UK are at it again upping the anti over a fake reef off Gibraltar, the need humans have to puff themselves up over territory proves memories are long.  Only the other day two elderly men, both 65, came to blows over a parking space at the supermarket car park in BIggleswade. One of them died.  I wonder if there is still a little edge to relationships with British people in Boston?

Badger, moon and rabbit

The moon was burnished copper and huge when I locked up last night, brush strokes of clouds slicing it from time to time.  I scattered peanuts on the terrace, picked chamomile flowers and a sprig of lemon balm for tea and sat outside contemplating the moon as it turned from copper to yellow.  We see the man in the moon, but in the far east they see the rabbit.  Once you’ve seen the rabbit (cocking your head to the side)  you’ll only see the rabbit.

I heard it first, slurping from the water that sits in the lemon tree pot dish.  Then  tick tick tick of claws on slabs.  

The thrill of that little two tone Chanel face appearing in the half light never fails to send a shiver up my spine, even though the little bugger stole all my currants last week.  (If you ever think ‘I’ll pick those tomorrow’ don’t.  Do it straight away if there are badgers in your neck of the woods)  They have very poor eyesight, so the sniffing was loud around my chair where the badger was hoovering up the scattered peanuts.  They have noisy eating habits, crunching and slurping.  I kept still and quiet, it was right by my feet and it wasn’t till I raised my mug slowly for the third time it did a double take and shot off along the terrace.

What noises will I hear in New York?  What will keep me awake there?  I imagine sirens, hot tires on sticky tarmac.

Sunnyside to New York

This is where I live


This is where I live. It’s also where I’m from, give or take a few Gloucestershire suburbs.
In September I am going to fulfill a lifelong ambition to visit New York. I want to do MOMA, Guggenheim, a bit of Blues, a mouthful of authentic New York cheesecake, Greenwich Village (I only have 3 days)…but I find myself strangely nervous.
Why? I’ve hiked the Alaskan Wilderness, backpacked all over the world, slept out in the Australian bush, meditated with monks on the top of a mountain in Katmandu… I was even propositioned by notorious Gloucester serial murderers Fred and Rosemary West and survived, surely I can do New York?
How is an English country woman of a certain age (certainly not 60, certainly not 70) going to fare in that city?
I know when a storm is immanent birds sing a different tune. That swallows circuit the sycamore on the opposite side of the valley in the evenings because that’s where the bugs hangout. Beans taste better picked fresh from my vegetable plot. New York on the other hand….
What do I know about New York? A colleague’s son was shot dead on the subway. People are ‘to the point’, and don’t have time for English perambulations (one side), but ‘everyone’s much more friendly than in London’ (says Francis). The streets may look ‘a to b’, but try walking them and you could be going all day. (However I must say the grid system looks a breeze compared to the lanes around here.) As a friend from Berkley (yours not mine, which is pronounced Barkley) once said, when I gave my address as Sunnyside Cottage, “do you mean the postman actually has to know all the house names?” Well yes, actually they do.
I’m not staying in a hotel I want the authentic New York experience. I’m staying in an AirBnB flat (oops, apartment) in Chelsea with a couple of young guys. They seemed nice on the web site.
I’ve been preparing. I’ve read Nora Ephron and ask myself regularly ‘What would Nora do?” I’m having one of my front teeth capped so I won’t arrive with an ‘English Mouth’. I’ve been thinking ‘sidewalks’ not pavements. I watched Desperately Seeking Susan, the other night. I serve salad as an hors d’oeuvre .
My friend Francis educated me on the different areas. I have a beautifully drawn map by Constantine Anderson of Midtown Manhattan (pub 1985) given to me by an American lover but my wise friend Francis has updated my map, providing a laminated one that won’t flap about announcing ‘tourist’ every time I check a route.

Today I checked the little guide book he gave me to art in New York. Much as I love the idea of the ‘Silk Stocking District’ or ‘Sunnyside’ (a rail yard as far as I can tell). I know I won’t find what I’m looking for there. But what am I looking for?

Philip Gould video of his last days


This is the most extraordinary video of Philipmade by a photographer just weeks before Philip died.  If like me, you are learning of more and more friends who are dying – here is a man who is facing the last journey with such insight and love and courage he is an inspiration.  Thank you Philip for your generosity and making this when you were so strong in death, and to your family for their kindness in sharing this.