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Saturday
Nov052016

Swallows and Amazons for ever!

I went to see the latest movie version of Swallows and Amazons with my dad in Edinburgh two weeks ago. Both of us were brought up on these books by Arthur Ransome, which were first published in 1930, when dad was a boy of 6. (For those who haven’t been exposed to these classics, they tell the holiday adventures of six kids from two families, as they sail and camp, mainly in England’s Lake District).

It was a pretty good adaptation, although purists might have had trouble with the addition of a major subplot involving sinister Russian spies; the fact that Captain Flint was young, trim and good looking instead of ageing, rotund and bald; and the way that everybody’s favourite character, Titty, had her name changed to Tatty, presumably for reasons of political correctness. In fact, the Russian spy addition was apt in a way, given Ransome’s marriage to Trotsky’s secretary, and his somehwat complicated activities with M15.

As a kid, I adored the books in the Swallows and Amazons series, mainly because they are simply rip roaring kids’ adventure stories, and provided fuel for endless fantasies and make believe games for my sister and me, for whom this vicarious experience of camping was the closest we would get to the real thing.

With the hindsight of an adult and a parent who spent hundreds of happy hours reading to her own children, I can see that the books, despite when they were written, had some great role models for girls. I identified both with ‘Mate Susan’ the responsible older sister who was the main reason they were allowed to head off on all these adventures without benefit of parents. 'Their mother knew Susan would always make sure everyone was fed and warm and that the younger ones had a decent bedtime,’ the narrator explains. Susan is forever shooing everyone off to swim so that she can get the camp shipshape before Mother arrives for a visit. But I also identify with Titty, who is often in a fantasy world of explorers and cannibals, savages and natives, and who is forever scribbling in her notebook. The two other impressive female role models in the stories are the fierce pirates Nancy Blackett, the ‘Terror of the Seas’ and her sister Peggy, who wage war, shoot arrows and force people to walk the plank. Nancy and Peggy (who, Dad tells me, are the first girls they had heard of to weat shorts) are aptly called the Amazons; the four Walker siblings are the Swallows. 

The main reason for visiting the Lake District recently was that I had so enjoyed reading about that area in the books, and had always longed to see it for myself. Once I got home, I located Swallowdale on my shelves thinking I would just read the first chapter or two for fun, and before I knew it, I was 100 pages in, the old enchantment as strong as ever, and now I could picture it all so much more clearly.

My long-suffering husband is heartily sick of hearing me saying how much more at home I feel in the UK than in Australia, but it’s true. Although almost all the people I love most are here, plus a great job and the best mates and life a woman could wish for, I don’t find the Australian landscape, urban, rural or wilderness, soothes my soul in the way that the British Isles do. My recent re-exposure to Swallows and Amazons makes me wonder if the reason is that almost every book I loved as a kid was set in the UK. Okay, I was obsessed with the Moomintrolls, from Finland, but apart from that, it was British Isles all the way. We didn’t have Enid Blyton in our house (‘there are better things to read’ Mum declared firmly) but there were all the Ransome books, the Borrowers, the seven books of the Narnia series, Paddington Bear, E. Nesbit with her Railway Children, Mary Poppins, Beatirix Potter, Frances Hodgson Burnett and The Secret Garden, Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Once I was a bit older, there was Jean Plaidy with her swashbuckling historical novels about the Tudors, Georgette Heyer, and the swooningly romantic D.K Broster novels of the Jacobite Rebellion in the Highlands of Scotland (spiritual ancestor to the Outlander series for sure). Even Tolkein, although he creates a whole new universe, as did C.S Lewis, is firmly in the English world. Australian books for children and teenagers didn’t feature; my sister loved Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong books, but for some reason I didn’t read them.

If you are very lucky, some of your fondest memories will be of being read to by a loved adult. For me, separated for much of the time from my parents, my most precious memories of feeling safe, cocooned, and led into magical other worlds, was being read to by both parents, but mainly by Dad, who had the most wonderful reading voice. In tough times, my escape was fiction – being read to at first, and then reading the books to myself, over and over and over. Reading is still my great love and my great escape.

So I think that’s why, despite having lived in this lucky country for most of my life now, I feel most at home in the cold and damp and green of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the Antrim Coast Road or the Lake District. It’s all about childhood imprinting.

In the post-1958 editions of Ransome's books, there is an introductory Author’s Note which says it better than I ever could. Here it is, in its entirety:

‘I have often been asked how I came to write Swallows and Amazons. The answer is that it had its beginning long, long ago when, as children, my brother, my sisters and I spent most of our holidays on a farm at the south end of [Lake] Coniston. We played in or on the lake or on the hills above it finding friends in the farmers and shepherds and charcoal-burners whose smoke rose from the coppice woods along the shore. We adored the place. Coming to it we used to run down to the lake, dip our hands in it and wish, as if we had just seen the new moon. Going away from it we were half drowned in tears. While away from it, as children and grown ups, we dreamt about it. No matter where I was, wandering about the world, I used at night to look for the North Star and, in my mind’s eye, could see the beloved skyline of the great hills beneath it. Swallows and Amazons grew out of those old memories. I could not help writing it. It almost wrote itself.’

 

 

Saturday
Oct292016

Responsibility and control

I am convinced that one of the secrets to happiness is giving up being a control freak. I am one, so I know what I’m talking about; Enneagram type 1 for those of you who speak that language. Perfectionist is another way of putting it. My choices of profession haven’t helped: nurse, mother, administrator, event manager. I am highly organised and would like everything in my life to be just so. I wish my home and office were in a constant state of ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’.

But the grace of God and the winds of the Holy Spirit have a way of leaking into the most controlled of lives and liberating them.

Giving a Christian perspective on the ancient personality type system ‘the Enneagram’, Franciscan Richard Rohr maintains that the best treatment for the shadow side of each personality type is contemplative prayer, which tallies with my experience. Decades of daily prayer practice are freeing me, little by little, from the burden of perfectionism.

Learning of grace through silent prayer has taught me that that God loves me no matter how far from perfection I am. In fact, God can work with me better when I simply let God meet me where I am, which is often in a weak and messy place. As Saint Paul said, ‘God’s grace is sufficient for you, and God’s strength is made perfect in weakness’.

At this time and place, we are able to feel more in control than ever before in human history. We have the illusion of control, with our medical technology, our insurance schemes, our armies of people involved in the ‘risk minimization’ industry. In past centuries many people died young and in chaos; no one could kid themselves they were in control of anything much. Our outrage at the new scourge of terrorist attacks is only because we forgot for a while there that there is no way we can risk manage against death.

Accepting that we don’t have much control, however, does not mean we don’t take responsibility. In fact, it’s quite the reverse. Taking responsibility means that I do the things I can control with as much integrity as possible: endeavouring to be kind to others and myself, to work hard and to rest well, to make time for God, to use humour to give me a sense of perspective.

I try to work hard at my job and then stop thinking about it. It’s not up to me to save the world, or even to rescue the church. It is not my task to keep my adult children happy. I do what I can as well as I can and then try to let it go. It’s not easy for a natural control freak. But the more I manage to do this - and it gets easier each decade - the happier and calmer I am. The clearer I am about what is my job and what is up to God.

This article was first published in The Melbourne Anglican, September 2016 issue

 

 

Sunday
Oct162016

Buttermere

The Lake District is, to quote a facebook friend of mine describing the Island of Iona recently, bonkers beautiful.

More about the much-lauded beauty in a minute. There are idiosyncrasies I will associate with my time in this area for ever. One of these is the endearing, baffling, sometimes downright infuriating lack of signage. We thought Eigg was subtle, with its vague system of coloured dots to indicate various walking tracks; they have nothing on the tracks around Buttermere. In an area that apparently hosts 15 million tourists every year, the only signage you are likely to find as you try to navigate your way around low lakes and high fells are old, sweetly carved wooden signs saying ‘Public Footpath’. Armed as we were with an ordinance survey map, and reasonably bush-savvy as at least one of us is, we managed to get everywhere we wanted to hike to, but it wasn’t easy. We wondered if it was a deliberate attempt to keep all but the keenest trekkers on the beaten track. We ask our host, John, a local, if this is policy and he chuckles. ‘I don’t think so,’ he says in his slow Cumbrian drawl. ‘I think it’s just idleness. I think they’re just too lazy to put anything up.’

Animals are another Lake District theme – they are everywhere. Of course sheep rule – sheep here are like cows in India; they saunter down the middle of the road or sunbake nonchalantly on a barely existent grassy verge beside the narrowest of roads. We have seen road signs asking us to beware of sheep, deer, red squirrels and badgers. Most of all, we are struck by the dogs, who seem to be the main danger to sheep if various gruesome posters are to be believed. Dogs are everywhere. In National Parks, off their leads as often as not. In pubs, lying happily under a table next to a roaring fire. In every outdoor equipment shop in Keswick (and there are about 20) there they are, sniffing the gortex, welcomed in by signs outside, in cafes, in food shops for goodness sake. Sitting at a pavement café in Keswick watching the passing parade was like finding myself in a Hairy Maclary book.

We were spoilt with a whole week in this heavenly patch of the earth. I picked a place to stay almost randomly, and it has been perfect for us. In Buttermere there is a church, two pubs, two cafes, a youth hostel, a couple of farms and not much else. Our rental cottage is part of a 17th century farmhouse, with a seriously uphill gradient between bathroom and bedroom and one coffee table on such a slant that I am worried about putting my mug of tea on it in case it should slip off. It’s warm and cosy and comfortable and we love it.

Buttermere village lies between Lake Buttermere and Crummock Water, and is surrounded by rugged mountains. The area is distinctive in that it is half bucolic, gently undulating, sheep-strewn, old-farmhouse-populated countryside and half mountains of the kind that are hard to climb up, harder to climb down and where you could die if you weren’t sensible. Then there are the Lakes themselves – big ones and little ones, a different colour every hour of every day, reflecting the glory of the hills around them. When we arrive, our host Vicki says that because it is a partly cloudy day, the shadows on the Fells are more beautiful, and she’s right. There’s more interest and contrast than on a day of pure sunshine.

We are grateful, however, for a day of almost pure sunshine when we do our big walk for the week –up the three big mountains on the south side of Lake Buttermere – Red Pike, High Stile and High Crag. I haven’t been so knackered since the last time I climbed the Staircase to the top of Mount Bogong, and it is like a staircase, relentlessly up a punishing gradient, much of which was loose scree which is, frankly, terrifying coming down for a middle-aged person with dodgy knees. When we get to the top of Red Pike we can see to the ocean and beyond it to Scotland, we can see Northern Ireland, land of my fathers, faint on the horizon. We can see endless vistas of grey, purple and blue – range upon range – stretching out seemingly forever. How can there be so much unpeopled wildness in such a tiny country?

On Sunday evening we go to church in a building of which no less a personage than William Wordsworth apparently said, ‘A man must be very unsensible who would not be touched at the sight of the chapel of Buttermere’. It is made of warm pinky-red stone, and is the first church I’ve seen where the stained glass windows behind the communion table are of Mary and Martha. Girl power! There is a little plaque to Alfred Wainwright, who walked and drew and wrote about these mountains, fittingly under a window looking out to Haystacks – his favourite mountain, where his ashes are scattered. As always, I am deeply moved by worshipping with people I have never met before and likely never will again (all eight of them!), singing alongside them ‘lustily and with good courage’, repeating the familiar, timeless liturgy, sharing the bread and the wine of Eucharist, being welcomed warmly by the vicar and her flock.

Every day the leaves have turned a little more autumnal, matching the red gold bracken that carpets so much of these hills. (A guidebook tells me that bracken is poisonous to sheep but that the farmers are subsidised not to get rid of it, as its colours are so beautiful and the tourists love it.) The forests are golden, with a thick carpet of moss so soft I want to lie down on it and never get up. I don’t know which I enjoy more – walking through the trees or clambering above the tree line to the wild, rocky moors with their breath-taking views of mountains and lakes. Every day we walk and walk. Sometimes we get in the car and walk somewhere a little further away, twice we even visit charming little towns, but the beauty of Buttermere is that there are a thousand enticing walks without having to drive anywhere.

The only way I can describe this country is that it is achingly beautiful. It literally makes my heart ache, or some place in my chest, it almost makes me weep. It gives me a deep nostalgia for many of the books of my childhood, my imaginary worlds, and most of my images of the life hereafter. I’ve taken photos with a sense of resignation that nothing that I and my little camera can capture could possible do justice to this place, but I will treasure those photos nonetheless, I will print them out and stick them in an old-fashioned album and pore over them when I am in need of consolation. Even without the photos, though, this landscape is part of me now, and no one can ever take it away.

 

Wednesday
Oct052016

On Eigg

To our surprise, the sun beams on us the entire way across Scotland from Edinburgh, where we catch the 7am train, to Glasgow, where the next leg of our journey begins at half past eight, all the way to Mallaig, a fishing village on the west coast, five hours later, and keeps shining as we catch the ferry to our final destination, the Island of Eigg. The trip from east to west coast is achingly beautiful – forests and mountains (how quickly, leaving the cities, you are in the Highlands!), lochs and, finally, the sea. I expect the other passengers – all Scots - to be blasé about the spectacular scenery we are passing through, but they are as excited as we are, running from side to side on the train, trying to get decent photos through the windows.

You could do this trip 100 times and not see a thing but mist and rain, so we are feeling blessed even before we are met at the pier on Eigg by George, one half of the farmer couple we are renting a ‘bothy’ (hut) from for five nights. I emailed an order of basic supplies to the Eigg Shop a few days back, and I ask George if he minds waiting while we pick it up. He’s a farmer, I bet he has a million things to do apart from wait around for tourists. ‘Sure, I’m just going to have a drink anyway, if you care to join me,’ he says affably, and by the time we have collected our cardboard cartons full of milk and marmalade and potatoes and sausages, he has taken our orders – beer and Guinness for the lads, a mug of tea for me – and has them waiting for us, on the picnic tables outside the bar which, like the shop/post office is right where the boats come and go.

Half the population of Eigg seems to be out there, enjoying a drink in the rare sunshine, and half of them seem to be related to George – his mum and dad are there, his sister, brother-in-law and nephew, and he tells us that the restaurant we have booked into (the only one on the island) for the next night belongs to his auntie. We sit for a while, chatting, and then pile into an ageing red Landrover Defender, along with Maggie, George’s seven-year-old, who perches on Paddy’s knee in the front seat. No seat belts are in evidence.

It's four miles to where we are staying, and we bounce along pot-holey, puddled roads as we cross to the other side of the island, which is where most of the community live.

Our wee bothy is perfect; Scottish island hut meets Scandi aesthetic. It’s tiny, it’s beautifully designed, it’s cosy, it has everything we need. When I ask George and Maggie if they ever come down for a sleep over when they don’t have guests, he says he can’t bear to, because it would make it that much harder to go back to their huge, draughty, 300-year-old house on the hill just behind. A short while after we arrive, Maggie’s mum Saira comes by with freshly home-baked bread, vegies from her garden and a dozen eggs from her hens.

We have a cup of tea on the wooden bench on the deck, looking over the water across to the Island of Rum, which is forbidding and mysterious looking, bare and mountainous and wild, with a wisp of cloud hovering over its peaks even on the sunniest day. The living area and master bedroom look straight out on Rum, and I look at it 100 times a day; the light on its rugged slopes is different every time. Between us and the white and grey sands of Laig Bay is nothing but a strip of grass, a dirt track and a lot of sheep, some of whom clop onto our deck and stare morosely in at us in bed in the morning.

If you’re not a local, there’s not much to do on Eigg except read, walk and gaze at endlessly changing pattern of cloud shadows on the mountains, which is why we chose it. We pile down to ‘our’ beach for a wander along to the far end where we find a well-maintained little Catholic Church. The next day, Al and I ride bikes and Paddy jogs into ‘town’ – all 7 ks, and from there we head up An Sgurr, which is the highest point on the island, a dramatic basalt monolith. From the village side, it is sheer rock, accessible only to rock climbers, but we’ve been told that if you walk right around to the other side, there’s a foot track to the very top.

The weather continues to smile on us, and when we reach the summit there are 360 degree views as far as the mainland, the Cuillin Mountains on Skye, even as far as Staffa. Close to the top are miles of rock, deep blue lochs, and everywhere the coppery russet of autumn bracken.

The walk up and back, bookended by the 7k bike ride wears me out utterly. It’s not the gradient or the distance that exhausts me so much as the trickiness of the terrain. With my dodgy middle-aged knees and ankles, I have to consider every single step – heather that looks to be on solid ground until you step on it and find it’s actually a hole, deep boggy bits that you don’t see till you are ankle deep in them, insecure rocks. We soon give up on trying to keep our feet dry and just embrace the mess and the mud, but my limbs rejoice to be back on the dirt track half way down the mountain.

We take long walks each day we are on Eigg, along silver beaches, through crevasses in seemingly impassable cliffs, squelching our way through boggy moorland, with wee burrrns chortling happily everywhere. Grulin is a haunting collection of ruined crofters’ huts, abandoned in the 1850s when locals were driven off their land so that the gentry could graze their sheep there. Kildonan, on the other side of the island has a ruined church and an ancient graveyard where the islanders are buried to this day. We start chatting to the farmer who invites us into their big kitchen warmed by a gleaming Aga, where his wife spoils us with rich coffee and the moistest toffee cake I’ve ever tasted. Turns out they are George’s parents. Another morning Al and Paddy have a coffee at the café/shop/post office – George’s 86-year-old Granny was in charge of the craft shop; one of his brother’s served the food.

Like most places, Eigg has a dramatic and often bloody history, including the massacre of all 375 of its inhabitants who were burnt to death in a cave by a warring clan in 1577. The population has waxed and waned; these days there are less than 100 inhabitants and five children in the school. (We get chatting to the teacher and his wife on the slopes of An Sgurr – a young couple climbing the mountain in their wellies, with a their little boy and baby girl in a back pack. They have been here nine months and say they love it.) These days, Eigg is the only one of the so-called ‘Small Isles’ that is owned by the islanders, who, among other impressive feats, produce all their own energy from wind, water and sun.

We lived in a town of 2000 for four years when we had our own first two babies. I loved it, but remember clearly the occasional claustrophobia, politics and limitations of living in a small, isolated community. I cannot imagine what it is like to live on Eigg, especially in the winter, when the ferry can’t always run and the days are short and bitter.

It’s easy to romanticise life on a small island, particularly one as stunningly lovely as Eigg. I do so hopelessly, I fall head over heels in love with Eigg, as I did with her sisters, Iona and Skye. I know my life lies on the other side of the world, in a big city that is the polar opposite of this quiet, wild place. All I can do is feel deeply grateful that in my life I have been able to immerse myself, for a short while, in such places, before I move on.

Monday
Oct032016

Beauty

‘Drink it in,’ she said to me, ‘drink it in and store it up for the times ahead’. Or words to that effect. I was seven, and our family was on a picnic somewhere scenic in Northern Ireland. Mum was gazing wistfully at the view of misty blue mountains, something she missed terribly when we were in India. I remember gorse bushes in full golden flower.

Mum was a lover of beauty – whether it came in the form of music, poetry, literature, fabric or landscape. She created attractive homes wherever we lived, even when there wasn’t much to work with. I think of her words often, whenever I am exposed to something lovely, which is has been often, in my lucky life.

Three weeks in the south of France, in tiny, ancient villages, with gentle sun shining every day, I have felt gorged with beauty, almost more than I can absorb. One day, after driving to two particularly picture perfect villages, we gave the next three in the area a miss – we had experienced such a surfeit of beauty, we just had to go home for a cup of tea and a lie down.

We know what we are going home to, after this fantastic trip that we have planned and saved for for so long. There will be five months of cancer treatment for Al, some of which will be very unpleasant. And after that, we hope for a few more years for him.

So, as I wander each tiny, exquisite medieval village, in a daze of happiness and wonder, I am consciously storing it up for the tough times ahead.

The healing and restorative power of beauty is underestimated. My mum was onto something when she created beautiful homes for us (and having very little money never stopped her) in the many different places in which we lived.

I’m not exactly sure how I would define beauty, except to say what it is not – opulence and glamour.

One of the things I find hard about living in Australia is what architect Robin Boyd called ‘The Great Australian ugliness’. I know every country the world over has vast tracts of ugliness, some of which is an inevitable part of the lifestyle we enjoy. Everywhere there are industrial complexes and car sales yards and supermarkets and sewerage plants and dreary suburbs.

Australia seems to have more than its fair share though – maybe because we have so much space that the ugliness we inflict on our environment spreads further than in other places. All I know is that, when I have been in Europe and the UK, I am amazed at how much loveliness remains. Weren’t all these places utterly flattened in the war? I expect to see endless dreary post-war and modern high rises, but that’s rare.  Instead, everywhere I look, there are seriously old buildings, well maintained, cleverly modernised.

Maybe it’s because, like many Australians, I’m a sucker for old stuff. We have the oldest surviving culture on earth, but they haven’t left buildings behind, and so I crave old stuff and find it intrinsically appealing. Tell me something is medieval and I am predisposed to love it on sight.

Mostly what I am interested in is the dwelling places of ordinary people. Palaces and chateaux are all very well, but I’d rather poke around a cottage. What I loved about our sojourn in France was staying in these tiny, 14th century cottages that have been ingeniously modernized – flush toilets, electricity, a washing machine, systems for rubbish disposal – while retaining the essence of the building. Most people have a car, and somehow they keep them somewhere, even though the streets are too narrow, in some places, for a car to even fit. In Paris, the fine old buildings are full of people with electronic devices and dogs and children, but they manage to squeeze them in and live contemporary lives without pulling everything down and starting again, and spreading endless miles of ugliness, the way we seem to have done in Australia and the US.

So I have spent the last three weeks mooching around old places, stopped now and again for a cup of coffee or lunch at tiny cafes tucked away in alleyways in even the smallest town, basking in the sheer and simple happiness it gives me to experience all this wonder. Drinking in the physical beauty, soaking it in, keeping it in a deep well inside me from where, like the memories that Al and I are making every day, no one can take it away, no matter what lies ahead.