Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Leaving Home

"Home is not a harbour
Home is where it hurts" - Camille

"There are things you just can't do in life. You can't beat the phone company, you can't make a waiter see you until he's ready to see you, and you can't go home again." - Bill Bryson

I don't want to blow my trumpet, but I can personally attest to these universal wisdoms of Bill Bryson's being true. I used to waitress in a burger restaurant to fund my summers in Edinburgh as a student (and as Sandra Bullock says, once a waitress, always a waitress), so I know something about that. I had the good fortune to share my toils with a motley crew of carefree antipodeans, one of whom, upon being summoned by a click of the fingers from an impatient member of the public, would issue forth in a sardonic South African grunt such vulgarities as "Hey pal, it takes more than two fingers to make me come." Such was my crude initiation into the hospitality industry.

I did also try to cheat the phone company, once, but they got me in the end. A word of advice to the fellow cosmopolitan Eurotraveller: don't take out a two-year mobile phone contract then leave the country after just twelve weeks, closing all your bank accounts and hoping they won't bother chasing you up. They will hunt you down, no matter what far flung corner of the earth you retreat to. Several hundred euros, an emergency BACS transfer from RBS headquarters in Portree, and some severe correspondence from a German lawyer's office later, and I was liberated, but I will not be repeating the experience.

And the bit about going home, well, anyone who's ever left the place they grew up in will know that that's true. Not having read much of Mr Bryson, I can't say with any certainty what he means by this, but I interpret it to mean something along these lines: During the early years, when your home is establishing itself as such and taking its deep-rooted place in your subconscious, you're probably too young to realise and appreciate the value of this. And rightly so. When you get a bit older, though, old enough to assess consciously your surroundings, you're desperate to escape the wretched place with its stagnation, constrictions and general lack of excitement. Finally, you make the break and find yourself out on the open road, with your life ahead of you in another place, somewhere exciting, somewhere your parents aren't (because you're going to do everything differently, and you won't end up like them) but the pay-off is that you can never return to those uncomplicated, growing-up-at-home years, those days when you only had one home and didn't ever question it.


I recently went home for the weekend - home-home, to Carrick. I have to confess that I was in such dire need of repatriation and yet my purse was so bare that I had to call upon the ever bountiful reserves of the Bank of Mum and Dad. My pitiful publishing salary can only ever cope with a couple of trips home per year (and one's reserved for Christmas), so they are far less frequent for me than for my colleagues whose families live in Hampshire, Surrey or or elsewhere in middle-class middle-England. 

I love going home. I take such innocent pleasure and delight in small, familiar things. Radio 2 on in the car on the long, scenic drive (though if I come after work it's usually dark by the time we've left Glasgow). The view from my window in the morning - a scaffolded ruin, a sea loch and a towering mountain. The badly tarmacked roads strewn with mussel shells discarded by sea birds. The absolute silence. The cosily glowing fires at the hearths of friends and neighbours where there's always a dram and a blether for those that want it. But on this trip, I realised with horror that I've become one of those ghastly tourist types who stick out a mile in their raw appreciation of the rural dwelling. They live in a horrid city, they don't have to freeze bread and milk, and they marvel at the scenery and the sight of a star or two. I love all of this, but I'd almost forgotten that there were times not so long ago when I passionately hated it.


At seventeen I wasn't daunted about moving out because, like most, I'd been desperate to go for so long. When I moved to Edinburgh, I enthusiastically went about making the city my new home. I'd left the west of Scotland backwater where I'd spent most of my childhood and was studying in a city. I was proud that I'd made it further afield than Glasgow - hell, I could have gone all the way to Exeter if I hadn't had a sudden, last-minute change of heart about removing myself as far as possible from the family seat just because I could. Others might say it doesn't really matter where you go to uni, you'll have such a great time that there'll always be a fondness in your heart for that place, but I don't think that's true. Edinburgh, with its abundance of smoke-blackened architecture, culture, literature - and probably several other tures - was exactly the right choice. I fell in love with it, and now it has consummately spoiled me for other cities. It was a strange experience at first, but all in all I was happy with the "two-homes" scenario - home in Edinburgh, and home-home in Carrick. Each of them had a different and equally worthy share of my attention. 

Now, though, when I let slip and accidentally call London "home" (as in where I currently reside rather than where the heart is), I double-take. I used to do that in Edinburgh too, but what gets to me now is the fact that I have unwittingly allowed home-home to become replaced with somewhere like London, to which I would never consciously concede that accolade. I've given this city enough of a chance by now, yet it still feels to me like one great big horrible party to which I wasn't ever invited. And the music's crap, there's nowhere to sit, and I've missed the last bus home. It makes me sad because I realise that the time when I lived full time at home-home has slipped inexorably away, and I haven't yet managed to find a permanent alternative.


At home-home this visit, it hit me with a thud that these precious weekends of isolation serve only as idyllic, snapshot breaks from the drudgery of city life, without which the remote and rural lifestyle wouldn't be half so appealing. My romantic over-appreciation of the scenery, my inability to remember how frustrating it was to live a good hour's drive away from civilisation, my cooing over lopsided new lambs at the farm, the fact that all that is no longer run of the mill for me, are all little vignettes, indicators that I no longer belong there. Though it's questionable whether I ever really did. Apart from anything else, the kids I grew up with at home-home have a born-and-bred sense of belonging which I will never attain, thanks to my stubbornly persistent home counties accent, and to being half English (which in Scotland equates to being completely English). I spoke to a stranger in the pub at home-home, who asked if I was English, and my automatic answer horrified me. "Yes," I said, then realised what I done, and revised it to "well, half and half." Then: "In fact, I don't really consider myself English." But the damage was already done. Ironically, my friends in England will testify to the fact that I trumpet about my 'Scottish roots' like a fanfare on a regular basis, but up there, back at home-home, I'm not one of the natives, however much I'd like to think I am, and that's a bit of a bitter pill to swallow. However much my childhood has shaped me and instilled in me an intrinsic love of the highland countryside, an inexplicable aversion to the southeast and an appreciation of ceilidhs, haggis and west coast colloquialisms, the bold, harsh truth is that I never really found my people at home-home (though my parents' people are some of the best around, and not only because they read my blog, through force or otherwise!). No, my people were to be found in other places in the world: one or two at big school, quite a lot in Edinburgh, some more in Germany, even a few down south.

It struck me, though, as we drove past Lettermay on our way to Glasgow from where I would catch the dreaded London train back to real life (when did life get so grey?), as Louis Armstrong growled dolefully over the car's radio speakers and I mentally said goodbye to the Goil for another half a year, that your home only really becomes home-home once you've left. The place where you grew up; the site of childhood memories painful or cherished; teenage battles with parents, brothers, sisters; the place you longed to get out of. The mythical, perfect, end-of-the-rainbow place that only really exists in your memories, that dances just in front of you as soon as you start to plan your journey, then mysteriously disappears the moment you set down your suitcase and you remember it's not a magical land but still just a rural outpost where people actually live. You have to want to leave that place for good, have to go out into the world and surround yourself with other things, in order ever to come back and truly love your home-home. The essence of home is in the leaving of it, and you can only really feel like you belong (or want to belong, which I like to think is the same thing) once you no longer live there. Perhaps Bill should think about rephrasing his words of wisdom: you have to leave home in order to be able to go home. 

Sunday, 22 January 2012

There Are Warnings Of Gales

A few months after I moved to London, my flatmate and fellow voracious reader Laura lent me a slim tome by Anne Fadiman called Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, a charming collection of essays, anecdotes and observations that bibliophiles the world over will identify with. In chapter three, "My Odd Shelf", she describes her bizarre literary obsession with the age of Antarctic exploration, in particular Scott's tragically failed attempt to beat Amundsen to the South Pole. This particular piece of history has little to do with the rest of her bookshelves which are heavily populated with fiction, and I admired Fadiman's ability to step so widely out of her literary comfort zone, something I can rarely bring myself to do.

A few weeks later, though, I found myself unwittingly immersed in a subject which, although I'd never come across it before, had me hook line and sinker from the off (pardon the cliché, but it fits with the theme). To do it justice I really have to go all the way back to Jeannette Winterson's Lighthousekeeping, and its evocative clifftop scenes. Salts, Cape Wrath, stormy breakers and coastal lights... this book conjures up the most magical, mythical images in my mind. Although Winterson's novel is in many ways about storytelling, I was always more affected by its setting at the most northwesterly tip of Scotland. Winterson only just touches on the incredible history behind the building of the Cape Wrath lighthouse, but it proved to be the tinder that ignited the spark of my imagination, and thanks to Bella Bathurst I was able to immerse myself in it entirely. I'll try not to bore you, but it is necessary, here, to set the scene just a little.

Britain in the eighteenth century was a seafaring nation. Naval power was strong thanks to the empire, and sail was the most common means of transport and trade. Astoundingly, though, the coastlines were poorly illuminated (if at all) by unmanned coal fires set atop stone towers, open to the elements, and obviously of little use. And in an age of rudimentary navigational technology, this was becoming a major problem - hundreds of ships were wrecked in the particularly savage waters off the coasts of the British Isles each year. Sailors were a superstitious lot, often coerced into a life at sea by the likes of press gangs and none too hopeful of their chances of survival (and with good reason). Truly remarkable, then, was the contribution of The Lighthouse Stevensons to the illumination situation along the Scottish coast. With Robert Stevenson at the helm, chief engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board and grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson, this remarkable family blazed a trail in Scottish lighthouse engineering for more than three generations, saving countless sailors' lives along the way.

The English lights were a different story: light-building down south was a privatised affair with many engineers competing for profits and ships' dues, so they never achieved the cohesive, coordinated approach that Stevenson was known for. With a rigorous work ethic and infallible morals, Stevenson and his sons (and later his grandsons, although Robert Louis famously broke with the family trade, turning instead to literature) succeeded in designing, planning and building most of the lighthouses along the Scottish coast. It's a remarkable story not only because the man himself was remarkable (the appetite for hard graft and perfection he encouraged among his workforce yet his renown for being a fair employer were borderline legendary), but also because the lighthouse Stevensons executed some of the most incredible feats of engineering, even by Scottish standards. The Bell Rock lighthouse, eleven miles off the coast of Arbroath and Robert Stevenson's greatest achievement, stands thirty-five metres tall and is the world's oldest surviving rock light. The hardship and obstacles that faced Stevenson and his men in its building were immense: not least that for ten hours a day, the rock upon which the light is built is fully submerged. Stevenson and his men, camped in elevated makeshift digs on the same rock, would often return to the building site after a heavy storm to find their previous day's work obliterated by the waves and, in the early stages, would have to start painstakingly from scratch. Despite this, and despite having been battered by the bitter North Sea since 1810, the Bell Rock's stonemasonry is of such a high standard that it has not been replaced or restored in two hundred years.

And then there is Skerryvore. It's hard not to admire all of the Stevensons' lighthouse-related achievements, and there were many, but Skerryvore is the most romantic of all, and therefore my personal favourite. It was designed and built in six tumultous years by Alan Stevenson (uncle to Robert Louis) on a remote reef twelves miles into the Atlantic off the island of Tiree. (My Gaelic teacher in primary school once told us that nothing grows above a foot in height on Tiree because the wind is so fierce). The great wordsmith Robert Louis Stevenson has called Skerryvore "the noblest of all the extant deep-sea lights" and the NLB asserts that it is "the world's most graceful lighthouse." Add to this that Alan Stevenson was a charismatic man, a romantic yet tormented soul, of ailing health in his later years and a poet at heart. In his early days, like Louis, he was forced to choose between engineering and his own desire to study literature. This time, family won out and Alan turned his attention to the building of the Scottish lights, and though he excelled at his calling and became an exceedingly able engineer, his life was tinged with a touch of regret. His heart was always somewhere else: in books, poetry and beauty. He chose to give up his passion, yet it shone through in his work, and he made his mark regardless. Alan brought a sense of aesthetic to the northern lights, visible in the discreet embellishments on the tower of the Egyptian-style Ardnamurchan lighthouse, but most of all in Skerryvore, which he designed - out of choice rather than necessity - in a hyperbolic curve, purely because it looked more beautiful. Now, that's my kind of man. 

Thanks to the likes of Bathurst, I've been well and truly infected with the sea bug, or a literary version of it at least (I did once feel compelled to try actual, real-life sailing, convinced that my literary obsession would translate to real life - alas, a few days' rainy slog in choppy waters off the west of Scotland soon cured me of this fantasy). I have thus come to the reluctant conclusion that I'm probably best as an armchair sailor, albeit a dedicated one: I have been known to hurry home after a Friday night in the pub so as to catch the lilting lullaby of the shipping forecast on Radio 4. And much as I feel I would love, sometimes, to exchange my hectic urban lifestyle for a hermit-like existence in the Outer Hebrides, I am happy to concede that my passion for the seas must for now be played out from my living room, through literature. And so, like that of Fadiman, my very own literary "Odd Shelf" has been born. An inexhaustive list of titles currently dwelling upon this shelf includes Winterson and Bathurst (The Lighthouse Stevensons is matched in quality and atmosphere by The Wreckers, a superlative history of shipwrecking off the British Isles); the great Robert Louis Stevenson, of course: Kidnapped is one of my favourite adventure stories of all time. Moby Dick, of which I own a gorgeous Oneworld Classics edition, though I haven't yet sunk my teeth into it. Attention All Shipping by Charlie Connelly: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast (is there anything more soothing than falling asleep, tucked up warm and safe, to the prospect of squally showers in Malin, increasing six to gale eight, rain at times, moderate, then good?) The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, and a book I'm so attached to that I can't it let out of my sight: Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch. Where Bathurst ignited a curious spark, Carol Birch has well and truly fanned the flames. She encapsulates all the fascination of the sea in fictional form, creating true escapism of a kind that doesn't come anyone's way very often. It's hard to describe the alchemic effect of some books without sounding like you're over-egging the pudding, and as this is the most perfect novel I've ever read, I'm going to leave it to the author. Here's a little taster:

We were all of us wild, great thumping fools with thumping hearts running about that first morning, making a pig's ear of whatever we turned our hands to. We knew nothing, nothing at all, and we didn't know each other yet. Eight of us were green, eight out of a score or more of men - men, I say - fourteen our youngest, Felix Duggan, a mouthy kid from Orpington, sixty our oldest, a scrawny black called Sam. Thank God for Dan looking out for us, with us but not with us. Seven years since I met him, but I never knew him till we sailed together. I do now. I know him better than anyone now.

The Lysander was a beauty, ageing, well preserved, small and neat. The captain watched from the quarterdeck as we made fools of ourselves, while the first mate, a florid, thick-featured madman called Mr Rainey, strode about swearing and cursing at us in a deranged manner. Christ Jesus, what have I done? I thought. Am I mad? Oh, Ma. The masts and the yards and the sails, the whole great soaring thing was the web of an insane spider against the sky. Ropes, ropes, a million ropes and every bloody one with its own name, and if you got the wrong one you buggered up the whole thing. How we ever got off I've no idea... We greenies stumbled and bumbled around getting in everyone's way. I lost sight of Tim. Lost Dan. At every moment I tried to look as if I was confidently on my way from one important task to the next, wearing a face I hoped gave an impression of eager intelligence. I caught sight of the dockside moving away, the people a blur, heard the sudden sweet hollow chiming of a London clock bidding me a long farewell. - Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (Canongate Books, 2011)