Sunday, 22 March 2015

Meantime

If I find myself with far less time these days to write than I'd like, it's because of the unavoidable, ever-increasing pressures of normal life and paid work. I'm currently putting off the four submissions I'm supposed to be reading for tomorrow morning; it is Sunday after all, and something's got to give. But, looking back and wondering where to pick up again, I can't ignore the obvious recurring themes in my missives - they're less about books these days, it seems, than about an obsession with places, with belonging, with finding a way back to somewhere I can call home. I'm sorry to bore, dear reader, but there's just a little more to say on this subject, and then we can move on.

It must have been as long ago now as late last summer that I went to Greenwich, my favourite part of London, to meet my parents who were here for a visit, and some old friends of theirs who'd come down to spend the weekend with them. I miss living by the water, I've always had an armchair fascination with the sea and ships (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was my favourite Narnia chronicle), and Greenwich is teeming with ideas, history, time, and the sea - you can practically feel it in the air. Anyway, this trip lodged firmly in my memory, not just because the day was perfect, bracing and bright, and a lovely time was had by all, trooping up to the Observatory and marvelling at the beauty of the newly-rebuilt Cutty Sark, but because of something else, something harder to put a finger on. It felt not quite like a turning point, or crossroads, but maybe the crux of something, somehow.

A bit of background. The previous night, I'd had a dream about our old house, lovely Eversley by the loch. (If you'll indulge my reminiscing for a moment, the loch by which, in another life, we'd waded through the seaweed to gather starfish from under rocks; where, as a teenager, I'd waited in the dark for the school bus on Monday mornings while the Eider ducks called their funny little oohoohs from just offshore; and, just a few months before, into which we'd thrown slobber-covered dumbbells for Noah, the impeccably-behaved Labrador, to retrieve with canine glee.) In this dream, the house was almost empty. In fact, it was worse than empty - it was all packed up. Wood and iron, paintings and clocks, items that had furnished the best part of my life so far, all boxed and bubble-wrapped, ready for removal. The rooms were clean slates. They belonged to someone else now, just like in real life. Needless to say, impressionable soul that I am, I woke up distraught, in turmoil the way sometimes only a vivid dream can make you. I felt more affected than I had in a long time and was grateful that I'd see my parents that day, and be swept back up into the family bosom, such as it is.

So, back to Greenwich. It was pure fun. We saw an exhibition that day in the maritime museum - Ships, Clocks and Stars - which was nothing short of brilliant (and, I hear, prize-winning). It was all about the quest to read longitude accurately, and thus invent a reliable navigation system for use at sea (which tied in, as well, with the developments in global timekeeping that put Greenwich firmly on the map). As you'd suspect, it tapped right in to my romantic imagination: just think how many men went to sea in those times, right at the beginning of the age of enlightenment with its voyages of discovery, in treacherous waters with rudimentary technology, and without proper means to navigate their passage or find their way home again. The race to discover a solution (which became both a commercial and political agenda), and the scientific ideas behind it, are, to my thoroughly unscientific mind, absolutely fascinating. When you think about everything we take for granted today (the GPS map on your smartphone, for instance, or even the old-fashion A to Z that I used to wander greenly about town with), you can't really imagine living in a time where the ability to navigate your way around the world wasn't a given. Imagine being cast adrift with no proper compass. I doubt any of us would survive. Perhaps people were braver then.

Without wanting to dwell too much on the obvious metaphorical parallels, I suspect that these ideas struck such a particular chord with me not just because of my love for literary voyages and all things maritime, but because my own life was in flux; it was a time to be carried along by events, unanchored. Home was gone - legitimately sold to the highest bidder - and I couldn't ever go back to the rooms I'd spent my childhood in, except in memory. I was appalled when, sitting down for a quick snack in the cafe next to the impressive hull of the Cutty Sark, my dad, who's equally unsettled by having been uprooted, without warning whipped out his phone and proceeded to show me the pictures he'd taken of the empty house before the removers had gone. It was my nightmare come true, the dream in photo form, my greatest horror compacted into a few swipes of an iPhone.

Despite all of this, though (and now that I look back I realise I'm overdramatising events) in every way, Greenwich was a good day. It's the most comforting thing in the world to be with family when you're feeling a little at odds with the world (family which excluded, unfortunately, my stalwart brother who was busy raising his own family at the head of a different loch, miles away). That was the day's most valuable lesson, and one that hoisted the spirits in a way little else could.

The cake was further iced (and here we return to the original purpose of this blog: books) by another dose of the familiar, another balm for the soul, in the form of a rare and heartwarming visit to Waterstones before I got on the DLR. There, I was swooped upon by a beautiful, simple yet haunting display of the magnificent H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. The author trained a goshawk in the aftermath of her father's death, learning a lot about love, life and grief in the process, and wrote it all down. I had one of those wonderful moments which make you realise why traditional bookshops will never die out: in conversation with two booksellers at the till who sung the praises of the book I was buying, discussed nature writing with me, and recommended further reading, if I liked that sort of thing (Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland, which, sad to say, I've not got to round to yet: the editorial curse). A few weeks later, funnily enough, I started a placement at the publishers of H is for Hawk, which was to lead on to other great things. These days, I have a more permanent home, jobwise, and we're about to publish something wonderful: a story about a sailing trip, a tragedy, grief, and a journey. Full circle.

So, what's the moral of the story? Call me old-fashioned / unoriginal / cliched but I can't help but try, as far as I can, to wrap up my tales neatly, tidy away their loose ends (though a good friend tells me that loose ends are, of course, part of life). I've visited home since we moved away, and I'm planning a Scottish road trip this summer, and might pay a visit for a few days with friends to soak up the rain and the midges. I'll always be sad to have left for good, and there will forever be an Eversley-shaped hole in my heart, but new memories are already being made in new homes. As my dad, wistfully, is fond of saying, it's not quite the epilogue yet. Merely the next chapter.