Another Step

New Year’s Day. What resolutions have you made?

Yesterday, I resolved not to make any. Yet today, as I chewed my nails (must stop doing that) I realised I would have to revisit one of last year’s: tidy the loft.

There are three reasons for this:

  1. I was looking for something this time last year. Now I am looking for two things. Neither are terribly important, but I want them.
  2. The household ghost has gone very quiet, and this is either because he’s hiding from all the Christmas and New Year friends and relations or because he’s got stuck between all the additional boxes which have appeared in the last twelve months.
  3. The loft is now more chaotic than it was last year for reasons which defy explanation and despite my untidy genes, it is doing my head in.

Our home is, as I might have said before, something of a ‘house that Jack built’. It started as a bungalow and had various parts added at various times since the 1950s and we have yet to find a right angle. Anyway, all that aside, one of the previous owners must have had plans to turn the loft into another room because they put a window in one of the gable ends. They didn’t quite finish the job – you can still see breeze blocks and there is no sill – but the point is, subject to building regulations, an additional staircase and a chunk of cash, if I could only clear it out, we could have a loft room.

For years, this was my dream. I yearned for a place where I could hide away from the family and write, beyond the playstation, the kitchen, the washing machine, the TV. But it wasn’t financially feasible, so I turned my attention to the corner of the garden which had foundations from an old shed and longed for a new one. Not a dusty wooden box but a fancy garden-room: a place where I could hide away from the family and write, beyond the playstation, the kitchen, blah-blah-blah. The trouble was, even if I’d been able to find the money, I had better things to spend it on.

In the end, one day in Autumn 2015, I decided that it wasn’t the lack of a silent room of my own which was holding me back. It was myself. A year later, having got used to writing on my lap, on trains, in the kitchen, in whatever quietish corner I could find, I published ‘Kindling’.

What has any of this to do with New Year?

Well I still want to clear the loft, or at least get it organised. But the need to convert it, or have a garden-room is pretty much gone. My children are eighteen and sixteen. In a year or two, I will have more empty rooms and more quiet than I will know what to do with.

Now I feel slightly richer for the things I haven’t got because I’ve realised I didn’t need them in the first place. Ask me what I want for my birthday – go on ask me… I want nothing but a nice day out to make memories. I am fortunate enough to have the material things I need and the things I’d like for myself and others: health, world peace, freedom from anger, grief and fear cannot be purchased no matter how rich you are.

The only thing that I do lack is determination and you can’t buy me that either. I have to find it myself and I am inspired by others who, with much bigger things to worry about, demonstrate it.

Last year, I wept for many friends. For some of them, 2017 was the continuation of previous miserable years. For others, sickness, bereavement or betrayal came out of nowhere as the year unfolded. And then there were those who suffer ongoing chronic pain and/or fatigue. I know some of you will read this. I want to say to you – be proud of yourself, I am in awe of you.

You did amazing things: a writing group was started in the face of resistance; despite physical pain and exhaustion, a joyous wedding was prepared and celebrated; some of you are still bruised and damaged from your own childhoods, yet you are determined history will not repeat itself as you pour out love and provide guidance to your own children.

I know you are looking at another year and wondering how to keep going. I hope it helps a little to know that your true friends have cheered each tiny step you’ve taken against the odds and are urging you onward.

So yes, I do have plans for this year. Some of them are writing plans, some of them are not. Some of them involve getting fitter (yes, I know, I say this every year). All of them require determination. And of course, I don’t know what may happen which may make one or all of them difficult or impossible.

A tip I saw recently on Facebook (a tip which appears to have been doing the rounds since 2008) is to have a jar and inside it drop a note of each positive thing that happens whether it’s something big like the passing of an exam or simply the only thing you could find that day to make you smile or give you hope: the sun on a flower, the glow of the moon, a small kindness. This way, at the end of the year, you have a jar of happiness to read through and rejoice in.

So those are my resolutions: clear the loft, get fitter, note down every little joy which comes my way. I am determined to do at least the last one.

So whatever you plan for 2018, whatever the barriers you face, I hope you find the determination you need and can celebrate each triumph, big or small as it appears so that this time next year, you can open a jar of happiness…

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Photograph is from the inside of Somerset House.

Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

 

 

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Music

My husband and I don’t quite see eye to eye on music.

It’s not so much about taste. We like a lot of the same stuff. There’s this theory that if you want to target an advertisement at a particular generation, you pick backing music from when they were 16-18. I think they’re probably right. Anything with music from the 80s will get our interest whether it’s to wallow in nostalgia and memories of slender waists (both of us), white jeans (him), permed hair (me) and that general restlessness and energy of youth is briefly remembered as we slob on the sofa with a glass of wine.

‘I used to dance for hours in shoes like those,’ I’ll say, ‘but I never quite had the nerve to wear the ra-ra skirt and my hair reverted to straight in two minutes.’

We sigh until the kids come in and ask what rubbish we’re watching now. 

On the other hand, if advertisers use a song we both love for something stupid (naming no high street banks here) we will both mutter and grumble. Fortunately for the bank, it already has our money. (Well, we put our salaries into it, then the money drains out on mortgage, bills and shopping, but you know what I mean.)

No the difference we have about music is volume and venue. My husband loves to turn up music loud in the house. As loud as he can get it. I can’t bear it. If for any reason, I can’t bear it to the extent that I’ll say so, he puts earphones in and blasts his ears to a volume that I can nevertheless still hear.

If I’m writing, I can’t stand this. I can’t tune into whatever wavelength my creativity plays through if there is music of any description in the background. If there are lyrics, they get into my words, if there is a rhythm, it’ll interfere with the rhythm of what I’m writing. One particularly difficult afternoon, I had not only my husband playing music, but my daughter playing (a totally different) music and my son playing online video games which seems to involve a lot of shouting. My son eventually hooked me up to a natural sounds website and I head-phoned into that, turned up the thunder and rainforest frogs, got back into my writing and became so lost in what I was doing that I kept looking up surprised to see no rain even though my ears could hear a positive downpour.

That’s not to say I don’t like loud music. I do. But I like it in the car when I’m driving to or from work or the station. I tune into a vibe or a memory or a mood and somehow the things that are worrying me lift for the journey. I actually feel a little put out if I have to share my journey to work with someone I actually have to talk to.

But a word to anyone who needs to know: if I make a point of going for a drive with loud music playing when I have no reason to go out, or I have music playing loudly in the house, it’s not a good sign. It’s because I am very very low. I’m still tuning into a vibe or a memory or a mood, but it’s not a good one. If I feel the need to do it at home, which is my safe little nest, there’s something wrong.

The music may be the same in both instances. It’s how I respond which is different. I’m either defiant or defeated. The words (and I love good lyrics, often more than the music itself) either resonate or betray.

My father had been told by a teacher that as he was tone deaf, he’d never appreciate music. He spent the rest of his life building up a taste so eclectic it’s impossible to categorise. I grew up listening to The Goons, Beethoven, Bach, Grieg, Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Donnegan, Val Doonican, musical soundtracks from ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Oliver’ etc, Hawkwind and Mike Oldfield. We just never ever listened to whatever was popular at the time and it took me a while to catch up. The first pop song I heard (on a funny little radio a sort of relation had made for me) was ‘It’s a Rich Man’s World’ by Abba, after which I didn’t look back.

But otherwise, what songs am I talking about? OK so this is the divisive part, so sorry if I’ll now make you squirm, but these are the songs which still resonate no matter how many years have passed.

My first boyfriend introduced me to Genesis when I was sixteen. I probably couldn’t have been more square if I’d tried but I loved songs which seemed to have a hidden story in them like ‘Carpet Creepers’, ‘Trick of the Tail’. ‘Abacab’ takes me back to driving across the heathlands of the Gower on summer evenings.

A few years later, single, I sang along to ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ by Bonnie Tyler as clearly ‘the best of all the years had gone by.’ I was twenty. Sigh. It was very real then.

A particularly bad period in my life some twenty years after that, had a soundtrack all of its own. One day I came home from work a little early. I was working part-time and it wasn’t quite time to pick the children up from school. I thought of going home to my chaotic home, the laundry, the housework, the cooking, the trying to get the children to eat something healthy and drove round and round with the CD player blasting at full volume. The songs which at that point seemed to sum up what was going on in my head were:
‘Cappucino Girls’ – Nia ‘Talking Far too loud, laughing with each other, like the days before we were someone else’s mother’
‘Another Place to Fall’ – KT Tunstall (one section of lyrics translated themselves as ‘find yourself another place to fall; bang your head against another brick wall’)
‘Crazy’ – Gnarls Barkley (the title speaks for itself)
I still can’t quite hear any of them without remembering that utter despair at a life which seemed to have run away and left me behind not knowing quite who I was or what I was for.

When my Dad died, he had set down everything he wanted for his funeral except what to play as the coffin was going up the aisle in the crematorium. Asked what to play by the funeral director, my mind went totally blank. All I could hear going through my head was ‘Right Said Fred, Better Get a Move on.’ Dad would probably have appreciated it, but I’m not sure anyone else would have. I left it to the Funeral Director and now couldn’t tell you what was played. I realised two weeks later that I’d wanted ‘You Raise Me Up’ (Secret Garden).

Well time has passed since either of those periods of awful misery. A lot of tears, some heartbreak and a great deal of talking later, I am in a different place. I still love older songs, I find new songs all the time. But here are some of the older ones which make me smile or dream whether I’m high or low.

‘Songbird’ – Fleetwood Mac
‘Fields of Gold’ – (Sting) – sung by Eva Cassidy
‘Fix You’ – Coldplay
‘How Long Will I Love You’ – Ellie Goulding
‘Perfect Day’ – Lou Reed
‘Solsbury Hill’ – Peter Gabriel

And there is a song ‘Ride On’ by Christy Moore which reminds me of sitting in the kitchen with my husband on Sunday afternoons, soon after we were married. It is on an album of Celtic Music and one day, one day, I am going to write the story it sparked in my subconscious. It’s not quite there yet, but it will be.

And finally, at my funeral, I want them to play ‘I Hope You Dance’ by Lee Ann Womack. Read the lyrics – it sums up everything I hope for everyone.

 

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Just a Number

This is my mother dabbing.

If you want to mortify my daughter (always very tempting), dab.

This mortifies her even if I do it in the privacy of our own home when there’s no-one to see. If I really want to mortify her, I do it when one of her friends will see me doing it. Double mortification is when her dad joins in.

‘You and your mates dab,’ I say.

‘Yes but we’re doing it ironically,’ she says, as if I do it with the seriousness required of a U.N. security meeting.

Dabbing, in case you didn’t know (and are getting worried) is what is being demonstrated by my mother in the photograph below and I’d explain its origins except that the wikipedia article is a bit too long to summarise. It started in 2015 as a youth thing. Nowadays, according to my nearly-seventeen-year-old daughter, you only do it if you’re a kid (e.g. from her perspective, anyone under fourteen) or being ironic. You do not do it if you’re a parent.

I read a blog post about the meaning of ‘old’ (link below). When does one become old? Is it an age or an attitude? Part of the author’s aim was to raise awareness of fiction aimed at or written by people over forty and whose characters are older than, say thirty-five and who yet have adventures, fall in love, exist in the real world without needing slippers and a cup of tea.

There is a prevalent attitude in western society that youth is king and that getting older means no longer being switched on to the modern world or able to keep up. It’s total nonsense.

I am sure, if you’re beyond forty-nine and watch ‘The Apprentice’, you shout at the television when the candidates are asked to market things at the over fifties and start assuming a complete IT incompetence and general out-of-touchedness, despite the fact that the IT revolution was started by people now in their seventies or eighties. I’m in my fifties and surprise, not only do I know how to use a mobile phone and various computer programmes but am working in a digital modernisation project. At this precise moment, my husband is helping my mother with her laptop (see – she’s eighty and has a laptop). In reciprocation, if I need help with photoshop, I ask Mum, because she’s an expert. It’s all relative.

The generation gap is quite different now to what it once was. When I was a teenager my parents watched ‘Top of the Pops’ in despair, complaining about hair length, make-up, high pitched screeching (and that was just the boy singers). Nowadays my children and I enjoy the same music without anyone (generally) criticising the other’s taste. I don’t care about anyone’s hair length or who’s wearing make-up or what anyone’s gender identity is. I envy the clothes my daughter wears but won’t copy her. I don’t want to look mutton dressed as lamb and anyway, ripped jeans would give me cold legs. But we do share sweaters and coats sometimes (although they’re just a tiny bit looser on her). Any suggestion that ripped jeans and perfect, identical eyebrows will one day be looked back on with derision is met with the confident assertion that this year’s fashion is different and classic and eternal. I have learnt to keep silent, having grown up through the 70s and 80s with the terrible photos to prove it.

Sometimes I feel younger now than I did when I was in my twenties. I was out with colleagues last week, all but two of whom were over forty. We felt that we are lighter hearted now. We may be more … cynical… realistic… (call it what you will) than the two twenty somethings who possibly wondered why they’d come out with a bunch of giggling middle-aged people, but we know we’re more inclined to laugh at ourselves, not to mention forgive ourselves than we once were. We know that life won’t be roses all the way, we’ve seen enough change to know that there is nothing new under the sun whether it’s an appraisal system or a theory or a plan or a political crisis.

I know I am very fortunate to have been born at a time and in a place where I have had access to free healthcare since birth, in a place where efforts to reduce pollution and limit artificial additives in foods have meant that my environment is better than many. I had parents who were able to physically, mentally and emotionally nurture me. All of those things mean that my life expectancy is better than huge numbers of people round the world, particularly other women. Believe me I don’t take that for granted.

Anyway, the point is that while my body is starting to send out little signals that I’m getting older, inside, I’m still a girl, just a grown-up girl who knows that I can make a fool of myself without the world ending. All being well, one day my daughter will jump over the invisible generation gap and take a simple delight in embarrassing the generation below hers and maybe we’ll high five or whatever the equivalent will be then.

Right now, I’ll keep looking for characters of my age in books and writing them too. The book I’m working on now is set in AD190 and has two women who have somehow, against the odds lived to their early sixties. One is deliciously nasty and the other delightfully wise. I have a teenage girl character too, who naturally thinks these ‘old ladies’ know absolutely nothing about anything. I think I need to make one of them mortify her.

Back in the 21st Century, I am sure you can imagine my daughter’s horror at being asked to show her grandmother to dab so that I could take a photograph and put it on my website.

All I can say is mwah-ha-ha.

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

When is old not so old

Books for older readers

Swordsman

I am weary.

Who would attack these cliffs? The land is rugged and untameable as if dragons’ scales stud the turf, the castle has erupted from the rocky ground as grey and cruel as winter skies.

And yet we must ever be on guard. Whenever there is something to trade, there is threat.

Behind me the seas boil. Ships come and go: traders, adventurers, thieves, invaders. The kings of Eire and princes of Cymru send envoys with marriage contracts. Strangers from unimaginable lands of heat and drought beach their ships in the icy drizzle, wrapping their silken finery up in woollen cloaks, bringing fine pots and jewellery to trade for tin and silver.

This sword – this sword is weary too.

Is this the sword which was welded in stone? That rose from a lake? That lies in hands slumbering beneath the cold English soil ready for the final battle?

Or is it the sword of the mystical adviser, stained with the blood of unearthly dragons and rusted with subterfuge?

Or is it the sword of the love-lorn betrayer, about to be cast down and exchanged for a hermit’s staff?

I am weary. Behind me is the far west, the wild sea, the setting sun, rumoured lands just beyond the horizon. The wind blows around me and the rain drives or the sun burns but I care not.

Whoever I am, whatever is my sword, I have seen enough to long for peace.

*****

I grew up on King Arthur, both in his usual medieval guises and his perhaps more plausible Romano-British or pre-Roman British personas through books like “The Sword in the Stone”, “The Crystal Cave” and “Earthfasts”. The story is endlessly fascinating, perhaps because like all good stories, with or without any magical element, it is universal. An unlikely king, a mysterious adviser, a duplicitous half-sibling, a treacherous wife, a betraying best friend, civil war, the hope that the wisest, most honourable king sleeps until his people need saving once more. It’s a sad tale but at its heart, with the exception of the last part, quite plausible.

The Arthurian legends are generally portrayed as medieval and despite no evidence of any connection, thanks to the chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, the sentimental Victorians and subsequently Hollywood, King Arthur is now firmly associated with the chivalric code.

Chivalry. Nowadays we associate it with men opening doors for women and walking on the outside of the pavement. The concept of medieval chivalry however, is hogwash.

There was indeed a chivalric code in the middle ages but it really only applied to nobles and to men. Any obligation for a man to respect a woman had a number of get-out clauses. Her best hope was to be noble and/or very rich and preferably locked up. If a woman was in the wrong place at the wrong time, unprotected, argumentative or simply poor, gentlemanly obligations were lifted. A knight in shining armour might whisk her off, but his motives were unlikely to be romantic.

The chivalric code regarding the poor and the clergy only went as far as it benefitted the knight and his particular aims. Medieval history is littered with examples of sickening cruelty at home and abroad. The crusades for example: while allegedly defending a religion of love and forgiveness, they did everything to demonstrate the worship of money and power. Their brutality resounds down through the centuries leading directly to current affairs. Chivalrous? I don’t think so.

The chivalric code of brotherhood… Well, several hundred years of almost constant civil war and fratricide indicates betrayal for the sake of power was the norm. Chivalrous? I don’t think so.

In fact, almost the only part of the chivalric code which everyone followed was the call to arms. They just had to pick the ‘right’ side.

Now I prefer to think of the real King Arthur, whoever he was, as a Celt defending his realm against the Romans or a Romano-Briton defending it against the invading Anglo-Saxons. No-one will ever really know. Both of those periods of time in my view, however vicious, were marginally preferable to the Middle-ages. At least no-one pretended to be chivalrous.

Still, what has altered since the ancient times when a man with a sword might have stood on this cliff? We think of ourselves as more civilised nowadays, but as long as life is cheap and the cries of the weak unheard in a relentless drive for wealth by the powerful; as long as the ‘right’ side changes with the wind; as long as cruelty can be ‘justified’ by ideology, nothing whatsoever has changed. The once and future king should stay asleep. The final battle will be beyond a sword.

*****

There is a story behind this photograph.

The sky may look blue, but in fact it was full of frozen rain and little shards of ices were pecking my face as I tried to stand straight against the howling wind which was tangling my hair.

The figure may look solitary and lonely. In fact he had just seen off one set of tourists and another set, at the forefront of which was me, toiled up the cliffs towards him. A group of young people overtook me and stood in front of the sculpture before my mother could take a clear photograph of her own. It later transpired, when we looked at Mum’s photographs, that one of the young men had dropped his trousers at exactly the point her shutter had gone off. Chief amongst the many ‘why’ questions was ‘why would you do it when freezing cold rain was blowing horizontally looking for warm flesh to chill and crevices to enter?’

All that aside however, in case you didn’t know, this sculpture, by Rubin Eynon is on the cliffs of Tintagel. Does it represent Arthur? Is the sword Excalibur? Apparently that’s up to the observer.

And I couldn’t decide either.

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

 

Getting to know me

I have been talking to myself for years, so I may as well do a Q & A while I’m doing it!

So, Paula – is writing all you do?

I sometimes wish it was. I sometimes feel as if my primary role is laundress, chief cook and bottle washer and completer of forms for school. I work full time for the civil service (I vowed I would never do this, when I listened to my civil servant mother quoting form numbers over dinner. But here I am veteran of 28 years working for the same organisation after applying for an interim job till the dream one came up. And I can still remember form numbers, though the ones I can remember are irrelevant in my current role.) Apart from this I am married (to someone I met in the office who was also waiting in vain for the dream job) with a son at university and a daughter in her penultimate year at school.

What was your dream job then?

Writer. But I had no idea how to make it work and at the end of the day, had bills to pay. I felt very dissatisfied for a long time, till I just decided to write anyway. The good thing about this was that by that time I had a bit of life experience to put into what I wrote. Husband’s dream job involves not having one but sailing all day instead. I prefer dry land, or at least being moored within swimming distance of it.

When do you write?

Whenever I can find the time. This doesn’t always coincide with inspiration though. If I have the time but not the inclination,  I try to make myself write something, anything, just to keep the creative muscles working. Sometimes this has led to new insights into something I was stuck on. I often write on trains and hope no one is reading over my shoulder. They often are though. Once someone made me scream out loud by commenting from the seat behind and the other day someone started a conversation about notebooks. Just to add though, I was sketching at that point, not writing.

What do you write?

Someone asked me this the other day and I never know how to answer. I write mainly fiction. There may be more or less realism, more or less fantasy, more or less humour. I am finalising two things and working on another. They are all completely different.

How?

Well (1)  I’m formatting a book which I’m hoping to publish in October. It’s a celebration of an eccentric father and is based on real people and some real events but there is also a fantastical element which sneaks in from time to time.  Watch this space…. (2) I’m finalising a short story for a charity anthology. It’s set in an alternative universe, where in a sort of Victorian London, dragons are a source of potential power and potential threat…. (3) I’m on 2nd/3rd draft of a thriller which has no mystical element whatsoever.

How real are your characters to you?

Let’s put it this way, I cried actual tears when someone died, even though I’d made her up and could have written an alternative scene. It’s very hard to explain. I feel the frustration of the main character in the thriller as her opportunities are taken one by one. I wish I had one of the dragons in the short story because he makes me laugh. On the other hand, when writing the one based on real life, I found it hard to describe myself and my sister as children without turning us into a fictional characters. In the end, it’s pretty much what I did and had great fun making my sister naughtier even than she was.

What surprises you about writing?

The way the characters take over and the way themes change. You realise a story which you planned as a love story between persons A and B is actually a story of friendship between persons B and C. It’s wonderful how supportive authors are of each other, rather than competitors. I’m a member of several groups and all anyone wants is for others to do well. Also, it’s quite satisfying killing people off in a story (unless it makes you cry). My husband is disappointed that I’ve even murdered a boat but you know. Had to be done.

Why Downes?

Downes is my maiden name. Always thought I’d write under it but am keeping it for books I’ve planned to write for children.

What are you doing right now?

Right now I’m sitting in a cafe on my lunch break writing this. Am in Croydon, which I visit for work once a week. I can’t wait to get back to Dorset later. I also can’t wait to get home to take my new shoes off. My feet are killing me.

What do you wish people knew about you?

I’m very shy but have learned to cover it up in a veneer of confidence which doesn’t exist. One day I decided to take control of the shyness instead of the other way around. The downside is that people don’t realise when you’re struggling with life.

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September Acrostic

Almost equinox, afternoons dwindle early into dusk.
Under bookshelves and in corners, spiders lurk and scheme.
Term starts, treading well-worn paths towards harvest, bonfires, Diwali, Christmas.
Unpredictable skies loom, but hesitating to store my summer clothes, I think
Maybe there will be an Indian summer” and hope, shivering.
Not quite ready for winter, I leave my coat in the cupboard till October.

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

An Aching World

I have yearned to step into another world all my life.

Growing up devouring books, I longed to travel to Narnia where trees came alive and animals talked; to Olympus to watch the bickering gods; to wander Moomin Valley with Snufkin; to go to the Chalet School where there were no bullies and it was all right to be a bookworm; to the clean open prairies and simple life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, to the ordered drawing rooms of Agatha Christie, where justice always prevailed.

I wrote about fantasy worlds filled with mystical beasts or a facsimile of the real world in which, less likely than unicorns and dragons, people were kind to one another and learnt their lesson.

I can’t really remember a time when another world didn’t often look more appealing than the one I lived in. My father introduced me to current affairs when I was very small (probably far too small). I didn’t know what it was all about, simply that people were killing each other and suffering for reasons which no-one could adequately explain. Perhaps adults should bear this in mind: if you can’t justify something to a four year old, it may be because that something is completely unjustifiable.

By the time I was eighteen, I feared that I would never see adulthood because the people in charge all seemed to want to start a nuclear war. I was furious that all those “old” men (with the support of at least one “old” woman) wanted to destroy the world before we, the young, had had a chance to show how things should be done.

When I was growing up, female role models were confusing: dolly bird (probably promiscuous – good for a dirty weekend but not wife material), frustrated spinster (ugly but filled with ludicrous desire – a figure of fun), career woman/possible lesbian (all she needed to do was meet the right man), or of course the pinnacle: good wife and mother. Similar stereotypes applied to different ethnic or national groups, people of different sexual orientations, people of different religions. It didn’t seem possible to be just a human being.

When I was fifteen, I started writing a novel and created a country run on matriarchal grounds. I believed that women would run things better than men. I thought it would be more equal, fairer; that compassion would hold greater value than power. Then I discovered that women in politics can be just as ruthless and cruel as men; not simply to keep their end up, but because women are capable of cruelty and indifference in the same way that men can be gentle and nurturing. It’s not a gender thing. It never was a gender thing. Some people are kind and others cruel. Even when the cultural norm is for a distant father and an indulgent mother, the reality is something else entirely. People are just people.

And right now, people make me cry. Discrimination and racism makes no sense at all and yet people are marching in support of it. How can anyone say “we’ll look after our people according to our needs, and you look after yours according to yours” when everyone’s needs are the same: food, shelter, respect, purpose, love. Our skins protect our insides; our skull is supposed to be where we keep a brain. The shape and colour are irrelevant. Our cultural heritage is often a red herring. Most, if not all of us are descendants of populations which have been over-run, invaded, enslaved for centuries. (I wish, I wish every racist could be DNA tested.) Politics and religion can create an ethical framework, they need not be an excuse for prejudice, murder, cruelty and stupidity.

Over the years, I have often wished I could get off the world and step into somewhere that made more sense. Sometimes, it was because I was depressed or bereaved. Nowadays, it’s because I’m angry. I cannot believe what has been happening in the last few years, what deep-rooted hatreds and divisions have been exposed and are being excused as reasonable in my own country and countries where I thought people were moving forward not backward.

When I was a teenager, I thought that the majority of my generation, if given the opportunity, would create a world without man-made suffering or inequalities; would heal the environment and that people would no longer be discriminated against on the grounds of… well, anything.

Well guess what, now I’m no longer a teenager. The “old men” in politics are my own generation give or take a decade. Some of them are younger.

What happened to us? What happened to the great democracies who prided themselves on being fair? Was the move towards equity just a thin veneer over underlying hatred?

I despair. I feel beyond horrified, that another person was capable of driving into a group of other people, prepared to kill; that not just leaders but members of the public are talking about nuclear war as if it’s excusable.

People are still prepared to stand up for what’s good and true. There are many of us, hopefully the majority, who want the world to be a better place, not just for others like ourselves but for everyone. These days seem an unpleasant reflection of the 1930s. I hope that we retain the freedom to pass on the baton to the next generation and that they will continue driving forward towards a fairer future.

Yes I sometimes long to step away, to set foot in an imaginary world where everything is all right. I want to read or write about it. But it is only for a while, because I also love the world I’m in. I love its beauty, I love the creative and compassionate potential of every human. Perhaps this is why writers and artists and musicians make alternative worlds – because they want to hold up a mirror to what is and show a vision of what could be.

I just want the world to pause in joy, peace and awe, rather than spiral into destruction at the hands of those who are so stupid, so full of hate, they cannot see the wonder and potential of everyone and everything around them.

vortex

 

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

War Games

Go Home!

Timewalker

Once I ascended hills, brushing my hands through lavender or tempted by strawberries. I gathered berries along the row by the heath. I walked by rivulets and stepped over streams, feeling the clay under my feet.

When the invaders came, I walked on in the shadow of the stockade as it rose then burnt and fell then rose again over and over until the timber was replaced by stone.

I walked inside walls as they rolled outwards like ripples; one built after another to encompass the paving as it sneaked cobble by cobble across fields and mud.

The rivulets flowed on, trickling with waste from the tanners and butchers and chamber pots into the sludge and churn of the river.

Sometimes, I crossed the river’s waves in rocking boats or followed up in darkness to the watergate. On its southern shores, I walked among bawdy, gaudy folk as they spilled out of theatres and taverns. Women, painted with lead, carmine and disease called me to join them but I walked on.

They covered Tyburn Brook and I walked, tracing its invisible path with my eyes to avoid seeing my surroundings. Sometimes the blood trickled at pace with me and feet jolted feet above me, as I stepped aside from the innards on the path. But I kept my head down, never looking up in case pecked out eyes from unbodied heads should be watching.

Later, death stalked. Flea laden rats scurried across my feet but my feet did not stop. And too soon afterwards, as stone walls burnt and timbers trembled into ash and multi-coloured windows exploded, I still walked on.

I walked east. People lived like lice, huddled and swarming; boiling, roiling in dark, damp rooms. The children’s bare feet hop over filth and then drank of the river though stank and lethal. I walked west. People lived like gilded gods; demanding, beautiful, finger-clicking, bell-ringing. I was wallpaper, disposal.

Under my feet, down in the clay where once I trod, engines started run through tunnels, snake like, engorging and disgorging. And I walked on, my shoulders rubbing another generation of strangers, belongings slung over their shoulders, as they stumbled into overcrowded rooms.

The last of the rivulets were bricked up and channelled, their trickle echoed in the naming of streets above them. And some of them ran through channels of brick and bore away the waste and contagion and others seeped. I plodded on.

Sometimes, my mouth is choked with fog and I cannot see more than my feet plodding from pool to pool of filtered lamplight. The air is oily. In the east, a different death now stalked the gaudy women. Whitechapel stained red and I walked in the shadows out of sight.

And then the pyrotechnics of terror: the skies flashed and buildings fell. The earth exploded into craters under my feet so that I clambered over brick and rubble, brushing the dust from my shoes.

Now, in clear skies, above me leviathans rear from the ground into impossible monoliths of glass and steel and I walk and walk as I have always walked. Invisible.

My toes remember the squelch of the marsh. My hands recall the lavender and my tongue the strawberries although now the fields grow nothing but pavements and terraces.

No one asks me what I see, what I know. I am nothing. A shade.

I look down at my feet treading on the pavements lain over cobbles, lain over straw, lain over mud, lain over bones: hidden or forgotten, lain over dreams and forgotten faiths, lain over five thousand years. And they will remember the rich and the powerful, the bookmarks in history but they will not remember me. My feet have been every colour. I am local, incomer, foreigner, slave. I am the spirit of every servant who walked, unseen, unnoticed but seeing, noticing; head down, feet tired.

And so will I continue, going about someone else’s business; walking over hidden histories and forgotten streams as pride and empires rise and fall. Until eventually the monstrous edifices return to dust. Till the marsh reeds burst back through the paving. Till I can run my hands through lavender and pick wild strawberries once more.

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Historical Note
This was prompted by walking up Lavender Hill near Clapham Junction and trying to imagine it when it was fields and not urban. It’s impossible to do justice to the history of London in 700 words, but here are the changes I’ve tried to reflect:

c. 4500 BC: Evidence of settlement
c.

43 AD: Roman settlement 
… c. 61 AD: Roman settlement destroyed when the Iceni tribe, led by Queen Boudicca burnt it to the ground… 
c.100 AD: Roman Londinium built to replace Colchester as the capital of the Roman Province
c. … 450 AD-950 AD decline of London after the collapse of Roman rule and during repeated Viking invasions…. 
c. 1066 AD London once again the largest town. William the conqueror builds Westminster Abbey and Tower of London… 
c. 1196- late 17th C: public executions at Tyburn
… 14th C AD: Black death – London loses a third of its population… 
16th C AD: In Southwark, William Shakespeare builds the Globe theatre. The south bank with its theatres and stews is generally disapproved of.
… 17th C AD: English civil war… 
1665 AD: Great Plague
… 1666 AD: Great Fire of London… 
1848-1866 AD: Cholera epidemics leading to building of sewers…   
1858 AD: Joseph Bazalgette was given the go ahead to start creating a system of sewers, the direct result of which was to clean up the Thames and stop the cholera outbreaks. 
… 1863: First underground railway 
… 1939-45 AD: Bombing killed over 30,000 Londoners and destroyed large tracts of land and buildings.
… 1952 AD: The Great Smog – perhaps 12,000 people died from pollution as a result of which the Clean Air Act was brought in which ended the ‘pea-souper’ fogs for which London was notorious… 
Modern day: The development of Canary Wharf, building of landmark buildings like The Shard etc

Subterranean rivers of London: as London developed, tributaries were covered over and now run in culverts. Fleet Street and Holborn for example are two streets named for the streams and brooks which run (or once ran) underneath them. If you like modern adult fantasy, there is a great series of books by Ben Aaronovitch imagining the lost rivers of London with personalities of their own and a whole world of magic in the modern day city hidden in plain sight.

Generally: the constant influx of immigration over centuries, including refugees and economic migrants, slaves and servants from Europe and beyond which make up the cultural melting pot which is a modern city.

Missingness

I didn’t expect to feel this way.

Perhaps it’s because it’s been quite stressful recently.

Perhaps it’s because while I’ve worked for the same organisation for nearly twenty-eight years, I’ve changed teams and job roles three times in two (and twice in eight months). This has been largely by choice because the alternatives were worse. I haven’t worked with a team who are all in the same building or even the same town for the majority of the last eleven years. I’ve yet to get past acquaintanceship with the people in my new team. Three days a week, I work from home or sit in a side office, usually on my own. Twice a week I rattle along in trains full of strangers to meet face to face maybe only one or two members of my team. On those days, I work in a large office in a huge building full of people, the majority of whom I don’t know and am never likely to know. Of the work friends I’ve built over my career, many are, like me, rushing from place to place all the time. It’s hard to meet up.

Perhaps it’s because I’m under the weather. Everything has been overwhelming for ages. I feel as if I’ve been stumbling through undergrowth, step by exhausting step, not sure where the path has gone. Now, despite the fact that it’s July, I have a chest cold and virus.

Or perhaps it’s because my children are growing up. They both sat public exams this year. My eldest is eighteen today. My youngest is less than two years behind. When my son leaves home for university in the autumn, my daughter will be starting sixth form. I have washed my last item of ink stained school uniform. Sixth formers don’t wear uniform. The children can see that adult life doesn’t live up to the hype but are eager for it anyway.

I feel lonely.

I don’t feel alone. I have a lovely husband who’s my best friend. My children, when we’re all disconnected from electronic devices, still hug and chatter. They’re great company. My oldest friends and my wonderful sister, who know me best, live some distance away. But I have fantastic local friends and my mother lives nearby. It’s not the loneliness I suffered at school, alienated by bullying, nor in the first year at university, too shy to talk to anyone. I know I’m not alone.

But I still feel lonely.

Eighteen years ago, my son, my longed-for, long-awaited child was put into my arms. I was so conscious of his dependence on me that although he slept, I couldn’t for fear he’d stop breathing. Now, his dependence on me is nebulous. He can take care of himself if he has to, he definitely has his own opinions and can and does make his own decisions. (Although, somehow it’s still me doing the laundry.) We’ve encouraged his independence always: given him space within boundaries. We’ve tried to prepare him for adulthood. He is a wonderful young man.

My daughter is following right on behind. She is my lovely, lovely girl. But last night, we were looking at possible universities for her. She is flexing her wings ready to fly.

When my son leaves home, my daughter, no matter how much they fight and argue, will miss him. It’ll be just three of us for a while and then before we know it, just two of us.

Life with just my husband will certainly be more peaceful. I am looking forward to it. I am looking forward to welcoming the children when they come home, looking forward to visiting them when they have homes of their own, looking forward to watching them build their own lives and traditions.

But what will my role be? Where perhaps someone else would feel their employment defined them and would be lost without its focus, I don’t think I have ever felt that way. I have my career, but truth to be told, I think the real me is writer, companion and the mother.

I never expected to feel lost when the nest started to empty but I do. I thought we had helped them mature year by year until they were ready to leave and we were ready to let them go. And we are ready. We are. And yet…

We never thought we’d have a child and then, eventually, my son came along. We thought we’d perhaps never have another, but my daughter had other ideas. I remember that after she was born and she was no longer part of me, although I could hold her in my arms, I missed the company of her in my womb. I felt lonely for something that was gone, even though it was replaced by something better. My role to protect and grow a child under my heart was over. I had to learn something new.

So perhaps it’s not loneliness exactly.

There is a word in Welsh ‘hiraeth’ which has no direct English translation. In Cornish, it is ‘hireth’ and in Breton, it is ‘hiraezh’. Welsh, Cornish and Breton are derived from the same ancient British language. The closest English explanation is an intense longing for something lost (usually a home or a person) or for the memory of them, whether real or imagined. Apparently, Portuguese and Galician have a similar word: ‘saudade’. It’s been translated as ‘missingness’.

So I don’t know exactly why I feel the way I do at the moment. Perhaps it’s the weather, perhaps it’s the virus I’m enduring, perhaps it’s work, perhaps it’s my age, but I think, in truth, it’s probably because I feel ‘hiraeth’ for the children who are now young adults and who will soon be leaving home.

One of my friends, whose daughter is the same age as mine, recently said that she felt adrift. And I thought ‘yes, that’s it exactly.’

I too feel adrift, looking back at the fading lands of their receding childhood, wondering where the breeze will take me next.

lonely 2

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Father’s Day

I could not have asked for a better Dad; a less embarrassing one perhaps and maybe one who coughed up more pocket money. But love, acceptance, nurturing, support, guidance he had in abundance.

He didn’t believe in children contradicting their parents (even when the ‘children’ were in their forties) or in personal mental space and not much in personal physical space. This made him infuriating.

On the other hand, he had more than his fair share of hair-brained ideas and optimism. He also had much less grip on reality than he needed. This made him fun.

Here’s a true story to show you what I mean.

When my sister and I were teenagers, most of our friends had long slipped the leash and either holed up in their rooms with the radio-cassette-recorder OR if they had the bus fare, went to town. It was mostly the former, because friends were spread across several villages and the effort of getting to town wasn’t really worthwhile.

My sister and I were different. Dad felt that as long as we were still home and no matter how old we were, the family should spend all its free time together. This is probably why we both left home quite young.

Anyway, one day, I was about sixteen and my sister thirteen, Dad said we were all going to the beach.

I think it was summer, but you wouldn’t have known from the weather. It was cold and rainy. We looked at him askance.

‘And,’ he said, ‘which of you wants to do the filming?’

What did he mean? Had he resurrected the old cine camera? No. It turned out that he’d borrowed a trendy new camcorder from someone in the office. It weighed a ton but you could put a blank video tape in it and film. Then you could play it back through your TV. This was exciting. Half the people we knew didn’t even have VHS recorders to tape TV programmes, let alone the means to make their own videos. On the other hand…

‘Film what, Dad?’

‘Me,’ he said, ‘I’m going surfing.’

At the time, Dad was, to us, ancient; that is, he was about forty-two. Nowadays I think that forty-two is a perfectly reasonable age to go surfing, but back then in our view, it was akin to a centenarian going base-jumping. He was also very overweight and not terribly fit.

‘But…’ said Mum.

‘I’m borrowing Dave’s wetsuit and surfboard and you can film me. It’ll be a great new hobby and when I’ve got the hang of it, we can all do it.’

‘But Dad,’ I said, ‘I don’t want to.’

‘Nonsense, of course you do. Don’t be a wet blanket.’

On the beach, the rain had stopped but it was colder and the wind had got up.

We sat on the shingle in anoraks, drinking tea from a flask and wondering how long it took for pneumonia to kick in. My sister and I were given no option. While our friends were in the warm, nowhere near their parents and being trendy, we were sitting with Mum being blown to bits, watching our Dad be embarrassing. Even I, full of romantic hopes, knew the chances of looking attractive were nil. My long hair plastered my face in damp tangles and my make-up smudged. I had refused to exchange a summer skirt for jeans on the grounds of femininity. Now I feared that at any minute the goose pimples on my legs might start to ice over. If an attractive boy was about to enter my life, I hoped he wouldn’t pick today.

The rollers were worthy of Hawaii. But the weather wasn’t. And nor were Dad’s skills.

In the borrowed black wetsuit, Dad looked like an elderly orca failing to catch a youthful penguin. He appeared and disappeared in crashing waves. He got on the surf board, lay down, fell off. He got on the surf board, lay down, got up on one knee and fell off. He got on the surf board, lay down, got up on one knee, almost stood up and… fell off. And repeat. We took it in turns to film him, swapping when our fingers went blue and started to shake. Although given the weight of a 1980s camcorder, they were shaking anyway. We finished the tea. After a while, my sister, never one for weather of any description (hot, cold, wet, dry, even now she takes it as a personal affront) refused to film on the grounds of potential frostbite.

We really wanted Dad to succeed. At every attempt we leaned forward and tensed, the camerawoman holding the camera steady against the wind. Then he fell off again.

After what felt like about a year but was probably about two hours, Dad gave up.

He emerged from the changing area dressed normally and more buoyant than he had been in the water.

‘Did you get it all on film?’ he said.

‘Yes, but Dad,’ said my sister, ‘you never actually surfed.’

‘At least I tried,’ he said, ‘which is more than you did. You three look like MacBeth’s witches after they’ve been through a car wash. You might have left me some tea.’

He patted the camcorder.

‘Can’t wait to see the footage,’ he said, ‘but first, lunch! And I’ve been thinking…maybe we won’t take up surfing as a family. Maybe we’ll take up hang-gliding instead.’

That was Dad.

I didn’t escape this sort of thing till I got a boyfriend and even then Dad wanted to come to the cinema with us. Not, you understand, because he wanted to protect me from any improper advances, but because he thought we could all watch the film and chat about it afterwards. He was rather hurt when I said no. When my sister got to sixteen, she just quietly did her own thing regardless and he never seemed to notice. Younger sisters get away with everything.

(NB the photo below is NOT from that long lost video. These are hardy young surfers at Bournemouth in January. Dad didn’t look as svelte by a long way, but probably it’s how he visualised himself and good on him. Perhaps if we all spent less time worrying if we should or could, we’d have more fun finding out!)

SurfersWords and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission