A wild slim alien


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I am still a tree

Scots pine

The scots pine with which I’ve been foolish enough to identify myself has survived the latest threat to it.  According to the council officer’s inspection report, its felling ‘would represent a significant loss of amenity to the locality’.  If you are a public servant writing to residents, I guess you can’t say that you’re granting a tree a reprieve because it’s beautiful, and a symbol of all that’s good in the world.  However, its two shorter neighbours have not been so fortunate.  Since they had only ‘limited general amenity value’ and were also reckoned to be a ‘potential hazard’, the week before last they were chopped down.

It seems to me that they were condemned more for not growing straight and true than for safety reasons.  But I liked how they were; they leant into each other like lovers (there I go again, anthropomorphising furiously).  Although perhaps it would be more accurate to say that one was seeking to avoid the kiss the other was leaning in to give.  Or maybe they were simply two old folk joined at the hip, bending their heads into the prevailing south-westerlies, and holding onto their hats.

The owner of the neighbouring property (now known as ‘tree-murderer!’ round these parts) will not be liking the fact that he has to plant one new tree of similar standing to replace the two he has been able to axe.  It’s a classic piece of quid pro quo political compromise on the local council’s part, dressed up with shaky and partisan evidence about safety, and it leaves no-one entirely happy.  But I couldn’t quite muster the energy to campaign for the preservation of the two condemned trees; thinking that if I did, it might ultimately tell against me and ‘my’ tree the next time it comes under threat, as it surely will.  So I guess I quid pro quo’d too.  Perhaps I should have more faith in the administration of local planning process, but I don’t.

In the end the most important thing is that I am still a tree.

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I am a tree – Scots pine

Scots pine

The trees along the wayside begin to stretch out now.  And they are closer to me; perhaps they are less easily defined because of that.   So we have to jump forward in time, through a decade which was far from treeless – among others London is full of its namesake trees, the planes, after all – but in which I formed no strong emotional attachments to any particular tree; or rather, can project no strong emotional story onto a sufficiently representative tree.  Of course, if I put my mind to it, there might be buried deep in me trees which had some passing significance, a Japanese maple here, an oak there.  But for a long time I lived without the special trees that seemed to dot my childhood and teenage years.

True, for half that decade there was by the gate of my house an old lilac, which though gnarled, still flowered fresh and white every year – but again, I would be pushing the limits of my metaphor to associate myself with it, or the pair of leylandii out the back which formed such an effective screen of green, and out of which one day the head of my brother (a tree surgeon) popped as he topped the cypresses to inhibit their monstrous growth.  You don’t see him at first when you look at the photograph.  And then you smile.

So we jump forward another half decade, to a house not quite in the countryside, but a place where suburban dreaming is at least well hidden among the loft of pines and the easy elegance of sweet chestnuts.  And perhaps it is just because it is my current tree, and it too will fade to take its place among the others, but I seem never to have so readily identified with a tree as this one.  It stands with others, but a little apart, a little proud.  It’s slim, alien, a tree in exile, one both hardy yet supple enough still to bend in the wildest wind, to stand up to its force.  On sunny blue sky days and frozen winter ones it is even gifted a certain grace.  Its trunk divides neatly in two but in its crown branches and needles of the two forks intertwine and come together.  A split personality or a unity, it’s hard to say.  It drops cone after cone.

Threatened with and saved from the axe two years ago, now it’s under threat again.  To me it is a beautiful tree, to someone else an inconvenience.  I’m trying not to take it personally, but I don’t think it wants to be made into furniture any more than I do.

Photo by awildslimalien.  See the Scots pine in winter.

Listen to the song that was a small part of the inspiration for this series – Guided By Voices’ ‘I am a tree’.


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I am a Christmas tree – Norway Spruce

Norway spruce

It was the year before the Christmas I spent at a friend’s, away from what for a time was a non-existent home.

The village was called Thorpe Morieux, which pronounced in Suffolk dialect comes out as M’roo.  We were living in a rented cottage.  ‘We’ meaning the four of us, my father having recently left to move in with the woman who, on account of her long black hair and no doubt her powers of seduction, my mother habitually called the Witch.  There were nights when mum was so distraught and maddened with jealousy that she packed us and sleeping bags into the Mini, and drove around for hours, trying to track dad down, not yet knowing where he lived with the Witch.  A couple of nights we even slept in the car despite the winter cold, warmed only by the bags and occasional running of the engine and heater.  On other nights, when dad had visited to see us and argue with her, she would place herself in front of his Datsun as he tried to drive away.  We would stand shivering just inside the gate, petrified by the combination of dad revving the engine of the Witch’s Datsun and mum screaming.  And then we’d all jump in the Mini and set off in low-speed pursuit.

Inevitably in the run-up to Christmas Day my mother’s mind was elsewhere.  By Christmas Eve, there were no decorations, no signs of anything to do with Christmas beyond a few cards on the mantelpiece.  Nor was there a tree; it really looked like Christmas was not going to happen.  As in The lion, the witch and the wardrobe, it seemed it would be ‘always winter, and never Christmas.’

Dad came that afternoon and the arguments raged into the evening as usual.  From the landing we listened to their fluctuating flow, raised and heated voices one moment, reasonable and difficult to discern the next.  After a time we went to bed, expecting nothing of the next day, and not caring very much about that.  We wished only for peace between them, for the barely remembered order of what seemed like long ago to be restored.  I’m not sure we even bothered hanging up stockings.

But in the morning there they were bulging at the foot of each of our beds.  Downstairs cards were hung on strings, and last year’s pastel-coloured paper chains looped from spot to spot suspended from the ceiling.  Best of all – and to see it was one of the most magical moments of my childhood – there was a properly dressed tree with a small mountain of presents under it.  Somehow the warring factions had pulled themselves together enough to rescue the day for their children.  My brother and I tore off the paper on a Subbuteo set, the World Cup edition, complete with scoreboard, floodlights and a plastic replica of the Jules Rimet trophy.  After lunch, a proper Christmas one, eaten in harmony, Brazil took on West Germany, and beat them 4-2, despite the South Americans being forced to play with only ten men for a large part of the game, my brother having broken one of their legs under his clumsy knee.

In an unconscious recreation of Christmas 1914 – peace and football in the no man’s land between the trenches – my mother and father managed to call a truce for the day, and it held at least until we went to bed again, although that may be because dad simply disappeared after lunch; he is gone from my memory of the evening.  But because it had really seemed that there would be no Christmas, in the end it felt like one of the best.

Photo of Norway spruce by Philip Halling via Geograph.


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I am a tree – Weeping willow

Weeping willow

The end of a close, a cul-de-sac.  A dead end in a dead end town.  I wanted to be with her but I didn’t want to be there.  But then neither did she.

The room in which I wrote and studied was bare-boarded and empty.  Temporary.  We didn’t sand it down or carpet it because we never intended to be there long.  The pale green pile of the living room carpet held the smell of the previous owners’ dogs.  We should have made the effort to get rid of that.

The empty room looked out over the garden, and Tricky’s beats and Chet Baker’s voice and trumpet sounded fine in it.  Beyond the garden were waterlands.  Fishing lakes man-made out of the marshes of the Blackwater valley.  The river itself ran along the bottom of the garden.  A weeping willow wept into it, especially lachrymose since diggers and all manner of other heavy vehicles had moved in to build a ‘relief’ road through all that watery quiet and beauty.  But by the time I got there it was long past the moment to throw myself in front of the diggers.  The battle had been lost years before.

Though she had been there longer, it was my home only for a year.  Our first together, so that it didn’t matter so much that we weren’t in the perfect place.  Neither were the neighbours perfect.  On one side, a couple with a young family, the intemperateness of the father audibly being reproduced in the son.  By which I mean shouting.  Lots of it, through the walls.  Constant running battles between all members of a nuclear family; a war of attrition.  Sometimes, scarily thuggish-sounding behaviour, the kind where you wonder whether you should be calling in help.  On the other side, the relatively comic character of Rod, constantly tinkering under a bonnet and giving the distinct impression that the garage out of which he worked was a lock-up for goods not of entirely legitimate sourcing.

On cold and dark winter mornings I would cycle the fifteen minutes to the railway station, up the hill through the cemetery and then down past the football ground.  And so began my first suburban commute among pinstripes and pencil skirts.  But in taking that regular train I restored my connection with London.  I could feel the Smoke calling me back; I’d been away long enough.  I still wanted, I think, its ache of possibility.  The good in that, and the not so good.  The magic, when you were out, of seeming to be at the centre of the world; and the other edge of that feeling, that if you stayed home, life was passing you by.

And yet, even there in a place that was far from being London or France or Bristol, there was magic if and when you looked for it.  At the weekend the diggers were silent and but for odd pyramids of gravel and sand you could imagine nothing had changed.  Skeins of geese flew in and out of the watery landing strip; in her company or alone I walked the banked-up towpath in one direction or another, accessing the canal where now it bridges the relief road as an aqueduct.  I watched narrowboats pass, and wondered what it would be like to live life at that pace, not needing to be anywhere special at any time; idly making for the Wey navigation, and then on to explore the upper course of the Thames, with all the time in the world at your disposal.

In the garden, from a deck chair, you could lose yourself in watching the little river slowly flow; and, reflected in its glassy water, the weeping trails of the willow’s golden shoots.

Photo by agaetys via deviantART.


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I am a tree – Copper beech

Copper beech

The house was in Redland, at the junction of Ravenswood Road and Woodstock Avenue.  It was built solely in creamy Bath stone and couldn’t help being rather more elegant than the other houses on the street, which like so many buildings in Bristol combined Bath stone quoins with a facing of light red Pennant.  On the corner of the plot where the streets met stood a huge copper beech tree, its branches bare, it being the dead of winter.  But you could tell it would be magnificent come spring.

Our love depended on the telling of a lie – a little white one – to enable me to get a place to live on returning from France.  I had decided to give Bristol a go, it being where a bunch of friends lived.  The landlord of the bedsit I liked required me to be working, which I wasn’t yet.  Drawing on my London Underground experience, I pretended I worked for British Rail up at Temple Meads, Bristol’s fairy tale train station.  With the help of my friends, I may even have faked a letter to prove it.  I’m not sure the landlord was entirely convinced, but even though he worked in insurance, he allowed himself to buy it and take the month in advance.

I met her for the first time on the day I moved in.  My friends had all come over to check out my new place, and were piling out the door – Monkees monkeying around – as she reached the landing on to which it opened.  I can still remember what she was wearing.  A red jumper with a wide neck and patterned lilac leggings.  She was beautiful, with full lips and lots of golden brown hair and pinked and shapely cheeks.  One friend after meeting her for the first time said that I’d found a real English rose but by blood she was three-quarters Irish.  You could see that in her smiling eyes.  We shook hands (having come back from France, I shook hands left, right and centre) and exchanged a few words.  I expect I apologised for my friends.  She had the ground floor room, whose light was filtered through its bay window by the beech’s canopy; brighter in winter and dark in summer.  Her appearance there on the landing convinced me that I had chosen the right place to live.

But we took a winding path into love, the relationship not even hinting at beginning until after she had moved out, seven months later.  On a summer’s day she returned on an antiquated bicycle to pick up mail and came into my room for the very first time to drink some water.  She had on a flowery summer dress and settled into my flowery red armchair while I sat facing her, and through the thick warmth of the air, with the reddish-purple leaves of the beech visible outside the two open sash windows, I think we could both tell that something was starting.  We arranged to meet the following week, at a pub up by the Downs.  Of course, her boyfriend would be there too.

I don’t think I was quite myself that night at the Port of Call.  I was merciless in my mockery of him.  It was easy, he was a Liberal Democrat.  She laughed a lot.  He hid any gall well.  That summer, having finished a thesis which combined readings of Shakespeare and Austen, she polished off all of Das Kapital.  She remains the only person I know who has read the entirety of its three hefty volumes.

I made them (her) a tape.  I called it ‘Heard through a wall’, after a Del Amitri tune.  It was half-filled with love songs.  The message must have been unmistakeable, to both of them.

But suddenly she was no longer in Bristol, having got a job in a place a hundred miles to the east.  She invited me to stay, even while she was nominally still with the Liberal Democrat.  Mortifyingly during the visit my false front tooth fell out and if I smiled you could see the spike to which it was usually fixed.  And still she wasn’t put off.  In the night, in the dark, having resisted all temptation, she got out of her bed and came and sat on mine, and stroked my hair.

And then, back in Bristol after visiting the Liberal Democrat for the weekend, she dropped in on me with flowers but found me having a fish and chip and curry sauce supper with my sister and her boyfriend and wouldn’t join us.  But it was ending between them.  The next time she came back to the house in which she used to live, in the lee of the copper beech whose branches were once again bare, it was to stay the night.

Photo of Ravenswood Road, Bristol by awildslimalien.


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I am a tree – Apple

The magic apple tree

‘From the wet grass beneath the largest tree, on a misty, drizzling day, you help collect the hardy red bite-sized cider apples, letting the handfuls fall into a metal bucket placed equidistant between you and Monsieur Drouet.  The maggoty, the decayed, and the ones dabbed in sheep shit are all democratically added to the cider electorate.  Leaves clinging to the fruits are enfranchised too.’

I’ve already written about the apple trees.  They became part of the fictional landscaping of six months living alone in a storm-damaged thatched cottage in Normandy.  I called it Kerplunk! because it sometimes felt like I was slowly losing my marbles, both in the living and in the subsequent writing.  The trees and the sheep which grazed under them were my constant companions.  They weren’t so old, the trees, but neither were they saplings, like I felt I was.  Already they had gone a little gnarled, angling themselves so as to turn the other cheek from the wind.  Perhaps I was more like them than I realised, though I certainly wasn’t going to let sheep munch at my fruit.

While in Normandy I wrote letter after letter, so desperate was I for contact, for a return on that letter-writing investment.  Why then did I effectively isolate myself for so long?  Because I wanted to work out who I was, and I thought the best way to do so was to be apart from all that I had known and all that had influenced me.  And because I wanted to be a writer, and I knew that to write, more than anything else you must find time alone.  Of course, I took that to the extreme, being the person I was.  Am.  Those letters, what I wrote in notebooks, what would become a first novel; that was the start of what I continue to do here, and elsewhere.  To work out who I am and what I think through the written word.  Back then I was both naïve and arrogant enough to assume that what I made of myself would be of interest to others.  All that’s left of that notion now is a ghostly remnant, but the urge to turn life into art is still as strong as it ever was.  And while it doesn’t matter whether or not anyone reads these words or any of the others I write, I still care what those who do take the trouble to read them think, and it may be this that makes me draft and redraft compulsively as much as my need to get to the heart of what I am writing about.

How did the fictional telling of that time in Normandy differ from reality?  Not so very much.  My character was not a writer but a photographer.  The plot was a woman, or rather two women, one left behind and one encountered in France.  In reality there were three women left behind and none found in France (which of course says much more about me than it does about French women).  One of the three might have come, was persuaded to, but for very good reasons didn’t.  And so on the surface of reality, not a lot happened, for all of my travels around France.  But on the inside…

In the last third of Kerplunk! I grappled with the effect that depression has on love, or potential love at least.  You won’t be surprised to hear that there was no happy ending.  But then neither in the end was the ending sad.  It was just an ending, pointing to another beginning.

In one of the letters I wrote – possibly in several, to a handful of recipients including those three women – I declared that I didn’t want these six months to become an island of time, one green emerald in a sea of blue.  Perhaps I should have kept travelling, stayed away longer.  But not for the first time and certainly not the last, I felt tugged and torn in two different directions.  Waiting for me with outstretched arms was home and warmth and contact and touch, the pleasures of the familiar.  Against that temptation stood being abroad and alone and seemingly always on the edge of life, in both the bad sense and the good; peripheral but every day something new.  I guess ultimately I chose the comforts of home.  And that time in France remains an emerald in a sea of blue.

But I stayed a writer, and I carry those apple trees within me still.  Cider apple trees, from which Calvados was also made.  It’s obviously a particular taste, by no means for everyone, but a snifter of my apple brandy will tell you that it’s nicely matured now.  And it turns out that those sheep with whom I shared time and space have been munching away at my fruit all these years after all.

The magic apple tree by Samuel Palmer via Wikipedia.


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I am a tree – Rowan

Rowan

London!
The way you hate me is better than love
and I’m head over heels
London!
The way you wanna get rid of me
makes me weak in the knees

I can see them now, the rowan berries, outside the window, the last of them hanging from the branches of the tallest of their kind that I’ve come across.  The stairs round the back of the house are a carpet of red, with berries pulped by our feet on each step.

Back then they hung from much smaller trees, perhaps less than ten years old, an early attempt at greening a nondescript residential street in Holloway, north London.  And I wonder now, though they are in fact edible, are those berries to be seen as London’s poison, its dosing of alienation and depression; or are they holly-berry festive, the natural equivalent of strings of light, the London of madness and joy, of sights to behold at every turn?

The answer, of course, is both.  Like Julie Burchill, I was in love with the A-Z, and more or less slept with it under my pillow too.  But the side of me that was filled with fiery idealism came up hard against the reality of London’s cold shoulder.  And I wasn’t yet quite sure what kind of life I wanted.  Or what kind of writer I wanted to be.

For three years home was a small room in a three storey house of greyed yellow London stock brick, owned by a family of Antiguan origin, whose matriarch lived there still.  I fancied that she arrived into the great smog of 1952, a culture shock that must have worked at her on every level, mind and heart and guts.  By the time I knew her, she rarely set foot outside her room, except to cook fish, spending her time perhaps reliving the memories of those early days and their sudden contrast with all she had known before.  Towards the end of my time in the house she returned to Antigua to live and to die.

A South African, an Algerian, a Chinese, two Malaysians, a pair of Jamaican brothers, a student from Brunei, a Sudanese refugee and a bloke from Cheltenham were all at one time or another holed up with me.  A microcosm of London itself.  Indie competed with ragga, meditation with prayer, boiled fish with steamed rice.  The odd heated argument broke out over pork cooked in a frying pan it shouldn’t have been, but for the most part we all got on fine.

Outside the gardens were minimal to non-existent before the pavement was reached but all along the street Islington Council had planted rowans, no doubt aware of the ancient belief that the mountain ash as it is also known protects against witches and wards off evil.  In spring and late summer, early autumn the street had colour that was sorely lacking at other times of the year.  RODEN STREET N7.  A ‘T’ was regularly added in the obvious place to the signs at each end of the street.  It would have been a little later that I read Georges Perec’s A man asleep documenting a not dissimilar experience of depression and roaming the streets of Paris, waiting in the place Clichy for the rain to stop, free like a rat.

Listen to the pipes
They’re singing in the night
It’s raining all the time
Listen to, listen to,
listen to the pipes

Where I lived was becoming embroiled in text and song.  In Voyage in the dark Jean Rhys wrote ‘We got to Holloway and it was winter and the dark streets around the theatre made me think of murders.’  Admittedly it’s an anachronism here, but it took someone from Sweden to write one of the great London songs, one that crystallises that time for me.  Despite its occasional lyrical infelicity, and though it may only be the recollection of a week or fortnight spent in one of the city’s cheaper hotels, Frida Hyvönen’s ‘London!’ captures the essence of coming to the Smoke, alone among and buffeted by the crowd; the magic and pull and sharpness of its lights and fashions on a winter evening; the exhilaration of a rainy night in Soho; and the rat-like nature of staying in, listening to the pipes and the rumble of traffic.

I was a student, and then an unemployable former student (a half-baked degree in philosophy and sociology doesn’t qualify you for much, except joining the dole queue).  For all the roaming about London I did, there were fixed points.  My girlfriend’s flat, a few doors up from what was once Joe Meek’s studio on Holloway Road, where ‘Telstar’ was recorded.  The Falcon in Camden, epicentre of indie – to get there and back meant countless trips on a 253 or preferably a 29, which was a Routemaster.  And every fortnight I paid my respects to any thought of a career at the Unemployment Benefit Office on Medina Road in Finsbury Park .

I needed a job, to lift me out of my rodent hole.  Finally I got one, working for London Underground’s Lifts & Escalators department, Pumps (New Works) section (a rat-like but treeless story in itself).  Then I needed a change, and left for France, and its avenues.

But when I look back, it’s with fondness rather than the mental and cardiac pain that I felt in those years.  One spring day a water main burst at the head of the road, creating an impromptu house-high fountain next to the blossoming rowans.  It felt like I had laid it on for the suitably impressed friend from out of town who was staying with me.  I wish the photo I took had more contrast in it, preserved the memory better than it does.  In its place these words will have to suffice.

Photo of rowan by ayrshireman via Panoramio.


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I am a tree – Lime

Lime

Three closed stands of trunks, each high-crowned with a spread of fresh green heart-shaped leaves from which dropped the sticky summer honeydew of aphids onto any car mistakenly seeking shelter beneath them.  These were the trees that I could see from my new bedroom.  I remember the wind in their leaves; and that on still midsummer days, they stayed alive with the sound of honeybees.

The limes divided our garden from a horse stud and oversaw my burgeoning freedom.  My bedroom – aged sixteen, the first I had all to myself – was on the ground floor, next to the kitchen; what in the time before refrigeration and fitted cupboards had been the pantry.  Now records, books and fanzines began to line its shelves.  Between the shelves on two sides and the walls in which window and door were set, there was just about room for a bed.  In it one summer’s day I lost my virginity to a girl as innocent as me.  Afterwards she confessed her need to tell someone, anyone who wasn’t me, since obviously I knew already, having very much been there, having not been entirely detached from my body throughout the experience, rather indeed having been more or less wholly – if inexpertly – engaged in it.  And it turned out that the person she told might have been the person who might similarly have confided in her, for I’d gone out for a drink with that friend earlier in the year but as she and I settled into talking, we were latched onto by a male friend of mine who couldn’t or wouldn’t read my signals and the moment, if it was one, passed.  Such is the random nature of teenage attraction.

Garden Cottage.  That was its idyllic name.  It was another tied cottage – perhaps once a head gardener’s, for it was set into one of the redbrick walls of the orchard and vegetable beds of a Georgian mansion owned by the family which gave their name to one half of a well-known pickle-making concern.  Through the kitchen window we could see the Victorian greenhouse and the pear and apple trees.  Our cottage’s own garden made use of the other side of the wall.  Hard by it a large plum tree grew, until the great storm in 1987 snapped its trunk, though even after that it made efforts to resurrect itself.  There is a photo of my grandfather holding a set of wooden steps by this very tree, not long before it and he were felled.  We were collecting fruit from the higher branches.  The sun cuts pleasing shadows out of the steps of the ladder, and my grandfather, white hair contrasting with the black frame of his glasses, and wearing a striped shirt and a pale tie, is pointing at the camera and trying to resist the grin which is forming on his face.

The sun always shone on Garden Cottage and the sun always shone on my birthday, but not the day I turned eighteen.  Instead, the rain came down.  We persisted with a barbeque, setting up the black hemisphere on legs in the shelter and lee of the limes.  There is another photo, of me tending the sausages, somewhat incongruously dressed in blacks and greys, my flat-top hair rather rain-affected and bedraggled.  I had a copy of Meat is murder but I didn’t turn vegetarian until six months after that barbeque.  Would my world have been different if Johnny Marr hadn’t sought out Morrissey and the Smiths had never existed?  Would my life have been more red-blooded if I’d carried on eating steak?  Or regardless of what we might generously call those intellectual and emotional influences, would I still find myself more or less where I am today?

I can’t help but keeping asking those kinds of questions, and trying to answer them.

Photo of common lime by Dane Larsen via Flickr.


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I am a tree – Elder

Elder

The house in which I did most of my growing was a rented cottage whose garden backed onto the arable farm on which I worked every holiday from the age of thirteen.  Next to this mini-terrace of three simple homes for labourers stood an apple orchard that wasn’t ours but whose fruit went unclaimed by the farm.  That has changed, like so much in this story of trees as the story of a life; but this time, perhaps, for the good.  Those apples now make the short trip to plates of salad and bowls of pudding served up in the restaurant housed in the barn in which my brother and I used to play.  Creosoted on the outside, powder dry timbers on the in, it was dark and dusty then, both qualities pierced by shafts of sunlight through cracks and holes where the timber had rotted.  A place of hide and seek, and later, of refuge.  Of wishing for a kiss there from the daughter of the housekeeper who worked for the Tory MP to whom the farm belonged.  We first met when my mother and I were put up in the MP’s Tudor house one snowy night.  One year older than me, the housekeeper’s daughter had sparkling eyes of Irish descent and full lips that before long she was painting bright red.  It was a boyish form of love at first sight.  We played Operation together by candlelight and in memory the moment is made up of her welcoming smile and eyes and the flames from the fire which burned in the hearth; a living room full of magical warmth on the coldest kind of night.

I never got to kiss those lips.

My brother and I had little except a bike each and the liberty of the endless expanse of fields stretching away in every direction.  That was ample, like the apples which grew in the orchard over which we had dominion, like the elderberries rooted in the same soil as the beams which kept the barns upright.  While the fruiting of the elders marked the end of summer, their flowering signalled the start of warmer weather, so longed for through the frost-hard winters when the windows of the unheated bedroom my brother and I shared would often ice over on the inside.  There were no valleys, no sheltered microclimates to soften the harshness of this flat farmland.

So the corymbs of flowers seemed little miracles when they appeared, miniature galaxies of white light; and at summer’s end the heavy black hanging clusters of tiny berries abundant reward for those who waited for and wanted them.  We’d taste their sour tartness, and talk of making them into cordial, or even wine.  And one year we did just that and spent a long time – but not so much in the way of winemaker’s art – creating our concoction.  Left in plastic Robinson’s barley water bottles for two weeks to ferment,  my mother poured the elderberry wine down the drain before the day of reckoning, more I think in fear that we would poison ourselves than get drunk at too tender an age.  I can’t remember being especially angry; I suppose I realised there was nothing to be done.  And perhaps the fact that the stuff looked poisonous made us less concerned at its loss.

Since then I’ve often wondered what that elderberry fizz would have tasted like.  We never tried again, having found easier ways to procure alcohol – like walking into the village shop aged fourteen and coming out with whatever we fancied, unchallenged.  That we fancied Cinzano Bianco is another story, one which puts any objections to the underage drinking choices of subsequent generations on very shaky ground.

Photo of common elder by Ian Cunliffe via Geograph.


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I am a tree – Cedar of Lebanon

Cedar of Lebanon

There are no oaks or horse chestnuts in this dendrochronological listing of biographical trees but like any child who grew up in the English countryside, they are forever there, in the background, acorns and conkers strewn about them.  Each is a magnificent tree; the wiry curlicues of the oak in winter and the fresh-leafed and flowering horse chestnut in spring especially.  But neither have the year-round grandeur of the Cedar of Lebanon.  These are trees that demand space, a park in which they can be set, a house of similar reach and substance against which they can play foil.  For a time I was boarded in such a house; played cricket and tennis and kick the can in plain view of the tree that stood before its playing field vista.

I was a lucky child kept on at a school after my parents could no longer afford to pay, although I sometimes wonder if it would have been better for me ultimately if I hadn’t been.  I think it meant I got used to living life in a bubble, and by the time I started to think about why there were such gaping differences between my family life and those of my peers, and even between my life and my brother’s, it was almost too late.  I had been alienated; had become alien.  At least I saw both sides and got my eyes opened.  But perhaps lots of kids do, at some point in their young lives.  It only takes a single striking difference on one particular day to change how you see the world, after all.

In those endless, innocent days, trees seemed eternal, and none more so than that cedar of Lebanon.  In my mind it is linked with the fountain which also stood before the house.  Its now forgotten mythical figure and fount was activated only on rare days in summer; otherwise its water was sufficiently undisturbed that newts could be found in and fished from it.  To the side of the playing fields were woods in which we were allowed to light fires and cook sausages on Sunday evenings in summer.  Woods into which I took my illicitly held transistor radio to listen to the rundown of the new Top 40 on Tuesdays.  Woods through which I ran when I was older to escape from the school into town for a coupe of hours.

The house itself was less idyllic, a mysterious warren of corridors and dormitories and stairways and creaking floorboards and rooms that were Out of Bounds, presided over by a former naval commander who was a mixture of ancient seafaring toughness and landlocked abstraction.  The night I arrived, it was the dead of winter, and there had been a power cut that had lasted days.  The boys were starting to stink.  So they had all been instructed to take a cold shower, except me.  I was considered exempt, either on the grounds that I lacked any visible kind of seafaring toughness, or because I was a freshly laundered new boy, or, most likely, both.

Of course trees are not eternal.  The great storm of October 1987 was tough on cedars; many of their lost limbs date from then.  They are susceptible to encroachment and neglect.  Even the great cedar forests around the Mediterranean have been lost over the centuries; but in certain countries they are now being re-established.

In Britain, cedars of Lebanon are an emblem of privilege.  What stately home of England is complete without its stately cedar?  Queen Victoria bankrolled the building of a high stone wall to protect the Forest of the Cedars of God from the hungry mouths of goats.  And in Highgate cemetery, one stands at the centre of a circle of family vaults.  It’s tempting to imagine that its roots find cracks in their walls, and that those roots then weave themselves around tibias and fibulas and femurs and through rib cages and eye sockets.  Life invading death, rather than growing out of it.

But cedars being an emblem of privilege doesn’t make them any less magnificent as trees.  If a public park is big enough to take them, they ought to stand there too, for all to see.  And so they do, in places.

When I was near to finishing this, I dug out the photographs of my school days, looking for an image of the tree that I could use to illustrate the words.  But there is no cedar of Lebanon to be seen.  Where we played kick the can, there are several yews; and the tree beyond the cricket pitch, dominating the vista, is a tall and ancient oak.

And it is only now that I remember the wide tree stump, cut low to the ground, by which the can was habitually placed.  My cedar is a ghost.

Photo of cedars on Hardwick Heath, Bury St. Edmunds by David Swales via Geograph.

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