Friday, March 15, 2013

Happiness, Death and The End Of All Things

Morning playmates.
Well another week done and closer to death.
Oh yes, you can't beat a bit o' optimism to start the weekend.
I was once asked was I a 'half empty' or 'half full' glass sort of person, to which I wittily replied, "Fceck that m'hearties, gimme a bottle o'grog and I'll show 'ee!"
Oh yes, this's the life.
As me old shipmate Ray used to say "Drink Entire Against The Madness Of Crowds."
I never quite knew what he meant by that, but man could he could drink. Not grog neither, but LIFE.
You know, not life, but LIFE. The former distinguished by the seven shades of shite you have to deal with every day, the latter by joy and happiness and wonder.
The world's a weird place maties, no two ways about it.
I happened to be having a wonderful convo with Sheephouse this week about such things - he said there's weirder in the world than either of us could comprehend and then proceeded to detail the stuff below.
It's a sad tale, but there's hope in it, and longing too.
I was moved to tears me hearties, oh yes, and the last time that happened was when Slug (our cook) decided to try a concoction of plantain and chilli on us. And it wasn't for eatin' neither, it was a poltice for dry skin. He swore by it, but he hasn't tried it since . . the keel-haulin' sorted that out.
It was most affectatious on Mog though . . within no time at all he'd lost his old matted fur, been stripped back to red wheals and baldy cat-flesh, and had grown a shiny new afro-coat . . all within the week!
It was miraculous.
He looks a bit like a cat-shaped storm cloud these days . . .


Regular readers of FB (Fogblogites . . FBishisters, or just plain F-ers) will know that given half a chance I will drone on about my childhood for hundreds and hundreds of words . . and you know what folks. I have done that, but I am not going to do that this time, because most of it is up there, and as I have said recently it is getting increasingly hard to write anything new or interesting for this, so excuse me whilst I run off in a slightly different direction.
Curiously, it still does have something to do with my upbringing, but it's more like a 'what else can they do to you' situation . . . and that sounds bad, but it isn't really like that. I think what I mean is it is incredible how things you take for granted can change.
To preface things, here's a little preface:
Back in the 1980's when my Mum could no longer face the prospect of another Winter in our old cottage she decided to move, and to that end, looked at roughly the part of the country she would like to live in, stuck a pin in a map and ended up in rural Lincolnshire. The facts behind this were simple: I wasn't living at home any more and she felt isolated.
I distinctly remember phoning her one weekend in the Winter of about 1983 and her telling me the following tale (which I've added explanatory bits to):
Our cottage had two bedrooms, and a floored loft. The loft was uninsulated, and was only used as a sleeping place in emergencies. Downstairs, her room was at one side of the house and my old room was at the other. Mine was next to the kitchen and the boiler and had an airing cupboard; it was also less than half the size of hers and was relatively cosy. Anyway, during a particularly bad Winter's storm, she had decided to sleep in my room (and who could blame her) because it was so warm.
She'd awoken late, due to the fact that the gale force winds had been going all night. It was incredibly quiet, she said. Now I immediately put this down to the fact that she was losing her hearing, but no, when I describe what had happened you'll understand. She said she wandered through to the kitchen to make herself a pot of tea and to coax the boiler (multi-fuel) back into life. She went through to the bathroom to ablute and again wondered why everything was so quiet. She was taken aback by the white light coming through the frosted bathroom window. She then went into her room and got dressed. Her room had a window facing West, whereas mine was East facing. She drew her curtains and looked at the fair amount of snow which had fallen and steeled herelf for another difficult day in the wilds. She then went back through to the kitchen, drew the curtains and was taken aback by the fact that there was half a snowdrift slanting across it. She then went into my old room, drew the curtains and discovered that the entire window was obscured by snow. The way this transpired is that a heavy Easterly had whipped in, blasting snow to a drift height of roughly fourteen feet against the side of the house!
She was astonished and not a little bit worried (she was in her late 60's). I must admit such a prospect would be a bit of a worry to me too, and I am fairly self-sufficient, but there she was, an older woman, alone, snowed-in and in the middle of nowhere in real terms.
Her neighbours would have been in a similar situation, so what could she do, except phone around and wait it out. She did manage to climb out of a living room window and went and took some pictures (sadly I don't have them) and that is how she discovered the depth of the drift.
So that was it really - the beginning of the end.
The sense of isolation must have been just about complete for her, and if there's one thing I would say about Mum - she was gregarious. Her life had narrowed dramatically as she got older, from having a husband and three children at home and friends and family coming and going from our old council house in Northolt, to a situation where her husband was dead and her last child (me) had fled the nest, leaving her in a beautiful old cottage at the bottom of a hill next to the A74, with a bus to Lockerbie or Moffat a couple of times a day. It was impossible to get her wee yellow DAF car up to the road in such weather, so she was stuck, and that was the breaking point I think.
Though I hated it when she moved (the sense of bereavement for me was as complete as losing my Dad) I can fully understand why. But I'll still remember the tears in my eyes and lump in my throat as we drove off down the road to get me on the train at Lockerbie for the last time.
That was it.
Life was changed forever for her, and it was also it with Dumfriesshire and me for roughly 8 or 9 years until I learned to drive.
I left it really late to learn to drive after a traumatic writing-off of the front wing of my brother's Ford back in 1979 - it put me off big time. However learning enabled me to visit - not just my Mum (me and my wife making epic eight hour journeys in our old Polo and the Volvo that replaced it down to Lincolnshire in the dead of the night when the roads were quiet) but also my Aunty Jane who was still living in Beattock.
When Jane moved into a care home in Moffat I still continued to visit the area, but strangely apart had little curiosity about my old home - maybe because it was lost to me.
Anyway, it was around this time (mid-90's) that the powers that be decided that the major upgrade of the A74 that had been through planning stages in the early 90's was to go ahead for the Abingdon to Lockerbie stretch.
And what did that mean exactly?
Well, to put it bluntly
A 6 lane motorway was going to be plonked straight down on my childhood.
This galvanized my feelings. As far as I could tell from those early internet days of dial-up and non-instantaneous information, there would be nothing left of Orchard - not the farm nor the farm workers cottages (of which ours was one).
I was distraught, I mean building a motorway is one thing, but annihilating your memories was quite another!
I made a trip to visit Jane but went on the road to Orchard before I visited her.
I found work well under way.
Mr & Mrs Fraser's lovely old farm, with its outbuildings and feral cats and fruit bushes and quiet decrepitude, was now a scene from WWI. There were trenches and markers; massive, deeply rutted tracks with oily puddles. There were diggers and tar and concrete. Their farmhouse, which they had rented from Annandale Estates for decades was gone, not even the foundations remained. The wells which sprang naturally from the ground around there were crushed and blocked. The building skills of the people who constructed the farm back in the late 18th/early 19th Century were trampled under the grinding caterpillar tracks of modernity. Even the ghostly barks of Wullie Fraser's long dead sheepdogs (Glen and Lass) were lost in the clatter of diesel engines.
Our other neighbours cottage was also gone. It had been modernised at the start of the 1980's at some considerable expense. Time and effort and love had been lavished on it, but for naught.
Of our cottage, very little was visible over the dense tree growth and bushes which had sprung up around it . . but, and it was a big one . . at least it was still there.
I was aghast.
I somehow managed to park in a layby and walk back to the road end and stumble down the old track. The grounding for the motorway's lanes bisected the track and was marked out right over the now levelled famrhouse and farmyard and cottage gardens - it was truly terrible.
It was a Sunday morning and fortunately for me, the few workmen there, were scattered at various tasks on the site, concentrating on levelling and machines and digging, which made it easy for me to serruptitiously nip over the mud and tracks, hop over a fence and approach the huddled remains of my old home.
And now I jump into the land of supposition.
I think the compulsory purchase order must have occured a few years before, because truly, for a building to fall into the state of disrepair our cottage had fallen into, must have taken a while.
Having all the roofing tiles stolen hadn't helped. And it wasn't much different inside. The place had been boarded up and broken into - everything and I mean everything had been robbed out. Ceramics, pipes, electrical wiring, floorboards, any fittings on walls, the hot water tank, loft ladder . . . you name it . . all gone.
I've often wondered how the people who bought Mum's cottage off her felt when they had it compulsory purchased off them a few years later and then robbed like a grave . .
They lived locally, so must have at some point passed it. Personally, had I known, I almost feel I would have stood vigilant. But I was 150 miles to the North and working - it wasn't possible . . and it would also have seemed a trifle mad . . . especially seeing as the council had compulsory purchased it and for all intents and purposes it was due to be levelled.
With the tiles gone from the roof, the rains of Upper Annandale had done their worst.
Inside, every surface which was capable of harbouring mould and fungus, did. The place exhaled billions of spores in a heavy wind of decay which I smelled well before the enormity of its devestation struck me.
The garden, which my Mum and Dad and myself had laboured to wrest from nature's grip, had reverted back to it's natural form . . wild. Damson's and blackthorn, grass and brambles, all fought to gain a place on the ground.
Strangely my Dad's old garage which he had assembled himself, still survived, but the doors looked like a passing giant had decided to wrench them off for a laugh and had kicked the windows in too at the same time.
The porch my Dad built had had its roof removed by the giant who had thrown it aside like cast-off Lego.
The concrete foundings of the porch were still there, as were the walls, but without a roof or door, the windows and their frames had gone.
It was frightening to see somewhere I knew and loved so well in such a state.
I hesitated by the front door where the plywood, which had been nailed to bar entry, had been torn asunder and the glazed door kicked in.
What on earth was I going to find?
Tramps using it?
Wild animals?
Drugs paraphernalia?
There was a feral, deep, earthy smell all around and judging by the amount of excrement by the entrance I can only assume a fox had been using it.
Picking up my courage I entered.
Thinking back now, it was like a veil of time parted and yet surrounded me.
I could see the now, but the past was deeply imprinted.
I could have found my way around in there had it been pitch black to be honest (even with the extra extension the new [old] owners had built) it was like I had only stepped out in the morning for a jaunt and returned at lunch to find devestation.
Every step I took was a step in my past:
There were evenings of happy talk and laughter with Trevor and Olive.
There were lunches with Jane, and an all too brief two Christmas's my Mum and I had with Dad at the cottage after we moved there, but before he died.
There was the heat of the Summer and there were whole days spent indoors in the long, misty Autumns, reading and listening to music.
There was the smell of my Mum's cooking and the sound of her shout as a capon and all the trimmings slid from her hands onto the kitchen lino of a Christmas morning.
There was our wonderful cat, Cookie, doing her best to keep the mice at bay.
There were endless fishing expeditions and walks at twilight.
Holidays with my friend Steve staying with us and all the joking we got up to.
All of it embued into the falling plasterwork and rotting wallpaper.
I stood in the hall, too stunned to cry, got out the only camera I owned at the time (an Olympus MjU Mk I) and went into the living room and took a photo. I did the same for all rooms in the house except the kitchen, the bathroom and the hall, for though I wanted to linger, to finger over the decay, I was desperate to get out too.
There were angry ghosts there - spirits of all those who had lived and died in the cottage's nearly 200-odd years history. They wanted answers to the same questions  as me and I couldn't help them.
I also had the feeling that the roadworks had dislodged spirits from the farm and the other buildings, and they (unable to find rest now the unthinkable removal of their hearths had happened) were crowding into our cottage, making it noisome and restless, and overwhelmingly melancholy.
Does that sound fanciful? 
Well not to me.
I've written about such things before, and you can pick up a sense of these things if you get yourself in the right frame of mind.
My father had died in that house, on a bright and sunny June afternoon, and when the Doctor had been to confirm his death, the pennies that had been placed over his eyes shone in the late sun that came in through their bedroom window.
How many other Fathers and Mothers, Brothers, Sisters and Children had died within those walls?
Things like that seep into the soul of a building.

Happy Times - Mum & I - Summer 1976
Western Elevation of our home.
Taken by my Dad with the family Instamatic on Ektachrome.

Sad Times
Western Elevation of our home - post devestation.
The chimney was a later addition.

Echoes of Teenage Dreams
The head of my bed resided in that corner.
I could sit on the window ledge and watch the stars and dream.

A Sad Farewell To Happy Gatherings
This was our living room.

The Death Of Happiness
This was my Mum and Dad's bedroom.
My Dad died here.

Happy Times 1975
Left to Right:
A friend of my Mum. Mum. Me. Steve. Steve's Uncle Bill. Steve's Aunty Lillian.
Our Home - Southern and Eastern Elevation

Total Devastation.
Eastern and Southern Elevation, post-apocalypse.
The part at the front was a latter extension to the kitchen.

I suppose, looking at the above you can see why I have written this. Such things have a deep power to affect one.
Sacriligious is a term that gets bandied about in regard to a lot of things, especially religious things, but, being a 21st Century Caveman, the thing I find sacriligious today is the lack of regard for one's ancestors.
Hearth (the feeling of oneness with the land and one's place in the world . . home if you like) is a vital constituent of society, which, because of the ease of social mobility, has all but been eroded.
Face it, how many people do you know, who still live in the same place they were born?
Very few indeed.
I think you can draw a lot of comparisons with the way society is today, and this rootlessness.
Modern folk are lost.
Shopping and endless gossip are the new religions.
People search so hard for something, anything, to find some purpose for their place within the great cosmic pantheon.
It used to be religion (you know, Church on Sunday and all that . .) but how many people do you know who still go to Church? Are they not more likely to be found of a Sunday worshipping at the Church of Matalan, or confessing their sins via Twitter.
Sunday church and regular worship were, I feel, a subsitute for the mass-migrations within Britain caused by the move from agrarian to mechanical society.
Roots are vastly important - they nourish the soul, but I didn't know I had roots until I set them down at our cottage when I was small, and then they were uprooted when Mum moved, and my soul, though content and deeply delighted with having my family and the happy family life we live, still yearns (in what I think is some form of melancholic longing for my dead parents) to be back there again, setting deep roots in that dark loam that comes with a sense of belonging to a place.
For the spirit of the place is still within me, like a drift-seed on an ocean current, waiting for land again; and the land is waiting for the seed to arrive so that it may spring anew with life.
Anyway, I am digressing.
The road workers and planners had committed a sacreligious act against me and nearly everything I held dear. In much the same way, I had done the same thing to myself in moving away to college . .
The ghosts wanted answers, and I wanted answers too, but above all else I wanted revenge on the robbers of my house, the thieves who had stripped out the old slates and all the fittings. Modern day graverobbers with no thought other than profit. Before we bought the cottage in the mid-'60's, it had been empty for approximately 15 years, but the roof and windows were intact, and no one had bothered to rob it. It even had its outside toilet and tramped  earthen floor! It had managed to survive, which is quite a testimony to the builders, but remove a roof and you have a different prospect altogether.
But that was Scotland then - mid 1960's. And the robbed fittings are a symptom of the awful world we live in now. And that isn't rose-tinted spectacle talk either.
Anyway, back to my adventure in my old home.
The thick, cloying smell of decay was getting to me.
It wasn't healthy.
Lingering slightly longer in the hall (and thinking I would never see my old home again) I looked up and saw something I hadn't expected to see.
The crucks - part of the original construction of the house had been exposed by where the original lime plaster had fallen away. 
They were surprising and shocking, like up-ended wishbones.
I had no idea those oak bones were there, and unfortunately I neglected to take a photograph of them, but you can get an idea of how the cottage might have originally looked by going to this site:
Our place I think was a little later and had been tickled-up over the years, but apart from the lack of thatch, externally, was initially very similar.
So there I was, like a man, on a beach of sadness, amidst the bones of the beached whale of memory. Sadness filled my soul from top to bottom. My shock was complete and overwhelming.
I breathed deeply of the spores and decay and went outside.
In the garden, the sun had started to break through and sadly I bade farewell to my home.
I decided to head down to my old stomping ground of the river bank.
As I have stated before, this wonderful oasis of undergrowth and wildlife and water was pretty much my own personal playground for most of my early life, from the age of 7 to the age of 19. It was heaven to me, in all weathers and at all times of year. A place of solace and learning, of exercise and leisure. In a word: Heaven.
The pathways which had been fairly decent when I lived there, were now overcome with wildness, but strangely still visible. I immersed myself in green wholesomeness as I decended the steep bank, and, breaking through a stand of young birch saplings, came out into the open and the running water.
How good did it feel to be home again?
Friends I cannot tell you, but like that perfect crescendo at the end of a symphony, the sun broke through and I found myself bathed in rich, life-giving, soul-enriching sunlight.
Rivers are always changing, but also, they rarely change. They find their courses and unless intervened with tend to wander along the same old paths to the sea. Yes they can rage, and yes they can become as timid as lambs under a Summer's sky, but for all that, the flow is ever constant and the life along them strives to move always onward, they remain the same.
My river was the same, I instantaneously knew that it knew me too.
Again, fanciful?
We knew each other, and we respected each other, and it was good to greet an old friend again.
The heat of the sun was bringing the wet vegetation to life and the air was filled with a delicious moistness. Sweet wild grasses and flowers scented the air - it was like a bridal procession for a faery Queen.
I walked a bit along the bank, picked a suitably not too damp place and sat down, immersing myself in humidity and sunshine, peace and the strong voice of the river.
I opened my rucsack, unscrewed my flask and enjoyed the finest cup of coffee I have ever tasted.
My spirit was hungry for the feel of the place and I sat, meditatively, the way I used to, and absorbed as much as I could.
It overwhelmed my senses, and I felt drowsy, emotional, and blissfully embraced by the earth spirit.
And then I got up and spent a happy hour wandering around, discovering new flotsam and old jetsam. I walked my boyish paths, watched fish, listened to the river's song, and was only moved from my reverie by the knowledge that I had to go and visit Jane and then head all the way back home.
As I've paraphrased Hericlitus before:
no man can step in the same river twice, because it isn't the same river and he isn't the same man . .
but you know what, I'll add a Ray Bradburyesque caveat to that:
A boy and a river, once joined, cannot be parted.
So where does this all end then . . I'll bet you're asking yourself that if you have indeed made it thus far . .
Well, a year or so later, I went to visit Jane again and decided that I would take a wander along my riverbank again. I drove along the M74 convinced that I wouldn't even be able to imagine where my home had been. I thought maybe I could get some idea of the lie of the land from certain trees and hills I knew well, but I thought it would be hard, especially at speed.
Well, I was to say the least astonished, when, keyed up to see if my spacial senses were working properly, I came over a rise in the road and spotted the familiar rear wall of our home. I slowed, I got tooted, I was downright dangerous, but no, there it was!
Coming off the motorway at the next junction and heading back the way via a side road, I managed to park up, crossed underneath the motorway on a farm underpass and headed back on foot.
No dereliction. The house had a roof, had been repainted and even had two children playing in the garden.
Was I happy? I was in tears. It was a total shock. I (strangely for me) resisted the urge to go and ask the owners how they had managed to do it, and how they could live so close to a major road. I guess I was just happy.
They have a far larger garden than we did and a new embankment must shelter them from some of the noise. It must be difficult to get there in the Winter, but I like to think that maybe, just maybe, the place got to them too and they feel that the effort of living there is like nothing compared to the satisfaction.

The Proof Of The Pudding

And here's some FB photography.
It was made on my old Olympus MjU Mk I.

© Phil Rogers 2013
A boy and a river, once joined, cannot be parted.

No tripod was employed and the stitching you see above is done from scans of prints. Yes it is crude, but I was going to actually mount them, so doing it electronically, though not ideal, saved the destruction of the prints . .
I do have the negatives so maybe one day when I get a chance, I'll do it properly, but it will have to suffice for now.
I like it though.
It will maybe give you an idea of how lucky I was to have had such a place as a playground.
And that is it - some more of me . . we'll be getting to know each other quite well, you and I!
As usual, take care, God Bless and thanks for reading.


  1. I found it on the map as well :)

    As a matter of fact, I must have driven past it about 10 years ago when I was touring Scotland!

  2. Well found Omar!
    Hope it wasn't too wet when you were touring!