A few weeks ago I found myself reclining in the comfort of a United Airline business seat, travelling between Central Europe and New York, trying to concentrate on a book which I would pick up and then put down as I was increasingly distracted by the flight map. It was an hour into the flight. We had gone through the funereal boarding process which always fills me with anxiety, partially due to resentment towards the special privileges built around how frequently you fly, a curious achievement to honor. But there is also that uncomfortable moment when you sit in those generous seats in the front of the plane, where I feel something between sympathy and cruelty towards the economy passengers shuffling by. It is an occasion that makes you want to wear a grave expression and murmur “I’m sorry”; that awful comedy when infrequent travelers stand in the aisle and look down at you resentfully sitting in these high priced pods already with a glass of Champagne and then look beyond to the already packed rows at the back, their destination for the next ten hours and for the first time sense the crushing injustice. I try to shut it off, I’ve earned the additional space I tell myself, the better food and wine but most of all the privacy, that ultimate luxury where you cannot be observed nor need to look at others.
Normally the journey would take us across Northern France, England and Ireland before the long climb over the Atlantic until the rocks of Newfoundland appear. Then the comforting progress down the US East Coast with its saw tooth coastline, pretty harbors and glimpses of lights below, intimate communities. I look down on with the same unease and sentimentality that I feel when receiving a Christmas Card from someone I vaguely knew in the past. But on this occasion the plane headed north, across Berlin and then further north still, towards Scandinavia. I put down the book again and removed the headphones, alert to the fact that something might be wrong; “please not another mechanical issue…” I said to myself, and then almost immediately in response I felt the aircrafts slides, drifts and complaints from turbulent winds behind us. It was confirmed by a message from the pilot; strong winds leading us across Greenland, an unusually northern route, so I could relax again, or at least as much as anyone can within a metal tube a mile above the ground.
An hour or so later, I looked again at the map and jumped at something significant; we were now over a narrow unlikely patch of sea between Denmark and the Northernmost Scottish Islands, a place where about eleven hundred years ago an ancestor, probably with the last name of Mansen would have crossed over to the Shetland Islands from his Norse dwelling in what is now Norway or Denmark on a Viking boat, a treacherous part of a long journey that would have taken him in time down through Scotland and Northern England where at some point the name would have changed to Manson. I recognize in myself slightly Scandinavian tendencies in both appearance and disposition, prone to a depressive temperament, a love of solitude and an appreciation of grey, unpopulated landscapes making me question if memories can be passed across generations like relay batons. It seemed pretentious to mark the occasion. I couldn’t claim some kind of spiritual landmark with any authenticity, but equally ridiculous not to, to ignore our human migratory patterns. Our world is full of miracles, elevated abilities to know where you are physically on the planet, natural GPS systems that bring small birds half way across the world to the precise place they were a year ago, for salmon to know and return to where they spawned after journeys of hundreds of miles but it is a lost human trait where just hints might still be gleaned in places like the Australian outback. I decided to re-read Bruce Chatwin whose book “The Songlines” is full of stories of our migratory patterns, and also ordered a white wine to celebrate. Normally if I was in the back of the plane a second drink this early in the flight would turn your stewardess into an irritable psychiatric nurse but up front all I received was encouragement, as if they were thrilled to have a borderline alcoholic as their guest and it created a dangerous pattern when each time I finished the glass it was automatically refilled, heaven for a while, but in the end I had to stop it while I still could.
I have travelled only a little in Scandinavian countries; Denmark, Sweden or Finland and each time had the feeling of being at home, despite incomprehensible languages and its unaffordability which almost forces you to the fringes, to feel like a spectator. I feel that I spent too much time wandering the streets, looking with a sense of envy at the diners while speculating on what I could afford. On one occasion in Copenhagen I remember looking at a store that appeared to be stacked full of teak and aluminum boxes only to see it was a Bang and Olufsen repair shop, something that made me strangely happy. I’m of a generation that places high value in making good investments and keeping something for a long time, an object that might be repaired. I talked to one of the shop workers for a while and he said that it was not so unusual for these elegant music systems to be given as expensive wedding gifts, kept for the length of a marriage and I thought this is the kind of life I want; to hold onto the same shared objects, growing old with them, allowing them to gain the patina of a marriage and be the repository of a relationships ups and downs. And it’s only right that in Scandinavia plainness and clarity are approved of they are famous for the physical manifestation of simplicity, the love of natural forms and materials, tactile qualities that endures while the rest of the world this slips in and out of its own fashions, disposing and replenishing without a thought.
My own early memories are scant and their authenticity replaced by family lore; fictions in the ancient traditions of storytelling at our rare uncomfortable gatherings. One of these was a claim made by me, probably at the age of seven or eight, that my Grandmother had threatened to strip me naked and tie me to the back yard and smoother me with bird food so I would be pecked to death. She protested laughing for the rest of her life when it was brought up, but the details, the eroticism and dark imagery were surely beyond my capabilities to fabricate at that age. It remains a strange, foreboding threat. Perhaps I did make it up? a premature awakening of carnal thoughts, something residual from a dream of abandonment and letting go, nakedness as its metaphor, something I’m still occasionally plagued with today, waking up with an enormous sense relief after recognizing it was only a disturbed nightmare. But even if it was my imagination, it does tell me about the fear I had around my astringent Grandmother, possessing an authority and presence that dominated our family especially my father who craved her approval.
I do clearly remember visiting her for the last time when I was in my mid-twenties. I was working at Laura Ashley at the time in the middle of Wales and when they offered me a two week assignment to Sterling in Scotland I jumped at it. I realized that her home in South Shields was a convenient stopping off point but at that time she was approaching eighty and had liver spots on her hands and an air of frailty that I was fearful to damage in my clumsy youthfulness, for me then she seemed as vunerable as a ceramic vase that I was afraid I might drop at any time.
At the time I was living in the small English border town of Shrewsbury, an ancient market town nestled within an Ox Bow river. It is a strange location, sitting on the border between Wales and England and therefore had a slightly split personality, the warmth of Welsh and the frigidity of the English, the rejection of pretention while containing a rare refinement; the kind of place where you could walk through a quiet star lite night in cobble stoned lanes to hear a Bach recital in a Norman Church. It was, and is, a lovely place, it holds a Georgian charm and grace, with formal grand houses rubbing shoulders with ramshackle Tudor ones. But like many in that area, its character changes a little on pay night when the local farm boys and factory laborers come into town looking to have a fight with a timid local or to chat up their girlfriend.
I set off one late winter morning. At that time of year the wind could blow eastwards across the valleys and bare forests bringing chills from the Irish Ocean or alternatively westward allowing in warmer currents from the polluted heartlands of England; the weather was entirely unpredictable. One might wake to a putty colored sky with a diffused, washed out light, trees and roads around might look as if they are rendered in a flat matt paint. On others however, like this day, you can wake to purity, an aquamarine sky, an orgy of blues and greens, bright sunshine, the icy sparkle of winter. I woke suddenly, not sure whether it was entirely due to the low cold brightness of the early morning, that pure polar light that sweeps over the West Midland’s sometimes , the freezing air outside the duvets warmth or sudden memories of childhood, looking out through the windows dew to the frost, mist on the fields and the cleansing quality of cold air. It stirred memories of a snow day without school and the wild, thrilling, slightly out of control acceleration of a childhood sledge down an icy hill side, air cold in the nose and full of promise.
The journey was to be in my Volkswagen Beetle, already over twenty five years old, amazingly confident that it would make the 200 plus miles without mechanical event. I threw it around the country lanes, letting the rear tires slip, overtaking slower cars with my foot firmly on the accelerator. Like most cars, the VW Beetle is something more than a vehicle to get from A to B; it is a signal to the world communicating a liberal political stance, an interest in the arts and the ability to not take yourself too seriously. The brand is an ambitious and misleading promise though, in some of the rough sinuous country roads which I purposefully took as detours from the bland busy ones, instead of being a species of insect with a dexterity to traverse any terrain, a very intellectual English friend of mine once joked that it would better be described as “decapod crustacean” as it has crab like vulnerabilities, with a brittle outer exoskeleton but a hugely delicate under side; a low hanging exhaust system, engine sumps and easily breakable, mysterious rods and hoses which were the legacy of its old fashioned design. Paradoxically the agricultural suspension, which was fine on smooth motorways and autobahns, accentuated rather than dampened the rocky ride on these un-kept roads, I longed for a Range Rover. This car was purchased quickly one summer’s day, second hand in an emotional rather than meditative way, inexpensive on the garage forecourt and charming in every way, so it was an uneasy tightrope between utility and fear when the engine didn’t start up first time or the new groan or rattle materialized. At the same time it also turned the heads of smart, funny girls…..my type; it was a car with possibilities.
I drove north from Shrewsbury through some handsome scenery of honey frosted fields, rich pastures and dense and dark woodland. At one point I deliberately turned from the normal route to go through a tunnel of trees with branches interlocking above, icicles reaching down. Less happy passing recent, ugly housing developments which were ruining the countryside (the local’s constant refrain) crowding in and choking the views with a ferocity that you would imagine could only come from the natural world, like mold or weeds. These were made in a very vague, poorly defined and hesitant manner, to mimic the older buildings around them, called “mock” Tudor or “mock” Georgian and appeared to be doing just that to their owners. I wondered not if the architects were being sarcastic, but to what degree, and did they quietly scoff at the developers with derision?
I was in a strange mood of truancy, the sense of freedom from not being behind a desk and answerable to no one, a person who could not be contacted. And so I drove erratically as if road rules could be broken as well, there were reckless near misses when I took rash risks in over taking, on one occasion with oncoming traffic and looking back now I struggle to recognize myself. There was an almost laughable abundance of beauty on the first part of the drive with scenes that still haunt my memory, a wide field with a single perfect oak tree isolated and solitary, the neat containment and smug satisfaction of flinty towns. I could imagine stopping at some of these for good, to disappear into their contented arms and be alone, reading books and listening to music for ever. There were moments when I was almost hysterical with the roads sweeping perfection and was both enchanted and yet full of a sense of loss, a bitter sweet feeling that this can never be replaced and that there is no going back, this could never happen again.
As I went further north it became wider, flat spaces, remembered landmarks from my youth telling me that I am nearly there and already a sense of industrialization in the fields before the roads start emptying and signs of poverty begin to be seen in the towns, a sense of shame, of hopelessness, within the dingy stores. Arriving at last, I parked the car and walked to a small convenience store to buy a drink. I heard the inward humility of the accents where every sentence seems to end with a question mark, leaving a sense of doubt, questioning. I was in a foreign country that I had been to before and knew well enough to critique but not to understand.
It was surprisingly awkward being with my Grandmother. I felt a need to please and even to impress which made me sound grandiose and pompous, I sensed her duty was to in return sound encouraging, but she did so without conviction. The best part was to listen to her unreliable stories. She had lived through two world wars and told me that twice in her life she had run from her house “throwing the keys away” which I still find perplexing and counterproductive. But on both occasions it was because a warship was visible and threatening on the horizon, a fear that is as ancient as time itself. I have memories of her and can see her face still, even though we were not close at all. A hard women in many ways, or should I say brittle? Without much capacity for love or at least its external displays, someone who lost her husband while he was still young from tuberculosis, managing a Public House, a job that he apparently resented. They had a single child, my father who was unaffectionate with us in turn and who naturally went on to do a job he grew to hate and dreamt of escape. There was some mystery to her, she was both stern and formal, her house was large and well kept, there were antiques and every time we would make the long drive from the Cotswold’s to see her, my father would have his hair cut and dress well in defiance of my mother’s mean spirited scorn. Over the years she moved into a much smaller apartment and there was hushed talk about her falling victim of an unscrupulous property developer, robbing her of her house by convincing her that she would be more comfortable in a smaller place.
I carried with me the naivety of youth, imagining that she would be thrilled to see her grandson after such a long period yet despite unsaid protests to the contrary, I could she wasn’t particularly comfortable, and I noted her efforts to be accommodating were forced, I sensed her relief when I left. But now all these years later, I just wonder if it did mean something to her to see me, but she was too afraid to show it and was in possession of the same fears of revealing warmth and need for affection that I sometime have.
My other Grandparents were dead by then. They passed away within a week of another, the first from heart failure and the second from a broken one, and I suspect I got my capacity to love from them. My grandfather in particular would take me as a child fishing, riding on the back of his motor cycle. Of course my parents were against it, but I enjoyed the feeling of letting go and of trust in his ability to get me through the wet streets of South Shields and down to the docks where I could spot rats and jump off rocks while he fished in the Tyne, never catching one. He lived his life in a way that today we would find unbelievable. A claustrophobic who spent every day of his adult life a mile below the surface in a narrow mine, breathing in the coal dust without any protection for his lungs as he chipped away at the wall in front of him with a pick. Naturally he received a pitiful settlement at the end of his career which, like many people who never grew up with money nor ever expected it, spent it all on a mink coat for his wife which was lost or stolen eventually. Their terraced house was slim and contained two families, both of which shared a single exterior toilet, and I would be terrified at night going down alone with a flashlight into the concrete yard. There was also no bathroom, instead, hanging from the kitchen ceiling, a metal tub which would be filled on a Sunday night with hot water from the kitchen tap and turns were taken to be soaked in it. To this day my mother talks of her shame when coming back from school, the tub in the front yard in view of the whole street and her father in it, a little insanity or just absolute relief to be on the surface of the world while the next day there could be a cave in, a gas explosion or one of an interior type with nerves giving over to the panic of being underground.