I’ve experienced an unexpected urge to write again. I put that down to developing confidence through visual creativity. By trusting the creative process, we give ourselves permission to find a voice through words too.
It’s liberating, exhilarating and a tad terrifying… but here we go, I thought I’d share some extracts with you (not in any particular order) over the next few weeks and months!
The sycamore, a plum tree and starlings
Before he made a life in southeast Asia, my father built an ugly house in England. Beautiful-ugly, I suppose, though mainly ugly-ugly. He did this in the 1970s; in a Cheshire village, Kingsley, where the differences between the generations and classes were writ large in building styles, from labourers’ cottages, claustrophobic and dank before gentrification, to council housing bungalows and new-build estates.
In Kingsley, squat post-war semis still march up the hill, called The Hurst, to the Methodist Chapel with its arched windows, like raised eyebrows, gazing down at the shocking sinners below. There are also one or two imposing Victorian houses, and the pub from the same era remains open, with its red-brick, mock Tudor facade. Then there’s the new builds, Barratt homes, mainly. The type that featured as a backdrop for Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff.
But my dad built something different. A house for the nouveau riche, a contemporary one-off, which he called Hilltop. He designed it and helped with the construction. Later, it was diagnosed with sinking foundations, among other ailments, and it took years to sell when my mum was set to remarry.
The oddball Hilltop was an impractical, angular take on modernity. It included lots of glazing, either as wide oblongs, strangely high in the wall above eye-level, or tall, narrow factory-style windows rising up from ground level. The views were of nothing much but fences.
Central to the design was a two-storey atrium-style living space with a vaulted ceiling. The house was impossible to heat with a piss-poor oil-fed vector system that wafted out minimal warmth through a series of grills incorporated into the exposed-brick interior walls. Minimal style, minimal comfort. And just when there was an oil crisis and high inflation too.
The small bedrooms had high up, wide slit-shaped windows, like those in a wildlife hide. These were ideal for my brothers who stood on their beds, still wearing their boots, and took aim with a rickety air rifle, having a pop at passing birds. They became quite handy with the rifle and pigeon pie was a meal my mother could fall back on as we generally had very little money. (My absent father withheld cash as a punishment for my mum’s independence.) So in some ways my brothers’ potshots were valuable but they were also indiscriminate. I hated them for this, and worried about the starlings that roosted in the yew tree next door.
The building plot for our house must have been sliced away from the garden of one of the larger traditional houses clustered in the heart of the village, like Kingsley Hall. These Victorian houses had an enduring if faded grandeur in stark contrast to the pound-store Corbusian modernity of Hilltop. I know because I spied on other homes from the dizzy heights of an outlaw sycamore tree, which had sprung up too close to the flat-roofed garage my dad built. This tree was my secret, I thought. It was a doddle to climb, as all acer species tend to grow many low-hung branches. And it was easily taller than the surrounding houses. I hid there regularly.
From the sycamore you could catch a glimpse of the Barratt homes and bungalows of Highbank Road. This road ended in a playing field where I walked our rogue whippet-labrador, Honey. She had a bad reputation because she escaped the chaos of our home to create more chaos in the village. She raided bins, scattering the flotsam and jetsam of domestic rubbish on roads and driveways. Then, with a swollen trash-full belly, she visited the primary school playground, a magnet because of her love of children.
My family shared Honey’s bad reputation, led by my mother, a single parent and the only divorced woman for miles around. She caused consternation among her peers when she came back from southeast Asia to set up house on her own. They somehow saw her as a threat to their marriages. This says more about their marriages than it does about my mum. Her two lost-boy sons were out of control and seen as a worrying influence among the village teens. And me? No idea what people thought of me. Perhaps I was just an onlooker, a spy in my sycamore.
From my leafy eerie, I looked onto an old man’s allotment garden full of purple sprouting broccoli that ran to seed, popping bright yellow blooms along the dark cinder path. And beyond was the large house with an old established garden, a goldfish pond and the big yew I mentioned, favoured by the starlings for roosting. There were also views to Marsha’s house. Marsha was the happy-go-lucky girlfriend of my second brother, with her enviable band of noisy siblings and two parents who had stayed together. I wanted to be Marsha, or at least Marsha’s little sister.
I shared my tree with all sorts. Lots of bugs and rows of bright red bug eggs, stuck to the shady underside of the maple leaves like braille or a hidden code, and, of course, birds. My favourites were the starlings.
I didn’t have the word for murmurations yet, but it was a thrill to feel close to this whistling, chattering slick-feathered gang who pulled off that swooping, group magic. They made an intense sight as they hung moving garlands in the sky, shape-shifting in and out of new geometries, elastic, electrifying and reactive. I really hated to think of them as targets for my brothers’ casual air gun brutality.
I guess I felt defensive of them. Actually, I didn’t want to be Marsha, I wanted to be one starling, secure among hundreds, part of some unfathomable dance which only they knew the meaning of.