Exploring North Wales

I’m spending New Year in a tiny Welsh hamlet. Sat here in this damp, silent cottage, I can’t quite remember why this one raised its head over the others on the homestay website. It wasn’t a practical choice but a feeling. There are 18 houses here, one pub. One telephone box (with no telephone) that sells things from its shelves: baskets, apples, books. There’s not even an honesty box. Just put the money on the side. This cottage is filled with the sense of someone else, long gone – still very present.

We’ve been to Colwyn Bay, got lost in the traffic system, found the prom blocked by construction vehicles and diversion signs. We despaired. Drank a pint of dark ale, had some food. I thought of the mismatched nature of these Victorian towns. An old theatre becomes a boarded pound shop – the beauty still there in the architects embellishments. Then the stark plywood below sealing the windows. Concrete blocks lump themselves beside timber-framed buildings. Then the history of this village: the old well (now also concreted), the pub with its stone lions and lanterns.

On the second day here (having stayed up until 4am) it was a bit of late start,¬† but we managed to get to the Welsh Mountain Zoo. It was a bit of a mud-bath and the red squirrels were nowhere to be seen. The bears and the tigers didn’t look happy. The view of the mountains was spectacular – and there were loads of wild birds stealing the parrot food, a Christmas feast.

Yesterday we went to Llandudno. It was a grander, Victorian seaside town: all lights from The Grand, The Duke, The Price Albert, The Cumberland and other hotels lining the curve of the coast with a coronet of lights. I still enjoy the slot machines and it was fun losing a few tuppence and 10p pieces. The sense of the the good time having passed was still there though, strongly. Maybe a feeling reserved for seaside resorts.

Today we went to Conwy Castle by accident. A turn off at the last minute and a beautiful town. The castle was atmospheric – towers, cellars, the great hall hanging in the air. Fireplaces suspended. We found a 1930’s pub – very Patrick Hamilton, brown and dingy in a facinating way. They only served cold pies (also apt) so we found a more ‘upmarket’ place for food where everyone spoke in cut-glass English accents and the ‘large’ wine was what I would call the dregs of the bottle. I loved Conwy. It’s the last day of the year tomorrow. I’m full of ghosts, tangled in the past like fishing nets. I want to look forward. I have lots to be grateful for. It will be a turbulent year, we all know that.

The Red Book

Many years ago, when I was little and living in Oxford, my aunty Prudence rang from Cumbria to say she’d put her mother’s name in a hymn book at St Olaph’s Church, Wasdale. My mum put down the old dial ‘phone and told us we now had somewhere to visit if we every wanted to pay our respects. I never met my grandmother (she saw me once when I was a baby- she loved babies and was apparently very sweet to me, although she was suffering with advanced Alzheimer’s Disease at the time). She had nine babies herself (one died just after birth) and brought them up on her own in a dingy town with no money, no job and a real day to day struggle for survival. No ‘Just About Managing’.

When we moved to Cumbria in 1991, my aunty took us to St Olaf’s several times. Almost every time the first hymn book she opened – out of many, identical red books scattered over the pews – was the one dedicated to my grandmother. There was something strange and spiritual in this – she cried, my mum cried. Today I went to find the book and it was gone – along with most of the old, inscribed editions. The church was the same: sheltered by yew trees, the graves mountain-shaped and the great peaks of Scafell Pike and Helvellyn towering over it, evidence of bats roosting and the old beams from Viking ships holding up the roof. I went through each book twice. Most of the them were mouldy, the moldiest ones now scrapped.

After the short walk back to the Wasdale Head Inn (an Edwardian Version picture of it above), a couple of drinks in the old back room and feeding a farm dog that ‘just comes in’, I felt I had to make it right. Her name’s nowhere else – no grave, no bench, no crematorium wall inscription. So I decided to write a poem – my fall-back option always. I hope it’s good enough to do her memory justice. She was a spirited woman, ‘always laughing’ and she must have had the strength of a bison to weather the dice she was thrown.

On the way back, a white mouse ran right across the path of the car and safely into the hedge. The lake was a black mirror. Sheep sat on the verge and in the road, eyes open and gleaming.

I’ve been working very hard this week. Christmas time seems to destabilise people’s mental health like a full moon. When I’ve written, it’s been about the darker side of Oxford memories. I’ve read and was very much impressed by Melissa Lee-Houghton’s Beautiful Girls which gave me the courage to write a few things I might otherwise have buried for good. I’m also reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It’s stange to feel sad for no reason with a week of Secret Santa, buffets, Christmas jumpers and family gatherings approaching. Maybe the reason is what we cover up with these things, and I’m maladapted at keeping up the necessary joie de vivre. Maybe I just miss my dad.

Too much thought is bad for the soul….

….said Patrick Hamilton, one of the best, underrated authors I’m rediscovering this week. I’ve been watching Lonely Britain on C4 news and the piece on motherhood reminded me of my own experience. Hours of pushing pram and pushchair – the same experiences repeated, usually starting early. Coggs Farm Museum where I bought a pass so I could visit literally every day, and usually did. I’d show my daughter pigs and ponies with false enthusiasm (look at the world, isn’t it exciting?) only to find she was looking down at her dummy with scrutiny or asleep. So I would do the same things: watch a lady make scones in the Victorian kitchen, look at the hens scratching around in the sheds, crane my neck to see the pigs (barely visible over the wall), have a cup of milky tea in the cafe, buy a baby puree of some kind and then walk (the long way) home. One day I discovered Patrick Hamilton in Waterstones in Witney. I was so gripped I bought everything and then sent my family his books as presents. I wasn’t depressed at all by his writing, quite the opposite. He didn’t once pretend that life was a long, gleeful social success. Rather it can be a series of events that sometimes happen to you, sometimes, even, against your will. I detest the view that we’re all the makers of our own destiny and luck. People get left, people get abused, unfair things happen every day and we do not deserve them. What we make of these experiences can be in our own hands, and pens. Thank goodness in the case of Patrick H.

I have been reading Bird-Woman this week by the very talented and lovely Em Strang. I would recommend it to everyone. I’ve also been reading Autumn by Ali Smith – meant to be the first post-Brexit novel. Some of it is good, but there’s a cobbled-together quality. I like the main character’s admiration for Pauline Boty and the descriptions of her artwork though.

I got two poems accepted this week by Sentinel Literary Quarterly. I love the magazine and was very happy they found two of my poems that fit in with the style. I’ve been writing a bit. Mainly about lakes and nature and historical events (such as the Great Fire of London) but they all get processed and come out looking very differently to how they usually appear in fact, like through the filters of a dream. I haven’t much time to do anything writing-wise though and it’s driving me mad. The evenings are as practically packed as the working day. I would love to go to an open mike poetry event, see a band, join a writing group…the barrier is when?! After work, travel, child, tea it’s about 9pm and i’m fit for nothing. Carpe diem and all that, but which diem to do it in? I enjoyed putting the Christmas tree up today though and felt a bit more festive. The robins are still stealing food from the rabbit bowl, despite the full bird table.

You made your bed, you’d better lie in it…

Everything that comes out my pen is dark and sour these last weeks. The pressures of nursing are the pressures of giving a large part of yourself away each day, particularly with high staff sickness and negligent under funding. The truth is you’re left with very little left to get you by when you need it – sometimes only scraps for your friends, family and yourself. I think of poetry as ‘what I am’ and nursing as ‘what I do’, which sounds a bit strange when written down. I haven’t had a lot left for poetry and what there’s been is dark and bitter as the dregs of the barrel, which makes me disappointed in myself.

I tried to get out a bit this weekend instead of hiding in bed. We went walking on Saturday and Sunday – an attempt to be fitter, healthier, more productive. Both days I struggled to see past my own inward looking thoughts, though I know there was a cheeky robin that followed us round the lake, trees and reeds gloved in ice and the outward contrast of the glassy, cold, disinterested water. My legs were also very sore from the plywood incident (an interesting fade from yellow to black). I wrote a bit in The Shepherd’s Arms (as in the picture above), but otherwise very little. We’ve got a bird table in the yard and I’ve enjoyed watching the robin, sparrow and rook picking out the mealworms (although the robin still prefers to steal from the rabbit’s bowl). There was a vacated mouse nest in the shed and it was facinating to see what they’d built out of rabbit fur. There was a collection of stored food, including popcorn! They seem to have gone for the winter. I’ve followed a few poetry blogs this week and finished John Foggin’s Outlaws and Fallen Angels, which I found excellent and very cleverly done. I’m also reading The Girls by Emma Cline – a Charles Manson-esque depiction of the disturbance running below the sunny, California surface of 1969. I’m looking forward to reading The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe: a book exploring the way writers have faced death. My own experience has been that most people face it with an immense amount of dignity and courage.

I have two poems due to be published in the New Year Issue of The American Journal of Poetry and feel very pleased. They are both very new poems and not tried and tested elsewhere. To get them accepted first time was exciting. I’m debating whether to sign up for a writer’s residential course next year. Just battling away with confidence on that one….

I found Life On The Psych Ward¬†(Channel 4) a good documentary on the real difficulties of rehabilitating mentally ill offenders. Many years ago when I was a medical secretary, I managed to get onto a medical students’ trip to Broadmoor (just due to my enthusiasm and the kindness of the psychiatrist I was working for). Dr McInerney showed us round and every minute of that day sticks in my mind: meeting the patients, the old ballroom, the ‘small animal care’ centre, meant to promote gentleness and the sheer disturbance of the patients, the carnage of their histories. But most of all I remember the insight and intelligence of Dr McInerney. Not only was he always humane and insightful, he even gave us all a disc with sign posts to relevant films, literature and academic articles.

I have the phrase ‘I was the shadow of the waxwing slain…‘ stuck in my head and have done for days which must mean it’s time to read the unique and hilarious novel-poem Pale Fire by Nabokov again. In fact I’m going on Amazon to buy it now.