Homecoming 2009

If I should become a stranger...

Have you seen the advert Homecoming 2009?  Its time to go back home to Scotland.  We’ve heeded the call and by the beginning of September will have washed the dust of London out of our clothes for the last time and will be settling into life in the hills and fields of Angus or on the shores of the Firth of Tay. ‘Caledonia, you’re calling me, now I’m going home…’

The truth is, though, I feel very ambivalent about moving back to Scotland.  For the last eight years, I have loved living here in London.  I love being part of such a diverse, multi-cultural city where everyone is from somewhere else so it doesn’t matter if you don’t ‘belong’.  I love travelling around on the tube where every place you stop, you feel like you know it already from a book or a film.  I love the self-confidence and the irony of the city and the people.  I love feeling like this is a place where things happen.  And I love the fact that Ross and I fit the profile of people in our streets: youngish, professional, educated, well-travelled, Guardian readers.  I love feeling like we’re the norm.

I don’t really know how I’m going to feel about living in Scotland again.  My biggest fear is, I think, that Scotland won’t let me, be me. I’m worried that Caledonia won’t be able to see the changes that have come over me since I last lived there.  I don’t want to hear Scottish voices saying: don’t move to fast, act too big, dream too large, want too much, talk too different.  I don’t want to hear those voices saying: stay small, live safe.

I know these Scottish voices may just be monsters in my head: my own Cyclops and angry Poisedon.   Maybe I won’t encounter them, unless, in the words of Cavafy, I bring them along inside my soul, unless my soul sets them up in front of me.  Maybe I won’t encounter them if I keep my thoughts raised high.  Maybe I won’t, Cavafy. We’ll see.

(You can read Cavafy’s poem Ithaca here.  Its on my list of poems to get you through the night).

Reading group

I got onto the train today and looked around.  Four teenage boys in blue blazers were sitting in the seats nearest the door.  Nothing unusual in that.  Their black school shoes were scuffed and their grey trousers were all a little too short: uniform at the end of the school year.  What was unusual was that each one had a open book in their hands and they were reading.   I looked further up the carriage – I could see the backs of another two boys, heads down, reading and a man in white trainers, socks, smart shorts and a navy v-neck, also reading.  

I know people read on trains, but school boys are normally only pointing at the headlines in an old copy of the Metro. It felt like I’d stumbled into something slightly strange, something being staged for a film perhaps: I liked the sight of the boys with their heads down in a book (yes, they were giggling and pointing at each other, and peeking over the seat backs at some girls in tight jeans, but essentially, they were reading.)  There was something innocent and old-fashioned and not completely natural about it.  And I was right.  The train stopped, the man in shorts stood up and said something stern to the four of them (I couldn’t hear what), one boy moved obediently to another seat.  The three remaining, settled down.

One was reading ‘Foul Play’, one ‘Skulduggery Pleasant’.  I couldn’t see the third boy’s book – he kept it flat on his knees and was more interested in reading the four lines of instructions about what to do in case of an emergency (1: ‘Stay on the train’.)   What was going on?  A punishment from the PE teacher for forgetting their kit – reading from Kingston to Clapham Junction?  A Merton Council literacy initiative – supervised reading on public transport, effectively preparing them for years of commuting?  A sponsored read and ride by South West Trains? Who knows.  Whatever the explanation, it was good to see.  Give your child the gift of reading.  Or else.

Not a big issue

That last post was a bit long, so this one is going to be short and sweet.  I bought a Big Issue yesterday from the lady who sits outside the station.  Taking my money, she put the magazine in the buggy.  Looking at the baby who was looking at her, she reached into a pocket of her floor-length black skirt and took out a pack of tissues.  She handed me one and gestured that I should wipe Daniel’s nose.  ‘Thank-you,’ I said.  As I left, I realised I had been expecting my change, not a tissue.  I didn’t get it.

100 years of Sydney Road

Well almost. I parked the car on our street yesterday and was just unloading the shopping from the boot, when a little old lady pulling a tartan shopping bag on wheels stopped and said something about how there were too many cars on our road now. She was short and stout and wearing a smart black fur jacket over a red cardigan and a black and white scarf over her hair, tied under her chin.

Memory laneI paused, she kept talking about her dog.  ‘We used to take her for a walk, four times a day, down our street, round the block and back, then Wimbledon Common at the weekends. But she didn’t walk on the pavement, oh no, out in the middle of the road, head up, if there was a car coming, it just had to wait. Nobody minded. Off she’d go to the newsagent and carry the newspaper back in her mouth – down the middle of the road. She’d go to the chemist to be weighed and he’d give her a barley sugar. Then back home. She’d dance for the children and beg. Her name was Sue.’

Sue used to bark goodbye to the bus, when her sisters came to visit from Croydon: ‘Bark, bark.’ One day the bus conductor and the driver both got off the bus to admire the cleverness of the dog.  ”What did that dog just say?” asked the conductor. And none of the passengers minded, no-one said ‘hurry up, lets go.’  They were looking out the windows at the dog’. That was in the forties. She died in the sixties.’ Quite a life for a dog.

I asked her if she’d lived here all her life – yes, she was born in the Nelson Hospital. ‘You must have seen a lot of changes,’ I said.

‘Oh yes, and not for the better. There used to be an army camp, where the gym is now. One day, they were sounding the ‘all clear’ and everyone was out in their gardens, but there was another plane coming over, so low we could see the pilot and he waved at us. He was just a young man, like ours, didn’t want to be fighting. We’d come out of our Anderson shelter but there was still a plane up there.’

She kept talking, about her sister who had raised money for the soldiers.  She still has the letter written to say thank-you – the soldiers had bought themselves beer and cigarettes.

So much history, so easy to lose it all. Maybe I should have introduced myself.  Maybe I could have gone round for tea.  Instead, I picked up my bags, she started walking.  I wanted a camera and a microphone, but these words from memory are all I can do.  Respect to you, old lady.  Many blessings in your last years. May you have time to talk and people to listen, may there still be good days with old friends, may you come, at last, to a happy ending. Amen.

A green thought

For the first time yesterday afternoon, Daniel was crawling around our garden, examining blades of grass and nasturtium petals that come up to his nose.

The garden is a length of very scraggy grass, dotted with dandelions. Down the centre is an old brick path. The grass on the left hand side of the path is ours, the grass on the other side is our neighbours’. We both have a strip oA lovely garden on the other side of the worldf flowerbed running down each fence. The neighbours’ side is low maintenance: the soil is covered in bark out of which grow three tall rose bushes, two low shrubs with mottled leaves and a Japanese maple. They also have some very colourful flowers in pots.

For the last two years I’ve planted nasturtiums on our side which have flourished, climbing over the fence and creeping out into the grass. They move so fast I’m sure you could watch them grow if you sat for an hour. Even this year, when I haven’t planted any, the little round leaves are appearing all over the place. We also have jasmine, lavender, oregano, mint and rosemary in pots, flowering stock, lambs lugs, a climbing rose and a green bush. Last year we grew tomatoes. Its a sunny, south facing place and plants seem to enjoy being there.

Like others before me, I’ve learnt some things in my garden:

1)  Planning in November what you want to see in June is a good idea (planning, even what I do next week, is not one of my natural abilities). 

2)  Believing that that stick will one day become a rose bush and that speck a mass of orange flowers is not crazy.

3)  Plants need watered – often.  

4)  If one day we all stop gardening and stay inside and watch TV, the walls and streets and houses of London will disappear under the weight of Japanese bindweed – and that will take less time than you think.

The Bodens


Boden family values or refugees from the middle classes?
Boden family values or refugees from the middle classes?

Walking home at the end of the Bank Holiday weekend, we passed a little boy on a scooter and a man wearing a t-shirt that read: ‘Wearing Boden is not enough’. Where did he get that t-shirt? I’ve searched the Boden catalogue and they don’t seem to be selling them there. It stuck in my head: we’re not getting the lifestyle free with the t-shirt – that sundrenched, breakfast on the terrace, smooth-skinned, shiny-haired, true-blue, union-jacked, white-walled, dipping our toes in the swimming lifestyle.

Instead we have cramped rooms and frizzy hair and too much junk and not enough time and traffic outside the window and cars that leak and gardens that need weeded and to-do lists that keep growing and houses we can’t sell and children who wake up at the wrong time and once in a while a moment when the sun comes out and we’re with friends in a beautiful place and our children make us laugh and someone surprises us by taking a camping stove, five cups, a teabag and milk out of their rucksack and then everyday life, the one we’re blessed to be living, is as good as the one dreamed up by the marketing men.  But wearing the clothes is not enough – it doesn’t even get you started.