spirit of place


IMG_5225Edensor Day has finally arrived.  Just two months ago, the residents of the bijou Derbyshire Village, where I live, emerged from hibernation and converted their gardens into a collective floral spectacle. Then, last Saturday, they opened them to the public, while on the green, all the accoutrements of a village fete and gala sprang up: stalls selling plants, bric-a-brac and books, vintage cars, a steel band, Morris Dancers, hog roast, raffle and barrel organ.  People paid £5 a ticket to enter and all funds were in the aid of this year’s charities: Dementia UK, Leukaemia and the never-ending Church Roof fund. 

Edensor appears in the Domesday Book as a small hamlet on the road from Matlock to Carver and Bakewell.  But after the big house was built in 1699, successive Dukes of Devonshire complained that the straggle of rude dwellings spoiled their view of the deer park, so in 1835, the 6th Duke and his general factotum, Joseph Paxton, demolished it and commissioned another village of the same name out of sight of his palace behind the Tumps.  According to social history, the Duke asked Paxton to obtain a selection of architect’s drawings. These included Italianate villas, Swiss chalets, gingerbread cottages and fortified houses with battlements and turrets. All the buildings were of a different style.  So in a confusion of indecision, His Grace proclaimed, ‘I’ll have one of each’.  And so it was: the dwellings of Edensor resemble a collection of film sets, but that contributes to the charm of the village. Nevertheless, Nikolaus Pevsner, the author of the compendious ‘Buildings of England’, was scathing about what he regarded as its inauthenticity. 

As a resident of 10 years, I am still regarded as an incomer, but in a gesture of solidarity to the community, I watered my flowers, fed the honeysuckle, and tidied the weeds from the front yard.   But I am no gardener. The biggest thing growing in my garden is the scaffolding they put up three months ago to replace my chimney that was in danger of blowing down. I am much better on biscuits and books that I ever was with plants and flowers.  So I erected two large tables outside under the scaffold, and filled them with some of my less cherished books, while on a separate table, I installed a Winchester flask of elderflower cordial and two cake stands of my own home made ricorelli biscuits.  I then made myself a cup of coffee and sat down and awaited the crowds. 

It is so poignant to sell my books, even for charity. They are like old friends. I can remember where I was when I first read them, where my mind travelled, what was important back then.  But my tiny cottage is groaning under the weight of novels, reference books on physiology, natural history, geology, environmental studies, medicine, psychoanalysis, biography and lots of poetry – though, if there’s one category I can’t get rid of, it’s the poetry books. 

It could not last. The long, hot spell of weather we had enjoyed from early May had to break some time. I had not long set up my stall when it started to rain.  I put both tables together under a large green parasol and rearranged my books where they might stay dry, then just as Lord Burlington, the scion of Chatsworth, drove through the village gate with his wife and young family, the rain stopped.  The ribbon was cut, posies exchanged  and Edensor Day was formally opened as, with a jingle of bells, a thump of the drum and img_5231.jpgthe bucolic strains of pipe and accordion, the Morris Dancers emerged in their black cloaks and breeches, multicoloured tassels, top hats with feathers and flowers, and faces painted in black, red and yellow like Red Indian medicine men. Back in the day on the borders between England and Wales, begging was unlawful, so destitute people disguised themselves and danced through the villages, extorting money by their frightening appearance.

From 11am until 4pm, a steady stream of people passed my stand and examined the books, though not all bought them.  Many said they already had a house full of books.  Others equivocated over the price, but I charged no more than £2 for most books, and all the money raised went to good causes.  The paradox is that had I charged more, people might have bought more; two pounds implies that they have no value.  I didn’t even have the heart to charge his Lordship more than £4 for the two art books he purchased, though his daughter politely requested a drink of cordial nervously holding out her 50p.  I didn’t sell as many biscuits as last year, probably because Tracey was selling cakes just next door, but despite the chilly weather, the Winchester of elderflower cordial was empty by the end of the day.  

At half past four, I had just started to pack up when, with exquisite timing and a loud rumble of thunder, heaven opened its sluices and cleared the streets and gardens.  It was a signal to join my neighbours in the courtyard for a beer and a laugh, and wait while the committee sat in conclave and counted the money.  The outcome was a record; over £12,000!

 

 

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st kilda

‘Three points of contact at all times. And if anybody falls overboard, just throw them a ring and scream.  Don’t go running for’ad to get us because the chances are we won’t find them’.  Ex Royal Marine and RNLI, Jock was a health and safety man to his branded anorak and shiny boots. ‘None of you have got your life jackets on properly.  ‘If your crutch strap is too loose, the jacket will ride up around your neck and strangle you.’  This was suddenly serious.  

St Kilda is about 90 miles away from the Isle of Skye and the only way we could get there and back in the same day was in the GotoStKilda speed boat, a modern sea going capsule with a small afterdeck from where we could watch the birds, the whales and the dolphins.  

‘If people don’t come on time, they’ll get left behind’, scowled Jock. So on the stroke of 7 o’clock, Willie, the skipper, a stocky, shaven headed man, who had bought land to farm in Tennessee, fired up the engines and soon we were all heading west, racing across The Minch and through The Sound of Harris and out into the Atlantic, Harris and Lewis receding into the mist behind us on a glassy sea.  A pod of dolphins came out to investigate, arcing above the reflective surface. The sun was bright on the sea, in contrast with the western horizon, which was a wide smudge of dark grey with the evanescent angular shapes of islands.  

Borarey is about 4 miles to the north and east of the main island of Hirta and includes the magnificent sea stacks, An Armin and Lee, home to the largest gannet colony in the North Atlantic.  We watched as, like large prehistoric seagulls with sulphur yellow heads and sharp pointed bills, they folded their wings and darted into the sea at 60 mph to spear the shoals of herring.  Gannets can live for up to 30 years, but after a while the accumulated impact of hitting the sea at 60mph causes them to go blind and dislocate their necks.  Returning with their catch, they are mobbed by Bonxies (Great Skuas), also known as pirate birds, which force them to disgorge their catch.  The people of St Kilda relied on nesting birds not only for their staple food, but also for the oil and feathers which they would trade.  The young men would scale the sea stacks late at night to catch the gannets.  It was dangerous work.  They would have to catch the sentry bird and wring its neck before they could harvest the other birds. 

Hirta, the main island, is formed from part of the rim of an extinct volcano and has the highest sea cliffs in Europe. The islanders would let each other down on horsehair ropes to harvest the fulmar petrels that nested on the ledges. It was such dangerous work, but only two men were known to have died, when the anchor man at the top of the cliff lost concentration and did not take up the slack while his climbing partner missed his foothold, fell about forty feet and catapulted him 600 feet onto the rocks below.

We docked in the sheltered harbour of Village Bay, clambered into the rubber Zodiac and went ashore, where we were greeted by the resident archaeologist.  He was a shy young man with glasses and baggy jeans, who informed us that St Kilda had been occupied for 3000 years. The names of the islands, however, are derived from the Vikings, who built the black houses for people to live in and cleats (stone huts with a turf roof) to dry and store the feathers and the birds.  The St Kildans lived in their black houses up until the eighteenth century.  They burnt peat in a central hearth, but, as there was no chimney; the smoke hung just below the roof and deposited a thick layer of tar, which functioned as a disinfectant.  They also had their own form of central heating.  A cow or sheep occupied the same space, separated by a partition.  The dung was collected and stored together with human waste and refuse in a large heap inside the doorway and then spread over the floor.  The rotting refuse provided underfloor heating, but was very smelly.  

The St Kildans did everything together and met for morning ‘parliament’ in the village street to decide what they would do that day.  Survival was a full time job. The men collected the birds, built the houses and cleats, while the women tended the vegetables, plucked the birds and cooked the meals.  The community shared all the work and the harvest, but they sent feathers and fulmar oil to the landowner on the mainland in return for materials for their houses and any provisions, which they did not have on the island. 

People continued to live on St Kilda until 1930 when the combination of disease, emigration and poverty forced their evacuation.  The last person to have lived on St Kilda died just three years ago. An epidemic of smallpox killed off half the population in the 1870s, then flu took its toll in the 1920s.  Many children  died of infertile tetanus, probably caused by the habit of anointing the umbilical cord with dung or fulmar oil.  The newer houses, constructed in the 1880s, had tin roofs which let the rain in, but these were not an improvement: the tin roofs would blow off and the storms blew the windows in.  They may have been cleaner but they were not as warm. People suffered, became ill and increasing numbers of survivors took the opportunity to leave.  

On Hirta, we took the opportunity to explore the island alone.  We only had two hours to explore the island alone and the cloud was too low to go to the tops of the hills. I went up to the gap – the low point between two hills below the cloud base and ate my lunch while watching the fulmars glide along the side of the cliffs past their nesting sites.  Then I traversed across the heather and tried to get some photographs of the resident Bonxies, which were intent on dive bombing me.  The whoosh as one dived within inches of my head was alarming.  Down in the village, some Fulmars  nested in the turf on top of the cleats while St Kilda Wrens, greyer and much bigger than the wrens we see on the mainland, nested in the walls, sharing the nooks and crannies with starlings.

The time passed too quickly and I wished I had opted to camp there for the night, but as we left, Jock said he had an extra treat for us. He took us  to the place near where the puffins nested and saw thousands of them floating on the sea,  their clown like faces incongruous in their black habits.  Puffins dive for sand eels which dangle on hooks set on the inside of their comical beaks, but they are also victims of the skuas, who fly in and delicately grab the dangling sand eels.  

We could not dawdle; Jock and Willie were keen to get back, but Jock had an announcement.  ‘Now just go on your Facebook and Twitter and tell all your friends about ‘GotoStKilda’. We need to have a full boat every trip so we can put food on the table.’  At £236 a shot, this was hardly the same privation as the original settlers, but we said we would. 

A breeze had got up while we were on land and as the boat bucked and dived through the swells, we staggered to keep our three points or more in contact.  But that just added a certain frisson to what had been an amazing trip.  

IMG_4229

Crackaig is a sad place. It lies in a hanging valley above steep cliffs, just a mile from the sea in Northwest Mull and contains the ruins of 12 stone dwellings. The land around still shows the shallow undulations of the strips and furrows for cultivation. Two hundred years ago, the people of Crackaig subsisted by fishing, keeping cattle and growing barley and potatoes; they even ran an illicit whisky still in a cave by the shore, trading the whisky for piglets brought over on boats from Ireland. It was a hard life, only barely above subsistence level, but the potato blight brought them to the brink of starvation. Many died, the village was deserted and those that survived, emigrated to Canada. Only a few miles back along the coast is a village called Calgarrie, which gave its name to the city in Alberta.

Across the sound from Crackaig is the island of Ulva, the domicile of the Macquarie clan, the fierce red tartan fighters who fought the English throughout medieval times and at the Battle of Culloden. Two generations later, their descendants would join the British Army. Major General Lashlan Macquarie served with distinction during the Napoleonic Wars and, as Governor General of New South Wales between 1810 to 1821, was instrumental in its development from a penal colony to a free settlement. Macquarie Island in the Southern Ocean is named after him. As landlords of Ulva after the clearances, his family had fought for the population to remain as long as they paid their way by fishing and harvesting kelp, which provided soda ash for soap and glass manufacture. They even commissioned Thomas Telford to design a church for them. But, the market for kelp collapsed in the 1840s at around the same time as the blight destroyed the staple potato crop. The landlord dipped into his own pocket to send most of the 600 people who lived on the island to Canada. There are now just 16 people living on Ulva. The island is again up for sale. The price is £4.1 million, a snip for somebody with the money and imagination to seize an opportunity for tourism.

 

In the early 19th century about 40% of Scots lived in the Highlands and Islands. Now that figure is around 2 to 3%. The depopulation of the highlands by what has come to be known as the clearances has become part of Scottish identity; a tragic tale of exploitation and betrayal by avaricious landowners. The truth is more complex.

The Highlands and Islands avoided the enclosure and intensive farming that occurred in the south. Much of the land was poor and inaccessible and people lived in clans or tribes, who operated a system of mutual loyalty, called ‘duathches’, based on the allocation of land and controlled by the clan chieftain. In return for the land to live on, clansmen not only had to give over a proportion of their produce to the chieftain, they were also expected to join the local militia in any conflicts with neighbouring clans. The ‘clansmen’ were largely subsistence farmers, but their livelihood was increasingly threatened by sheep farming, which was less labour intensive and used more land. Some of the clans kept cattle, which were driven south for sale in the autumn.

Chieftains were autocratic rulers with little respect for the crown, but after King James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, they backed the Stuart cause to regain the monarchy. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s march south, which reached as far as Derby, was an enormous shock for the English. King George II was all ready to escape to the Netherlands, but Charlie’s highland army began to drift away back north and were eventually beaten by the English at the Battle of Culloden. Anxious to avoid another highland rebellion, the English redcoats under the notorious Duke of Cumberland pursued the highlanders into their own country, burning their villages and killing the many of the clansmen, as in the infamous Massacre of Glencoe. The clan system was disbanded. People were forbidden to wear the tartan or play the bagpipes.

After Culloden, clan chieftains and their tacksmen became major landowners; in essence, client rulers, answerable to the crown. They struggled to make their land profitable. Some such as the Duke of Sutherland evicted thousands of families, burning their cottages in order to establish large sheep farms or shooting estates.

Donald McLeod, as Sutherland stonemason, wrote about the events he witnessed:

The consternation and confusion were extreme. Little or no time was given for the removal of persons or property; the people striving to remove the sick and helpless before the fire should reach them; next struggling to save the most valuable of their effects.The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and the fire, altogether presented a scene that completely baffles description – it required to be seen to be believed. A dense cloud of smoke enveloped the whole country by day and even extended far out to sea. At night an awful scene presented itself – all the houses in an extensive district in flames at once.

Evicted tenants were resettled in coastal crofts (small tenant farms) where they kept a few cattle, tried to grow crops on impoverished land, fished and gathered and burnt kelp for potash and soda ash, which was used for glass making, soap and fertilisers. But rents were high, there was no security of tenure and access to land was limited. People were dependent on their landlords for their survival. Some people resisted eviction; there were riots. On Skye, the population of one village burned the bailiffs’ papers and sent the back home naked, but a few days later, they returned fully clothed and with soldiers. Others threatened to emigrate and reconstitute their societies in Canada, but the landlords needed to retain the croft industries. The Island of Harris was effectively divided in two. The open grassland to the west was used for sheep farming while the crofters were huddled into the poor rocky and boggy land to the east of the island. Despite the privations, the system worked and the population of the Highlands and Islands continued to increase into the early nineteenth century.

During the Napoleonic war, young men were recruited from the clans in return for land. It was said that the war had harvested sons. Prices escalated during wartime. Many landlords were already in debt, because they wanted to mimic the lifestyle of the lowland landlords.  Increases in the price of fish and kelp from the croft industries protected them from bankruptcy for a few years, but as markets expanded after the war, cheaper sources of potash became available and cattle and fish prices fell. Crofting was no longer profitable. The final straw was the failure of the potato crop due to blight. This led to widespread starvation and with it disease.  People left Crackaig after an epidemic of typhoid, during which many died.

This second wave of highland clearances, like the first, was not a case of abandonment by foreign landlords, as it was in Ireland.  The landowners were of their own stock. Many of them tried to protect their tenants from the worst ravages of the potato blight, but since the famine continued for several years longer than it did in Ireland, it became more profitable and humane to pay for their tenants to be transported.

The chief of the McLean clan found it necessary to lease the Island of Rum to a single sheep farmer and move the whole population to Cape Breton. Late spring in North Uist became known as the transportation season because that was when the boats arrived to collect emigrants for their passage to Canada. But not all the tenant crofters were forcibly transported against their will; the majority of people left because of their impoverished circumstances at home and the lure of an affluent new life in the colonies, symbolised by abundant land and the discovery of gold. Some, taking up their cross of presbyterian guilt, even felt they had deserved the hardship and privation, they had endured, because of their sins, and felt ‘called’ to begin again abroad.

A third of the population of the highlands left between 1841 to 1861. It was not until the Crofters’ War in the 1880s and the deliberations of The Napier Commission in 1886 that those, who had remained, were allowed to own their own crofts and even have the vote, but the land was barely sufficient to make a living. The economic depression of the late nineteenth century caused more people to leave. The price of wool continued to decline. More land was given over to shooting estates, which cost less to maintain and attracted tourists from the south.

These days, the biggest source of revenue in The Highlands and Islands is tourism. The area is one vast theme park. Sheep capitalism has become the leisure industry. Following on from Sir Walter Scott and the endorsement of Queen Victoria and the British Royal Family, the highlander has become a romantic figure. The tartan, the bagpipes, haggis and all things Scottish have been reinvented. The highland diaspora of the 18th and 19th centuries has meant that most people of highland descent prosper in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where many still retain highland traditions.

Notwithstanding the romance o the highlands,  the Highland Clearances continue to represent a deep sense of betrayal in Scotland.  According to popular myth, the government in the shape of their landlords or chieftains had demanded the highlanders’ loyalty, their livelihood and even their sons in return to small piece of land to live on, only to deprive them of their birthright and exile them to another country.  The  ‘Clearances’ became more significant as a symbol in the 1960s and 70s with the rise of Scottish nationalism. ‘The highlander became the political conscience of all Scots’.

This post was inspired by our recent holiday at Treshnish on the Island of Mull, during which visits to Ulva and the ruins of Crackaig made me want to find out what happened.

Who was Eddie Carbone?  Was he the strong leader of the longshoremen that worked between Brooklyn Bridge and the breakwater in the nineteen fifties, the kind uncle, who offered a home to his orphaned niece,  the compassionate community activist who found employment and  accommodation for illegal immigrants from the old country?   Yes all of these.  These aspects of Eddie deserved respect, but there was also a dark side; Eddie the tyrant, the bully, the weak man, so insecure of his own masculinity and power, he would terrorise his wife and niece and betray those he offered to shelter and protect. 

The trouble started when Marco and Rodolfo came to stay.  Eddie was already preoccupied by the blossoming sexuality of his niece, Catherine, and becoming over-possessive, but when it became clear that she was falling in love with Rodolfo, he had to put a stop to it.  He told his lodgers to leave, but Catherine threatened to leave too, so Eddie, desperate to keep his niece, informed the immigration authorities and Marco and Rodolfo were arrested pending deportation.  Out on bail, Marco comes looking for Eddie.  They fight, Eddie pulls a knife, but during the tussle, Marco turns the knife on Eddie and kills him. 

The View from the Bridge, probably Arthur Miller’s most powerful work, exposes the fragility of the American dream of opportunity, freedom and shelter for the dispossessed, through the complex personality of Eddie.

Eddie affects strength and demands respect, but is so insecure of his own sexuality and power.  His wife Beatrice is in charge of the home (and the bed) and Eddie is troubled by the sexual presence of Catherine and too concerned about Rodolfo’s sexuality.   He is threatened by the arrival of the cousins from Italy and feels compelled to demonstrate his dominance in demonstrations of boxing and trials of strength, which he loses.  He fears the loss of his dominant status in the community and the family, and resorts, like all weak leaders, to tyranny.   Inevitably, his entrenched attitude brings about the tragedy that shatters the world of everybody associated with him. 

And now America is trying to exert its will on Libya by bombing forces loyal to its leader.  It won’t end well for any of us.

The following was in response to a note left in the vistors book.

20.11.10

For the attention of The Dunny Monster.

Although I was  amused by the perilous account of your travails in this wild and desolate spot,   it was less hilarious to find the shippon full of the emotional residues.  The shock of it inhibited all bowel activity for 24 hours.  They clearly don’t call you ‘Dunny Monster’ for nothing!      

This morning, I did the dirty deed, pulling aside the heavy lid of the cesspool and pouring the contents of the bucket in, holding my breath all the while.  So far, so good!  But when I opened the Elsan cupboard, there was  only one  bottle left and it was empty.  I know you warned me not to go there,  Dunny Monster. 

Today is Sunday.  The nearest source of Elsan is Windscale; the liquid glows in the dark!  Frustrated,  I did at least manage to regain a semblance of decency with the last blue dribble from the bottle and four pints of water. 

This afternoon, the farmer told me that a strange dunny creature had been sited crouching in the snow on the slopes of Harter Fell.  Tomorrow I will be coming for you. 

Be afraid!  Be very afraid! 

 

21.11.10

It was a cold night and I slept poorly, preoccupied with thoughts of you out feral on the fells.  Something was spooking the sheep.  Once I looked out, and saw a flock  of about a hundred or so running in panic from one field through the gap in the wall to the far corner of the other.  I fancied I saw a faint blue glow behind the last few animals.  I went out, locked and secured the door to the shippon and returned to bed.  

 The farmer didn’t seem too surprised  about the way the sheep were rushing about.  The dogs were  restless too’, he said.  They were up well before it was light, barking like mad. This morning I found the barn door unlatched. I always close it last thing at night but I guess it might have blown open.  

There were splashes of blue on the trail leading up the Lingrove Valley to Bow Fell and some of the sheep bore marks of the same Elsan hue.  Once or twice I thought I  saw you up by Cringle Crags, but  the cloud rolled in and veered south down Mosedale, losing my way  among the bogs and swamps.  You could hide here for weeks, Dunny Monster,  but what would  you do for food and how would you get your magic potion.   

As if in answer, I encountered  a group of men in the yard of Black Hill Farm.  A few had shotguns under their arms.  ‘A ewe has been killed and butchered up by Peathill Crags’, they told me.  The carcass is still up there. 

From the top of Hardknott Pass, I wound down to the ancient Roman marching fort at Mediobogdum.  I sensed a presence and explored the ruins of the commandants house, the granary, the barracks, the sauna, but it was getting dark and I left.  

Later , looking out of the cottage, I fancied I saw the flickering light of a fire up at the fort, but perhaps it was a car coming down the pass in the mist. And was that a whiff of Elsan on the wind?  You are beginning to get to me.            

 

22.11.10

It was not quite light when I spotted somebody in the field across the valley.  He had cornered one of rams, turned it over and was daubing dye from a large blue bottle on its nether regions. Later I saw the same figure heading west  on the slopes of Harter Fell. I reached for my binoculars and saw an unusually tall man, about seven feet I would guess, and dressed in a shabby brown three-quarter length waterproof coat and a woollen  balaclava helmet with the ear flaps hanging loose.  A sack was slung across his shoulders.  But, strangest of all, it seemed to me that he was enveloped in a bluish aura, like a force field.  

I dressed and ate a hurried breakfast, then packing a flask of coffee and some crackers,  followed the figure, whom I guessed must have been you,  down river, stopping briefly to read the notices pinned to the door of St Catherine’s Church, that offered  counselling.  I then sped on through  Boot and turned north across the sweeping grassland of Eskdale Moor.  From the top of the rise, vistas of Wasdale and Great Gable were revealed and I spotted a tall figure  moving towards the foot of Sca Fell in  great rolling strides. Then I understood.   You were  going to double back to the cottage. How I wish I locked the door to the shippon.  I broke into a trot and followed as, with what might have been a wave of your hand, you disappeared into the cloud.   

I wasn’t going to pursue you in the mist and snow, so I decided to keep low and take the direct route back,  crossing Quagrigg Moss to the foot of Slight Side and then descending  Cow Cove to just below Bull How, skirting round Hare Crag and coming out on the road by Wha House.  All seemed well, but when I opened the door to the shippon, there, scrawled in capital blue letters on the whitewashed wall above the chemical toilet, was the word DUNNY and an arrow pointing down. 

 

23.11.10d

I needed to get away and before midday, I was up in the snow at the top of Yeastyrigg Beck.  I followed the prints  of size 12 Vibrams up to the ridge.  Ravens performed aerobatics above the snow and chuckled knowingly, but the cloud came in on a nor-easterly  east and I had to descend.  Once or twice I fancied I saw a hint of blue and a cry of ‘Aa-aw Jee-ee-eez ’ seemed to hang in the wind that rushed between the rocks.  But the mind plays tricks and I had spent too much time alone.

Descending across Pieck Beld Moss, I spotted a large dog fox run up the opposite hill.   

 

24.11.10

 Woken at 4am  by a rattling of the schippon door.  I went down with a thumping heart.  Was that a faint emanation of blue below Wha House Bridge.    

 I had no more sleep that night.   At first light, I ate a hurried breakfast and escaped the clinging aroma of Elsan to the freshness  of the fells.  My feet crunched on the frosty ground and cracked the puddles as I ascended the track to the vastness of Great Moss.  I was completely alone.  I went swiftly up the gully between Sca Fell and its Pike and down the precarious path on the other side.  By lunch time I had reached the Wasdale Inn.  ‘You come down from hills?’, the landlord asked.  I replied that I had.  ‘Somethings been killing the sheep up there.  Another ewe was found butchered this morning’. 

 

25.11.10     

Today I went to the stores in Windscale to buy some more Elsan.  The shop keeper, a plump lady in her forties, eyed me suspiciously.  ‘What d’you do with it?’  she enquired sharply. ‘You bought a whole box full of double strength last week. You cleaned me out’.

 I said nothing;  she would never have believed me, anyway! 

 

They called him ‘The Fire of the North’. 

Once a soldier, man of action,

with connections to the King,  

A traveller, he healed the sick 

From Dumfries to Berwick,  

Made miracles

from Durham to Dunbar,

Received acclaim from Rome.  

.

Be our bishop, they cried.  

At first, he denied. 

Too much work,  he replied. 

I need peace, time and space

to converse with the grace 

of God, but don’t mention the ducks,   

We’ll throw in the island, they said,

Bring you breakfast by boat.  

.

You can wash our feet, they said

if that makes you feels good. 

But he waved them his blessings 

And cuddled his ducks instead. 

.

They must have thought Cuthbert was the man of the moment, a born leader, active, wise, understanding and willing to travel.   But he was also widely known for his piety, diligence, obedience and asceticism.   Northumbria extended as far north as the Forth and as far west as Galloway.  Cuthbert travelled the length and breadth of the country,  preaching,  performing miracles and talking to the people.  His generosity and gifts of insight and healing led many people to consult him. He set up oratories and churches throughout the Kingdom and established a reputation for himself and the church further afield.   When Alchfrith, King of Deira, founded a new monastery at Ripon, it was Cuthbert who became its praepositus hospitum or visitors host. He was a leading exponent of the customs of the Roman church at the synod convened at Twyford on the River Aln and also at the synod of Whitby.     

King Eagwith, about whom the great historian Macauley once said, ‘Who?,’  was impressed and prevailed on the Abbot of Montrose to release him to become Bishop of Lindisfarne,  but Cuthbert didn’t want that sort of responsibility.  He liked coming up with ideas, but he needed space to think and contemplate.  He agreed only if he could live for as much time as he needed in solitude on Inner Farne.  Cuthbert loved the sea and had frequently travelled from Melrose to the priories at Lindisfarne and St Abb’s.  It was said that he could communicate with the wild creatures.  The Eider Ducks were so tame they would nest in his hut.  To this day, the locals refer to them as Cuddy’s Ducks. 

But Cuthbert spent more and more time on his remote island.  If anybody, even the King, needed to see him, they would have to get a boat and a pilot and undertake the often perilous journey from the mainland.  At first he would welcome visitors and wash their feet, but later he waved his blessings from the window and returned to his contemplation. Cuthbert preferred the company of his wild creatures to man, but his inaccessibility only added to his reputation for piety.  

He died in his island hermitage and his body was brought back in state to be buried at Melrose.  Some years later, it was exhumed and his beatification was assured when it was found that no decomposition had set in.  It now rests in Durham Cathedral. 

So what kind of man was Cuthbert?   A reluctant leader?.  A man of great promise, who could not deliver; always out for a duck?  A selfish recluse?   This is open to conjecture, but I like to think of him as a scholar, a man of ideas and inspiration, who could be too affected by others’ agendas.  He needed to escape, to cease the chatter, the demands and be alone.  It wasn’t that he was selfish; quite the opposite.  But he was no politician.  He could see everybody’s view and could so easily be compromised.  And he was quite unsuited to administration. Luckily for him the King recognised Cuthbert’s symbolic importance and his retreat to the island just added to the mystique. He even passed a law protecting the ducks.   

I have just completed St Cuthbert’s Way across the Border Country from the abbey at Melrose to Lindisfarne Priory. It crosses the Eildon Hills (the Roman Trimontium), then follows the broad upland River Tweed as far as the crystal well at Maxton,turns south along Dere Street, goes up over the Cheviots to Wooler, gains the sea at Beal and follows the Pilgrim’s Route across the sands to The Holy Isle.

I rubbed up  a whole new crop of blisters and trudged the mud and sand of the Pilgrim’s Route barefoot and bloodshod.  Half way across, the sky darkened and a squall blew in from the North Sea.  It was then that the it started, an unearthly sound as if all the souls of the departed sailors shipwrecked on this coast has been disinterred and were howling in agony.  It came from what looked like a clump of rocks on a distant sandbank. I focused my binoculars and saw between two and three hundred seals, half of them pups.  This would have stirred Cuthbert’s heart and it stirred mine.                           

My feet have healed and I’ve donated my boots to the RSPCA.  Maybe a duck will find them useful.

When Rudd was just six, his beloved father and mother abandoned him and his four year old sister, Trix,  in a boarding house in Southsea and went to India.

Trix later described it thus; ‘I think the real tragedy of those early days sprang from our inability to understand why our parents had deserted us.  We had no preparations or explanations; it was like a double death or rather an avalanche that swept away everything that was happy and familiar.  This incomprehensible act of cruelty could never be forgotten.’ 

Life in the boarding house was mean.  Rudd was accused by the landlady and her bullying son of cheating and forced to walk through the streets of Southsea with a placard on his back bearing one word, ‘Liar!’ 

‘When young lips’, Kipling wrote at the end of this life, ‘have drunk deep of the bitter nature of hate, suspicion and despair, all the love in the world will not wholly take away that knowledge.’

When after six years, his mother finally arrived unannounced to the boarding house in Southsea, Rudd was in bed.  As she bent to kiss him, he held up his arms to ward off the expected blow from the adored mother who had hurt him so deeply. 

So an emotional vacuum dominated Rudyard Kipling’s life and was most likely the fount of his creativity.  Art always represents the artist’s life.  It carries the hope, the meaning and the pain of it all.  Rudyard Kipling never got over his parents abandonment.  It features in all his work; Mowgli, the jungle boy, abandoned and brought up rough by the wolf pack;  Kim, running crafty in the streets of Lahore, carrying secret messages, needing to be needed.  It explains his preoccupations with India, the family of soldiers, and his need for a refuge and a protector.   

Kipling lived just seven years in India.  He served as a reporter first for The Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore and The Pioneer in Allahabad.  He met Carrie when he returned from India; she worked for a publisher.  They married and went to live in Vermont, where their girls, Josephine and Emily, were born.  But there were family problems with Carrie’s brother, Beatty. They returned and lived in Rottingdean for a time; Jack was born there.   But on a voyage back to America to see his publishers, Kipling and 7 year old Josephine caught a chill.  Carrie’s hands were more than full with Rudd’s illness that she could not properly attend to Josephine.  So, in a decision that at this remove seems scarcely intelligible, she took her daughter even at the height of her fever, 21 blocks across Manhattan to the house of a family friend on the lower East Side.  As Adam Nicolson comments, ‘this was a moment of conscious agony to stand out from the average.’   Josephine died.  Carrie and Rudd never quite recovered from that; they just lived on with the pain.    

Kipling bought Batemans in 1902.  It is, a substantial manor house, set in a damp secluded valley near Burwash in West Sussex.  He stayed there until he died 34 years later.  It was his refuge.  His reputation for being rather anti-social after his son Jack was reported missing in action in Loos in 1915, was probably misplaced.  A look at his guest list indicated that they always seemed to have house guests.  These included his cousin Stanley Baldwin, T.E. Lawrence, Rider Haggard, the Shaws and many others. 

If Batemans was Kipling’s refuge, Carrie was his watchdog.  That was probably why was regarded as the hated wife.  She could be stern, domineering and controlling, and was seen as a bounty hunter, who married Kipling for his prospects, a ruthless employer, a cold mother and later a drudge and a moan.  In his small book, entitled ‘The Hated Wife’, Adam Nicolson suggests that Kipling was nothing like the image portrayed in If.  He could be charming and impish, genial and compassionate, joshing his way through life and quite content to leave Carrie to take responsibility and avoided conflict.  Carrie was a very capable, masculine woman in a pioneering American mould; she was born to carry the burden.  When she was young, she had to cope with her father’s fecklessness and early death, her brother Beatty’s naughtiness, Wolcott’s dictatorship, and her sister, Josphine’s  delicacy.  She was always the capable one. Even when Rudd and Josephine were so ill,  Carrie maintained a business correspondence.  It was what kept her going, but in the end it  wore her out.  She put on weight, developed arthritis and became depressed and poured out her feelings in her diary, the sump for her despair.  Her dour, rigid, manner was a means to survival.  She was the buffer between Rudd and the rest of the world.  She was devoted to him, not out of some great affection – she felt abandoned by the more sociable Rudd.  No, her devotion was a matter of survival. She had to keep the house, the servants and Kipling’s affairs together because if she didn’t, she would fall apart herself.    

Nicolson exposes the detachment at the heart of the Kipling marriage.  Carrie provided the backbone that her husband preached but privately lacked.  But she was not the bullying harridan intent on controlling her genius husband, but more a lonely survivor in the face of a serial family tragedy. 

Kipling’s reputation took a plunge from which it never quite recovered after being awarded the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature. Oscar Wilde, perhaps the greatest ever exponent of the devastating put down, called him ‘our best authority on the second rate’.   Nevertheless, a hundred years later, If is the nation’s favourite poem,  Kim one of the best novels ever written about India.  The Jungle Book is still one of the best loved childrens books, has been made into a one of the most popular Disney films, and  Akela and Bagheera are enshrined as the names of troop leaders in Baden Powell’s Wolf Cubs.  He may not have been the greatest, but he has lasted.

 

Adam Nicolson wrote an excellent booklet on Bateman’s for The National Trust and is the author of The Hated Wife, published by Short Books in 2001.

Emily, Kipling’s one surviving daughter spent a year restoring Batemans to how it was when Rudyard and Carrie lived there and then sold it to the National Trust in 1939

‘If’ was inspired by Dr Jameson, who led the Jameson raid to capture the South African President, Kruger.

The film, My Son Jack, starred David Haig, Carey Mulligan and Daniel Radcliffe and first appeared on ITV in 2007.

‘Have you news of my boy Jack?’
Not this tide.
When d’you think that he’ll come back?’
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

‘Has any one else had word of him?’
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

‘Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?’
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind –
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

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