Sunday, August 30, 2009

Looking Backwards

I planned to start a website diary over a year ago, but my slow lane life, although extremely productive of daughters' weddings (three since I moved to Nutwood in January 2005) and grandchildren (five under four), has been pathetic on that front, with only three instalments, all tucked away on my own laptop. But here I am at last, given a fresh look by Joe and Susie's website company 'number fifty-six', and I've taken the plunge. To make it work better as a personal record of my new life at Nutwood, in the Eynsham Road I moved into in January 2005, I'm going to put those instalments, written in  May last year, into this post - later ones will be much much briefer. 
Life in the Slow Lane 10 May 2008
There are two roads: the road we must take of necessity and the magic road of our dreams. Sometimes by some strange alchemy of the mind . . . the two roads collide (Donald Maxwell, Enchanted Road)
From 2002 to 2004 I wrote a weekly column for The Times called Hearth Goddess, one of a set of five written by people with different life-styles. Mine was that of a writer rising sixty living in North Oxford, whose marriage had ended ten years earlier and whose children had left the home that was to me central to life. There was lots of fun to be had: twenty-three years in  a place gives you lots of warm history and good neighbours. But my column was, looking back on it, a tale of endings: my 91-year-old mother Diana died in 2003, my 14-year-old golden retriever Angus in 2004. And I’d finished my magnum opus: a biography that put lustre back in the name of the much-maligned author of Le Morte Darthur, Sir Thomas Malory.
What was also ending was the rightness of the house. Homes need to fit like gloves; they also need to be able to change when you do. The tall Victorian semi in Chalfont Road had been perfect for our four daughters to walk to Oxford High three blocks away and for me to bike into the Bodleian and to the shops, but now it was getting ragged round the edges. There was too much wrong, I realised, as I flailed around trying to change the characters of the children’s former bedrooms and grappling with damp in the basement and terminal rot in my writing hut at the end of the garden. Clearing the mortgage also seemed attractive. I’ve been lucky enough to make a respectable living from writing, but not enough to invest or save, and the rock-solid pension I’d been building up with Equitable Life had just shrunk to a waterworn pebble of a premature annuity.
It didn’t take long to find a buyer, and I quickly made a bid for what then seemed the prettiest of little houses at the other end of the street. But 2004 was the year that property values escalated eye-wateringly fast, and for wealthy retired folk a little house in North Oxford was just as desirable as a crumbling family home. The price rose by ten thousand a day until I realised that, given the cost of moving and improving, the differential was becoming non-existent. I might even need a new mortgage. I gave up that particular dream, but decided to stick with my own buyer, store my furniture, and camp in the house of friends who were going abroad for three months until I found a new one.
            Fortune favoured the bold. Days later, the half timbered façade of an Edwardian house peeped hopeful but a little forlorn out of a postage stamp-sized ad under the name of a West Oxford estate agent. It was familiar: I remembered enquiring after it six months earlier and being told it was sold. I phoned and was told that the developer who’d agreed to buy it had pulled out. I drove over with a friend: down the Botley Road, past a little row of real shops, and right at the foot of Cumnor Hill. The Eynsham Road had always interested me: generously scaled houses set back behind big front gardens. The house that was then called Shuttlingsöe (after a Derbyshire Hill, my solicitor later informed me) was just a hundred yards along it, shrouded by a huge shaggy hedge.
It had evidently been empty for a while, and felt shabby and unloved, but its bones were good. Behind the hideous pimpled glass of the inner porch was a minton-tiled floor and a staircase that rose with generosity and divided into two at the top. Upstairs were five bedrooms, a huge attic with sub-attics off it, one bathroom, a landing and an airing cupboard. It was much bigger than I had expected. Downstairs were a small sitting rooms to the left of the front door, a large one to its right and a long thin cloakroom contrived from what must have been outbuildings, with a lou and a shower room at the very end. The last door opened into a quarter of roomes that opened into each other rooms: a double sitting room with a fireplace at one end, a kitchen with three arches opening into the final room: slightly sunken so that you stepped down into it, with plate glass doors onto onto the garden. We went into it and looked out at a huge and romantic wilderness dominated by a frame of trees: holly, yews, firs, a scots pine, a huge sycamore cruelly dominating a tulip tree, and most magnificent of all a quadruple-trunked gum that soared 70ft high, its branches tossing gracefully in the wind like a tireless dancer. It was four o’ clock. I offered the asking price: two-thirds of what I was selling Chalfont Road for in exchange for a house with 3000 square feet instead of 2000. Threequarters of an hour later, it was a done deal. Intead of downsizing at a cost, I had upsized at a profit. It was not a rational decision, but an instinctive one. The house felt absolutely right. Four daughters rising thirty would, I hoped, soon mean grandchildren. And if we were all to be able to get together at once, what could be better than this rambling comfortable house?
Just as we exchanged contracts, The Times turned tabloid, and our weekly lifestyle reports were jettisoned. I wrote a final feature on the finding of the house a friend neatly summed up as Rupert’s Nutwood, and Hearth Goddess ended. I found I missed the weekly discipline of shaping the worth of my week in words, and now, three years later, I’ve decided to start recording my everyday life again in what may be the total privacy of my website. There will be flashbacks on what has happened – how the house was brought back to life, two weddings, and a third in September, three grandchildren, and one a-growing – but for the main part it will be about seeing the world differently now it takes me longer to think about it, and getting to grips with the unexpected pleasures and occasional frustrations of life in the slow lane.
Life in the Slow Lane 2 25 May 2008
You stretch out the heavens like a tent.
Above the rains you build your dwelling.
You make the clouds your chariot,
You walk on the wings of the wind [103rd Psalm]
Sudden death stops us in our tracks. On 8 May, on a glorious, very hot afternoon, Dave Sewart, friend and companion in enterprise for twenty years and more, suffered a heart attack while mowing his extensive grass. 64. Another ten years would have been good, another twenty even better, for a man who lived to the full, the kindliest, most generous, gleefully eccentric person I have ever met. Snuff out a life like that and those left shiver in darkness. Yesterday I went over to Cambridgeshire to his funeral. He was the life and soul of Therfield Chapel, and it was full to bursting. In the row beside Ian and me, his god-daughter wept, inconsolable. All his adult life, he attracted children like the pied piper of Hamlin, and many of them, now striking young adults, were there to mourn him. Hannah and Theo Hawksley, twice the size I’d last seen them, gave one of the tributes: revealing perilous escapades on islands, up mountains and down caves. Friends from university days described his love of engines and ancient Rover with klaxon horn; friends from Therfield days his caravan in a field by a pond – instantly made cosy by a dash of liquid calor gas ignited on the floor. I talked of his energy and enthusiasm in the early days of the Arthur Ransome Society: the welcome he gave to new members, the originality of his beloved Despatches, the scholarly editions of Ransome’s illustrations and original manuscript. ‘There’s a huge Dave-sized hole in all our lives’ said one speaker: there was a low moan of agreement from two hundred hearts.
While we sipped tea, guzzled a feast Dave would have loved and talked about our memories, a slideshow of huge photographs dissolved from memorable moment to memorable moment on the wall. Photographs only get taken when we see the moment is a good one, and these were good indeed: a grinning eight-year-old (Roger to the life), arriving at his wedding beaming on a bicycle, walking in the lakes, sailing on the Broads, waving goodbye to friends at Ty Gwyn.
We can mourn, we can commemorate. But can we learn? ‘Let’s finish it tonight. Get tomorrow off to a flying start’, I remember him saying as he battled to defeat my recalcitrant AppleMac’s sulks, did the final pages of a scan of an old edition of one of my books, perfected my amateur scans of pictures. I’ve resolved to do things now, not in some never-reached tomorrow. That, in truth, is why I’ve at last begun writing these website pieces,hard to do with only the discipline of determination. It’s easy to slow up in your sixties. There is something about  getting a state pension and a buspass that makes you see yourself as a done-to, not a doer. On the 9 o’clock bus, all the grey-haired ladies sit huddled in rows like hens in a henhouse, going somewhere with feigned busyness just to be among the hustle and bustle of life. Why am I there too? Do I need to be? Have I invented the things I want to look up in the Bodleian? Being a grandmother is in my up moments a grand state: sign of distinction, a pass to Olympia that authorises one to comment, advise, pontificate. But in my down ones it makes me feel old, washed up at the tideline.
Let Dave’s death change all that. He was older than me, but he didn’t feel or think old. How he would have relished the opportunity of being a thoroughly dangerous grandfather. I like life in the slow lane, but let me make it life, not decline, laziness and defeat
Life in the Slow 3 Lane 21 May 2008
I find myself playing with notions and metaphors of time this morning. Pressed for time . . . Playing for time . . . Saving time . . . Wasting time . . .Out of time . . . I am in truth time rich now, but it is easy to fritter it away. Mooning at the window, allowing inspiration to surface, then not capturing it in click of key or scratch of pen. Round and round the garden,scattering tools in obscure places, constantly distracted by another dock rearing its tall green and now threatening to flower head. I need to focus, dig deep, not skim the surface. Going down to make tea and pottering for half an hour as the kettle boils and the tea draws. I remember the tidy timetable of schooldays: two periods before break, three before lunch, two before going home. Sometimes a late lesson, always homework. Watching Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull [oh, dear, back to the Russians as enemies], one line stuck in my mind: ‘We’ve been given things all her life: now they’re beginning to be taken away’.
            Grandchildren treat time differently. They have endless amounts of it but see every second of it freshly – which is why, of course, time feels so endless when you are young. You are not thinking about time past or time to come, but concentrating intensely on the moment. Their pace suits mine in many ways, because when I see them I too want to live in the moment. A morning, or an afternoon, is mentally labelled grandchildren, so what I do in it is only for their delight. Well, not quite. I like to have some little ambition in mind, so that when they go I’m ahead, not behind. Finishing the ironing while Ben ate his breakfast, weeding in the garden with Sam, showing Olivia how the sewing machine mends a torn nightie, tidying the kitchen with Fox in the sink wielding a washing up brush. They drink in experience with happy ease, parrotting what I say, then trying it out for themselves, creating endless variations on my activities with garden tools, exploring with twinkling legs, tumbling headlong, wailing, recovering and off again.
But though I love grandparenting, I need to be wary of allowing it to invading writing time. Keep mornings sacred will be the mantra for next autumn. But then I also think that these are the golden years for grands – soon school will overwhelm, and friends come first. Establishing a loving basis of familiarity and trust means as much to me as I hope it does to them.