I've always liked the idea of
than the actual gardening. Ours was the only landscaped vista on the
council estate. On Cambridge chalk and gravel you could grow successfully
things like strawberries, anemones, asparagus and celery, which make odd
bed-fellows, especially on a grave. Whatever the plan and however well I
began, by the time I'd raked out the lumps I finished up with a great long
loaf of a garden.
"Who you got in there, boy?" the neighbours used to say.
I was talking about this with Ellie's grandad, who's about 80 and growing
everything. I must be coming to that age where you start thinking about
your marrows. The thing was we got stuck in the snow on a mountain track
on Sunday. I don't know whether you know Blanchen-Something? It's in Northumberland.
"You'll do alright," Ellie's dad kept saying when we were sliding
backwards. By this time I didn't have a lot of confidence in Darryl; he's been going
there for 20 years and it had taken us three hours to find it. "You be
digging it out," he said, "we'll go and knock 'em
You leave Sunderland in bright sunshine to give the old couple a happy family surprise - three grown-ups, five kids, two dogs, one of them
sick everywhere, and with your dynamo on the blink - and you finish by
knocking them up in the dark.
"We should have come yesterday," Amanda said. They
might have got lucky and been out shopping.
When a family's
socially-orientated, actively pacifist, music mad, talented, morally
liberated, satirically funny, kind to the point of love and still content
to live in a coalminer's cottage - don't expect too much from their map
"Why don't you come up here?" Ellie's tiny telephone voice had suggested, fed up with
limping half a mile to
the box and finding me in the bog. "It might give you some new material.
Instead of sitting on your harse and writing about the wallpaper..." Their
dialect's a bit funny but they don't mince anything that's better in
lumps. And it's perfectly true at the only thing I knew about people from the far north-east was, they're five feet-one-and-a-half.
"Read A Terminus Place"
Lee suggested. His first novel is largely about people north. Both
my sons have family ties in the north through spending too
much time in Swiss Cottage.
"What are you two doing this weekend?" I asked them. We were playing darts
in the Coach in Heath Street. The great thing about Saturday is that it
starts on Thursday in our family. They were driving to
Wales to look for their
cottage again. They bought this cottage in Wales and now they can't find
To find Ellie's house read "How Green Was My Valley". Single-storey
terraces, now sprouting penthouses and kitchen-bathroom conversions.
Between typing I can hear the sea and somebody's tin whistle. There's no
television, but two guitars, a cello, violin, uke and clarinet. The walls
are smothered in poems, drawings, utterances, quotes, favourite
Elderly tramp to second elderly tramp: "Then I didn't know whether to take
up law or medicine".
Living at close quarters, sharing a bunk bed, catching the rages and
jokes, I am back in the
thirties and I have a family again. Wealth is a sheet of white paper and
some crayons and poverty is having nothing to think.
"I was a child genius," Ellie confessed, showing me some more of her
poetry. "Now I'm just another bloody genius." She had to shout the news in
a room already rocking with Saturday genius.
Saturdays always had your heart turning up at the corners with blazing ambitions.
You could make a novel with a John Bull printing set and write your own
rave reviews. On Sundays you had hay-fever. At 18 your friends were Communists while you were only starting to play with the subject. The
wartime selection board
at Adastral House understood my taking Melody Maker and Practical
Wireless, but why Action, the Mosley organ?
"Are you a Fascist?" asked one kindly member.
"I don't know," I told him, frankly.
They gave me the job as a radio lab assistant grade 3 out at Bawdsey Manor
but by the time I was due to start I'd forgotten about it. Same with many
other jobs and opportunities and special offers that I'd written away for
on Saturdays, determined that next week's going to be different. Anyway,
they probably sent Fascists to the top of the radio masts.
"Listen to Amanda!" cries Diane, laying aside the cello. Everybody listen to Amanda:
she is playing a duet with herself on two recorders, treble and descant.
"I can do that!" shouts little Lorraine. "Piss off," says Ellie with
Later she is explaining
middle-aged me to her friend Penni at Ellie's old stamping
ground the Ceolfrith Art Centre where she all started. Apparently
Sunderland artist Mike Holland has won £100 award for a painting now hanging
in the Mall Gallery in
"No good talking culture to Buggerlugs, cher. He doesn't know the name of
a single painter." "Beethoven," I said, not to let her down. "But Jack's
such a baby, petal. You just want to
mother him. He uses cotton-wool instead of toilet paper - tell her, cher..."
I had to keep telling Penni things and showing her things and
corroborating our recent past, like a Hylda Baker stooge, but I enjoyed
"What sort of things do you write?" asked Penni.
This I don't enjoy. Never show the warts first. That rings bells; wasn't
it Jack Trevor Story's famous novel, "The Urban District Lover"?
"Albert said: 'I've got a position to keep up. Don't want people laughing
at me. I don't like
people laughing at me.' He remembered the crowd in the garage. 'I'm not a
bloody comedian.' Unknown to Albert, he was a comedian..."
Rough, tough, cynical, freaky or straight, the North-east is warmer than
wallpaper. "Come back in the Spring. Stay here and write a book," said the
grans; though their favourite author is Anya Seton. "Come back next week,"
says Darryl and Ruth. He's getting clarinet evergreens with guitar chords
so that we get roughly the same key.
Saturday's child has
more music in her heart than ever comes
out of her fingers. Lay our opposing talents end to end and we'll just
about play Chopsticks. My favourite kind of movie is "Hot Millions" in
which con-man Peter Ustinov beats the machine and gets away with a
fortune, not forgetting the girl. The
Maggie Smith plays the flute to him and lets their sausages burn, suddenly
had me and Maggie holding hands.
"Don't ever get romantic about me, Piss Face," said Ellie, as we drove back through
Durham, her family listening
politely. "I've got too many important things to do with my life. Ah'd get
in a git raght panic if youse stopped loving Maggie..."
The night the car hit Ellie, all it was was a date. Now it's turned into
the girl who came to dinner. We're coming up to our third, rather
sentimental X-ray next Monday. "Don't you think I've got a Theda Bara
pelvis?" she asked about the last one.
She's five-foot-one, pretty as a plum and git freaky. People are inclined
to clear their throats when she looks as though she's going to say
"Having seen the light, Albert was ready to illuminate the world..."
(The Guardian, Saturday 24 February 1973)