Up on the moors with Emily Bronte

“Emily loved the solemn moors, she loved all wild, free creatures and things.” (Literary News, 1883)

THE BRONTE SISTERS are much on my mind this autumn. This year, 2016, marks the two hundredth anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth: and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where I teach a creative writing session every Wednesday, is celebrating with an eclectic season of readings and re-imaginings of her work. My writers, meanwhile, are setting free their imaginations, to invent poems and prose, inspired by the mighty and evergreen themes that Charlotte and Emily in particular examined, with such forensic intensity. Freedom and incarceration. Love and loyalty. Solitude and surveillance. The passions and confinements of women. Life: and the very-present shadow of death.

Last week I ventured over to Haworth, former home of the Brontes,to tread the ground which gave rise to such a powerful and enduring literary canon. Leeds, in West Yorkshire, where I live, is only a hop and a skip away from the high stone village, where the Brontes spent their childhoods – and which forms a bold, symbolic backdrop to all their writing. I took the train from Leeds to Keighley, on the Skipton line. Then a glorious steam train from Keighley to Haworth(ignoring the beer festival which took over most of the carriages en route). A steep old walk from the station, through the well-kept park, and up the narrow cobble road of the village, took me to the Parsonage itself: once the Bronte family house, now a museum and proud keeper of the Bronte flame.

Inevitably, the Brontes have become a heritage industry of great value. Tourists flock from all over the world, to catch a glimpse of the buildings and landscape immmortalised in ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’. But it is October. The weather is closing in, and the visitors are melting away. And on a clear autumnal day such as this was, the beauty and the elemental starkness of Haworth shone through with compelling force, unclouded by crowds and cameras and chatter.

So there was the Parsonage – grey and sturdy. Across the courtyard garden – the cemetery. Down a small slope – the church, where all the Brontes, save Anne, are buried. And, just a short walk up through the churchyard – a meadow, walled with blunt Yorkshire stone. Beyond that – the crags, the wild bare expanses of the Moors themselves. (See the photo above). This was what Emily would have seen, looking out of her Parsonage window. These indeed were the “heights”, the bleak and “wuthering”,”blustery and turbulent”, hills. And it stirred me, to see them.

Of the two writing sisters – Emily and Charlotte – Charlotte Bronte is, to me, the most sophisticated and subtle, by far; and of the two women, Emily – who died so young, so troubled – is by far the wildest. It is Charlotte I would read, for insight into the human condition. But it is Emily I would invoke, if I found myself fearful, spirit flagging, heart weak. She was a girl devastated by losses and grief (as her poem “Remembrance” so powerfully reveals); she was unable, it seems, to overcome her pain, and to function fully, in the way that Charlotte somehow managed to. And yet, when she travelled to Brussels with Charlotte, the head of the school where they enrolled and taught, Monsieur Heger, described her – with remorseless sexism, but telling psychological insight – thus: “She should have been a man – a great navigator. Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the knowledge of the old; and her strong, imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty…”

Emily died in 1848, one year after ‘Wuthering Heights’ was published. She never knew the extraordinary effect it had on generations of readers to come. It is a deeply imperfect piece of writing. But it is a clenched fist to the heart and the stomach. It has real power. Full of contradictions, Emily herself – profoundly shy and yet physically courageous, chained to her moors and yet flying high and free in her imagination – was tender to the last. She died just three months after brother Branwell. The housemaid said, “Miss Emily died of a broken heart, for the love of her brother.” She was so small and thin, her coffin was only sixteen inches wide.

The last words must be hers, channelled though Catherine Earnshaw, in ‘Wuthering Heights’ and I like to think of her, running hell for leather, like her alter ego Catherine, across the boundless heather she invokes so passionately.

“Oh, I’m burning! I wish I were out of doors – I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free… I’m sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills…Open the window again wide, fasten it open!”

Alone in the city

IT IS USEFUL to be alone in a city. Gazing in from the outside, pressing your stranger’s nose to shop windows, listening to the babble of other people’s conversations, in a delicious foreign tongue, and walking, walking, walking – over bridges, through deserted back streets, and into the middle of cacophonous and dissonant city squares: all mired in the colours, the dirt, the fabulous confusions of contemporary cosmopolitan life.

Budapest is a city I should know well. The first time I saw it, in January 1988, wrapped in its thick winter blanket of ice and snow, I fell in love with the place, instantly, irrevocably. And ever since, I have been in its thrall. For two potent years, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Budapest was my centrifugal force, as I travelled and worked in the theatre in Hungary – passing through the city frequently, and lingering there often, in some borrowed flat or other, on my way down to Kaposvár in the countrified South West, and Miskolc, in the industrial North East. And even though I lost touch with the place for nearly 20 years after that, as it underwent its painful transition from communism to a western capitalist economy, its powerful imprint never lifted from my heart. And when I finally did make it back, in 2009, the spell that had been cast on me – so long ago that it felt like another life entirely – had remained intact.

I go back every year now, visiting old friends – making new ones – enjoying the richness of the city’s theatre and literary life, exploring different territories, and circling the same familiar haunts, with increasing and ever-deepening delight. Even the language – that arcane rhythmical Finno Ugric puzzle – is finally finding its place, albeit haltingly, inside my mouth, beneath my tongue. And yet… Each time I go, this place eludes me more. It is a city packed full of a violent past – and an increasingly uncertain, even dangerous, present. Throughout its history, hardliners of left and right have taken turns to loosen their invective – if not their weaponry – on those bony old streets, and their weary, battered inhabitants. Too much blood has been spilled, too many times. But Budapest has tranquillity too. It is a place of exquisite charm and beauty and sophistication: and has a deep, ineffable sense of mystery, that stalks me constantly while I am there, and haunts me whenever I leave. “There’s something about this place, isn’t there? ”, said a fellow Englander once, each of us waiting for the Number 19 tram. “It just keeps on drawing you back.”

Yet I often hurtle in and out of this city too fast, with too little time and too many people to see. Usually I am a guest of one of the actors I first met, nearly 30 years ago. He is steadfast and comforting, always, in his welcome. All Hungarians, in my experience, are fiery and talkative and outspoken – and very, very loyal. Once a friend: a friend for life. Their hospitality is prodigious – their tables piled high with pálinka and delicious paprika dishes and pastries filled with cherry and sweet túró cheese. Whenever they wrap their arms around me – metaphorically and physically – they squeeze rather hard, and they don’t easily let go. Exhilarating. Exhausting, too.

It is time, maybe, to change the tempo and the rhythm: as a recent trip, at the start of this autumn season, made clear. The welcome was as effusive – the food, drink and conversation, as copious as ever. But I spent a lot more time on my own. I stayed in three different flats, in three different parts of the city. And it was a revelation. To be alone in a city is to meet it, properly – on your own terms, in your own time… Painting it in the colours of your individual imagination and understanding. Fitting it around your own awkward memories – the sadness and the grief and the passing of time – and bringing it, wriggling and bloody and alive, back into the present. Right here and now. Making it yours, really yours. At last.

It is not at all hard to find your way around Budapest. The city is fed by a bustling network of trams, trolleys, busses and tube trains, all of which run night and day, with no notion of curfew – and it is split conveniently down the middle, by the mighty swell of the Danube river: Buda to the west, Pest to the east. If ever I get lost, I just look for that river, and it always leads me back home. September, in Hungary, is still pretty damn hot from the lingering summer– the air sultry, dusty-sweet, somehow distinctly Hungarian. The smell of hot damp earth rises up from beneath the concrete, steamed by sudden downpours of tropical rain, and then baked by blistering sunshine all over again. This year was blessed with a late and lasting heatwave. Temperatures rose into the mid 30s, making it impossible to get anywhere fast, without melting under a miasma of breathlessness, a constant sheen of sweat. No matter. The slower I went, the better I liked it. I would slip out in the morning before it got too hot, and then again in late afternoon, to walk along the banks of the river, and over onto Margit Island – an oasis of dreamy green in the middle of the river, where the whole city seemed to promenade, and exalt in the evening air. Or I would sit on some tram – the Number 4 usually, which trundles relentlessly back and forth, in a huge semi circle around the city ring road, through the crowded squares of inner city Pest, and over the river into Buda; or the iconic Number 2, which tracks down the eastern side of the Danube, from Parliament to the new (and hideous) National Theatre, taking in breathtaking views of the Castle District and the far Buda Hills, the big boats and the wide water, and the high majestic bridges, all along the way.

And I moved, like a snail, with my bags on my back, between three points of a triangle: first, a luxury, light-flooded flat in the fancy Taban district of old Buda – near the faded grandeur of the Gellert Spa Hotel, and the green Prussian steel of the Liberty Bridge; then, to a small dark room – a huge fig tree pressed to the window, drowning all the light in luxurious green – in Donati Street, which spirals down, secretive and quiet, from the medieval heights of the Castle District; and finally to an empty apartment on the top floor of a big, blunt, grey block, in the V111th district of downtown Pest. Bustling, bar-strewn Jozsefvaros, part-gentrified, part-seedy and sad, depending on which side of the ring road you happen to tread: an area as beguiling as it is busy, and the most familiar and favourite of all to me, permanently scuffed at heel and sassy of mouth. Quintessential Budapest, with an expletive never far from its gorgeous dirty mouth.

But none of this really matters: the geography; the views; the buildings and their logistics. What matters in this city is the feeling. The senses, the sounds, the smells – and the echoing of memory, down every street, inside every curving doorway. I was young here once: on my last big adventure before marriage and motherhood clipped my aimless wings. Now I am growing old here, too. More tuned to the sadness that I see in people’s faces. And ripened by the humour and the stoicism, that I recognise as a tool of survival and strength.

Budapest is a tough old town, no question. With tough new politics to boot. An openly right wing government. Fences on the borders to keep out the refugees. (As one woman put it, “This wall they are building; it’s not just to keep people out, it’s to keep us in.”) An anti-immigration referendum (later to fail…but no matter, the xenophobic propaganda has already worked). A recent nail bomb – aimed at two policemen on the streets – fuelling paranoia and suspicion. There is an increasingly sour mood, that spills forth, whenever a conversation is cracked open, and the pálinka starts to flow. There seems no real appetite or opportunity for opposition. Dissent is driving itself underground. And even the iconic 1956 October Uprising – its sixtieth anniversary commemorated this autumn – has been reduced to a series of striking official images, plastered to public buildings – and signally ignored by the people on the streets below. Pictures of freedom fighters, like the one included above, are accompanied by the immortal words of dissident writer Sándor Márai…. “When a whole country said: enough!” The irony is hard to ignore. An old revolution: co opted into a new narrative of repression and control.

As elsewhere across Europe – and in post-Brexit England too – politics and posture are everywhere here, with an increasing tightening of the noose around the neck of pluralism and free thought, which makes it harder and harder to breathe. But in the end it is all about people and place. Hungary, and Budapest in particular, is a place I lost my heart to, a long time ago. Its people, likewise: with their cynical wit, and their particular talent for despair and celebration, all at the same time, in the same sentence, in the same raised glass, and with the same enduring bear hug of welcome and farewell. It took me a long time to find this curious place – and then a long time, to find my way back. Being alone in the city has only deepened my sense of connection to a troubled and beautiful and utterly soulful place. And always, I will keep on returning. Something has settled – both irritant and balm – deep beneath my skin, and there’s no getting rid of it now.

Wave

MUCH of my professional writing and thinking is based on memory: a meditation on how to integrate a complex past with the puzzling challenges of the present day. It is the work of a memoirist, to excavate love and loss, at a deeply personal level – and those are the kinds of books and features I have been writing over the past ten years. But I am struck right now by this challenging quote from André Gide:

“Through loyalty to the past, our mind refuses to realise that tomorrow’s joy is possible only if today’s makes way for it; that each wave owes the beauty of its line only to the withdrawal of the preceding one.”

Maybe it is time to write and live in a different way – more tuned into the present tense, less concerned with the echoing chambers of an ever-increasing yesterday?

The end of each adult decade, for me, has seen turbulent change: at 29, a total change of direction, from journalism into contemporary dance and theatre; at 39, a flight – with a terminally ill spouse and a young child under my wing – away from the urban chaos of South London, to the green Northern hills of Leeds; at 49,a bruising, but vibrant, re-entry into the workplace, after my husband’s death from a vicious cancer: with the digging of a garden and an allotment there in the background, to steady my shaky boots. And now, at 59, after two years of my own poor health – the inevitable final ebbing of a personal wave of energy – it’s time to take stock again. A new decade beckons.What will it bring?

With a country divided and bitter, after the disastrous European Union Referendum, and Brexit, two things seem critical in this moment: finding small ways to be kind and constructive to each other, whether it is to smile at the face of a stranger, or take a warm blanket to a drop-off point for refugees in Calais; and – starting to live, quietly and positively, in the immediacy of each day, exactly as it unfolds. Looking back with bitterness won’t change a thing. Catastrophising about the future makes us nothing but prisoners.There is a more subtle way to break free.

I have just read, for the second time, Simon Fitzmaurice’s extraordinary memoir, ‘It is not yet dark’. A young Irish film maker and writer, Fitzmaurice writes of his unexpected and cataclysmic diagnosis with Motor Neurone Disease. And he does this with candour, poetic clarity, and a total lack of self pity or recrimination. He also, with an acute awareness of a new and constant companion – death – on his young shoulders, chooses to write, as he lives, in the imperative of the present tense. Even his memories are written as contemporary accounts. There is no time to lose, for any of us. Fitzmaurice knows this, reminds us, urges us on. And, oh, the wonder he conveys, the beauty of simply being here, now, in the world. “I’m burning with this life” he writes.

And I realise that I am too. Burning with it all. So let the tide of energy – my strange, half-looking-back,struggling-to-catch-up,ever-changing fifties – go out fully now. A summer of rest and play. And at the autumnal turn of that tide, I shall be sixty. Ready, as the buddhist philosophers would have it, to “be more curious than afraid”. Ready to meditate more, dance more, garden more, write more, teach more, sing and travel more. And all in the beautiful, ever-vital, ever-changing present. I hope to see you there.

‘It’s Not Yet Dark’ by Simon Fitzmaurice (Hatchette Books Ireland)
‘A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley (John Murray)
‘Old Dog’ by Barney Bardsley (Simon and Schuster)

Wild Wednesdays 4:Walking the Hill Road

IT IS a bright, sunny morning in early May, and I am walking the hill road, alone. The place is Knockroe West, on the wild Beara Peninsula in County Cork, Ireland. I am staying with two dear friends, who live in a converted farmhouse,perched high up on a slope, and surrounded by fields, overlooking an almighty blue ocean.It is about as different from my own home, in a suburb of Leeds, in the North of England, as you could get: although the surrounding countryside in Yorkshire – with its craggy, reckless coastline – bears more than a passing resemblance. Which might explain why I have lived in Leeds so long. Echoes, repeating echoes, in a constantly shifting inner landscape.

Neither friend is with me now. In fact, there is no one around at all. The air is still, as if the sky itself is holding its breath. The livestock in the nearby fields are quiet. I pass not a single soul – in car, or on foot – until I reach the main road into Allihies Village down below, forty minutes later.The only sound is that of a far-away bird, up overhead, and the steady, striking rhythm of my boots, on the grass-infested tarmac beneath. It is a solid and comforting thing – both the silence and the beat of those boots. Proof that I am back on my feet, after two years of problems with my health (where fatigue, for a long time, would have prohibited a walk like this.) And proof that I am back, too, in a terrain that has, through the years, been an inspiring, consoling, and essential component in my life.

The hill road curves, high and narrow, above the house where I am staying: rough hedgerows to either side marking edges and boundaries, filled with grasses, gorse and careless weeds. Here is no soft-centred beauty. This is a landscape carved, down the centuries, by wind and rain, and born of bare, simple necessity. Beara can be brutal, when the weather closes in: the people who work its waters and its land have a difficult time of it, with frequent sudden deaths on road and sea, and lives foreshortened by hard, hard graft.But the grandeur of it all: the heart-stopping magnificence of cliff edge and boulder-strewn waterline – the heights and vertiginous swoops of its topography – holds anyone who has ever been here in its permanent thrall. Like Prospero’s island in Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’: it is a place of pure,rough magic, to infect the soul.

As the road winds down towards Cahermore Strand, cars begin to hurtle past me on the main coast road, and the silence is broken. There is a cheerful mother, marching her two children towards the village, pressing them protectively against the hedges as the cars go past, backpacks firmly fastened in place. We are all smiles – at the unpredictable sunshine – and are making use of it now, since who knows when the curtain of mist will fall again, dropping the fields and mountains back into mystery? I cross the road and scramble over the grassy rubble, onto the little pebble beach itself, passing tufts of sea pinks coming into full bloom, and peering into rock pools; gazing at the slate-sharp masses that rise like black stone monsters from the ebbing tide. The suck of the waves sweetens my ears, enters my bloodstream, settles my brain. Beara is drawing me back once more.

There are some people who like to stay at home. Others crave adventure, pastures new: a place they have never been before. Others still – and I am one – are always looking to return. The places that resonate with me are few and precious in my life, so that – wherever I may be in reality – I am always looking for them in my mind. The Beara Peninsula is one such place. I first came upon it in my twenties: staggering off the back of a motorbike after an epic journey from Brixton, South London, to find a landscape unlike anything I had ever before encountered, in my town-and-city, urban-hectic, self-obsessive, books-and-writing, room-based life. Beara blew my head off. Left me speechless, shaken,at the majesty of it. It changed my life in an elemental way. On the day before we left, I walked to the edge of a cliff, and lay down on my belly in the moss, feeling the ground strong beneath my body – with my head left dangling over the edge, gazing at the waves, smashing against the rocks, far below. For years afterwards, back in the chaos of London life, whenever I felt lost and alone, I would summon that cliff in my mind’s eye. And it spurred me onwards. Gave me strength. In 2002, when my husband Tim was very ill with cancer, he wanted to take a road trip – somewhere that he had never been before.I took him to Beara. And he loved it, too. In 2004, after he died, my daughter and I scattered some of his ashes into the water, over a rock. Some places – even though you may leave and neglect them, they never leave you. The ghostly imprint always sticks.

Last week, I was walking through the centre of Leeds, back from my Irish journey – and hollow with fatigue, as I went from one appointment to the next, willing my legs to get me there on time,oppressed by the noise of the traffic and the press of people, hurrying along. Then I looked down at my boots, tuned into their rhythm, was slowed by their sound. And for a moment, I was walking the hill road again, in solitude and quiet, sustained by blue sky above, and solid ground beneath; held by a deep well of memory; nourished by experience – and strengthened by the knowledge of return. So, till the next time, lovely Beara, adieu…

*’A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley (John Murray), on the power of the land – and the making of a garden – is available here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Handful-Earth-Year-Healing-Growing/dp/0719596106

* Thankyou to Liz Mellon and Fiana Reid for being such magnificent hosts, as always….x

Wild Wednesdays 3: Wood

WHEN I first set out on my Wild Wednesday trips this spring, the whole idea was to get out of the city.I haven’t managed that for this last little adventure – have cheated rather and stayed close to home again. But wildness, I realise, is everywhere. It can be very small – a wild flower pushing up through the crack in a city pavement – but it’s still invigorating, wilful: a reminder to pay attention, always, to the wildness within.

There is a shaggy, wooded part of Roundhay Park in North East Leeds – where I walk, every week, with a big, black dog called Badger. I still look after him, one day a week, as I have done for the past two years. Or does he look after me? Hard to tell which. Certainly he cheers me up with his floppy ears and crooked grin: his perfect joy at simple things – playing catch, stealing food, rolling on his back in unmentionable stinky substances…And he gets me OUT WALKING, in rain or shine, even when it isn’t a Wednesday!

Both of us particularly love the woods, and walking the high ravine: on one side, a sheer drop to a small, snaking stream below; on the other – manicured green swards where the strange golfing people gather. And in between, there is a wonderful stone wall, mossy and broken, weathered – but still standing. A lesson to us all. There is a hole in the wall that fills me with delight, every time I stumble upon it. A window between worlds, a place to crouch and peer and dream. I love the opening it makes – and, even more, the way the stones close over the top, to keep the circle intact. Holding the whole world together.

On the last day of March, 2016, I took pictures in the wood while Badger and I went wandering. Some of them are posted separately below – bare roots, stripped back bark, spring still reluctant to shine forth. And above is the hole in the wall itself. Dappled shade. Secretive. Shy. A place to look through, with your mind’s eye. For who knows where this defiant, messy, mossy, humble little work of art might lead you?