New Yellow Raincoat

Soldiers Fields, Roundhay, Leeds, October 2020

“The quality of being: When you do something, if you fix your mind on the activity with some confidence, the quality of your state of mind is the activity itself.”

(Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind/Shunryu Suzuki)

LEONARD COHEN’S was – famously – famous and blue. But my new raincoat is canary yellow, and known, chiefly, just to me. It is my totem for this autumn and winter, an article of faith that, come rain or shine, I shall open my door and go walking. (As the picture above shows: today it was definitely rain.) Yorkshire is well known for its wet and windy weather. But I have lived in Leeds since 1996 and have never – until this week – owned a proper raincoat. Now that we are in a second lockdown, with a wave of virus washing over the city this September, it became clear to me that the only way out of this mess is through it. Through the woods, through the wild and the cold, and out the other side. Somehow. And the new yellow raincoat was the result.

World tilted off its axis

Early autumn sent my head into a spin. Indeed, the whole world was tilted off its axis, once again, just as we took our first tentative steps into a more social, connected, “normal” physical reality. Being pushed back behind the walls of our houses, behind the muted microphone madness of Zoom, and the mushrooming of email and internet traffic, felt bleak. There was no hot and sunny and exceptional spring to uplift us this time round. Just the encroaching darkness, the inevitable fall – of leaves, of energy – into autumn and winter.

The kicking of chairs

Since I had spent most of August nursing a recurrent tooth infection, followed by a dental extraction of almost medieval ferocity, this wake up to a new shutdown, felt mean and unfair. I was ready to play out now, damn it! A massive dose of self pity left me cross and unpleasant in mood. So restless. Chairs were kicked. Water got spilled over keyboards. There was shouting: at no one, at the world, at myself. Counting my blessings – I didn’t have Covid, I hadn’t lost anyone to the virus – didn’t seem to help.

Go take a walk

To the rescue came the raincoat. In the nick of time. Such a simple, obvious choice: to see things as they are, not as I would like them to be. And to do something about it. Throughout the whole of the Covid 19 crisis, my appetite for reading and for writing has been vanishingly small. Some of the very things that have sustained me thus far in my life have felt difficult and out of reach. I have turned instead to small, practical tasks. Sorting out the cupboards under the sink (for the first time since we moved in, in 2006). Making tomato chutney. Getting back to the garden. Taking a simple walk outside.

I love to walk (Walking the Hill Road) but have always been a fair weather rambler. I am easily beaten back by the darkness and the cold. But the weather in this world of ours is no longer fair. So what choice is left? Walk anyway. Feel the rain. See the beauty in the grey clouds as well as the blue sky. Seek sustenance from the one constant in all our fractured lives: the earth beneath our feet, the sky above us.

Soldiers Fields, Roundhay, Leeds, late September 2020

Everything is going to be alright

The Irish poet Derek Mahon died this week.  His wonderful poem ‘Everything is going to be alright’, was quoted regularly at the start of lockdown. “There will be dying, there will be dying…” He acknowledges the dark here, certainly, but he celebrates the light more, writing his words in a “riot of sunlight”, and giving us a warm glow on the gloomiest of days. For he knows this: “The sun rises in spite of everything/and the far cities are beautiful and bright.” Although my own city basked in sunshine earlier this week – today, the brightest object in my world is that new yellow raincoat. But that’s enough. It’s more than enough. Walk on.

‘Everything is going to be alright’ is published in Faber’s New and Selected Poems by Derek Mahon. 

He reads the poem himself here:

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.

A Little Light

THE LEAVES are now almost gone from even the sturdiest bush in the back garden –   dropped, all of a sudden, in the day’s gusty winds, from branch to bare earth. The hour has gone back. We are in the darkest moment of the year. This is when I start burning candles. A pumpkin sits on the window sill – uncarved, giving off its natural orange glow. My energy draws deeper and deeper in, towards the core. I should be hibernating: as should we all. And in some ways, I am. My limbs are getting heavier, eyelids drooping earlier and earlier in the day. I make my soups and stews. I wrap my feet in soft blankets and my neck in fleecy scarves. Natural nesting instincts, to assist and soothe, as the year drops away towards the shortest day. Then step by step towards spring.

Despite these sleepy instincts, my working life at the theatre – West Yorkshire Playhouse – has recently been busier than ever. Many workshops to run on the creative engagement programme – much plotting and collaborating with clever artists, musicians and drama practitioners – to take theatre, dance, poetry and music, out to communities of local people. And to bring them home to us.

The human imagination is a wonderful and mysterious thing. Through these busy weeks I have seen over and over again, how inventive and creative even the most challenged of people are, if they are just given a little nudge in the right direction. I have watched an older woman fall in love with a harp – handling it for the first time during an arts session, and almost falling inside it, as she coaxed the sounds of flowing water from its gently yielding strings. I saw, at the UK Dementia Congress, how vital sensory stimulus is, to someone coping with dementia, when a delighted delegate stopped by our stall, picked up pebbles and shells and driftwood and talked of her need to feel her way, through a world grown strange and different, in so many ways. Just yesterday I noticed the puzzled looks on the faces of my Wednesday Creative Writing group, as I set them the impossible challenge of writing a two-minute play in three acts (“That’s 40 seconds an act!” someone protested); then watched them just as quickly pick up the mantle, and set to work – pens flying across the page in conscientious endeavour. The results will be magic. I know it.

I  inwardly bemoan my failures too. There was the man with learning difficulties whose distress at a particular misunderstanding I just couldn’t decipher or mitigate; the woman with dementia, whose feet failed to really connect with the ground  in one of my movement sessions – because I couldn’t find the right words to connect her with the earth; and there are the colleagues whose astonishing skills I cannot always harness to my own, as we go about our work together. It is always a shot in the dark, this creative work… And what is it that we do, after all, in theatre – both on stage and off? We encourage ourselves, and the people who come to us, to soar a little, out of everyday life, into a different world. A world of possibility, of struggle overcome – of fleeting, occasional, palpable wonder.

One dear colleague, John, sent through a poem  which puts the whole endeavour beautifully into words.

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came,
and he pushed,
And they flew.
Christopher Logue

If we achieve anything in the world of the arts, then this would be the aim, after all. A little light in the darkness. A little light.

John Mee is one of the creative directors of Alive and Kicking, a dynamic, fun and sparky theatre company working in schools in and around Leeds, and bringing delight to many a child’s mind and heart. Their new show The Museum of Untold Stories, is booking now. Find them here

Our Time is a programme that I work on with John and with our wonderful colleague and manager at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Nicky Taylor, to inspire creativity in people with dementia. Read more about us here

Walking Back Home 6: Autumn Leaves

IN THE two weeks since I took this photo of a tiny sumach tree – ‘Tiger’s Eyes’ – in my front garden, the multi-coloured leaves have all shrivelled to a crisp, and are now hanging by delicate threads, ready, at the next puff of a breeze, to drop and die. September’s stillness has shifted into a season of relentless change. The wind blew madly all last night. A sound I find haunting and comforting, all at the same time. It’s like being the last person alive, listening to that noise, pummelling through the neighbourhood. Very alone, but enlivened, too. I do love autumn. And, as an October baby – this is the month that resonates most deeply. It’s a thrillingly destructive time – when everything is being stripped away in a final blaze of colour. A creative time too: my source and new beginning. Even the word I find beautiful – round and symmetrical: October.

There haven’t been many Walks Back Home recently, as teaching work at the theatre has begun again in earnest, and several Big Ticket events – a beautiful family wedding, two birthdays within three days (mine and my daughter’s), and a couple of city festivals – have taken me away from any hope of quiet routine and restoring country rambles. The B12 anaemia and associated debilitations that triggered my need for a regular Walk Back to Health in the first place, still conspire to create a mountain of fatigue. Go walking, or sneak in a daytime kip instead? The latter has an undeniable sleepy charm…

But on Thursdays – today – I always look after Badger, a big and beautiful lolloping black hound. A great asset and source of doggy good cheer: and a welcome bounce, once a week, since the death of our dog Muffin in 2012 has left the house somewhat bereft of animal spirits. Because of Badger, a Thursday walk is always on the agenda. He would be happy to walk anywhere at all, he’s not fussy, so long as fetching-of-ball or chewing-of-stick is involved, ad infinitum. Finding someone else’s ball, moreover, is his greatest satisfaction. So today, we took with us a silly pink tennis ball – definitely not his in the first place, but certainly not fit for anyone else now, since it has been utterly destroyed by a set of monster jaws and paws. He runs and catches compulsively. Being a hybrid springer spaniel and golden retriever means he is hardwired to do nothing but that – retrieve, over and over and over again. It’s forever Groundhog Day with Badger. But very good fun.

Roundhay Park, a mile up the road in North East Leeds, is our usual stamping ground. (Here’s something I wrote about this splendid space in On: Yorkshire magazine). After last night’s winds there were huge piles of leaves – orange, red, yellow and russet – to dive into, head first (dog), and joyfully rustle around in (dog and human). We were, to quote John Updike, “Giving the mundane its beautiful due.” Sky. Earth. Leaves. Wind. With the colour of countless autumns falling about our feet, we traipsed along aimlessly, and happily enough. Taking a natural break from an over-busy mind (mine), and satisfying an animal need (his) to run and run and simply wave that wonderful tail. Just one blowy, ordinary, meandering October day. Enough.

For more on animal spirits and the delight of small things, read Old Dog by Barney Bardsley