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:

Wild Wednesdays 1: Rocks

IT’S BEEN such a long time since I’ve been out of the city: properly out into the wildness of the Yorkshire countryside. The dark wet winter has driven me further and further into small rooms, by warm radiators, under the bed covers, reading, reading; dreaming, dreaming. But enough is enough. I  recently decided, whatever the weather, to get OUT every Wednesday. Not into the beautiful local woodland and park that I visit every Thursday – with the dog I look after for the day, the miraculous and cheerful Badger – but properly away from it all. Sea. Rocks. Moors. Wildness, after all, is what Yorkshire does best. So that’s what I did last Wednesday. I drove out to Brimham Rocks, a fabulous cluster of  stones – flung from the heavens by some ancient angry god  – that cling to the hillsides of North Yorkshire, beyond Harrogate, through villages with suitably horrifying names, such as Bedlam: out in the high,winding, blowy, abandoned beyond.   Problem was, it was lashing with rain. The sky was leaden grey. The winds were whipping. The ever narrower roads leading up to the rocks were awash with puddles, which in places were deepening into pools and sloshing from kerb to kerb with unnerving speed and treacherous, indeterminate depth. I have a small car. It’s old. I was the only person (not in a land  rover) crazy enough to keep driving up those snaky little lanes – in a downpour that showed no signs at all of abating, and indeed was getting worse, second by second. Still, I made it to the top. Parked the car. Slid around a bit, from rock to rock, astonished by the freezing cut of the rain against my skin, and the sharpness of the winds, that seemed to take my breath and hurl it to the ground, smashing it to pieces, just for sport. I was soaked  within minutes. Ran back to the car. Ate a consoling sandwich. And drove back home. One hour there, one hour back. Time on the rocks? Ten minutes tops. But it was worth it. Really it was. Just to remember that other world, the one away from  computers and bank accounts and bills and the washing up. The world that will not be mastered. The one the Brontes knew, only too well. The wild world out there. Terrifying. Beautiful. Essential.

Wave Haiku

deep winter darkness

winds howl – the bare earth deafened

still waves rise like hope

IT HAS BEEN impossible to find adequate words to deal with the atrocities in Paris – and now the UK government’s decision to drop bombs in Syria. But always it is nature that leads me back towards the essentials – and back to a sense of possibility, of stability and peace. Hence this haiku. The wind is whipping around our house right now, and our lights burn against the darkness. The seasons turn. We will see the sun  again.

I wrote something recently in the Guardian theatre pages about work done at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, to support refugees in our city. Here is the link –  the hand of friendship 

Meanwhile, the waves rising gently in the photograph are from the Northumberland coastline. It is the mighty Bamburgh beach in winter time.