I am not ‘from’ anywhere. I have no terroir that yielded me. I have no affinity with any particular place and I have no town that I call home. I have a house here in Essex, but that home is temporal in nature, it is not from whence I came.
Being from nowhere has, I thought, been neither here nor there for me, except when I have been asked over the years
‘Where are you from?’
Because there is no especial answer I can give, I tend to rush off a few sentences to explain oneself and one’s dilatoriness in the state of belonging to somewhere, anywhere…
Which set me thinking; if where you are from defines you in some respect, can where you are not from do the same? Can an absence of roots affect a person’s psyche less, or more, than a strong connection with place? Which is of course not a new question at all, but it is a new one for me to apply to myself.
When asked ‘Where are you from?’ I would often say ‘I was brought up in Lincolnshire, but…’ and I was quick to qualify this statement adding ‘I am not from there, I was not born there, I have no family there…’ Depending on whether or not I had warmed to my theme and the audience’s interest levels I might go on to roundly decry Lincolnshire as a place, with Little to recommend it. Or the more daring accusation perhaps, of Nothing to recommend it? Could it be that I have been partially defined by spending thirteen formative years in a place I detest?
I was thinking about this yesterday when I posted John Clare’s poem ‘The Fens’. The poet starts off in an onomatopoeic bucolic mood, evoking a place that reminds me not one jot of the fens I grew up in. Thankfully, for the sake of my sanity, that bright mood gives way to a darker reflection on the evident cost to the land of the farming gain that ‘mars the landscape every day’.
And Clare’s slipping mood mirrors how it felt to grow up there.
‘And, when again one rambles down
The path, small hillocks burning lie
And smoke beneath a burning sky’
We had the sky alright, unimaginable acres of it, not just above us but horizontally and on the floor at our feet sometimes too – as far as the eye could see in every direction. And some days it was the best thing, not just about the place but in the world. But on the many, many other days when Clare’s horizon was not ‘stooping smiles’ but the sky was sagging its miserable grey jowls everywhere, or whipping the dusty wind through you, it was desperate and oppressive.
Clare also writes of fire, and at this time of year when I was young stubble-burning was rife. His ‘burning sky’ was very apt in the 1970s; what he wouldn’t have seen was the small crop-spraying planes that flew back and forth over fields, and whatever houses happened to stand in their path, anointing us with their chemical rich load. And when the summer sky grew heavy and lowering, or even when it was in sunnier mood we would suffer biblical plagues of thunderbugs, an insect I have barely seen since those days of fenland life.
The fenscape, the space, was so vast and bare it was forbidding. You wouldn’t walk for your leisure into that wasteland because you could already see every step you might take for a hundred miles in all directions. You might be forced into a walk after the car broke down, again, in the middle of nowhere (this happened day and night and in all weathers). Under those skies you are quickly overloaded with the weight of the void. Too much freedom is an invisible cage for the mind. Humans need the comfort of a boundary that is less ephemeral than a horizon.
The odd saving grace could be found from time to time: a farmer once deciding to plant a field of peas instead of the ubiquitous funk-filled brassica, or a skylark soaring and singing high above our miserable below-sea-level existence. Sometimes a better than Turner (who we had never heard of) winter sky would appear somewhere over Swineshead on the school bus on the way home. But mainly life seemed hard, bound together with makeshift scraps of orange baling twine.
Life in Lincolnshire was your cat going missing for a week before managing to drag its rotting near-corpse home with a brick-sized brand down one flank, scorched brown flesh against its black and white pelt. Or the sickly smell of sugar beet on the wind, mixed with pesticides and rotting brussel sprouts and onions in stinking fields. It was an unknown person living down a lane behind derelict net curtains eating cat food out of a tin. It was trying not to walk too quickly and avoid overtaking the old soldier with the false leg on the way to the bus stop, in case you remind him of his loss. And lest I forget, it was the ritual banging your head on the old brick wall on the way to the school bus stop, a safe distance beyond the vicious village pond geese, to remind yourself that somewhere you still had the hope of a slight existence beyond the fens.
This is not a landscape, or a spiritual home I have to ever return to. But has its clay moulded me as much as an pastoral leafy lane with chirruping hedgerows might have? I bloody hope not.
I grew up in the Lincolnshire fens; amazing then, when I call to mind the landscape of my youth, to imagine a red kite, with forked tail, (John Clare’s ‘puddock’) wheeling above the ‘naked levels’ of my childhood.
Sadly the ‘treeless fens of many miles’ remain the same, although we were unusually blessed with a spinney on the edge of the garden at 38, Orchard Close.
The Fens by John Clare
Wandering by the river’s edge,
I love to rustle through the sedge
And through the woods of reed to tear
Almost as high as bushes are.
Yet, turning quick with shudder chill,
As danger ever does from ill,
Fear’s moment ague quakes the blood,
While plop the snake coils in the flood
And, hissing with a forked tongue,
Across the river winds along.
In coat of orange, green, and blue
Now on a willow branch I view,
Grey waving to the sunny gleam,
Kingfishers watch the ripple stream
For little fish that nimble bye
And in the gravel shallows lie.
Eddies run before the boats,
Gurgling where the fisher floats,
Who takes advantage of the gale
And hoists his handkerchief for sail
On osier twigs that form a mast–
While idly lies, nor wanted more,
The spirit that pushed him on before.
There’s not a hill in all the view,
Save that a forked cloud or two
Upon the verge of distance lies
And into mountains cheats the eyes.
And as to trees the willows wear
Lopped heads as high as bushes are;
Some taller things the distance shrouds
That may be trees or stacks or clouds
Or may be nothing; still they wear
A semblance where there’s nought to spare.
Among the tawny tasselled reed
The ducks and ducklings float and feed.
With head oft dabbing in the flood
They fish all day the weedy mud,
And tumbler-like are bobbing there,
Heels topsy turvy in the air.
The geese in troops come droving up,
Nibble the weeds, and take a sup;
And, closely puzzled to agree,
Chatter like gossips over tea.
The gander with his scarlet nose
When strife’s at height will interpose;
And, stretching neck to that and this,
With now a mutter, now a hiss,
A nibble at the feathers too,
A sort of “pray be quiet do,”
And turning as the matter mends,
He stills them into mutual friends;
Then in a sort of triumph sings
And throws the water oer his wings.
Ah, could I see a spinney nigh,
A puddock riding in the sky
Above the oaks with easy sail
On stilly wings and forked tail,
Or meet a heath of furze in flower,
I might enjoy a quiet hour,
Sit down at rest, and walk at ease,
And find a many things to please.
But here my fancy’s moods admire
The naked levels till they tire,
Nor een a molehill cushion meet
To rest on when I want a seat.
Here’s little save the river scene
And grounds of oats in rustling green
And crowded growth of wheat and beans,
That with the hope of plenty leans
And cheers the farmer’s gazing brow,
Who lives and triumphs in the plough–
One sometimes meets a pleasant sward
Of swarthy grass; and quickly marred
The plough soon turns it into brown,
And, when again one rambles down
The path, small hillocks burning lie
And smoke beneath a burning sky.
Green paddocks have but little charms
With gain the merchandise of farms;
And, muse and marvel where we may,
Gain mars the landscape every day–
The meadow grass turned up and copt,
The trees to stumpy dotterels lopt,
The hearth with fuel to supply
For rest to smoke and chatter bye;
Giving the joy of home delights,
The warmest mirth on coldest nights.
And so for gain, that joy’s repay,
Change cheats the landscape every day,
Nor trees nor bush about it grows
That from the hatchet can repose,
And the horizon stooping smiles
Oer treeless fens of many miles.
Spring comes and goes and comes again
And all is nakedness and fen.
The Fattest Town in Britain.
The Flattest Town in Britain.
Boasting the *Lowest Standard of Education in Lincolnshire.
Where I started school
(Finky Wink finished for me).
She made the journey
From the Pilgrim Hospital
To Boston High School
A short trip, in either direction.
Site of a fatal industrial estate
With an alleged, exploding, illegal still
And home to St Botolph’s Church, 1, Wormgate
AKA The Stump
Which landlocked John Clare **climbed, that time
For his one lifelong view of the sea:
*Source: Wikipedia – of course
** I followed in his footsteps once, before they closed it, I don’t remember the sea
John Clare’s life bears much closer examination than this post can give it at this point. I shall confine myself to saying that there is great joy to be found in his deliberate lack of punctuation and dialectic spellings – what he called ‘the awkward squad’. And then his words speak to us of place, and the man, across the years before the ‘educated’ editors and publishers of his work got hold of them.