Desert Island Discs: Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me

Apparently, green mambas have three scales between the eyes, whereas the harmless grass snake has four. This is one of the first things I remember learning when we moved to Dar, probably from one of the bigger boys. It was only later, once I’d carried a young cobra to the biology teacher’s house for identification, that someone thought to tell me that I should never get close enough to count.

For all the things that I loved about life in West Sussex, life as a child in Tanzania was bigger, wilder and more free. School ended at half twelve and then we were free to roam until the sun set at six. We lived on the secondary school campus and nowhere was off limits to us: not the askaris’ huts with their poisoned spears and arrows, not the diving pool with a leak but plenty of tadpoles if you could reach the bottom. Not the low roofs of the classrooms, on which we would play and ride our bikes, nor the flame trees into whose branches we hammered planks and made dens. I know, now, that we were safe, watched over by all the adults in the place, but back then we didn’t care. We were just kids, immortal and invincible, teasing scorpions behind the art room.

So many of my memories of that time are about animals – the baboon that stole the potatoes from my plate, the one-tusked elephant that hung around Mikumi Lodge, the rats that swam up through the toilets and ate our candles and plastic tupperware. Bright birds, in cages or tethered by one leg to a stick. Bush babies and monkeys for sale. Monitor lizards, appearing suddenly out of storm drains.

And driving to see more: lions and cheetahs, impalas and hyenas and giraffe. Tanzania is a huge country, and we thought nothing of driving for a day or two to get somewhere, see something. We saw black rhinos in Ngorogoro Crater, and swathes of flamingos shimmering on Lake Manyara. Wildebeest stirring up the landscape of the Serengeti, and hundreds upon hundreds of crocodiles in the Selous. We also drove out of the country, to Kenya, Malawi, and Zimbabwe and, when my parents wanted a little luxury, we travelled to the Old Town of Zanzibar, or to Swaziland, or to a tiny private island where we and the members of A-ha were the only residents for the week.

I’m not sure whether our Datsun pickup, shipped in second hand from China, had a tape player, but if it did I don’t think it worked. I can’t remember ever listening to taped music in that truck. What I do remember is my dad singing. He would sing Green Finger, and Wimoweh, and other songs from the sixties. Most of all, though, he would sing Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me, and at the vital moment it was our role to come in with the much-anticipated uh-huh? I’m sure we must have squabbled over space in the back seat. I’m sure it was a little stressful driving with several jerry cans of fuel in the back, and hundreds of kilometres between mechanics. We broke down a lot, with one immortal repair in the form of our exhaust being stuck back on with chewing gum, but what I really remember is the singing, and the wildlife, and the possibility of it all.

In 1984, Tanzania was to all intents and purposes unchanged from the accounts I read about in Roald Dahl’s Going Solo. The minibus would drive us past his house on the way to the lower school site, and I’d look at the huge baobab in his front garden and not be the least surprised that nothing had changed. I haven’t been to Tanzania since 1999, when already the country I knew and loved was beginning to morph into something else. Every so often someone asks me whether I’d like to go back. The truth is that I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. The Tanzania of my childhood simply doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been engulfed by our new, globalised world. It’s a place where you are always connected. It’s not that I think progress is a bad thing. It’s just that I’d rather hold onto my memories as they are, wild and free and undoubtedly rose-tinted. Those first five years there were a time when anything could happen, and when I learned that that in itself is a wonderful thing.

Madeleine

PS – What about you? What form do your early years take, once they are distilled? And what song would you choose to summon them up? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear.

Craeft

I went to see Alex Langlands speak about his new book, Craeft, as part of York’s Festival of Ideas. John booked my free ticket as a surprise, knowing my abiding love for Tales from the Green Valley, the predecessor of the BBC Victorian Farm series. (Actually, John appeared as an expert in one episode of Wartime Farm, which is a source of much pleasure and not a little envy to me…)

The talk began with an investigation of the word craeft, which Alex explained is more to do with power than skill. In a pre-industrial, pre-consumer age, this makes sense. To engage in craeft is to exert power: over the landscape, raw materials, the very climate itself. Craeft is a transformative power in its own right, but also requires our physicality, our vitality, to drive the process. In turn, both the skills of the craftsperson and the products that ensue result in yet more power, further shaping the landscape, both agricultural and political.

Having listened to Alex speak about making use of the world around him, sourcing free materials from the landscape and squeezing his passion for craeft into his spare time, I was surprised by some of the questions people asked. Don’t you think, asked one member of the audience, that to engage in craeft presupposes a certain level of privilege, in terms of time and money? And although Alex dealt with this well, it was a recurring theme.

Once home, I raised this with John. For me, craeft is the opposite of consumption. I keep a list of the things I buy for projects, and it is ludicrously short. The odd ball of wool, when I know I can’t spin to that specification. Two or three lengths of Liberty lawn, a much savoured part of a trip to London. Thread. Always thread. The odd packet of seeds, although I save and swap as many as I can. The vast majority of what I make with comes completely free, either as a gift, salvaged from other people’s cast offs, or gathered from the natural world. Once people know that you make things, they send all sorts your way. I have my entire family saving old shirts and keeping their avocado pits in the freezer. Last week my aunt texted me to say that she had two freshly shorn fleeces ready and waiting. Another aunt, Fiona, taught me to make baskets one rainy afternoon in Derry. But it comes from further afield than family. There are guilds of craftspeople desperate to share their expertise. My spinning wheel, which I think must date from the 1960s, was a gift from a woman I’d never met, who wanted to pass it on to someone who would use it. Craeft in public and people will stop to share tips with you. And when I do spend money, I spend it on high quality materials and tools that will last and last. All my patchwork is done on a 1916 Singer, bought from the charity shop down the road for £20. Not only does it sew smooth and straight, but it is quiet and beautiful and easily repaired. To see craeft as consumption is, I think, to miss the point.

It is the difference between spinning from prepared, dyed top, and being given a slightly stinky fleece in a old feed sack, dags and all. In the first case, you can choose your method of spinning. With a raw fleece, though, you get to make all the choices. How aggressively are you prepared to skirt it? Are you going to scour it, cold soak it or spin it in the grease? Will you blend the fibres from across the fleece or spin each section separately, to preserve their distinct qualities? Should you card it or comb it? Spin woolen or worsted? How and when might you dye it? Both are examples of spinning, yet one clearly involves more power, more control.

The other issue is that of time. It wasn’t until we had two children and a third on the way that I began to make making a part of my everyday life. At the very point when I had the least time, the act of making became more important than ever. It keeps me sane, having something in my hands. Craeft isn’t something special, kept for days when John takes all the kids out of the way. It is a part of our everyday lives, undertaken while I’m waiting at the dentist, or for the potatoes to come to the boil. And rather than children being a barrier to craeft, they are a reason to engage in it more often. So much of our making is done alongside one another: one project inspires another and another until, in little pockets all over the house and garden, things are being made, and everyone is at peace.

Having said all that, I think that our different attitudes to craeft run deeper that our perspectives on time and money. There was much discussion of lost crafts – of the fear that we are not training people in certain skills so that, in ten years’ time, we may no longer be able to mend clocks or engineer a cricket ball. Yet I think that we are in danger of losing something far more fundamental. It is an issue of phenomenology as much as skill. To be a person who engages in craeft, in the true meaning of the word, is to adopt a certain schema. It is to look at the world in a very particular way, one which sees it as something malleable, something both transformative and to be transformed. It is, in short, to have a different sort of relationship with the world. To see the potential in every thing, not just in classes and courses and kits, but in weeds and animals and hedgerows. It is to go for a ramble and bring back not just lungfuls of fresh air, but pockets full of fallen lichen for dye, bits of fluff for lighting fires, a bit of wood to be carved, dogwood to add colour to a basket. To walk not through a picture postcard of a landscape, but a living, creative world.

This is what we are in danger of losing: the zeitgeist that craft is for everyone, by everyone, for the good of everyone. That it is ordinary and everyday. That there is beauty in the simplest of things, well-made and well-loved. And that all you need to get started is the willingness to try.

Madeleine

PS What do you think about craeft? How important is it in your life? How do you think we can best encourage others to participate in its resurgence?

In my hands, by my bed

One of the things that I love about John is his habit of choosing me books. He watches the pile on my bedside table, topping it up when it gets low. Usually it’s a stack from the library, but last week, as a half-term treat, he came home with a brand new one, leaving it by my bed for me to find when we went up.

He knows me well. I go through phases of being fascinated by stuff, the objects that we surround ourselves with. In my dreams, and in our holiday-going reality, we travel light,  throwing a few essentials into a day sack: a change of clothes, a passport, a bar of soap. The thought of having too much is suffocating, and yet I can see how people find comfort in the things which surround them. We all do; we’d be lying if we claimed otherwise.

The Life of Stuff is a family memoir, probing the generations through the things they loved and the hoard they left behind. Its lays out a pattern of family tragedy which repeats itself through the generations, and the author’s determination to change things, to be different. It left me wondering whether my own relative lack of interest in stuff comes from the fact that we moved a lot when I was growing up. Home is where the family is, regardless of continent or climate or whether the container with our chattels has arrived.

The stuff I love is functional: quilts and clothes, trowels and teacups. The things I make are always about keeping us warm, fed and comfortable. They are made, they are used, they fall apart. New things take their place.

I wore my favourite white jumper into oblivion last winter, and so a new one is on my needles. The pattern is one I’m developing for release this autumn, comfortable and warm and easy to throw on. And although my tester will be making it from commercial yarn, mine is knit from my own yarn, raised by my aunt, sheared by my cousin, spun soft and light and woolen by me. That’s the sort of story the things in my family tend to tell. Well made, well loved, and, one day, well worn. The stuff of comfort.

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

Madeleine

PS – If anyone fancies reading The Life of Stuff once John and I have finished, drop me a line and I’ll send it your way. UK readers only, I’m afraid, because, well, postage.

PPS – Thank you all so much for coming back, subscribing and reading again after my long hiatus. It really does mean an awful lot to me. Your ‘welcome back’ comments had me smiling for days.

Bronte country

Can you remember how old you were when you first read Jane Eyre? I can. I was ten, and my grandad had given me a set of all three Bronte classics for Christmas just a fortnight earlier. Fliss has read it, of course, and Ilse knows it from a wireless adaptation, and I’m sure Ben must have read it though he claims no recollection. Seb was the least thrilled when I announced that our half term day out was to be at Haworth, visiting the village and the moors but, most importantly of all, the Bronte Parsonage.

It’s hard not to think of it as a sad house, especially as the first death, that of their mother, occurred very soon after moving in. Then were the deaths of the two eldest children, both girls, both of tuberculosis contracted at school. Then later, the deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne, and finally Charlotte, a few years later, the longest lived of all the children, aged only 38. Imagine, to have all six children and your wife to survive childbirth and infancy only to lose them all, one by one, until you were alone again. No wonder the house feels sad.

And yet there must have been a lot of fun in it, between times. There was an awful lot of life to be lived between each of those deaths, and you can’t help but come away with a sense that those girls made the very most of what they had. Their home is bursting with their sketches, embroidery, tiny childhood manuscripts, family newsletters and the like. It is a house full of industrious play – the sort of play that Emily and Anne and Charlotte never really grew out of, channelling it into their novels instead.

They played on the moors, too, just a short walk out of the village, and when we visited it was the hottest day of the year so far and everything was blooming. Fliss even complained of the lack of bleakness. Everywhere were flowers: buttercups, umbellifers, rhododendrons and forget-me-nots. We sat on a great slab of stone and looked out over it all, from the vibrant moor to the blasted hillsides and the grey stone village nesting in between, and had to be quiet so that Ilse could be inspired. She’s started a new novel: The Return of Wuthering Heights. I think there are a lot of ghosts in it, because later that night she came into our room with a nightmare, too scared to go back to sleep in the dark. There were fingers scratching at her window, even after I assured her that it was only Humbug the hamster’s squeaky wheel.

And now our copies of those novels are off the shelf and to be found on beds and garden benches. There are lots of discussions about which is everyone’s favourite, and why. It’s Wuthering Heights for me, in case you’re curious. Because of the sympathy between people and place, and the blurring of lines between the past and the present, the dead and the living. It embodies everything I think I know about the Brontes, and the lives they lead, and the place they came from. In fact, they are so strongly associated with Haworth and the moors above it that its new name seems entirely appropriate, and not a mere anachronism: Bronte country.