8. What to look for

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The moon this evening was exceptional. I watched it across the bay from the Lerwick Tesco car park. Red-gold and low, it hung in a calm purple evening above the Bressay lighthouse which, in turn, sits in the westward lee of South Hill, where the land starts rising to the cliffs of The Ord. It was a warm, glowing scene that radiated September romance. Twilight sky, the island, the sea, the lighthouse. It was strange to me that no-one else appeared to have noticed. People strode in and out of the supermarket, packed car boots or drove out into the street and away but none appeared to stop and look. For me there was a thrill, a memory from the past. The view reminded me of some pictures that I had at home. I wished I had a good camera with a good lens and a good eye, because this was the sort of colour and composition that landscape and travel photographers look for and live for, but all I could do was stand and stare. I soaked it up until I felt I was full… then left. The moment is now gone and there’s nothing to show for it.

It’s a few years now since I bought what have become two of my favourite possessions. They cost me a total of just twenty pence. They are a pair of books that I’d probably been quietly and unconsciously searching for all my life. Their absence has been like a small splinter that irritated slightly when it was accidentally rubbed, but not seriously enough to have required tackling with any gusto.

Neither is a great work of literature. They are simply a couple of small, hardback children’s picture books that were common in their time – the Ladybird books of What to Look For in Winter, and What to Look For in Spring. They would have cost two shillings and sixpence in the day, and they’re important to me now because they finally complete my own set of four volumes which has limped along, lop-sided without them, for at least the past fifty years.

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I’ve grown and aged with the summer and autumn editions always close to hand. I probably learned to read using them, with mother coaching me on the sofa in our semi-detached home in Derby. But it was primarily the rich ink and watercolour illustrations of late 1950s British country life that made them precious to me.

They were painted by one Charles F. Tunnicliffe.

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I have no memory of ever owning What to Look For in Spring nor What to Look For in Summer, so when I was working my way along the shelves of a charity shop here in the Shetland Islands, it literally made me gasp and cough when, right there in front of me, were the spines of the two missing books. I couldn’t believe it as I put a trembling finger on top of each of them and slid them out of the rack. When I found that they were intact and entire, it was like my childhood had come flooding up from the bottom of a dark well of memory, and spilled out into the daylight around me.

When I came home that evening, I knew exactly where to find What to Look For in Summer and What to Look For in Autumn, and reuniting my old friends with their long lost siblings was a warm and satisfying act. After dinner I sat down to a long and leisurely wander through all four volumes. My mind sank deep into the idyllic landscapes with renewed attentiveness, and I chuckled quietly over the language-of-the-time used in the text by the writer Elliot L. Grant Watson.

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“The blackbird has his springtime plumage, and very smart indeed he looks. His wife, who is away building her nest, is brownish and does not have a yellow bill.”

In the springtime of my life, I was an outdoor child. My main memories of the few years we lived in towns or housing estates are dominated by the constant searching for untamed green. But my best memories of the 1960s and 70s are of the years we lived in the rural parts of Northern Ireland and Cornwall, because that’s when I was immersed in it.

In my childhood summers there were trees and beasts and birds and bees everywhere. The air was sweet-scented by gorse and bracken through the day, and by honeysuckle and damp grass in those long-fading, full-moon evenings. It was a time of dry, cracked earth and mighty thunderstorms, of fields and foxes, of penknives and string, of hay-bales and barn owls.

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The September melancholy of my return to school would be spiced with the excitement of harvest and preparations for the battering of winter. The golden days leading into autumn were spent gorging on hedgerow blackberries and wild-scrumped apples as the days shrank away and the nights progressively encroached on their territory. The wind-lashed woods of full autumn dripped with rain and danced with leaves. I would squelch along muddy tracks, the pockets of my sodden wax-cotton coat stuffed to the flap with fresh conkers.

“The prickly seed-shucks of the chestnut have fallen and burst open, some of them spilling the brown ‘conkers’ out of the smooth, soft linings that have contained and nourished them. There is pleasure in picking up these great, well-polished seeds, holding them in the hands and thinking of all the things that can be done with them.”

Early winter excitement built week-by-week from bonfire night towards Christmas with magic in every hoar-frost morning and excited anticipation at the faintest afternoon suggestion that it might soon snow. On silent starlit walks in the wild, my imagination rose high into the night sky while my cold toes crunched through frost-glittered fields. And what about that first flurry of snow, glimpsed from a gloomy classroom window? Flakes spiralling down, grey against the sky then white against the woods. Are they settling? Will they last? Might school be closed tomorrow?

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Late winter was bleak, raw and wet. After the colourful glow of Christmas had finished lighting up the heart of the dark-season, the slippery climb through the slush and thaw-flood towards spring was a long slow haul. It seemed an eternity until the arrival of the daffodil and the blackthorn blossom, the sparkling cacophony of the dawn chorus, and the first noticeable warmth in the sunlight. Early lambs sheltering from late sleet probably thought so too.

Heavy rains that often fall in February have flooded the low-lying meadows in the broad valley. Both the hedge and the wire fence are partly submerged and the trees, which are growing on the far side of the fence that divides the flooded fields, are reflected in the still water.”

In his Ladybird illustrations, Tunnicliffe captures all of these seasonal changes. His pictures stir up long-dormant emotions and draw close these associated memories from my own life. Admittedly, the autumn and winter books themselves are part of my life – I clearly remember getting lost in them beside steamed and streaming, rain-lashed windows when it was just too coarse to venture outside – so those memories may be direct. But I’m amazed to find that the two most recently added editions also conjure up vivid memories and emotions, even though the words and pictures are new to me. Perhaps it is because the world they illustrate, the world of my younger years, is now gone. The countryside and its seasonal customs were big parts of my life, but now they’re starting to feel like remote history.

These are period pictures from a period long-gone.

My generation has lived through a time of historically unprecedented change. By comparison, our grandparents would have easily been able to draw similarities between the worlds of their childhood and adulthood, but the world we experience today is entirely removed from the world of our youth.

As I once again leaf through these slim hardback volumes, I see images of farmers pitchforking clumps of hay off an elevator into an unbaled stack, hunched figures plucking potatoes out of the bare spun earth into bags, a herd of mixed cattle in a rich flower-meadow dotted with mature trees, skies full of swifts and red admirals, canals teeming with birds and insects, small open-topped tractors with mowers and threshers, farm turkeys roosting in the trees.

Much of the harvest has been reaped by the end of August, but some still remains to be gathered in September. In front of the farmhouse, the oats have been bound in stooks, waiting to be threshed on the field or gathered and stacked.”

My recollections of helping out on farms when I was young are still vivid, but they feel like they happened in a different life. It was easier for children to help in agriculture in those days, it was even expected because much of the work, particularly around harvesting, was so labour intensive. One thing it did was make us young-folk feel as if we were valued members of our communities with an active, important role to play.

Another thing it did was keep us fit. I built my teenage muscles on straw and hay bales, lugging them into manageable piles in the field, then hoisting them onto a trailer where they would be stacked, staggered two across and one down, to make a stable load for the lurching, branch-clawed tractor journey along the lanes to the barn. Working days were long in a pre-autumn rush to get the hay home and dry. Pasties and home-made lemonade would be brought to us in the field and we would break only briefly to cram them down before returning to sweat and strain into the harvest-moon dark to get everything gathered in.

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Those dusty summer evenings were haunted by barn owls watching for the mice we might uncover.

“If you have ever kept an owl as a pet, you will know what wonderfully soft feathers it has, and what sharp claws. One has to be careful when handling an owl, for it might grip tighter than you expect. It is best always to wear a glove.”

I worked sheep too. Early spring lambing required early morning lamp-lit sweeps of still, dark fields to find any lambs that had been born in the night. I was also there to give an occasional helping hand in a breach or twin-tangled delivery. I had smaller hands than the calloused claws of the farmer, and I was keen to help. I’d been on a short vet’s course to learn the mechanics, and I felt like James Herriot. Starting work before breakfast meant it was always good to come in from the cold to a full fry in a warm farm kitchen.

Those small hands were never in better shape than after shearing when the lanolin from the fleeces I was rolling and packing made them soft and supple. We used to dip sheep in those days too, virtually drowning the frightened rascals in a vat of foul-smelling chemicals to protect them from parasites. I have a clear memory of using a crook to push down any heads that hadn’t been fully immersed in the initial plunge.

“In the enclosure, sheltered by the stone wall, some ewes have been lambing. The hay which has been cut from the stack beyond the wall, has been pitched into a big wire trough. The sheep can pull at it through the wide meshes. They also have been gnawing turnips.”

The farms I knew were mixed, and cattle had their own routines. Milking on the early morning shift earned me a few quid now and then. The cows had to be collected and coaxed, lumbering along to the stalls, full udders slapping between their back legs. I would wash any grime and unpleasantness off the teats with a bucket of warm water and a rag, then attach the cluster of sucking pipes to them. The beasts would feed from a hay-trough that needed re-stocked while the milk was being taken. I’d also use a rubber-bladed manure scraper and a hosepipe to keep the floor of the parlour as clean as possible, while avoiding the green splashing attempts of the cattle to keep it as dirty as possible.

This dairy herd is on the way to the cowhouse from another farm. The farmer’s dog which has helped to bring the herd in, is having a sniff at the last cow – with whom it seems to be on good terms. On the hay bales, under the shelter of the barn roof, rats have come out for a late evening forage.”

Fragrant, steaming mornings in the parlour were hard work, but they were enjoyable. However, there’s nothing fun about the back-breaking hours I put in on the harvesting of root-crops. I’ve plucked potatoes and carrots, numb-fingered from the cold earth into large paper sacks, and tied them off with a wire twist. There’s no joy to be had in any of it. I have happy memories of cattle, sheep and hay, but there was nothing good connected with slipping about in clay-clogged boots, bent double in the rain, back creaking every time you stand up.

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I’m glad I did it, but I’m even more glad I’m not doing it now.

“Most farmers try to harvest their potatoes before the end of October. There are various mechanical ways of digging them, but one of the most efficient is with a complicated machine called a ‘spinner’. Its revolving parts dig into the earth and spin aside the tubers. Farm-workers follow where the spinner has passed and collect the potatoes in shallow baskets that are not too heavy for them to lift. Picking-up potatoes is back-aching work, and often it is best to kneel to do it.”

Turning away from agriculture, Tunnicliffe’s Ladybird illustrations of wildlife, wilderness and weather also draw up memories from the well… memories of my many outdoor forays, foraging for wild fruit along the lanes, getting numb-bummed up trees at twilight in the hope of seeing badgers emerge from a sett, squirming though the tangle of a riverside thicket to watch for kingfishers, and squatting on a clifftop perch waiting for the rare red-blooded thrill of seeing a peregrine stoop on a rock dove.

Weather mattered more to the people around me in those days, and not just because more manual labour was done under the open sky than in tractor cabs. First, it’s just a fact that people spent more time outdoors. Car journeys were reserved for long distances and never for a pop to the village shop, television sets were still a relatively rare commodity, almost all sport and exercise was done outside, and home-grown entertainment was frankly less entertaining.

Secondly, weather mattered because waterproofs and leather boots were less weatherproof than today, and warm winter clothes still left you shivering with cold extremities.

Maybe that’s another reason why Tunnicliffe’s illustrations conjure up the past so vividly. He painted weather so well. I can smell the approaching storm as I look at his painting of a towering cumulonimbus capilatus cloud rising over a flock of mountain sheep, my cheeks are pinched by the cold and my eyes almost water as I’m watching a murmurating flock of starling in the rosy blush of a frosty evening, I catch the scent of the bonfire smoke that’s hauled out horizontal across the meadow by the breeze, I relax into the clear romantic moonlight that plays on straw ricks and traveller’s joy, and I hunch against the hail with the herd sheltering in the lee of a gale-bent hedge.

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“An autumn gale from the sea, which is not far away, is blowing from the south-west. This prevailing wind has, for many seasons, bent the bushes so that they grow at an angle. The same wind is now stripping-off the leaves and sweeping them along in the slanting squall of rain.”

I’ve said I was an outdoor child, but I was also a solitary child. My little brother was there for some of it, but I never made close friends of other children because we moved house and changed school so often. It was an unconventional childhood.

Apart from a few notable exceptions, that pattern of self-reliance, indeed a pride of independence has stayed with me all the way through the mid-season of my adult life. But now, after all these years, that mostly solitary life has rather surprisingly led me to a rather big question. It’s one I’ve only recently realised has never been properly asked in my life, never mind answered. Put simply, and in the terms of the titles of these little books, I’ve always known what to look for, but I’ve never really known what to do once I’d found it. Tunnicliffe painted, Watson wrote children’s books, I’ve just smiled to myself then got up and walked away… like today at the supermarket.

I never took the time to learn to be a good enough artist or photographer to record the moments in pictures, and although I help out with bird and animal surveys a few times each year, I’ve never been educated or dedicated enough to do any proper scientific research. My experiences have mostly been no more than memories that are fading with time, and when I’m gone, they will be lost for ever. It has been fun to know what to look for, and there’s often been a great sense of achievement if I’ve found it, but to boil it all down to its deepest essence… what has been the point?

As it turns out, the answer to that big question could turn out to be a great truth that I’m only now discovering in the autumn of life. It appears to me that the best experiences I’ve had could all have been made better if they had been shared. There isn’t a sunset that couldn’t have warmed my heart more if there had been someone close to also gaze into its glow. When I’ve been awestruck by the towering light-spires of the aurora borealis, I feel sure the experience would have sparkled brighter if it was also reflected in the eyes of good company. The tears of wonder that flowed a few years ago as I watched the moon rise over Istanbul would have meant so much more if someone other than me had been there before the moment and the tears had both evaporated.

Looking again through these What to Look For… books, I realise that most of my searches were solitary experiences. I have almost no-one to discuss those memories with. And that brings me to my personal response to the follow-on question of what to do when you’ve found what you’ve been looking for.

I have decided to write.

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I know the arguments about how there’s nothing wrong in enjoying the moment for the moment’s sake, but I want to write to make sense of it all, write to retrospectively share the moments, write to at least try and give it all worth. I want to cut down on my single-use memories. I want to talk to you.

To cut a long story just slightly longer, it has been in the news recently about words that have been excised from successive updates of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Wild words like wren, blackberry and acorn have reportedly been supplanted by tamed terms attached to the technology and media that now form a more intimate part of children’s lives. Times do change. I know that. My little books no longer seem relevant. I’ve grown from an era where most kids have moved from pocketknives and crayons, to pocket computers and social media. The truth is that the changes through my time have been huge, and while I appreciate the enriching elements of the new, I truly mourn the passing of the integrity of the old.

I’ve always known what to look for through every season of my every year. But now in the autumn of my existence, what I need to find is a reason for having done it.

MG.