York, London, Children, History, Dreams

travel12 Twelve years ago, nearly to the day, I arrived in London with a huge backpack and a brick of a laptop, brimming with excitement, anticipation, freedom, and a few nerves too. I stayed in a grotty hostel in Earl’s court. I went to British library and marvelled at the medieval manuscripts and hand written poems. I visited Southwark cathedral, because a writer I know told me she loves it. I went to Greenwich with a girl from the Maldives who I met in the hostel. I went to the British Museum and looked at the loot from Sutton Hoo. I wandered around peering at maps and looking anxiously for tube stations. Soon, I would travel around a bit before starting a masters in York. What adventures.

travel9 Last week I arrived in London with Felix and Antonia as my companions. Michael was working in the US for two weeks and I didn’t fancy staying at home alone for that time. I had been wanting to come back to the UK for years, and thought I’d better do it now before my maternity leave is over. We stayed in a clean and shiny hostel near Hyde Park, opposite the natural history museum. Once again I was excited and a little apprehensive. It felt so different. London was exciting the first time but also lonely and somewhat aimless – with all that time on your hands, how do you best spend it? Now I had two small beings to look after and there was no time for loneliness or aimlessness. I felt myself ferrying them around in a little bubble of care. We went to playgrounds and the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, and I loved it. We took a boat ride with my brother to Greenwich. It was nice to go to parks with a purpose – the promised playground at the end of the walk a mecca for all. I felt I belonged.

london11 travel2 travel3 And early this week I arrived in York. Walking around the town centre on my first day, my heart kept clenching in recognition. These were the streets I walked and rode my bike, the streets in which I dreamed and longed and loved. I kept saying to Felix ‘this is amazing, I feel so strange’. ‘Why Mummy’, he asked, and I only said I lived here once, long ago, with Daddy. Arriving in York twelve years ago was a dream come true – after years of poorly paid care-work, I finally had time to read and think and study again, and forge wonderful friendships, and breathe the fairytale air of the north. That sounds romanticised, and it was, but well, that’s me. In York I did my masters and began my PhD, in York I fell in love. Felix and Antonia would not exist had Michael and I not met here.

minster2 So it felt strange and lovely to be back, in this city which is at once pretty and mysterious, cosy and ancient, cradling and awe inspiring. And it felt odd, to begin with, to have the little ones at my side, to not be able to slip into uninterrupted reveries or read for hours in coffee shops. And I missed Michael. But I soon got used to showing the little ones around, and how lovely it was to see Felix entranced by the stained glass window interactive displays in the minster. ‘They cook glass like dinner’, he told me, ‘did they cook the glass in our house too?’ There is a model train shop near our apartment which I must have walked past hundreds of times but never noticed until now – we have to stop every time to watch the train go through the tunnel.

minster4 minster7 I have visited old friends and old places, I have walked old paths. It feels good to be here. I’m staying in an excellent little apartment just outside the city walls, that just happens to be at a midpoint between the two houses I used to live in. It’s just behind a huge painted sign that is visible from the city walls that says ‘bile beans are good for you’ – impossible not to notice.

minster12 It feels right to be tucked away just here, in a place I rode past and walked past and spotted from the walls – here, now, with two small beings. Here, in a place awash with history, I feel I can almost touch my former lives, my former selves. I can wave, but feel no need to go back. I can wave, also, at the self who may visit here in ten years, in twenty, but I am here now, this moment, and it is good.

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Felix: asleep with his mouse and his London bus.

Antonia: swinging with my brother. Antonia is discerning with new people but she loved Jon immediately.

I spent this week in London with the kids while Michael was in America. We stayed in a hostel near Hyde Park and visited my brother and his girlfriend, went to six different playgrounds, five museums, and went on the underground, a London bus, taxis, an a boat on the Thames. And walked and walked and walked.

Books and places

I’ve just started reading Hilary Mantel’s Experiment in Love, and it’s making me nostalgic for England:

In summer, when I was a small girl, we would take a bus to the outskirts of town, and walk in the hills, rambling along the bridle paths in clear green air. We were above the line of the mill chimneys; like angels, we skimmed their frail tops (p. 11).

Of course, I was nostalgic for England even before I ever visited there (not counting being born there), having grown up with tales of the old country from my father and my Nanna. Now, however, the nostalgia is my own – for that wonderful first year in York which I had set aside for adventure, and the wonderful years after that, enjoying the town and the countryside with Michael. Ah, England in summer, with thick green grass, and little stone walls…

Incidentally I think I am developing a crush on Hilary Mantel (after loving Wolf Hall last year) and intend to read every one of her novels…

Last night I finished Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which impressed and intrigued me. Its communistic leanings are especially fascinating given the intense anti-communist, individualist sentiments here that I am only now beginning to get a feel for. I had no idea that if you earned more money here you don’t get into a higher tax bracket, for example. Back to the novel, however… I really enjoyed his descriptions of landscape and animals – especially the animals – and I liked his characters so much that when I got half way through I didn’t want to keep reading for fear of bad things happening to them. Towards the end, though, the characters seemed to become more symbolic, and you got the sense he was really laboring to make his point. (Almost like the didactic sections of War and Peace.) Still, I enjoyed it greatly and am keen to read East of Eden at some point. The last paragraph really took me by surprise – extreme breastfeeding, anyone?

In non-book related news, I am really enjoying life here at the moment. Felix’s night-time sleeping has deteriorated badly, so I’ve been quite tired, but am feeling much more zen about it just now. There is a really fantastic mother’s group which meets up several times a week in different places, and I’ve been enjoying getting to know a bunch of really interesting women and their children. If I want the car for the day I need to drop Michael at work in the morning, but he works only five minutes away from the downtown river walk, so my new routine is to drop him off and then park at the river for a walk before the day heats up too much. Felix naps, breastfeeds with a view of the waterfalls, and often has a roll around on his blanket on the grass afterwards. When we’re at home my main task at the moment is flipping him onto his back – he rolls onto his tummy, has a look around, gets stuck, then complains loudly. Repeat. Though today at the river he did manage to roll back the other way twice, with a bit of help from the slope of the ground.

Most excitingly, my parents are on their way over here and should arrive tomorrow night. I can’t wait!

Speaking of reading, here is Felix having a go at the Sunday paper, aged 20 weeks:

Yorkshire

We had a beautiful beautiful trip to York and Leeds last weekend. I saw many old friends. The places themselves are like old friends, and it was so refreshing to see them. It was lovely to see my old supervisors, although everyone in UK universities is extremely depressed and worried at the moment, because the government is cutting state support of universities by up to 75%, which will have a devastating impact… My supervisor reckons it will be the biggest change in the university system in the UK since the 1960s when they made many of the old polytechnics into universities. He guesses that now many of them will have to go back, or close down… Student fees are set to at least double. It’s also a pretty impossible situation for many of my friends who, like me, just finished PhDs, but now can’t find any casual teaching work (which you need to build your CV), because when people go on leave or retire at the moment they aren’t replaced – the remaining staff just have to work harder. Which in turn effects their own ability to research and publish, which will impact on their university’s standing and ranking, etc etc.  Anyway, my supervisor reckons it’s a brilliant time to take time off and have a baby!

Depressing economic situation aside, it was lovely to be there. The towns and countryside of Northern England feel so much more settled, established and cultivated than Norway does. The houses are brick and stone, the fields have hedgerows, ancient abbeys crumble slowly next to the rivers. It feels loved and lived in.

I also did lots of shopping. I love maternity wear. Finally I can buy t-shirts and jumpers that are really long enough for me! We were lucky enough to get two days of brilliant sunshine, and on Sunday we took our old friend Vic to Bolton Abbey, and did the first section of one of our favourite hikes ever.

Not much more to say really, except that if you’re ever in the area, you really should go there. You can do a short walk of an hour or so along the river, or you can keep going on up through the ‘valley of desolation’, climbing up to arthur’s seat for the most incredible views of the North Yorkshire Moors. (Wasn’t up for that this time but have done it several times.)

When we got home the kittens had survived being fed by the neighbour for five days, and were very pleased to see us, curling up tightly on our laps and refusing to leave for hours.

Whales and worlds

Today the light was soft. Sunlight hazed through billowy clouds, gilding the edges of the harvested fields, getting caught in the golden trees that have already started losing their hair. English weather really. Most mornings, frost glitters on everything, and once the mist clears, the sky is blue as ice.

Quite a lot has happened in the past two weeks. I had my last day of my summer job of proofreading and newsletter writing. Finishing up was actually a bit sad. We made a seriously brilliant newsletter though.

I held a two week old baby. She was beautiful.

I got back from the UK yesterday, a five day trip that started with an essay exam in Leeds, continued through a packed two days of catching up with friends in Leeds and York, and culminated in a lovely weekend involving curry and beer in London with my brother and two cousins and their wives. Family is just the best.

I also squeezed in an exhibition on T.S. Eliot and Faber and Faber in the British Library (did you know, there was only ever one Faber but they thought that two Fabers sounded more distinguished). Seeing type-written letters between Eliot and Pound and Stephen Spender and a whole host of other poets was just cool.

And on Tuesday morning I went to the Turner Prize exhibition with my brother. Probably not quite worth the eight quid but fascinating all the same. My favourite was a partial whale skeleton that you could only view through slits in the wall so that you were taken aback by shocking details and strange angles. It was called ‘Leviathan Edge’. The artist had also reproduced Brancusi’s Bird in Space sculptures in coal dust. My brother preferred a different installation involving an atomized aeroplane scattered on the floor like a desert landscape, and wall sculptures made of a mix of plastic and powdered brain. Actually both installations seemed to be about trapped flight, and movement, and time…

Speaking of flight, that’s what Michael’s been doing – brushing the sunset with his wings. He’s in the States for a conference (and other things), but I couldn’t join this time because of commitments.

I got home last night to a fat package covered in stamps with whales on them. It was a copy of the brand new Macquarie Pen Anthology of Australian Literature, which my Grandma very very kindly posted to me. Another world, more than a thousand pages long. I can’t wait to get stuck into it.

I’m happy to be back – happy to be at the kindergarten, and to have two days a week free now for writing. Let’s see where it takes me.

Of Love and Faraway Places

I’ve been back exactly a week and I’m still catching up on posts from when I was in England. There’s something I want to write about the medieval congress too, but that will have to wait till the weekend. Because nearly three weeks ago, before my graduation and before the congress, my cousin got married.

Richard moved from Adelaide to London shortly after I moved from Adelaide to the UK, six years ago. I started a Masters in York, he started a job in a bank (which he has since ditched to work at Google). It’s been so nice, all that time, to have a familiar face in London, not to mention a spare futon on which to crash when necessary. We’ve been friends a very long time. He’s about three years older than me, and I remember insisting on sending him an invitation to my birthday party when I was very small. ‘Mum, how do you spell Richard?’ ‘Just how it sounds, dear.’ ‘W-I-T-C-H-E-A-R-D’. Unfortunately my spelling has not improved greatly since then.

When I lived in York, first at the University Hall of Residence and then with Michael, he used to come up and visit us. Once, we made a snowman outside of Durham cathedral. Actually, he was the first member of my family to meet Michael (who’s German). ‘I like him a lot’, I confessed over a cup of tea and a scone in the York railway museum. ‘I can tell’, he said. ‘You can’t stop smiling.’ And last year Richard met the girl of his dreams, who happens to be from Russia, and now he’s married her. I think it’s brilliant. And I’m not the only one.

The wedding was great. Relaxed and heart-felt. Lots of family came across from Australia, making it a big reunion – my cousins and aunts and uncles from Adelaide, and my Dad’s cousins from Lancashire. Just in case you’re curious, here we all are when we were considerably smaller.

The priest who married them is also a journalist, and he mentioned my cousin and his bride in an article he wrote the following week:

I married a lovely young couple on Saturday. They very much represented our globalised parish today: the groom was of Australian extraction, working for Google; his bride was Russian. It’s optimistic these days for a priest to expect to marry couples in their “local” church, whatever that can mean. But it was a joyous occasion and a privilege to dispatch them on their journey of matrimony.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this ‘globalized parish’, this globalized world that we live in. The webs of love stretched across it, pulled taut. London is a long way from Adelaide, or Moscow for that matter. As Norway is from Germany or Australia. Richard visited Australia with his fiance in April, but they were engaged before his family had met her. Michael and I had been together a year (and living together for more than half that time) before my Mum met him. (This was a bit of a challenge for her, of which I was blissfully oblivious.)

The problem with these new loves is that they take us – or keep us – very far from home. And to get everyone we love in the same place is difficult, if not impossible – though at this wedding we gave it a pretty good shot! Here’s Richard with his sister, who’s still in Adelaide (and also a very close, very old friend of mine), and his brother, who’s soon to move to Perth with his wife and small daughter. They adore each other.

And here’s me and my brother, of whom I’ve sadly not seen a great deal for several years, but it’s been just brilliant to spend more time with him recently.

But family, it seems, is stretchable, flexible, adaptable. You can’t stop love springing up in unexpected places, and why would you want to? Who knows where it will take you.

Oh noes!

I was going to write a blog post tonight, really I was. But it is late and I am tired and we have to get up early tomorrow to drive to the airport. Off to London, for my cousin’s wedding, then up to Leeds for the IMC and then my graduation! Much excitement and I can’t wait to catch up with my brother and my cousins in London…

It’s been a very busy few weeks since I posted. I have a summer job at M’s research institute, coming up with a newsletter prototype and coming to grips with InDesign. It’s brilliant. I’ve also been applying for academic jobs in the UK, interviewing people and writing an ethnography assignment, sussing out academic contacts in Norway and intending very muchly not to leave my conference paper to the last minute again. Oops. I’ve also been offered a part time job in a kindergarten and I’ve been dithering and dithering. It was really hot for two weeks – lots of cycling and swimming in the evenings. This week the rain has almost been a relief. Very much looking forward to the UK. And hoping to do some conference-papering on the plane tomorrow…

In which the travel gods smile on me and I have some wonderful friends

The trip over to Bingley went relatively smoothly and several minor disasters were averted with surprising ease.

  1. I accidentally got onto the train with Michael’s work key card in my pocket, but managed to post it back from Oslo train station in the fifteen minutes I had to spare.
  2. I couldn’t find the charger for my English phone but my cousin Richard in London lent me a spare one of his.
  3. I forgot my power adapter! I forgot it last time too, and last time I had to buy an expensive multi-adapter plug from a computer shop in town because Boots in the train station didn’t have any Europe-England ones. But this time they did! I was so happy I thanked the check-out lady profusely and she admitted she remembered me from last time…

Anyway… Everyone is taking such good care of me. I stayed with Richard for a night in London and he cooked me dinner! This is a first. His fiance is having a good influence on him. It was also just lovely to catch up (haven’t seen him for months and months). So nice to have at least one person over here who has known me my whole life! We stayed up till two drinking wine and were a bit wrecked the next day, but still…

Am now staying with the lovely Vic who thinks nothing of surrendering her lounge room to me for three weeks. Waiting for me was a parcel from Mum, ugg boots stuffed with fruchocs and cherry-ripes! Bliss! (So am nice and toasty wearing ugg boots and the jumper she knitted for me. ‘She likes to keep you warm, doesn’t she’, said Vic. And very thankful I am too.)

And my wonderful Michael is doing what he does best and planning a holiday in the midst of the five million other things he has to sort out at the moment. So – yeah. I’m pretty lucky.

Two weeks left for the thesis! I cannot believe it. It’s just the strangest feeling. When I put it all in one document for a trial run, and saw chapter four beginning on page 180, I felt what can only be described as vertigo. Like I’d been climbing a massive building without looking down, and I suddenly realised how high up I was.

I met with both my supervisors this week and they were very impressed with the new stuff I sent them. I pretty much re-wrote chapter two and they loved what I did. Supervisor one said it would have been good enough before but that it was much better now. I wouldn’t have been happy handing it in as it was before I fixed it, but now I am. So… hooray! It’s ready! It’s fine! There’s still plenty to do to it over the next two weeks – final editing of chapters, conclusion, and smoothing over chapter four, but two weeks is definitely long enough. I started putting together my contents page today. Strange, strange, strange…

Babbies and bairns we’ll always be

Me babbies, me bairns!‘ The immortal opening lines of the York pantomime. I thought I’d better say a few words about it before the moment passes. We went to York especially for the pantomime, before coming to Germany. We love it. It’s been going for more than thirty years. The same panto-dame has had the lead role for thirty years, and the panto-baddy has been in it for twenty-one. It’s just super. We watched it every year while we lived in York, and now still try to get to it. Frivolous songs and dances and silly story-lines and cross-dressing and amazing costumes and local references… Hard to explain really, if you’ve never been to one. This time it was Dick Turpin (famous highway man who was hanged in York – though of course the panto changed the story somewhat). In the past I’ve seen Sleeping Beauty and Sinbad the Sailor and I can’t remember what else. Lovely. This was my fifth panto, and Michael’s seventh. I’m hoping for many more!

Bingley Footbridge, 8am

On one side of the bridge, the misty moon hazed and floated. On the other, the sun thought about emerging. When I returned, ten at night, the moon had shuffled to the other side, and the sun was nowhere to be seen.

(And you all come here for photos of the same places in different lights, don’t you?)

The footpaths are sparkly with frost.

Yesterday, as I walked along, thinking of dear friends, a stranger told me I had a beautiful smile. Which made it all the broader.

I had a two hour meeting with my brilliant (medievalist) supervisor. She identified a couple of places I’d been tying myself in knots, and corrected a couple of generalisations. I felt exhausted afterwards, but now I know exactly where this chapter needs to go, which luckily is not all that far away.

I talked to some fellow phd students and graduates about hopes and fears.

I am on the cusp of something new, standing on the bridge in the changing light.

Chimneys and words and packages

Here’s another view of the Bingley chimneys. And the semi-frozen canal. The ducks promenade around here much as they do in Halden. The thesis chugs along. I reckon I’ll get it finished in early February, or possibly late January. I got my chapter one (extension of intro) nearly written. I felt like I was juggling so many balls so beautifully, and then I tripped and dropped them all, and couldn’t fathom the energy to pick them all up again. But it is nearly nearly there. I have sent it to my supervisors and will meet with them both individually this week – one tomorrow, and one on Thursday.

Over the past couple of days I’ve been getting back to the first chapter I wrote – the one that’s always caused me the most trouble. I still feel like I’m somewhat awkwardly hanging my argument on my textual analysis, rather than boldly using my textual analysis to advance my argument. The problem with this poet is that he says one thing and then he says the opposite – it’s really hard to pin him down. Anyway, pinning poetry down isn’t my ultimate aim, is it?

My technique this weekend has just been to write the paragraphs that need to be written, without wasting too much time about whether they fit on page eight or page twenty-eight. It’s been working, this close attention to detail, but I’m beginning to feel like printing it out and coming up for air. Tomorrow.

Vic has been a great encouragement. She keeps reminding me that I love this stuff, really.

And it is nearly Christmas which I am very very pleased about. Michael’s coming over to the UK on Wednesday, and we’ll have a few days here before heading across to Germany on Sunday. Good good good. (He’s had some horrible adventures in Norway this week – the valient snuggle-car does NOT like the cold. It got frozen, snowed under, and refused to get going in the Oslo airport carpark, but it’s ok now. I think in winter we’ll keep it to the temperate south from now on.) And oh – Mum and Grandma – all your parcels/cards have arrived in Germany safe and sound! Thank you thank you thank you! Apparently the postman was very excited to be delivering parcels from Australia.

Walled Cities

I finished reading the most beautiful novel the other day. Gatty’s Tale, by Kevin Crossley-Holland. I first realised what a lovely writer he was when I read his translations of Norse Myths, and I vowed to get hold of his King Arthur trilogy. I did, and have read the first one so far, and loved it. Gatty’s Tale is a spin-off from that – a thirteenth-century girl joins a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

There it was!

Jerusalem!

At once Gatty reined in.

There it was, waiting for her.

No need to ask. She recognised it like a home from which, long ago, she had strayed. Its contours were her own heart’s and mind’s contours. She felt like a little girl again. No need to say anything.

The Holy City, golden, grew out of the gentle slopes on which it sat. Or was it the other way round? Did the Holy City, Gatty wondered, come down from God, out of heaven? And did the hillslopes and the valleys and everything else on the earth grow out of it?

All that stood between the pilgrims and the golden domes, the clustered towers and columns and walls was one last shallow valley, dark with olive groves.

I read this on the train, on a very tedious journey from Stansted Airport up to Bingley. Finish the damn thesis, I told myself glumly as I stood in the cold in Peterborough station, waiting for a train that didn’t come, you’ve got to stop doing this. I ended up catching a train up to York, and then another train to Leeds, and then another train to Bingley.

As I waited in York station, I thought about how usually I would feel very sad just to be there. I lived in York for three years. I loved it. It was home. I met Michael there. We lived together in the sweetest little house. We cycled everywhere – to the shops, to the pubs, to the wonderful Baroque concerts with two pound tickets for students. I did my masters there. I finished my novel there. I started my PhD. I would walk on the stone walls, and hang out in my favourite bookshop (now sadly closed). Every time I returned there, after being away, as the taxi swung past the walls and the gates to the city, I would feel a tangible surge of at-homeness. It was so sad to leave.

But – this time I didn’t feel sad. I felt content, in myself. I have a new home now. I am building a new home.

And then, on the train, I read about Gatty in Jerusalem. And my heart surged. I have been there – the centre of the world, as they thought in the Middle Ages. I have stood inside this other walled city. Michael had a two month scholarship to be in Israel, and I went to visit him, and we went to Jerusalem together.

Like Gatty, I had heard about it all my life. The Bible was a big part of my childhood and my early adulthood – I have read the stories over and over. My parents went to Jerusalem when Mum was pregnant with me. Dad bought a little statue of Moses, which has sat in the corner of the lounge room all my life. My Mum bought a big brown coat, like a monk’s cloak, which I wore for a while as a teenager. And there I was, again, the centre of the world.

For Gatty, part of her has always been in Jerusalem, and part of her will always be there. And when she prays inside the church of the Holy Sepulchre – that mazelike, burrow-like place where I too have stood – she prays for all her friends and family at home, for those who could not come to Jerusalem and never will, but when she prays they are there anyway, with her, safe inside the walled city.

And I don’t quite know what I’m trying to say, but I like that idea – of being together even when you’re not together, of being at home even when you’re far away. And there, on the train, between York and Leeds, the journey was a burden no longer, and I gripped the novel firmly, with tears in my eyes.

More chimneys, and a happy song

I took this photo on Tuesday, from the same bridge as the last one, but looking the other way. Below is the chimney of our very own paper factory in Halden, glowing in the weird evening light. I got here on Wednesday, and am puffing away at the chapters… If by any chance you need cheering up, you might like to take a look at this gem, discovered by M. It is by an alternative German musician whose name was channeled to him by an angel. M says it is to be enjoyed in an ironic manner. Which does not preclude dancing and singing. A rough translation: ‘every cell in my body is happy’, followed by variations of the same.

Bunking down in Bingley

Here’s the chinmey. Pretty cool, huh? There’s lots of them, all along the canal. I walk past this one to get to the train station. I love this part of the world.

The days I don’t need to go to the library I write here, watching the rain and swirling autumn leaves. It’s nice. I’m here till Wednesday next week, so I’ll see how much I can get done.

My brain has very little to spare. I’m meeting supervisor one tomorrow. Things are coming together. Better get back to it…

Planes good, trains bad

I’m back in blighty for a last sustained assault on the library and meetings with my supervisors. My flight got in early yesterday but the utter horribleness of the British train system on Sundays (delayed trains, replacement buses, misleading information) meant it took forever to get back to Bingley. I’m staying here again with my delightful friend Vic, which makes it all better. The trains into Leeds (it’s about twenty minutes) are cheaper after ten though, so I’m going to arrange my working days around that. Or if I decided I need the library in the mornings, I’ll just bite the bullet and pay an extra two quid.

I’ve been reading over the notes my supervisors have made on my various chapters, and can I just say, my supervisors are brilliant. One of them disappeared to New York for a year, but now she’s back and my thesis will be stronger because of it. (The person who replaced her during that time was also great, but C has more to offer my particular topic.) My supervisors are intuitive, thorough, extremely interested in what I’m doing, and push me to be the best I can. I’m meeting with them on Thursday to discuss the latest draft of my introduction.

So. A grey English morning and a library full of books await me. Here goes…

God’s own country

Here is a swan we met today. I had grand plans of actually taking photos in London, but when it came to the point I was too busy trying to find my way whilst not getting run over by buses or swept away by torrential downpours. The conference was brilliant – there were some really interesting discussions of time and history and indigeneity. Well, those were the discussions I took note of, for obvious reasons. My paper went well despite a small audience due to clashing sessions. I also met some very lovely people, and some of the buildings at Royal Holloway are just amazing. Watching the big names get affectionately drunk is always entertaining.

I almost missed my train back to Leeds because I misremembered the departure time, and then some Spanish tourists pulled the alarm button on the tube so it didn’t go anywhere for ages… I made it in the end with three minutes to spare. Resolution: be more organized. Write things down.

This weekend I’ve been staying in beatiful Bingley with my gorgeous friend Vic. We walked along the canal today and up into the hills. Ah, Yorkshire. I must admit I had a lump in my throat as the train from Leeds sped past the stone walls, the green fields, the huge trees and the soft grey sky.

Transit Blogging

On the train from London to Leeds. You get free wireless these days. Cool. Should get in by 22:30. Looking forward to sleeping tonight, even on my friend’s sofa. The last two nights didn’t involve enough sleeping.

Last week we went to the mountains and the fjords with two old friends from Adelaide. The weather was perfect. The glaciers and the waterfalls glistened in the sun. It was all too beautiful for words. We climbed a very steep mountain, and then – even more painfully – climbed back down again. That was three days ago. My legs are only now slowly stopping aching. I’ve been hobbling about London with my suitcase, staggering up and down the tube station stairs.

I gave a paper today on medieval antipodean animals. There were some good ideas in there and lots of potential, but I think I was trying to squeeze too much in. I was comparing how Murray and Webb invoke different medieval genres in their depictions of Australian animals, and how their purposes are quite different despite obvious similarities. After ten minutes I realised it was far too long and I ad-libbed the second half. That was kind of fun though. Anyway, I’m giving the paper again on Wednesday – I think I’ll streamline it and try to give it a clearer structure, and maybe plan to build in more talking rather than reading aloud. Non-humanities people are always horrified that most humanities people read aloud their conference papers.

I always reckon it’s more important to be engaging and understandable in a conference paper than to be too clever or have too many examples. And with a topic like mine – I try to keep in mind what sort of audience I’m addressing (whether they’ve got a background in Australian stuff or medieval stuff, for example). But maybe I don’t need to worry about that as much as I think I do – conference papers are very different to teaching, for example. I guess I’ll strike the right balance at some point. Some papers go better than others, but it’s always a learning experience. And then there’s managing my stammer. I guess rehearsals will always be useful for that. Anyway, lots of people told me they liked it, and the rest of the conference was fascinating.

Cities

Yeah, er, felt a bit flat on Friday. Better now. Had an awesome weekend with my parents, who have now sadly left. I feel refreshed. We took a car load of stuff to the tip, and three boxes of books to the second hand shop. The house is feeling emptier. Some friends came to claim my lovely bookcase, and I felt sad when it left. It was the ‘nice thing’ we bought to cheer us up when we moved to Leeds. And it did. It made this room more than perfect, and this room pretty good as well. It’s hardly irreplaceable, and in Halden, other bookcases await me.

When I wasn’t stressed to the point of tears last week, I had some wonderful conversations with quite a variety of people, and made some surprising connections. I’ve discovered that my research interests overlap with those of some other students I know, which is quite exciting. We’ll be able to help each other! And build new things! And although it feels slightly strange to be leaving when so many things are finally coming together, I know I’ll be able to carry these connections with me. They’re like seeds. I hope they grow. (These friendships can last! Today on the way to Manchester I met up with an old MA friend, who lives right next to those green green fields, and it was lovely.)

I went to York (sigh – best place on earth) with my parents on Saturday afternoon, and tonight we had dinner in Manchester (they’re flying out of Manchester early tomorrow). Manchester is a much nicer city than Leeds – it’s sturdy and expansive (Leeds is just confused). There’s a Manchester wheel now, and we soared high above the city.

They’re off to New York, now. I’ll miss them.

Bolton Abbey

Welcome to Bolton Abbey, one of the best places in the world. Every man and his dog were there on Sunday (hmmm, is that meant to be ‘were’ or ‘was’?). And wives, and children, and young adventurers.

Watching them cross the stepping-stones was hilarious.

I’ve crossed several times, in the good old days when there was a stone missing in the middle, which made everything a lot more interesting.

Once you surmount this obstacle, you can go for a stroll in the woods by the river. You can trudge through the Valley of Desolation, onwards and upwards until you hit the dales. And then, you might see this:

Or this:

(Don’t know this man, apart from that he helped us with directions on the way and was sitting in a cool spot.) Or this:

It’s one of the best walks in the book (round trip around nine miles), and we loved it, even if our bones ached afterwards. And even if, despite my joy at being the one in charge of the map for a change, I took us back the long way round…

A weekend of decadence

Just for the record… Afternoon tea in Betty’s stretched for two hours: sundaes, berries and rose-petal tea, followed by smoked salmon sandwiches and vanilla slices. Mmmmmmm…

After that, we sampled the respective glories of York and Leeds: the minster, the corn-exchange, the angels playing bagpipes, the red-brick canal, and opera – ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, in the refurbished Leeds Grand Opera House.

I’d never walked so far along the canal before, but all these other places are dear to my heart – from music, from countless visits, from the people I’ve met there, from the things that have changed. Places like this don’t disappear when you leave, you carry them with you, like some sort of silent, internal architecture. And – yep – it’s nice to visit them with Mum too. Who told me, the first time I mentioned York – that’s a good idea.


Speaking of Green…

Yep, it’s pretty green round here right now. A sort of scraggly, mossy green – not all the trees have leaves yet – but it’s beginning to fill in. Every time I go to the park near my house, some small thing is different.

Time feels like it’s passing so quickly at the moment. I fight a battle with my chapter every day, and at the end of each day it feels like it’s defeated me, but I make a new assault each morning with fresh ammunition. And I’m gaining ground.

I teach my last class tomorrow. Then I just have to mark the essays, and I’m done.

And – I’m beginning to think about leaving. At the end of June, I’m moving to Norway. I’ll still be back here now and again until I hand in my thesis, but I won’t have a base here any more. I’m looking forward to it, but there’ll be things I miss, all the same. I’ve been based in the UK for nearly five years now. Maybe it’s time for a change.

England again

Back in beautiful Yorkshire. Leaving wasn’t such a wrench this time, because M came with me for three days. He had some work to do here (as did I), but we had time for a drive in the countryside, a seriously good pub lunch in Grassington, and an afternoon in dear old York. Felt a bit of nostalgia, as we so loved living there, but . . . onwards and upwards, I suppose.

I bought an embroidery kit of a section of the Bayeux tapestry, just in case I ever finish Henry. Should get me through the next long Norwegian winter! We also made a good start on decluttering my room, and took a carload of stuff to the tip/recycling. I don’t like throwing away stuff, it all seems haloed in memories.

I taught on Tuesday, and it was great. We were looking at medieval lyric poetry, which they said they didn’t like as much as Chaucer and the other stuff we’ve done. I asked them to come prepared to talk about one of the poems in their selection. They all did brilliantly, and their introductions sparked animated discussion, and we all (me included) came away with a much deeper understanding of the poems. Classes like that make it all worth it.

The countryside is spotted with tiny gorgeous ungainly lambs, jumping and wobbling about. I didn’t get a picture of them, but just remembering them makes me smile. The daffodils are starting to die off, but there’s still enough of them crowding roadsides and river banks to brighten the landscape.

M left this morning, early. So now, time to concentrate…

Mutated Medieval Meme

I was tagged by Highly Eccentric ages ago for this. You’re supposed to give eight facts about your favourite historical figure. Well, being more interested in things literary than things historical, I have more time for stories than for facts. Though I guess they overlap. I had an involved discussion with a historian once about this, who try as she might couldn’t get her head around why anyone would study English literature. I said I found the stories people told to be more fascinating than what they ate for breakfast.

Anyway, after much thought, my favourite historical figure is Caedmon. I discovered him during my masters at York. He’s one of those Old English figures who make you smile when you think of them (I’d also add Bede and King Alfred). This is in itself slightly curious, and I think it’s connected to a notion of Englishness. Anyway… I like Caedmon because I think Anglo-Saxon biblical poetry is just great. The language is shining and strong. The most fun I had during my masters was writing an essay on the creation myth in Anglo-Saxon verse: Caedmon’s Hymn, the beginning of Beowulf, ‘The Wonders of Creation’, and I think there was one other… The story of Caedmon is particularly interesting because Caedmon’s hymn is a myth about the creation of the world, embedded within a myth of origins of Anglo-Saxon poetry, embedded within a story about the origins of Englishness.

You can read about him in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Or here. I don’t know about little known facts – you either know about him or you don’t. And if you don’t, here goes:

1. He lived at Whitby Abbey with the Abbess Hilda (she was there between 657 and 680, and is a pretty impressive figure in her own right).
2. He didn’t like singing.
3. He couldn’t read or write.
4. When it was his turn to sing at dinner he was so shy that he went to sleep in the cowshed.
5. God appeared to him in a dream and told him to sing. After much protestation, he did.
6. The poem he sang (which he later sang to Abbess Hild and the others) is recorded as the first Biblical Anglo-Saxon poem.
7. The monks later would translate the Biblical stories from Latin into Old English, so he could understand them, and then he would make them into poems.
8. If you feel like it, these days you can have a chat to him in the museum at Whitby Abbey.

I wanted to include some pictures of Whitby Abbey, which is one of my favourite places in England. But despite having visited several times, I don’t seem to have any decent digital photos. Can’t be bothered tagging anyone, but pick it up if you feel like it, or tell me who your favourite historical figure is in the comments.

Lakes for all Seasons

Went walking in the Lake District today. It’s only two hours from Leeds. Every time I arrive there I feel this pang of excitement – the slate-walled cottages, the lakes, the hills. I grew up with my Dad telling me about the Lake District as though it were the promised land. The first time I went it was raining and I couldn’t see a thing. But there’s something special about the Lake District. Now when I go I remember the times I’ve been there with those close to me – the lovie, his parents, my parents, and last year, my grandparents (not all at the same time!). But special times, each of them.

It was cold and windy today and the photos I took didn’t really turn out. We went up Red Screes from Ambleside, then across to Dove Crag, then back along the ridge to the town. We did spot a pretty cool stone wall.

At the end of the walk I couldn’t help thinking how different it will look in a couple of months time when the trees will be shiny and green. A bit more like this, perhaps…

Pen-y-Ghent

We dashed off to the dales again yesterday, and oh my goodness it was lovely! Warm sun on our faces and hardly any wind. All the snow had melted, save for a few pockets in the shadows of the stone walls. We climbed Pen-y-Ghent, another of the three peaks, and did a loop walk of about 20k. The photos don’t capture it at all. The first year I was in England I badly missed the sea, but being out in open spaces like this turned out to be just as good. The burnished hills and plains are like the sea in some ways, with the tufts of grass and heather. Oh and did I mention mud? Managed to put my foot through an invisible hole filled with water. I love seeing the dales in all moods – the clouds and snow and grey-greens are lovely too. I think my favourite are the clear, cold winter days when the whole landscape sparkles with frost. Yesterday the land was a great platter for the sun, and we stayed out until the sky dimmed and the cool slither of moon rose above the fields.

The Yorkshire Dales

Here’s the viaduct near Ribbleshead, part of the Settle-Carlisle railway (we caught the train across from Leeds). It was built in 1870. I think it’s great. It was threatened with closure in the 1980s, but after much campaigning it was restored in 1991. At the Ribbleshead train station, there was a little museum about the railway line, into which we retreated yesterday to escape the cold. The Spanish students who were with us were quite dismissive of the whole thing, and incredulous that anyone had made such a fuss. But I think it is a thing of beauty.

From the viaduct, you can see the three highest peaks in the Yorkshire dales. Above is the view of Ingleborough, with slightly better visibility than when I climbed it last year. If you’re a bit mad you can climb all three peaks in a day (in summer), including walking between them. We did it once in ten and a half hours, and could barely move afterwards.

Yesterday, we got to the top of the ridge of Whernside, but turned back due to the slippery ice and the extreme wind. It was quite difficult to stand upright. It doesn’t matter. I love this place.

Virtual Hikes and other Exciting Adventures

I had decided to console myself for my valiant decision to go to the library instead of hiking in the dales by posting a virtual hike – photos of my favourite walk ever. But the website which housed the photos has disappeared! Only one remains, pictured above. That day, the hills were frosted, icicles glistened on the gates and the puddles were as hard and bright as glass. And if it’s that pretty at the bottom of the hills, just think what it looked like from the top! A different shade of crystallized grass or rock or slope or sky everywhere you looked. One of those days when the landscape is music that you walk through.

No matter. Dedicated student that I am, I went to the library. At lunch time, as the cafe at uni was closed, I wandered into town and stumbled upon a German Christmas market. Not quite the same as being in Germany, but almost. I indulged in garlic mushrooms and fried potatoes and Glühwein (mulled wine), and bought some ridiculously overpriced domino stones. They were worth it. (These small cubes of soft gingerbread, fruit jelly and marzipan covered in dark chocolate are seriously wonderful. I’ve already eaten all the ones I brought back from Berlin.) I always thought the German word for mulled wine was a bit weird, sounding, as it does, like glue-wine, but actually the ‘glüh’ means ‘glow’. So it’s glowing wine. Which is exactly what it does, in your cold hands and in your belly. I then floated back to uni in a mulled wine haze for another two hours of photocopying and traipsing up and down stairs, accidentally causing an avalanche of over-stacked books-for-reshelving. All in a day’s work.

Opera North

Opera North doesn’t have much in common with the Angel of the North except its name, and the fact that it’s located in Northern England. But the name is wonderful. Rugged and transcendent at the same time. Tonight I saw a production of The Fortunes of King Croesus, by the long forgotten German composer Reinhard Keiser. Apparently he influenced Handel. This was an English translation, and it was super. It’s a love story and a pride-comes-before-a-fall story, set against a backdrop of war. The props and sets were great – little golden fighter-planes in the first half, and a huge golden broken plane wing in the second half, spanning the stage. The five pound student ticket almost made up for the fact that I was seated next to all the other cheap-skate students, checking their mobile phones and unwrapping crinkly sweets.

The Grand Opera House is just amazing – red and green and gilded gold with chandeliers… It’s just been refurbished, and the seats are comfy now. It was fun to be there. It reminded me of another time, three and a half years ago, when something rather lovely happened. And the music was transporting. I’d forgotten what it can do to you. It actually transported me slightly too far, as I wasn’t concentrating as I rode home and nearly caused an accident. But all is well. I’m still smiling.

Of Cathedrals and Bits of Paper

There are autumn leaves in England too. And rivers. And even sunshine. I made an abortive trip to Durham today to renew my British passport. Turns out it was unnecessary, because although the both the form and the woman on the helpline informed me that I need to give in my Australian passport too, I don’t. Which means it isn’t quite so urgent, and I can do it by post. Which I will do, because it’s cheaper. Aaaagh!

But Durham is lovely. The last time I was there, nearly four years ago, my cousin Richard and I built a snowman outside the cathedral. Today there was just sunshine. Durham cathedral is something special. York minster is wonderful too – enormous, pale, Gothic, intricate and grand, it was my first experience of a medieval cathedral, and I will never forget it. But Durham cathedral is friendly. Even as you approach it, it radiates quiet. Its Romanesque archways squat solidly and invite you in. Inside, it is something like a forest, and something like a cave. Its fat, round grey pillars are carved with zigzags and diamonds. It doesn’t have as much stained glass as York, but its rose window glitters magically in its heavy setting, and where the light from the windows touches the stone, it blossoms like a rainbow. Durham Cathedral is the resting place of St Cuthbert and the venerable Bede, which makes it a shrine for medievalists and pilgrims alike. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside, so here are the cloisters:

There is something quite wonderful about the way it is cared for, and opened up to the public. It has some wonderful modern sculptures which speak of death and resurrection, and the spiritual in the ordinary. The low-ceilinged, zigzag-roofed chapel at the back is cool and quiet and somehow replenishing – it gives me goosebumps just to step in there. At the moment it contains an exhibition called ‘The Museum of my Life':

We all have them at home: significant objects stashed away in drawers, cupboards full of memories, photograph albums full of people closest to us. This project asked people to reflect on their own lives and to tell the stories and identify the objects which would make up the museum of their life.

The objects were displayed in what looked like ordinary chests of drawers, but when you opened the drawers they were topped with glass. It was heart-breaking seeing the objects displayed there: family photographs, paper packets of flower seeds, old postcards, pipes, dolls. All the ephemera which makes a life. Strangely, it seemed quite at home there, amongst the medieval paintings and the ancient stone, worn by the feet of ordinary people over centuries.

Transitions

I’m back in Norway again. I am happy. Yesterday I watched my world sliding past the train windows. The train journey from Leeds to Manchester is very beautiful. It crosses the Penines. Soft green-grey and amber mountain peaks, interspersed with grey stone villages. More like hills really than mountains. But they are lovely. I sat there on the train and all these words came bubbling up inside me. It was being in an inbetween space. It was having time to think, which I haven’t, for weeks, because every waking moment I’ve been thinking or writing or reading about Randolph Stow, or sorting out a pressing matter that was preventing me from doing so. It was nice, to sit on the train, and read an entirely unrelated novel, and look out the window.

The words bubbled up so insistently that I thought I would write them down. Just as I got my computer out the man with the drinks trolley came past. As he dragged it behind him he was talking to it like it was a dog: ‘Come on girl, good girl, sit!’ He explained he’d been working since three in the morning. I wrote a couple of sentences. Suddenly all the noises of the train seemed oppressive: the dull hum of ipods, people coughing. I closed the computer, and it was okay again. The words liked it better when no one could see them, or even imagine they were there. The other people were too close – when I tried to write the words down, there wasn’t room for them to sing.

I am writing some of the words down now. Some are secret. Some of them are lost. They knew that might happen. They didn’t mind. I could almost see them – transparent, fuzzy at the edges, rising upwards like flames. My own words, mine.

Four Years

Four years ago, more or less to the day, I got on the plane in Adelaide, changed in Sydney, and sat still, clutching my laptop and my travellers cheques, a refrain echoing in my head: what the hell am I doing? This lasted an hour or so. Then I calmed down. This is what I’m doing, I told myself, this.

I was catching a plane to England, to travel around a bit before I settled down to a Masters in Medieval Literature at the University of York. I was doing this, because walking down Pultney St one day, I asked myself: what would you do, if it was a perfect world, a magical world, if you could live for ever, and have everything you needed and go anywhere you wanted, what would you do? Probably, I thought, I would go to York, and study medieval literature. That settled it. That and the scholarship, which meant that the eight thousand pound international student fees were no longer a problem.

I had seen a poster advertising the course in the English Department at Adelaide University, which I still frequented sometimes when I got tired of sweeping floors and categorizing bits of paper and wiping other people’s bums, and was wondering what to do with my life. I looked it up on the website and it just blew me away – you could study Anglo-Saxon poetry and Dante and Latin and Ovid and Augustine. In York, which I already knew was lovely. That year truly was a dream come true, and in many ways, the dream never ended – I stayed on in York the following year, and then started a PhD at Leeds, again facilitated by a truly incredible scholarship. People want to pay me to pursue my passions? Go right ahead.

It is good to think about this, because although it has been wonderful, it hasn’t always been easy. I have a debilitating tendency sometimes to think of myself as incapable – which the list in the previous post surely disproves. No. Whatever happens afterwards, these years are pure magic. I was reminded of this recently when I saw Nick Havely’s new book, Dante. I have mentioned this before but I mention it again because it really touched me. In the dedication, he lists about 15 names, including my own, and James and Christina, who studied Dante with me, and ends ‘and many other friends and students of Dante in York’. That’s me. I was there. I don’t think I was a particularly incisive student in that particular class, but Nick also supervised my Masters dissertation on the Middle English poem Pearl. He also mentions in his acknowledgements (and his bibliography!) the paper I gave at the Leeds International Medieval Congress last year on The Divine Comedy in Australian literature and art. That was part of a session I organized (and Nick, Christina and James took part in) on receptions of Dante, medieval to modern. Seeing my name in his book brought back memories of staring longingly at his subject description on the York website, long before I realised the dream could become a reality. It did. It is.

The Story of an Unknown Church

Last night I started reading a short story by William Morris, ‘The Story of the Unknown Church’. I didn’t get very far into it, because it was time to sleep. But a few sentences on the first page reminded me of one of my favourite places in all the world. The story is told in the voice of the master mason of a church built six hundred years ago, and destroyed two hundred years ago.

No one knows now even where it stood, only in this very autumn-tide, if you knew the place, you would see the heaps made by the earth-covered ruins heaving the yellow corn into glorious waves, so that the place where my church used to be is as beautiful now as when it stood in all its splendour.

The mason goes on to remember the church. He can only remember it clearly in autumn,

. . . yet it was beautiful in spring, too, when brown earth began to grow green: beautiful in summer, when the blue sky looked so much bluer, if you could hem a piece of it in between the new white carving; beautiful in the solemn starry nights, so solemn that it almost reached agony. . .

I too remember a church. The beautiful Bolton Abbey, in the Yorkshire Dales. I love walking around abbey ruins. Reivaulx Abbey and Whitby Abbey are also among my favourites. I love how crumbling stone arches frame the sky, how outlines of windows once decked with stained glass now show the dazzling patterns of cloud and sun. I love the ground, where the monks have walked and slept, and I love how the wind sweeps in. The sky seems an appropriate ceiling, and the shifting weather a worthy heir to the monks’ prayers. But I always try to imagine how it would have been – the windows glassed, the arches roofed, the walls painted. There is a melancholy about such open, broken places.

I was thinking these very thoughts as I wandered the ruins of Bolton Abbey, thinking how wonderful it would be to see this place as it was then. And then I turned a corner, and found a door, opened it, and stepped inside.

The nave of Bolton Abbey is still in use. You can attend church services. There is a roof and windows, paintings on the walls. I hadn’t known this, and it seemed like an apparition come to life, a fragment of history. The wall paintings aren’t old ones, but they are lovely. Twining stems of lilies cover the back wall. This seemed right, too – nature brought inside. The abbey is set in the most wonderful grounds – there is a river with stepping-stones, and thousands of trees. You can walk along the river and then up into the dales – truly a magical place, ‘as beautiful now as when it stood in all its splendour’.

Cross-posted at The Little Book Room.

My Grandparents: Intrepid Explorers

These are my grandparents, all the way from Australia, on a boat in Derwent Water. I think you can see from their expressions how much they like traveling, and boats, and how happy they are together. When they got on the plane in Adelaide a couple of weeks ago, they celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary. In the past few years they have conquered, between them, pancreatic cancer, bowel cancer, a big heart operation and a knee reconstruction. We had a weekend with them in the Lake District, and now they’re meandering around Scotland, before boarding a ship to explore the Scottish islands. Wow.

They came over three years ago when I was doing my masters, and took me to Stockholm, Helsinki, St Petersburg. Grandma has often repeated to me an old saying of her father: ‘Be happy, dear, there’s enough unhappiness in the world’. I’m pretty sure my grandparents have increased the balance of happiness in the world.

I don’t have any other pictures because our camera was playing up and we took most of the photos with G&G’s camera. Hopefully I’ll upload some when they drop past to visit me in July on their way home. It was supposed to rain all weekend, which it didn’t do, and we had a great time scouting around the little villages and eating cake. Especially in Hawkshead, the home of Beatrix Potter and the most amazing collection of freshly cooked tripple-decker cakes (strawberry and chocolate, blackforest, raspberry and pistachio, mmmm…). More on that later.

I really love the Lake District. I like how the colours of the hills echo the sky, and how incredible they look when the shadows of clouds move across them. It is a watercolour landscape – slate grey and copper, misty greens and pale blues. The mountains are not as tall or spectacular as some in the world, but they are beautiful and unique, quiet, magical. It is a place to come back to. A heart country.

We arrived back in Norway last night, after braving a taxi, a train, a bus, a plane, a ferry and finally the comfort of the snuggle-car. This whole land is covered in leaves now, it’s quite different from the place I left four weeks ago. Driving into Halden felt like coming home. It is strange to have a life split between two countries. I must now ease my way back into this Norwegian life, and use its peace to rewrite my chapter beautifully, while G&G meander around Scotland, and Leeds hums and bustles without me there to witness it.

Long Weekend

The past week has been a bit scrappy, as you may have noticed from the brevity of the posts. But I have made it through, and this afternoon I’m off to Liverpool and then the Lake District with my grandparents and radioactive man! Hooray! So I won’t be around for a few days, but I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. Hope you all have a nice weekend too.

Three cheers for the BBC

I like English TV. I never used to watch TV in Australia, so I don’t really have much to compare it to. But this stuff is great. The documentaries and antique shows are my favourite. I used to watch the property shows at breakfast time but the prices of all the houses got too depressing. There are some pretty good comedies too – ‘Allo ‘Allo is my favourite of the golden oldies. The best antique show ever is Bargain Hunt with Tim Wonnacott. Perfect to watch at lunch-time. He wears a different bow-tie every day.

Some of the documentaries are just brilliant. Tonight was the last of a series of three entitled Victoria’s Empire, by the comedian Victoria Wood. She traveled around Africa, Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia etc interviewing people, pointing out statues of Queen Victoria, and making funny comments. It was educational, hilarious and heartbreaking. Although she explored its atrocities, there remained a touch of admiration for the empire over which the sun never set…

The English are also very good at nature documentaries. I saw a very nostalgic one about Wensleydale last week. The sentimental music was a bit overdone, but I couldn’t help tears forming in my eyes when they showed an old couple who have a Christmas tree farm in a remote corner of the dale. Two red squirrels decided to move in next to them, and the woman watches them everyday through the kitchen window. Red squirrels are beautiful and very rare. The nasty American grey squirrels have taken over most of England. The red ones are bright red and have little tufts of hair behind their ears. Oh they are lovely!

A documentary last year introduced me to the incredible water shrew. Shrews are little mouse-like creatures with long pointy noses. Water shrews swim around in little ponds and catch shrimp! Some people are so fond of them that they join a shrew society and set harmless traps for them just so they can have a look at them and let them go again. My housemates were very unimpressed when I told them this story. I don’t know why.

Hikers in the Mist

Yesterday I climbed Ingleborough with the Leeds uni hiking club. Ingleborough is one of my favourite places, and one of the three highest peaks in the Yorkshire Dales. This status (its height, not my fondness) has led to the construction of the ‘three peaks challenge’, where you climb Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-ghent, all in one go. This is 37.5 km, and a couple of years ago I did it in 10.5 hours, though I could barely move afterwards. Yesterday it was just Ingleborough, but unfortunately we didn’t get much of a view! We also got soaked to the bone (well, to the socks and the undies, which is worse), and spent far too much time standing around in the wind and the cold, waiting for stragglers or looking at rocks. The walk leader was a geology student – fair enough if the sun is shining. But it was nice to get out of Leeds. It’s such an amazing mountain, speckled with white limestone. Hopefully one day I’ll see it again in fairer weather.

England’s green and pleasant land

Got back to Leeds today. It’s always a bit of an anti-climax, but I’m sure I’ll survive. The train ride from Manchester was beautiful though. Whenever I come back to England from Europe I’m struck by how lovely and how appealingly English England is. Especially so in May, with the fat, fluffy trees like something out of Legoland, the green fields interspersed with bright yellow fields of canola seed, the hedgerows blooming, and the stone walls meandering over the landscape. I seem to have a penchant for national theme tunes at the moment, and I couldn’t help but hum ‘Jerusalem’ as I sped along in the train (in the tunnels in Norway, it was ‘The hall of the mountain king’). The odd birch tree looked rather pale and thin beside the blooming crests of the other trees. I took a photo of the huge chestnut tree outside the English department.

If only the rest of Leeds was so green! This was just before I ducked into the cramped, sweaty student gym to work off some of that German chocolate. My heart wasn’t really in it, though, so when I got home I took a picture of my new socks. These never fail to cheer me up.

Northern Light

The light is different here. It’s glassy and pale and smooth. That’s not to say on bright spring days it’s not golden and gleaming, it is. When I look out the lounge room window the street shines as though it’s been varnished. But that’s the difference. In Australia, in summer, the light hits objects and your eyes directly, it’s almost an assault. Here, light polishes things – the hills, the river, the pavement.

I noticed the difference of the light in England, too, when I first moved there. Especially in winter, the tedium of its greyness. But you can get used to it. Its gentleness. The way it caresses things, the softness of the clouds. And when spring came, I thought – ah, this is why poets write about spring.

When we first arrived in Norway in January it didn’t get light till nine and it was dark before four. Now the sun rises by six and doesn’t set till after eight. And the twilight lasts forever. Last time I was home in Australia evening always caught me by surprise, as though someone was drawing the curtains and switching off the lights.

I’m thinking about light and about twilight because I just got back from an evening walk along the river. And I thought – well, perhaps this isn’t a bad way to start. I thought this might be a good way to stay in touch with my friends, who are scattered all over the world, and also to keep myself in one piece as I dash back and forth between countries. So, let the story begin.