Wednesday, 18 December 2013

I was BORN into a CATHEDRAL...



I was born into a cathedral of green water and weeds and light. My small world was bordered by hedges and fields rich with cow dung and hollow dark places, rank with nettle and dock, where archangels and kingcups grew and I was cradled by the sound of wind among reeds; the rush of glassy water in the sluices of the locks; the song of swans' wings in flight; and the wash of rain against a wooden cabin roof. It smelt of wet wood and anthracite and the smell of hot iron from the little Pithers stove that kept the cruel winters at bay and dried the bedclothes when the roof leaked. And then there was the smell of pigs and straw and paraffin and the rich, trouty, earthiness of when still waters are stirred.

The Kathy, Grand Union Canal, Rickmansworth
There were five of us aboard this clinker-built ark, called the Kathy, cobbled together from an open-topped lifeboat that had been salvaged from an old liner. The wood was rotten, but loved. The farmer, on whose land, it was moored kept threatening to break it up, but Mum and Dad just laughed; it was home and it was a good one. There was laughter there and warmth, even when the ice came and our world no longer rocked gently to the secret rhythms and movements of the dark canal waters. There was a port-hole by our bunks and Mum made drop scones in an old frying pan for friends dropping by. There were always friends dropping by.

First there was Mum and Dad. Then there was a cat, Kismus - who (later) would sleep with me on my pram, then my sister, Wendy, came and finally there was me. At 9.45, on a Friday morning right at the end of a wet April; it was the day when the farm's guard dogs were silent, I was born in the little cabin made and fitted out by Dad. Dad and Wendy waited on the canal bank hoping that the rain would hold off. Kismus was the first of our family to see me. The midwife plucked her up, saying that it is only right that she should see this new creature that had come into her life so that her nose would not be put out of joint. Dad bought a marble cake to celebrate.

Dad (looking splendidly bohemian and piratical), Mum, me and Wendy

Records show that there was a long-lasting system of low pressure hanging over the country that spring which made it very wet. Much later, Mum was to write:
"One of the aspects we enjoyed most about the boat was the feeling of close proximity with the elements without actually having to go outside. When it rained we could hear it pattering on the roof, giving a very cosy feeling and the sight of the raindrops falling on the water making patterns was so much nicer than seeing them fall on cold town pavements. The same with the wind, when it blew there was the gentle rocking of the boat, with the added chuckling sound of the water against the clinker built sides." 
Space was tight and sometimes, of necessity, even in the rain I would be outside, in the fields by the bank, tucked up in the pram with Kismus - on guard - sitting under it. Later, once a week, a friend of Mum's would collect us in her dinghy, I would be in a carry cot placed in the centre, and then she would row us upstream, to where she lived, for tea and cake in a narrow boat that was moored around the willowed bend, where swans swam with their signets, and that smelt of rush matting and oil lamps.


What did I stare at?
What captured my mind (young as it was) and my heart in those moments?
And do those things still stir me deep within?
What pleasures did I feel with the rain brushing the canopy of my pram, safe and cocooned while the elms sighed and the heron flew?
Is this why I am still entranced by the sound of rain against window or hood?
Is this why I breathe a little deeper at the sight of rings forming on still waters?
Is this why I still like to press myself up in the corner where the roof eaves drop on stormy nights and listen... and listen?

The cosy warmth of a wooden cabin, the smell of a hot stove, the light that spills from a hurricane lamp, the sound of water lapping against a wooden hull, moorhens swimming through green seas of duckweed, gnats dancing low over water, the slow creak of oars complaining in their rowlocks, the smell of locks and the rattle as the winding gear is released, the white fall of water... These are not memories. They are too old to be memories, too forgotten, too lost; pre-memories, impressions, stabs of emotion, feelings gauze-thin like dreams in the morning's light. But they are somehow still part of me, as strange flashes of recognition that disorientate me and strip me bare. Yes they are still there, for I hear their songs and hear their owl-like call. Not to an Eden lost, but to an Eden that still lives.

21 comments:

  1. My goodness this was magnificent. Truly magnificent. I felt as if I were there, just by reading it!

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    1. Thank you, Keith. I am really glad that you could get the feel of it!

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  2. You write so beautifully! I loved this story and the vivid descriptions. Like Keith said, I felt as if I were there. I always wanted to live on a boat as a child and imagined being rocked to sleep at night by the waves. Thanks for sharing these wonderful memories!

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    1. Thank you Mandy. Yes, these were special times - though so much of it is beyond my memory. I was three when we left the boat, but Mum and Dad always refer to it as the most special and happy time. Obviously it was tough - we had the hardest winter on record while on the boat - but they look back on it with nothing but fondness.
      Actually, the winter times were one of the best things about living on a boat. All their friends used to constantly drop in as it was always much warmer than their own homes!
      You were so very close to the elements and yet there was this feeling of being snug and protected from them - wonderful. I think you would LOVE it!! :)))

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  3. Oh...this was just so wonderfully written. The photos and the recording were just icing on the cake...thank you so much for this post!

    Oh! I just saw the label...so perfect.

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    1. Thank you so much. I love those old photos. There is something rather wonderful and strange about looking back at old photos of yourself, isn't there?
      Ah yes, letters to younger me - a sporadic series I post (so sporadic it is still only the second I have gotten round to write!!!)

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  4. I loved this post, Richard. You have given us some beautiful descriptions of your childhood and your wonderful memories.
    Have a lovely and peaceful Christmas.

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    1. Thank you Wendy. Have a wonderful and precious Christmas time too.

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  5. Wow, your childhood sounds incredible, especially living on a live-aboard (which I've considered many times, here lately). How truly romantic; and that your mother kept a journal is just so much more intriguing. I would have loved growing up like that as there would have been so much to explore. Such a rich tapestry of scents and sounds, and the lapping water that preoccupied your childhood...so much to remember from just getting a whiff of air or listening to sounds that bring back a flood of memories or stir in us something that we never forget.

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    1. Oh, do it!!!
      Mum has written a lot about those days and her childhood; things which sing deep within her.
      Yes, it is exactly those sensory flashes that bring back a wash of remembered and almost remembered things that intrigues me the most.

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  6. I read this earlier in the week and it stirred me deeply .
    I was called off before I could comment that day .
    When I returned today tea in hand , in my comfy chair I commenced listening to your audio version.
    As I listened I was mesmerized by the depth of your soul and the lilt of your voice.
    As you spoke of your essence and the intrinsic , I smiled softly ,breathed deeply and sighed with a feeling of knowing.
    Beautifully moving, thank you so much for sharing.
    Willow

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    1. Afterthought ~ beautiful "cadence" of your wonderful voice, would have probably been a better choice of wording . My mind isn't as quick as it once was , but your speaking is delightful.

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    2. Gosh! Thank you so much - I am truly touched by this and am so happy that you too were touched by this.
      I am also rather pleased to find that I am not the only one who posts a comment and then later on thinks "That's the word I was looking for!!!" :)))

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  8. Beautiful..you are an amazing soul Richard! I am always deeply honored while listening to you..how you let me( us all) walk deeply inside your world and become part of the journey along with you...your words touch me like a rich tapestry of energy and color and sound and magic....I have said it before..your words are always very powerfully-alive for me..and your deep connection and references to nature in all forms constantly mesmerizes me...it is a very multi-sensory feeling..experiencing your poems.! Your story is magnificent..I enjoyed every single spell of words and imagery..and the very last line beautifully potent!
    Victoria

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    1. Victoria, that has made my day, thank you :) I am so pleased that you feel these 'spells' that captivate me too!

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  9. Amazing and very instructive text. Because is life that touches your words and the words that recreate a life in which love is worth more than anything.

    Merry Christmas.
    Yannis,Vania,Apostolos Pollitopoulos

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  10. We send to you our best wishes for a creative new year full of love and compassion.

    Yannis and Vania Politopoulos

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    1. Thank you Yannis. I hope that you and Vania had a wonderful Christmas and I wish you both a New Year full of wonder and fulfilment.

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  11. This is such a beautiful evocation of time, place and your experience of them. I can think of few who seem to find, as Blake out it, a world in a grain of sand, as you do. Each word that you write seems to open up such worlds. I have been so enriched by this as I have read & re-read it in the last few weeks.

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    1. Thank you, Stephen. I suspect that some of it must resonate quite strongly with you and your new residence :)

      It is so strange that ever since being introduced to Blake and Auguries of Innocence at school for many, many years I just could not get my head round what he was expressing by that phrase. The tiny things and the way they touch the senses become ever more important.

      Earlier this evening I was reading Betjeman's 'Summoned by Bells' again and was so struck by the lines:
      "Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights,
      before the dark hour of reason grows."
      Is that why childhood remains so real to us, even when later memories fade? Because they were burnt into us through our senses and we walked in a more 'real' world because of it?

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For your voice is important... and words that are shared grow wings.