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Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

Rehabilitation, recovery, rebuilding

Under a blue summer English sky, I continue this non-linear quest of Fellowship proportions to get my health back to something that won’t trouble the emergency room of a country without socialist medical treatment. You can probably guess which one.

This week just finished, one minor health setback but one major thing finally ticked off the medical list. In addition, and finally without giving up yet again, I’ve managed to back-up everything digital I still possess from the last 15 years or so to various clouds. And, I’ve made significant, possibly breakthrough, progress on rescoping my work plans for the long term.

So, a good week, ending with my favorite rural walk to date in this part of England. After the obligatory few miles of road and meadow and country lane, five miles of this route became a meandering well-worn footpath, a narrow hinterland between fields of barley and corn and a twisty, shallow, slow-moving brook that oft disappeared into copses and spinneys and woods. The evening was hot and cloud cover increasingly elusive, so the shade of many trees was quietly thanked, and the temptation, at stumbling across a shaded pool, of stripping off and jumping in was only narrowly resisted.

The footpath eventually turned away from the brook and trundled over a small hill, a copse to the right, becoming a bridleway of pitted, horseshoe-shaped ruts in dried soil. The path opened onto a road; houses, a church, rural English civilization. I cooled down in a gentrified rural pub, lemonade and ice rushing through me, and watched the sun set over a Nottinghamshire, or possibly a Leicestershire, hill of maize.

As the dusk fragmented into night, I strode to the next village, a mile and half again north. One footpath, a half-guessed jump across a stream in the increasing gloom, and wading up a hill of stout and unyielding corn. Behind me, the July harvest full moon, tinged pink but full and wide and slightly paler, a little more translucent than the previous, rose slowly above the ridge to the South.

I reached the bus stop, calculated the walk (9.5 miles; not epic, but not insignificant), and watched the moon inch upwards as the sky moved through the last few shades of blue before black. Tomorrow it’s back to typing and doing digital administration for a few days. But these walks, under a big sky, away from the babble of people and the industry of life, help; it’s not just the body that needs to repair, decompress, revitalize, rebuild, but sometimes the mind as well.

An intermission of rural England

An intermission of rural England

Rural England is a small place. All of England to start with is smaller than most US states, and can fit into Scandinavia many times over. Take out the cities, take out the airports, the motorways and main roads, the growing suburbs and industrial sites, and you aren’t left with a huge amount of area. Set your mind to it and in a few days you could walk across its width; in a few weeks, its length.

But, what there is still greatly varied in tone, color, views, flora and fauna. And it is a country to be walked in, not driven through or flown over. Rabbits and pheasants burst from their secluded places as they hear you coming, and leap or flap away. Herons move slowly from tree to riverbank. In the gloom of dusk, foxes trot quickly, sharply, on their routes across fields. Meadows filled with a million buttercups invite crossing. And there are thousands upon thousands of those fields, rolling and curving over hills; and hedgerows, and woods and copses and spinneys.

Yes. The trees.

So many trees.

It’s a safe place; there is little that can or will kill you. And it’s a gentle place, in weather and inhabitant. Everyone, no exception, I’ve passed this last few weeks on country lanes has nodded, given some variation of passing greeting, or observation on the current or coming weather. The invisibility cloak you are seemingly given on entering the city is not worn here.

But also, this is a visibly historical place, as you are reminded over and over. The way the country lanes either ramble off in dead straight lines (Roman), or zig zag around fields (Enclosure act), or make no logical sense at all (just … English). The buildings, almhouses and stately homes and passing a cottage called “The New House” with a date of 1573 above the front door, and the remnants of medieval or older settlements. The many churches, stone and bell; the place names, and the dialects.

And the, thankfully enduring, traditions and customs. Stumble into a pub of several centuries, parched after rambling across fields and through woods and over brooks and streams; pat the owners dog on the head, buy a drink and some pork scratchings then notice Morris Dancers preparing to shake their bells and clash sticks outside. Or wander past a village fete, decide to check out just one stand, and a few minutes late you wonder why you’ve just bought three cakes made by a 90+ year old, but you are glad you have as it’s probably made her day and you’ve contributed to some village restoration project.

Rural England is a seductive place. It’s better if you have the money, and the time, to enjoy and explore it (then again, so is everywhere). But above all, it’s a quiet place where nature has, at least partially, reclaimed the sounds. Sure, there is often the distant hum of traffic, or a nearby tractor, or a plane going overhead (and … so many planes, in recent years). But there are farm animals, and birds, and church bells near and distant, the sounds of water, morris dancers and cricket matches, and psithurism (look it up, then go outside somewhere and listen to it).

Though I was born in this rural land, and spent the first 20 years here and kept coming back, and I’m here again, wandering the lanes and fields, this isn’t home. That thing means something different now, and it’s a long way, physically and literally, from here. But I’m finding that it’s deeply satisfying, for a short while anyway, to wander down lanes, through woods and across meadows, again.

All who you can’t leave behind

All who you can’t leave behind

It’s early February.

I wake up in a different place, these days. South Birmingham, as opposed to the tiny part of Balsall Heath that became a base for a gradually lengthening period of time, as months collapsed into seasons, gave way to years.

It’s quiet here. My room looks out onto the bowling alley shaped back garden attached to terraced houses such as these. From the wobbly window there are views of many other gardens; trees; no roads; houses of differing interest; sheds; the occasional distant sounds of gleeful rabbit enthusiasts; an upper working class suburbia that the English made, tinker with, and continue to cling to.

Abridged

This house itself is … unconventional. There are trapdoors, hidden cupboards, windows in peculiar places, and an unusually large bathroom that can only have been designed by a retired, sex-addicted pirate. It’s somewhat different, floating in a bathtub and surrounded by pebbles and candles and dimmed lighting, with eyes wandering across paintings of Naiads in various stages of undress and amorous desire. This is not Birmingham. Not staid suburban stereotypical Birmingham, or minimalist, cheap and functional Ikea-England, but something else. You suspect, or hope, that this bathroom has previously been enjoyed for salacious purposes involving many people at the same time, and if you found out it wasn’t, then you’d be disappointed.

That long and narrow garden invites exploration. It’s not eternally, horseback ridingly long, but just lengthy enough to get a small fragment of a sense of wilderness, albeit only three miles from the centre of England’s second city. Three cats patrol this hidden country; none live in the house. There are trees, a variety of trees, blossom starting to push outwards on one, but maddeningly no fruit trees. I stare with some envy, and more than a little disgust, at the splendid apple tree in the neighbour’s garden, where a full crop of hundreds of apples lies on the ground; unused, uncollected, uncherished, uneaten, rotting, a banquet for crows and squirrels but not for the ignorant people who shout and slam their way in and out of their house. I look back, to here, this place, follow the converging parallel lines to the end fence. A shed, a gate under an arch of ivy, a pathway, seats and benches, stepping places fashioned from tree stumps and placed in a pool of mud, a second garden with a second shed, a secluded area with signs of previous things created, things burnt, memories forged.

Gate

And things burnt inside the house. A fireplace that functions; metal, tile, grate, a clear chimney. Joy, and the recall and reminder of years and lives past, of peat fires in a Hebridean cottage for half of one decade, and coal fires in a rural Worcestershire cottage for two. A few memories amongst the many that this place, and the time it occupies, stirs. This fireplace has become my domain (perhaps a good thing, as the kitchen bemuses and baffles me); experimentation with wood and log and smokeless coal (hot, but aesthetically dull) and other inflammable materials. The flames and the colors and the glows and the embers to stare at, in late evenings, and remember some things and forget other things.

There are other aspects of this house and quirks within. The set-up for working is the best I’ve had since Hebridean years; an antique writing desk that perfectly suits the MacBook. There’s a downstairs toilet with a transparent glass door. The built-in bookcase occupies a corridor. Paintings of a paganistic and fantastical nature jostle with candlestick holders. So many different wooden surfaces, furniture, with grain and color and texture to distract and follow, and tactile hardwood floorboards that invite barefoot walking when the fire is lit. A quiet place, illuminated sometimes by just the light and crackle of fire flame and candle flame. And in the daytime, the sunlight. The way it creeps and peeps through the gaps between the wooden slats over my window. The red and the green and the blue beamed through the stained glass windows. The dust and soot and particles caught, embarrassed, when clouds scatter and that sunlight pours through the kitchen windows.

Fire

And this house is quiet because of the people within. My housemate, her wont to never stray too far from the jar of tea bags, is one of the loveliest people you could ever meet. She busies with her work while I frown at mine, interrupting myself occasionally to poke at an unburnt log or lump of glowing eco-coal while I listen for the inevitable sound of a kettle. She counters the aesthetic background of Boards of Canada by cheerfully humming Rolling Stones tracks from a different time, in a different room. This works, and this place works.

But in three weeks, I have had a grand total of zero visitors. That suits me fine, having quietly “unfollowed” 72 out of the 81 Birmingham residents I’d ended up connected to on “social media”, ignored all local social events, and stopped answering emails and messages from many of those people. Transition through shades of isolation. Though, having said that, it seems almost comically ridiculous and shallow, when looking into the flames of the fire that has warmed my (and your) species for millennia, to give gravitas to the oft-fleeting nature of “online connections”. Whatever the heck they are.

And while not a complete hermit – I’m back up to following 11 Brummies, albeit four (and soon five) of them related – the slightly-trimmed beard and the long, occasionally ponytailed and greying hair are perhaps appropriate for the demeanor of a person who both wants and needs this silent time to finish considering what else and who else to leave behind; and to sorting out his head, his possessions, his gradually repairing body and the next “stage of life”, whatever the heck that is, as best he can.

It’s early February, 2014. It’s spring time. This, for a short while, is a quiet place and it is my place.

Office

The Long Autumn

The Long Autumn

The summer fruits, the Victoria plums and Cambridge strawberries, are the sweetest and juiciest, filled with the rains of spring. But it’s the autumn fruits, those slow-growing crops such as Marjorie’s Seedling, Russet and Cox’s Orange Pippin, where the flavors are strongest and the colors deepest.

It’s strange. There’s a party going on downstairs, but I feel flat today, unsociable. Not grumpy, just tired, withdrawn, wanting to move on in several ways. So while the party goes on, and I hear the distant shrieking of people (nice people at that) who, for the most part I won’t see again, I’m blogging.

Summer feels nearly over, the last week here. The actual season of summer, and a more metaphorical one. The literal one, with long days and warm nights; cricket and hopes of winning trophies, contesting the Ashes; sitting in a garden and being thankful that winter is still some way in the distance.

Sunset

And it’s been, unexpectedly, my best summer in England. I’ve enjoyed culture; albums from Amiina, Boards of Canada. Various books, finally read. Classic and favorite films, rewatched. The rediscovery of radio. Parental ashes finally being scattered. The satisfaction of playing the first really good, worthwhile, fulfilling digital game in years, in Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Getting gradually, annoyingly slowly but still gradually, ‘better’. Figuring out unfigurable things. Finding an online clip of an overhead museum-based movie I watched in April 2007. Resolving, one by one, bad issues from years past. The rediscovery of the positive attributes of living somewhere quiet (even though oddly less than two miles from the centre of a major city), with clouds and sky and rain oddly reminding of a previous ‘life’ in the Outer Hebrides. My favourite cat recognising me after several months of non-contact. Seeing the new Library of Birmingham being completed and turning out to be pretty damned good. The delight of a Brummie turning out to be a brilliant Daily Show host, and the riposte to Daft Punk by Stephen Colbert (arguably the satirist of our generation).

And (finally) figuring out what I want to do and can do in the long term, though with the significant caveat of being less sure of who I want to work for and with. My growing disillusionment with academia – the mechanics of contemporary universities in particular – and seeing it, with experience and good reason, as an increasingly insecure, uncertain and unethical source of income. As do the many colleagues who lost their jobs, in organisations such as UKOLN and CETIS, this summer. Shifting focus and taking the silver coin of the commercial sector, while still adding to the sum of human knowledge, is increasingly the long-term sustainable way, probably the only way, a fact confirmed for me today. The bitter and unsatisfied lives of most academics, either as employed or self-employed by universities which increasingly resemble dysfunctional fly-by-night traders, is not for me. It probably never was.

Contrail

But the nights are drawing in rapidly. I couldn’t light miniature candles in the hidden oasis because of the weather this evening, for the first time in weeks, if not months; the late evenings of sitting outside are, like the late evenings of natural light, drawing to an end. The (cricket) Ashes have been retained, and the Pears have beaten the Bears. Still-unresolved situations need fixing before they become more toxic. Cooler weather and cooler heads abound as the summer turns. What feels like a long autumn, that favorite season of brilliant colors, harvesting the fruits of seeds long planted, working against the clock to bring in what one can, and delivering on the potential and hopes of seasons previous, is almost here.

It’s time.