The Magic of Place

A little while ago something popped up on my Facebook feed from my lovely cousin, Martha. She has contributed in the past to a book of essays about the British Sci-Fi show Doctor Who called You & Who. This year they were looking for writers for an expanded book about a range of cult British Sci-Fi and Fantasy, so I signed up. Originally I put my name down for a number of shows: Being HumanLife on MarsThe Fades, but as it turned out there was a lot of competition for these, so I ended up being assigned my last choice: Merlin.

I’m not sure why it was my last choice. The brief was to write not a review of the show, but an essay about what it meant to us as individuals, the mark the show in question had left on us, as adults or children. And I had such fun writing about Merlin.

To have an essay in print feels wonderful. To leaf through an actual real-life book and see my words, my thoughts, my name, published….well, it doesn’t get much better than that. I hope I get to experience this extraordinary feeling again, and write more. In fact, it’s inspired me to take a writing class in the new year. I want to see where this road might take me.

A few of you have asked to read my essay. I’ve held off from posting it online in the hopes that more people might buy the book, but I doubt that me posting this here will make that much difference in the sales department. So, here goes:

The Magic of Place

How can a television programme come to mean so much to a person? How can a television programme that is, to all intents and purposes, a little bit naff come to mean so much to a person?

For the past years I have lived in London, but the entirety of my childhood was spent rampaging around the hillsides, forests and lakes on a Welsh farm, and to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, treading bejumpered through the sheepy fields. So a saturday night with Merlin gave me a little window, that I could peer through into the lush, moss-carpeted, bluebell forests and fern-fronded streams that made up the filming locations, and were familiar enough to spark a sharp ache of hiraeth that sat like a stone behind my sternum, hard and burning and wonderful.

Hiraeth is an untranslatable Welsh word: half homesickness, half longing for a past that probably only ever existed in a rose-tint of nostalgia. The landscape in Merlin took me away from the concrete and the fumes of London, back to green and growing things, back to the hills where you could watch the rain or the snow come in like a wall of hazy white from the coast. It took me back to a place where red kites wheeled in broad circles overhead, back to the heavy, sucked-up silence of moss and forest floor, packed tight with the sweetness of pine needles and darkly composted soil. These are the places of my youth, the places I go back to when I close my eyes at night.

Merlin was unique in its ability to place itself firmly in a time and location – even if that time was quasi-mythical-medieval – by using the landscape as a definite character, instead of merely somewhere nice looking to shoot. Okay, admittedly most of the action took place in one of four locations recycled for each episode (some caves in South Wales that I have definitely been to on a school trip, a moss-blanketed gully, a quarry borrowed from 70s era Doctor Who episodes and a corridor or two from a castle in France) but the weather was real, and so were the places. The very few sets built for the series were pretty obvious in comparison, but the rest of it was so lovely it didn’t seem to matter.

Merlin will never win any prizes as a quality piece of television, and it certainly doesn’t stand up to the behemoth historical/fantasy series that have come along since, like HBO’s Game of Thrones and The History Channel’s Vikings. But Merlin was the Little Show That Could. It had such heart that you forgave Richard Wilson’s increasingly terrible wig, or the fact that the character of Morgana wasn’t really played by an actress but a costume assistant who was too beautiful to stay behind the camera. The bromance-o-meter consistently hit the upper levels, and while the budget seemed to stretch to a nice new dress for Gwen once she became queen, it apparently didn’t go so far as to cover the hulking arms of Sir Perceval, whose biceps were so huge they could not be contained by the simple warp and weft of mortal fabric. The humour was slapstick and seemed to mainly involve Arthur’s trousers accidentally falling down or Merlin using magic to make a bandit run into a tree branch. But it was proper, family, saturday night television in a way that only the BBC can do.

Merlin was broadcast each year as summer was ending, just as the days were shortening towards the end of the year and the air began to take on the fresh pinch of Autumn. It was a show perfectly made for darkening evenings with the rain pattering against the window, while you sat cosy inside with your family and good old Aunty Beeb.

I am writing this piece in an apartment in small-town Massachusetts, America. In the drawer of the desk upon which my computer sits is a passport stamped with a two-year US visa. I have given away clothes and bikes and books, musical instruments and, actually, three box-sets of Merlin dvds. America, for all its similarities, is not really like Britain. One day I hope it will be home, but for now it is other in a way that makes me crave the familiarity of the BBC, and shows like Merlin.

Britain’s history is ancient and twisted as a gnarled oak. Our identities, our histories and mythologies are intrinsically linked with the landscape because it was an important and undeniably present factor in our ancestors lives. Arthur’s seat, Arthur’s Stone, Carmarthen (the Welsh translation of Merlin’s Fortress) – the echoes of the Arthurian legends are in the names of places scattered from Scotland to Cornwall. Our land, our stories, are a part of our national psyche, and are more important to us than we realise. Across this planet, fairytales and myths are dictated by the landscape and its vegetation. How would Hansel and Gretel’s story have gone had it taken part in the Arabian deserts of Scheherazade’s One Thousands And One Nights? And would the goddess Artemis have caused so much woe to mortals who accidentally witnessed her naked in the streams of ancient Greece if the climate was a little closer to that of the Norse sagas, which didn’t really lend itself to prolonged outdoor bathing if you fancied your extremities frostbite-free.

The ancient woodland and eerily still mountain lakes of the United Kingdom are the places where things happen in stories, to princesses and lumberjacks and ordinary people alike. Perhaps you’ll meet an old man who offers you magic beans, or come across a trail of breadcrumbs. I challenge anyone to walk through a pine forest on a moonless night and not think, even for a tiny moment, of wolves that beguile and consume, and monsters hiding in the dark, patient shadows. The wild landscapes of Britain still hold a power over us that’s as real as any of Merlin’s sorcery. It is no coincidence that some of the most vivid, well-loved fantasy worlds came forth from the minds of British writers. Just look at how place and landscape and weather feature in the writing of J.K.Rowling, Tolkien, C.S Lewis, to name a few. And while not British himself, George R.R Martin has explicitly said that his monstrous Wall and the lands that border it on both sides was inspired by a trip to Hadrian’s Wall, where standing atop the ruined stones and gazing into the ancient, unknowable north brought forth visions of ice demons and giants, trees with faces and wolves the size of horses.

To belong to a place is odd, because it works both ways: it belongs to you and you to it. It goes bone deep, into the nucleus of every cell, so that leaving it behind – however willingly – is a physical ache. And a place has a history too: the people and the lives lived there, the buildings raised and fallen, the stacking of rock upon rock and the taming of rivers and trees. Merlin helped me rediscover the wonder of place, and gave me back the imagination lost since childhood to conjure the spirits and fairies and myths of this green and pleasant land. It reminded me that there is beauty, and mystery, and magic to be found all around us.

Even if the show itself was a bit naff.

 

Advertisements

Salem, A Haunting – September 14th 2015

I can feel them staring at me. There are two, in particular, all sheets of straight glossy hair and designer black clothing. When Ben asks them a question they are sharp and knowing in reply, a caustic sort of flirting. They arch their eyebrows – drawn a little too thin, a little too severe – and answer with careful nonchalance. I have watched girls like this from the sidelines all of my life, have been at the end of their stiletto-point wit. If I had hackles they would be rising right now.

They are the most obvious of the lot, but the room is filled with people hanging on Ben’s every word. He is giving a lecture at the local university, and there is a good turn-out, though it turns out the turn-out is not the music and theatre and writing students, but largely the curious, and the smitten.

I can’t blame them, after all. Ben is just…louder than anybody or anything else in this small town.

It takes a while to extricate ourselves when the lecture ends, so many people have stayed behind to talk to Ben. He is given the fourth t-shirt of our few weeks in Lowell. They like their t-shirts, in Massachusetts. This one is purple, with a bright yellow number 42 embroidered on its chest. Life, the Universe and Everything. Just like that. Ben passes it straight to me.

We are parked across the street from the university building, and the evening is still warm enough to make the insides of the car hot and cloying. Ben likes the windows down when we drive. I don’t, but he opens his without thinking and the air strobes through the car and presses against my eardrums until I open mine too. It’s hot outside – unseasonably so, Ben tells me. The weather has already been hotter this September than the warmest English summer day, and sometimes the air is so thick and oppressive it combines with my jet-lag – both physical and emotional – to make it difficult to move outside. Sometimes my body feels twice as heavy, the air twice as dense. Sometimes I feel as if I have an echo. I am trying to learn the way things are around here.

In the car I am glad to have Ben to myself. There are different Ben’s: one in front of people, one in front of me. I love them both, but the small, silly one I don’t have to share with a roomful of amorous teenagers is something particular special, and makes me feel full up with love like a water balloon, liquid and bursting and warm.

Ben has two days off in a row, so we have designated Monday night as “Date Night”, (which, in turns out, will last just one glorious week). We have booked a night in the Salem Inn, an old townhouse converted into a bed and breakfast. It looks like a courthouse, an imposing red brick facade with steep steps up to a white painted portico, opposite the even more imposing, Tim Burton-esque Witch House, all crooked clapboard and slumping black gables.

The inn is “historic” since it was built in the 19th century. I scoff at it, wondering if it is even as old as my family’s house back in Wales. Even the old things are new in America. We have booked into the Honeymoon suite last minute, which is ridiculously cheap, used as we are to New York and London prices. The bed is huge and raft-like, taking up most of the room. It is gloriously welcome after the tiny bed we have been trying to sleep in for the past few weeks, and went from “snuggly” to “get your elbow out of my face” within about three days.

In the spirit of the First Ever (and last) Date Night, we go out to a raucous Mexican restaurant and get drunk on two cocktails each. Ben’s sense of direction is appalling when sober and non-existent when drunk – which he is, tonight. As the relatively sober of the pair, I navigate us back to our hotel, the long way-round and via the creepy Witch House once more. We climb the narrow wooden stairs to the top floor, and our room.

The suite has one too many doors – some open into other rooms, unnecessary. One opens into someone else’s, though it’s locked tonight. We have a brief test of the hot-tub bath, before deciding that we are about to fall asleep in the water, and the huge bed is a much better bet. As I put my glasses on the bedside table and reach to switch off the light, I think, an idle, fluttering thought, that this room in this old building is a little bit creepy. I lay for a while and listen to the sounds of traffic on the road outside floating through our open windows on the warm night breeze. A man-hole clunks every few seconds as wheels drive over it. Ben snores lightly beside me. And then I fall asleep.

There is a sound, some time later. It is incongruous enough to wake me, but the room is silent while I lie in the darkness, still and rigid and waiting for the sound to come again and make some kind of sense. There are no cars on the road outside anymore. Ben is quiet and still beside me. In my sleep-fugged mind all I can think of is a lump of sugar falling into a china teacup, the scrape and stir and settle of a spoon against the rim.

It comes again. It is somewhere near my left ear. My heart lurches in my chest. I reach out blindly and sink my fingers into Ben’s bare back, where he lies on his side next to me.

Still, I try to think logically. After all, I have grown up in an old house – older than this one – and know the kind of noises it can make when it creaks and settles, when the wind changes direction, when the hollow walls are full of mice. Whoever coined the phrase “Quiet as a mouse” has obviously never lived in an old building, because they are anything but. They gnaw and skitter and scritch, they rustle through old wrappers in wastepaper bins and patter across floorboards.

But there is nothing next to me, only a bedside table and lamp. It sounds like no mouse I have ever heard.

I begin to think I must have imagined the sound, when it comes once more. Before I know it I am bolt upright in bed, blindly scrabbling for my glasses and the lightswitch. A distinct but tiny part of my brain tells me that I am being ridiculous and will feel ten times more so in the morning.

I don’t believe in ghosts. Except for when it’s 2am, at which point I definitely do.

“What’s the matter?” asks Ben, finally awake.

“I know you’re not going to believe me and it sounds stupid but I’m definitely awake and I definitely didn’t dream it but I heard a noise like a teaspoon stirring in a china cup and it really freaked me out and I’m not imagining it…”

“A teaspoon,” Ben repeats. His voice is hoarse and sandpapered with sleep. “Okay.”

“I know it sounds stupid but I def-”

The noise comes once more, distinct, absurd, terrifying.

“Did you hear that?” I hiss, not even waiting for the sound to dissipate before I speak.

“Yes,” Ben says. “Really creepy.” His words slur into a snore as he turns over and falls asleep once more.

Fat lot of good he is. I give up everything I know and move to the other side of the world for him and he can’t even save me from a ghost.

I lay back down, every vertebrae rigid and thrumming, my heart thumping obscenely loud. The lamp casts a halo of light around the bed, but beyond it the corners of the room are pregnant with shadows. I don’t believe in ghosts, I tell myself. But it’s 2am. And I definitely do.

“Still awake?” Ben mumbles after a while. He gets up to use the en-suite, comes back around the bed and closes the windows as he goes. “Better?” he asks.

Not really.

The noise doesn’t come again. After a while I fall into a fitful half-daze. Something creaks in the corridor, I dream the door into the next room begins to open, that the chintzy antique furniture is moving, just slightly. But the noise doesn’t come again.

I am the daughter of a logical father, raised in a house of reason and science and staunch scepticism of anything that might go bump in the night. Somehow though, this has never clashed or contradicted with my flighty imagination, prone to whims of superstition and folklore. Fairy-tales – and not the saccharine princesses and flurry of helpful tweeting birds, ready to tailor me a bespoke ballgown from the scraps of ribbon and the remnants of the curtains, either. The old kind. Gleaming-toothed wolves that look like men, dark impenetrable forests and blood-red cloaks. Shoes that dance you to death, fairy rings that people disappear into and stumble from, a day later and fifty years older. The hearts of virgins and walls of thorns.

But never mind my penchant for mythology and ancient folk stories, because these make a strange kind of sense, to me. They are entwined with place and history, with both the land and the culture of people that live there. The things that really terrify me are written in the pages of National Geographic and A Brief History Of Time. There lies the cold, indifference of space and time. In fairy tales and fantasy there is almost always a way to outwit Rumpelstiltskin, to beat the Big Bad Wolf. To quote Terry Pratchett, misquoting G.K. Chesterton:

“The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed.”

But science is another matter. It is more strange and unfathomable than superstition and fairy-tale. After all, there is no way to outwit a black-hole.

So here I lie, in a hotel in Salem, with a noise I cannot explain, and all I can think about is vast coldness of space and time, about atoms that can be in two places at once, and why is a belief in ghosts any more absurd that that?

And the truth is, that deep down, a small part of me likes to be afraid, wants to believe.

Rationally, I know that because the sound has not come again since the window was closed, it must be something that was caused by it being open. But in the fertile imaginary world that dawns when the sun dips below the horizon, I dream of the previous occupants of this 19th century house, of ladies taking tea in Salem’s parlours just like the one which now makes up the bedroom of the Honeymoon suite in which I sleep.

Enough Doctor Who episodes have told me that time is not a straight line. But what if it is, in fact, a concertina, an origami fold of paper. What if this now, this room, is pressed up against the now of the 19th century, sharing the same space but neighbours in time?

What if you could hear, as if in the next room, the filtering of conversation, of sounds from a time long ago?

My brain star-bursts with the thought. This will make a good story, I think, as I drift into sleep sometime before dawn.

Later, when the sun has risen fully and the cars are click-clacking across the manhole in the road outside, I go to the window to open the blinds.

The little toggle on the end of the blind pull scrapes against the wooden sill.

It sounds just like a teaspoon stirring a china cup of tea.

I feel stupid for the rest of the day, as Ben laughs at my “ghostly teacup”. Absurdly, it seems to make him love me more. But a tiny part of me – the part that comes alive in the darkness, the part that sparks and lights up with fear and imagination and the thrill of a quickening heart – is quietly disappointed.

London, in reverse.

On warm summer evenings I sit on my bed and hear, through our open windows, the sounds of children having their tea in the houses on my street. It’s a sound both happy and sad, makes me feel comforted and lonely, all at once.

A year ago I moved into my flat in Queen’s Park. The jasmine is in bloom as it is when I first came here, up and down the road. In the morning and evening it is a heavy, heady smell that always seems to be two steps past the mass of little white blooms themselves. I have never seen so much jasmine.

I lived in Hammersmith before then, for four years. The longest I have stayed in one place since my childhood, back in Wales. I grew tomatoes and honeysuckle and lavender on the terrace, cared for them reverentially every night when I came home, stood barefoot on the wooden decking in the warm darkness and smelt the sharp crackle of water on dry soil, the echo of perfume from blooms and growing things. Across the street teenagers gathered outside the fried chicken shop, and shouted and laughed and fought through the night.

In 2009 I moved into a flat of strangers in a beautiful mansion block in West Hampstead, to be nearer to my then boyfriend who lived nearby. We broke up a week before my moving date. There were roses in the communal gardens outside by the street, but I don’t remember ever smelling the flowers. I wasn’t very happy there.

I first came to London aged 23, having unexpectedly secured a job that needed me to begin almost immediately. I moved in with old university friends of my brother’s in a small flat in Stockwell. I hadn’t spent much time in the city before, and my ideas about London were formed from my parents’ memories of life there in the seventies and early eighties. I expected the city to be hot and orange-tinged like my mum and dad’s photos from that time, and London did not disappoint. I clambered out the rickety sash-windows and sunbathed on the too-hot asphalt of the flat roof, and the shop by the tube station played Bob Marley’s “Is This Love”  out loud all summer.

This weekend I move to Watford to stay in the spare room of some friends, and if all goes to plan, before the end of the year I will ship my belongings to America – a bigger move than I have ever made before.

London has been good to me. I have had good times and sad times and every-day times. I have been desperately lonely and surrounded by friends and, usually, somewhere in between.

I am going to spend the summer thinking about why I love this city, and the seven years I have spent here – before I leave it for a new city, and new memories.

DIS-CON-NECTION

How well do you know your body? Can you translate all its messages, its pleas, demands, gentle nudges? Do you speak its language?

It turns out, that I do not. My body is all greek to me. Not only is it completely incomprehensible, it is an enemy, a double agent that betrays me time and time again. My skin is a battleground, my insides a war-torn wasteland.

It wasn’t always this way: as a child my body was slim and brown-skinned and lithe, made for climbing trees and running fast, smudged with pine sap and sea salt. And yet, I paid it little attention.

Then came puberty, something longed-for and lusted after now suddenly too real, too adult. Once a month I would feel as though my ovaries were trying to melt their way down to my knees, besieged by blood and leaks and nausea, left red-faced and walking like a cowboy around lumpy sanitary pads. Nobody tells you about that. The fact that you will spend three to four days of your period curled into a ball around a pillow, breathing as if you’re in labour, crying at the slightest provocation….this is left conveniently un-mentioned.

Hair in places I didn’t want it. Spots. Grease. Boys would laugh at the way my breasts bounced when I moved, so I stopped running. Girls would laugh at my sticking-out ears and my pouty mouth, so I wore my long hair down to cover as much as possible. My eyesight grew steadily worse until I was entirely dependant on spectacles to be able to see the faces in front of me.

I’ve written before about the peculiar distrust of your own brain that’s often felt by sufferers of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but it’s only recently that I have begun to realise the similar relationship I have with my own body. I don’t know what it’s doing. I don’t know what it wants from me.

One December, my body decided that getting rid of the freeloading little appendix we’d been carrying around for seventeen years would be painful and horrible and necessitate a traumatic hospital experience, and would therefore be an excellent strike in the war against me. (My body is an appallingly good battle tactician).

The coup de grâce though was the chronic idiopathic urticaria that came along as a result. All that meddling had royally screwed my immune system, which was now carrying out 24/7 drone strikes on itself, like an eye-twitching chain-smoking soldier who’s been in the field too long.

Chronic idiopathic urticaria.

Chronic: there was no known timeline for this one (“Could be twenty years or so,” one doctor told me cheerfully”).

Idiopathic: no known trigger.

Urticaria: raised, itchy hives on the skin. With a side-order of angioedema: swelling, in my case of lips, cheeks, joints and eyelids. Super attractive.

Countless pills, homeopathy, trips to far-away specialists, diets and relaxation exercises and blood tests blood tests blood tests. Life soon settled into a rhythm, six pills a day began to keep the condition at bay enough for me to lead a relatively normal life. But like Cinderella’s carriage at midnight, if I didn’t keep to a carefully strict timetable I would turn back into a pumpkin. I’m not even joking, that’s sometimes what I looked like.

Last december, after thirteen years of dealing with the condition, I began to push my medication timetable. I began to find that I would occasionally forget to take my pills, only remembering the next morning – a thing previously so inconceivable that I may as well liken it to forgetting to put on shoes before leaving the house. So I continued, slowly easing away, sneaking off the battlefield by playing dead and moving imperceptibly away from the fighting.

Because that’s the problem when you’re battling your own body – it is with you, everywhere you go. It owns your eyes so it sees everything, it is your skin and your muscle and your bones, so it knows every move you make.

Now, after a few months of blessed freedom, I am in the midst of a period of upheaval and stress that has resulted in bouts of broken sleep and a constantly churning stomach. I am back on medication. I have lists of foods I should and should not eat once more. My body just won’t let me go.

I am lucky in so many ways – I have had some health issues but I’ve never faced the ultimate betrayal of a degenerative disease, of cancer multiplying inside you, coming from nothing until it has utter control of you.

But I am tired of the constant struggle. I want to love my body – after all, it allows me to see beautiful people and places, to hear music that makes goose-bumps shiver up my arms. There is sour sherbet and cinnamon and lamb kofta and pepperoni pizza to taste, water to swim through, arms to hold the people I love. I don’t want it reduced to the bad feelings, to maintenance and upkeep and medication that must be taken on time, menstruation suppressed and stomach muscles deceived.

I want to be my body’s friend. I want to know what is asking of me and not begrudge the things it needs. We should be partners, but right now I feel disconnected from both my mind and body. I am a soul floating somewhere between the two, tethered but not a part of things and certainly not in control.

How do I do this? How do you start a conversation with your body? How do I call a cease-fire and bring in the negotiators in this war that’s been raging so long?

Does anyone else feel the same? I don’t know if this is peculiar to me or if the people around me just don’t feel the need to constantly and hugely over-share, like me.

I am trying. I am trying to be more careful about what I eat. I’ve joined a gym – to swim, and perhaps the odd yoga class – you won’t catch me working out. But I am trying to be healthy, and mindful, and calm. Because the more I think, and write, and ponder this everlasting battle, I wonder if perhaps my body and I are both being controlled by a shadowy overlord: the brain. And the more I think about my brain – after spending a while to marvel over how weird it is is to use my brain to think about my brain – the more I feel sorry for it. It’s done some wonderful stuff, but it has its problems. I want to help it.

And perhaps that is the key, in an odd sort of way. By feeling disconnected from my brain and body I can feel compassion, empathy, without the shame and guilt I’ve struggled with in accepting there is something wrong. I can help as I would a friend who was struggling with anxiety, or health issues. I wouldn’t judge anyone else for physical or mental problems, as I am seemingly judging myself.

So. I will give my brain some advice as a friend. I will prescribe it a remedy as if I was a concerned doctor.

Early nights. Sleep. Hot baths. Good food and good friends. S-l-o-w-n-e-s-s. Smile more. Breathe deep. Love. Make stuff but don’t judge the result.

Let it all go. Sometimes you say stupid things, sometimes you mess up. You miss deadlines, you don’t work as hard as you should, or too hard. There are things you are not good at. There are things that fail through no fault of your own, there are things that fail because, no matter how hard you tried, you didn’t do it right. And that’s okay.

Don’t hate your brain, or your body. They’re trying as hard as they can.

Be kind to yourself.

Be kind to yourself.

Be kind to yourself.

It’s The Great 2014 Round-Up!

Photo copyright of Gunnar Guðjónsson

Photo copyright of Gunnar Guðjónsson

This year has been an extraordinary one. A corker. There have been some ups and downs, some round-a-bouts, a see-saw, one of those wheel-of-death jobbies with the motorbikes. I may be getting carried away with myself a bit here, but trust me, it’s been that kind of year.

I’ve traveled more in 2014 than I think I have done in all the years leading up to it – Normandy and Iceland and Paris and New York – with friends where I could, alone if not, in love where possible.

I saw the northern lights with a group of strangers outside a porter-cabin hotel in the Icelandic highlands, and spent an hour under the dancing lights, smiling until the wind had chilled my teeth to a painful hum. The aurora borealis is the sort of thing that makes you want to hug the person next to you or tell someone you love them, and to see it alone was a bittersweet thing, but perhaps it was right. Was it eerie, my friends asked when I came home – was it weird? Gunnar, our guide, had explained earlier that day that the aurora, just like the volcanoes that loomed on every horizon, was a sign that the earth was healthy and alive. A planet without tectonics is a planet that is dead.

But even so, there was nothing remotely eerie about the lights. They were beautiful, and magnetic – they pulled us from our beds to stand in the frozen midnight air, miles from home. It felt….significant. It felt like a sign. Good things, dancing there in front of me. Good things, pole-to-pole. Maybe I’m naive, and hopeful, with a leaning towards sweeping spiritual statements, but I don’t think that matters. Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, maybe the act of hoping is as good as getting what you’re hoping for. Maybe.

2014 was also significant – for you all I’m sure – as my thirtieth year on this planet. I know, I know, my youthful face and collection of Doctor Who toys make me seem much younger. But it’s true: thirty bloody years old. I suppose I can concede that I feel more like an adult now than I ever have before, but, that’s not really saying that much, is it?

This year I dabbled in the mucky world of Tinder, briefly. Dating often made me feel like a lone lost astronaut in an alien world, where I understood neither the rules nor the reason for them (“So…okay…you might reply to my text messages – three days later, yep, okay – but we mustn’t speak on the phone? We can have sex with each other….but we mustn’t be facebook friends? O…okay….”). The whole thing ended not with a bang but with a whimper, like a sad little fart in a next-door room. But out from my slightly pathetic foray into the world of internet dating came the desire to keep the momentum going, after years of professional dust-gathering on the shelf. I’d been hammered into shape by this point: I understood that love was about feeling constantly afraid and unsure and unattractive, it was about compromise and hiding, little bits of yourself shoved down the back of the sofa and under the carpet, control underwear and pretence and omission.

Most of all, it was the finger-wagging voice in your ear telling you you can’t have everything, you know.

Until, of course it wasn’t.

This year I’ve learned that love can still be terrifying, but instead of the lost, confused wandering of before, it’s a joyfully overwhelming thing. It’s free-wheeling headlong down a hill on a bike, someone with you, sat on your handlebars – you hurtle along, neither of you ever really knowing how high this hill is or if you’ll crash horribly at the bottom or land safely in a life you’ve built together along the way. And that’s it, isn’t it? You can never really know, no one can, but it’s the trying, that’s the thing. That’s all any of us want, surely? Someone to say they’ll try with us.

And now I’m with someone I would never have expected. Who knows what will happen, and it’s not perfect (living 3000 miles apart is a little inconvenient) and neither are we, but sometimes I look at him and marvel, because it seems as though someone stuck a pipette in my ear and sucked him right out of my brain when I wasn’t looking, three-piece suit and fedora and all.

And of course I haven’t really learned anything about love, because this is the first time I’ve known it, and it comes in many guises, and I’m only thirty. Perhaps when I’m old and grey and eighty I’ll know, or perhaps I won’t.

A week or two before I went on the first date with him, and began the slow, tentative process of falling in love, I wrote a piece about what I wanted in a man and published it on this blog. If I was going to be picky I had a long list of qualities, ending in his looking exactly like the actor Kit Harrington. But I wasn’t being picky, I didn’t want to be picky. I just wanted someone kind. Well, I think I’ve found that. And as he recently told me after coming back with our drinks in a soho pub. “I just stood next to him at the bar. That guy from Game of Thrones. You know, your boyfriend. And I’m taller than him.”

So, suck it, Kit Harrington. I’m off the market.

FUCKING FINALLY.

Picau-ar-y-maen – Welsh cakes

One of my favourite childhood memories is shearing time. I grew up on a sheep farm in the middle of Wales, with my grandparents next door and my aunt, uncle and cousins across the field. Some mornings throughout the year we’d be woken up early to get dressed in overalls (the only thing that will keep the clothes of a bunch of kids marauding across the Welsh countryside relatively clean) and wellies, and head out up to the top of the farm to round-up the sheep, bringing them down to other fields, or into the pens in the paddock if it was dipping or shearing time.

I never remember being told it was shearing day, just that I would wake up to the sound of hundreds of bleating sheep, the odd rattle of corrugated metal sheet fences as they were shuttled through the pens, the sharp smell of sheep shit and wool heavy in the morning air. My brother and I would dress in an excited flurry, hopping out the door with one welly on and overalls flapping, desperate to watch.

Sheep farming is a solitary business, and it takes more than one man to shear a flock – there must have been some complicated schedule around the village, because neighbours would come to help on our farm, and my grandfather to theirs – sort of like one of those barn-raisings you see in the movies, but with less singing and dancing. And a lot more sheep.

Everyone would be enlisted – the men to corral the sheep and do the actual business of shearing, the wives to gather and roll the wool and pack into huge, oily hessian sacks tacked up between fenceposts. When I was very young I remember being allowed to climb onto the roof of the land-rover to jump on the sacks and pack down the wool, but this was soon deemed too dangerous, much to the disappointment of everyone under the age of ten.

Instead we’d be enlisted to peel a mountain of potatoes and veg in big buckets outside my Grandmother’s front door, and help prepare for the big meal to feed the army of helpers.

Welsh cakes were a fixture of the day, thick with butter or sugar. I still associate them with home and shearing, and I bake them every St David’s Day as a token offering – along with a bunch of daffodils in a vase on the table – to my Welsh blood.

But it’s when the summer starts to turn to autumn that I make them now, and today with the rain sheeting down and grim, and because I’m feeling a little homesick, it was the perfect opportunity to make them.

You can buy them in M&S, and some supermarkets, but you’re missing out on their wonder if you don’t eat them when they’re homemade and warm from the pan.

Here’s the recipe, that I copied from my mum’s hand-written recipe book. I add more fruit and spice though, since I love things fruity and spicy (wink wink nudge nudge) but it’s up to you how much you put in. Traditionally these were cooked straight on top of the stove, no need for a pan, but sadly I’ve never actually made them like that, despite having both a stove and a coal-fired rayburn back home in Wales.

  • 8 oz self-raising flour
  • 4 oz butter or margarine
  • 3 oz mixed fruit and/or sultanas
  • 3 oz caster sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 tsp mixed spice

Sift flour, sugar and spice and mix well. Rub in margarine.

Add fruit and mix well.

Beat egg lightly and add. Mix to a dough (if it’s too dry add a bit of milk)

Roll out onto a floured surface till about 1/4 inch thick.

Cut out shapes. As you can see from the pictures above, mine never turn out particularly neat (probably because I use more fruit than the recipe calls for, but, meh, it’s a price I’m willing to pay) – but I use a round cutter about 3 inches wide). Lightly grease a frying pan with margarine/butter – if you can use a cast iron pan even better.

Heat pan over medium heat, and cook cakes for approx 3 mins on each side.

Watch carefully, they burn easily! I generally lose a couple to the burning, but I eat them anyway, because waste not want not eh? You can eat them with butter or sugar sprinkled on, but I think they’re best plain, hot from the pan, and with a nice cup of tea. Eat whilst curled up next to an open fire if possible, in a nice comfy chair with a good book if not.

How To Build A Boy

Having been single for a faintly ridiculously long time now, I have more and more time to think about what I want in a relationship, should one come my way. “It’ll happen when you least expect it,” say the people in relationships, the people who think they’re qualified to say so since their singleness ended 6 months after their last relationship ended, or in the aftermath, when they were too whiplashed and reeling to be ready.

Oh my sweet summer child, I think. Such ignorance. Such innocence. I am the traumatised veteran of singleness. You don’t know man. You weren’t there.

Because the thing is, the longer you’re single, the more you think about WHY you’re single. It grows like a lengthening shadow until it consumes you and it’s pretty much all you’re thinking about, when you’re not filling your quota of daily thoughts about sex or if you locked the door and when is bin day, anyway?

It’s easy, when you’ve been single a while to let your ideals run wild like an overgrown garden. You watch too many romcoms, you read books where people meet and a choir of angels sing, their souls reach out and embrace and there are fireworks in the sky and everything is bloody beautiful. Being realistic is hard. Thinking about the give and take and the daily things that annoy the hell out of you, even in the person that you love, is difficult. He never remembers if you locked the door or when the bin day is, he’s always thinking about sex, argh!

So I could easily say that my ideal man would be kind and curious and funny and honest and passionate. He would never lie or mislead me. He would make me laugh till I cried but he would try his best to never make me cry tears of anything but laughter. He would have books – books and books and books – dog-eared with the tops of pages folded and bits underlined that he thought were funny, or interesting, bits that he was desperate to tell me about. He would never make me feel stupid or small or ridiculous for the things I liked or was interested in, the clothes I wore or the music I listened to. He would get on well with my family because he’d love them and they’d love him, but he’d also understand how important that is to me. He’d think that making a baby together is the most amazing thing two people could do, mixing up our genes in a little oven I’d carry around in my belly and making another whole living person with thoughts and ideas and loves and foibles, and isn’t that amazing?

My perfect man would sing while he cooked and drove the car and pretty much every moment in between. He’d love growing plants and painting the walls bright colours and books about vintage motorbikes. He’d dance like he literally could not keep still, hike mountains and climb trees and oh, incidentally, he’d look like Kit Harrington.

I could say all these things, if I was putting together some kind of shopping list, but the truth is the only thing I want in a man, is – other than all-important attraction and connection that is a necessity, as amorphous and invisible as that is – kindness.

I want a kind person, because all the other things come with it. A kind person will want to make you laugh, just to hear the happiness right there in your voice. A kind person will be curious, because kindness is a by-product of curiosity, because looking at the world and asking questions and trying to understand is hard, and cracks you wide open, and other people’s joy and sadness gets in, which makes you kind.

A kind person is curious, and looks at the world and asks questions and tries to understand, and it cracks you wide open which makes you vulnerable, and they know how it feels to be bare, the fontanelle-soft bits of your soul laid out at their feet, so they will always support, never mock, because they are wide open too.

A kind person is honest, because they are curious, because they look at the world and ask questions and try to understand, and it cracks them wide open, and they know the pain of deceit but it hurts like a deft knife between the ribs every single time because they are shaken to the core with the understanding that not everyone is wide open, not every one is looking and asking and trying to understand.

And a kind person is passionate, because they are curious, and honest, and because looking at the world and asking questions and trying to understand cracks you wide open, and things get in, little things, under your skin and wiggling into your heart when you lie awake at night, until you can’t help but learn more, or try them for yourself.

And a kind person is ambitious, because they are curious, and passionate, and honest, and they look at the world and ask questions and try to understand and it cracks them wide open, and they want to do better, to achieve everything they can in this life. They know that regret does not make you kind – regret turns you inside out until you can’t see the world anymore, to ask questions, to understand, to care.

A kind person loves, because they are ambitious, curious, passionate, honest. A kind person looks at the world and everything in it and it cracks them wide open and breaks their fucking heart with its loveliness and its sadness, and they understand that this is it. This is all we have. And it may be huge but it is not endless. So they love, because they understand how rare and wonderful it is that we even exist at all, even as tiny single blips of light in the universe –  but to orbit another, to be part of a family or a group, a solar system of tiny, brief, flickering lights, is nothing short of magic.