My son is easily pleased.
This morning, as we made our way through Manchester city centre, he wanted nothing more than to stop and watch the water fountains in Piccadilly Gardens.
Gardens. If ever there was a misnomer then that’s it. There’s barely anything green about it. Certainly nothing floral.
There is a much maligned concrete wall, dubbed by locals the Berlin Wall. What exactly the design was meant to represent I don’t know. Man seems to have a propensity for turning beauty into ugliness.
There was an attempt to spruce things up a bit last year. The council returfed the area, but with a deadly dovetail of hot weather and a failed sprinkler system, it turned out to be a dry brown mess.
Both a gateway and the city’s heart, Piccadilly Gardens could be Manchester’s showpiece open space.
It is a focal point now, but for not the right reasons. Crime is rising, the homeless are everywhere, punctured by the ragged, stiff-silhouetted users on Spice. A place best avoided at night.
I don’t know what the answer is. Heaven knows the council and the police have tried over the years. I think they are about to try again.
But this morning, this warm, July morning on the cusp of a heatwave, my son, oblivious to its sullied reputation, could see something more.
Water, sunlight, an anachronistic wonder.
I’ve just heard that Margot Kidder has died, aged 69, and immediately my mind turned to Saturday matinees at the local cinema in the late seventies/early eighties. The cinema is long gone but the memories remain.
And of you, too, Lois Lane.
September already. How soon the seasons pass.
Harvest time, fruits of the earth. Our spirits warm with the russet colours outside. I took the dog for a run over the fields this morning. Wind-frenzied trees could not dislodge raucous crows, shy jays, and their more cocksure magpie cousins. Though these are the early days, there is definitely a sense of being on the cusp of autumn.
Soon we will see the squirrels working overtime among the toadstools and wild flowers, the martins, swallows and other migrants gathering to make the long journey back to African shores.
Much to my wife’s distress, daddy long legs seem to be everywhere. One got in as I went out with the dog (again) last night, as my better half was busy preparing a meal for the next day. I said “Don’t harm it, I will catch it when I get back in”.
On my return she said, apologetically, “I’m sorry I had to kill it-it was ferocious”.
Lions. Tigers. Sharks. Daddy long legs. Ferocious.
I’ve always been an outdoor person. I’ve always been moved by nature, the landscape, and the elements. Maybe that is what gave me a poetic voice, and an early sense of spirituality. I guess I am just one small step away from being a pagan. The appeal of Celtic and Native American spirituality. Perhaps this is where they can find common ground with Christianity-the idea of the goodness of creation, shot through with spirit. The whole of nature ablaze and alive and sacred.
My favourite place is Orkney. The sky there is vast and all encompassing, the sea wild and hungry and raging on all sides. There is something different there about the light, changing as it does above the ancient ancestors, long entombed in chambered darkness. When I haven’t visited for a while, I begin to get my Orkney Itch.
Some of my earliest memories involve my reaction to the elements and the outdoors. I can recall being very young, in a park in Heywood. My grandfather pushing me in a swing, and around 100 metres away there was a huge tree, swaying from side to creaking side in a gale. I loved it.Today I still love to get outside on windy days. As a postman I once did my round in 100 mph winds. It was fantastic.
Another memory is of my Dad walking me to school as a four year old Reception pupil. Dressed in a fur-lined parka coat and a leather satchel over my shoulder, I was fascinated by the dew that clung to every blade of morning grass as we cut across the fields. The sheen of diamonds and the cut of the fresh air.
Not long into my school life I caught chicken pox, and had to stay off school. As morning phased into afternoon, I remember being knelt on the couch, watching the heavy rain beat against the window, trickles racing each other down to the sill. Soon we moved house, and a new primary school beckoned. Being new, and initially friendless, in the inner mirror of my mind I can still see myself stood on the edge of the playground at playtime, watching a gull glide effortlessly above on a current of air, drifting over our fields of triumph. These are the fields that I now walk with my dog, the school having been demolished, the site now given to wilderness.
I stood recently on that very same spot, thirty years later. Guess what? There was a gull-drifting above me. I watched it for a while. Joining up the dots.
It was as a pupil of this school that I first walked in woodland. The teacher that took us was called Miss Ambler-Ambler the Rambler. Being in deep woods, far from any concrete path or road, in that complete stillness,had an inner effect on me. I felt it in a juvenile, inarticulated way. From that day I have walked coasts and forests and mountains and river ways. I experience it still in an almost shamanic way, without the trance bit. Pretentious though that sounds.
Of all the seasons-and I love them all, my favourite is winter, in all its transformative beauty. The iron earth and starry nights.
And my favourite half of the year begins with autumn.
And autumn begins with September.
The first inward-turning month. As the nights grow longer, and rain hammers against the doors in an attempt to seek entry, it is the perfect time for reading, writing, and pampering our interior selves.
It is the time to quietly withdraw and conserve our energy by lamplight and fireside.
Oh and did I mention-it is also the time that the kids go back to school 🙂
Recently was the fifteen-year anniversary of the September eleventh attacks. For my generation, this was our JFK moment, where everybody remembers where they were when they first heard, or saw, the terrorist atrocity taking place.
At the time I was a postman here in Manchester, and had just caught up on my sleep with a couple of hours in the afternoon. I saw it all unfold, disbelievingly, as I was getting ready to pick my daughter up from school.
On the mantelpiece was a postcard, having arrived that day, from a woman who I had known for many years. We’d first met in infant school, and became best friends in high school, that close friendship continuing long into my adult life. The postcard was from New York, and among the scribbled lines was a throwaway comment that she was intending to go up one of those towers that I’d just seen erupting into flames.
After a few frantic calls, (in the days before we both had mobiles), I discovered that her mother had heard from her: she was safe in L.A. She had been about to travel to San Francisco until all of the planes had been grounded, stranding her there.
This was the first shaking of my complacency about our long relationship.
Today we are married, with children. I’ve seen the photographs she took from the top of one of those towers just a couple of days before it collapsed, unable to fathom the sheer desperation that could force people to jump from such a height.
I wrote a poem not long after that tragic day, a long one called American Trilogy. It wasn’t about 9/11 per se, but it did feature. How could it not.
The poem didn’t make into my book. Perhaps one day I will publish it in its entirety.
Here I post the closing lines, referring to that day and the idea that my lifelong friend was over there. Somewhere.
I received word across
that your wings
were torn upon the besieged
your eyes reaping shelter
from a holocaust
A pre-emptive strike
at my complacency,
praying for an eye in the storm.
And you, snug in a motherland
of flag-waving lambs
where everyone wants to be quarterback,
everyone wants to be General,
everyone wants to lay the homecoming queen.
Icons in an American dream.
©Andrew James Murray
In my online meandering, I came across this great photograph of hop pickers in Kent, sometime in the early 1900’s. All those kids in the great outdoors, grass in their hair, dirty faces, dirty hands. Just like when I was a kid. Except I didn’t know I was born, as the saying goes.
You know how much I love old photographs? I went looking for more.
I reckon the two adults on the left of this photograph are sisters. What do you think? Maybe all three? Look at the little Shirley Temple in the centre.
When the time was right, farmers down in the South of England would advertise for people to head over and stay for six weeks, picking hops. Invariably those responding would be women and children who didn’t have other jobs to do. They would respond, swapping the polluted air of the cities for the clean, fresh air of the rural land. A working holiday, if you like. The two girls at the very front are speaking conspiratorially about the photographer. Listen hard, you may hear them.
I like the way the girl third from the left is looking at the girl to her side, laughing eyes, secretive thoughts. I reckon the other girl has had a ticking off from her Mum here, looking down sulkily. That’s the thing: we will never know. We can make up anything we want. At the other end of the shot: nice wellies.
I had problems making this photograph larger, but I still want to include it. The ancestors insisted: us too. I’m sure you can make it bigger on your tablets with a bit of index finger-thumb stretching magic.
How confident (and truculent) does the lad in the centre look? I’ve seen a similar photograph of a young John Lennon with that very same expression. And how feisty does that terrier look? Put him down and you just know he’s gonna scamper right after the photographer.
I know they are working, but most of the people in these shots look a lot happier (and healthier) than the folk we see in contemporary portraits, working in the mills and factories. Perhaps it is just the outdoor setting causing me to read this into them. Always the subjective optimist.
These fading photographs of Southern England have got me all of a sudden sensing the approaching summer.Can you smell the meadow flowers? Taste that scrumpy cider?
If any of you are wondering why I love old photographs so much, see the highlighted post below: A Sense Of Absence.https://cityjackdaw.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/a-sense-of-absence/