LANDSCAPE INTO LITERATURE
I spent the early years of my childhood on a remote croft, miles up an unsurfaced track, high up in the Cumbrian fells. The front and back doors opened straight out onto the hillside and cows and horses were stabled next to the living accommodation. There was no electricity or telephone; water came from a spring on the hillside, and the only toilet was an earth closet. The latter was not regarded as a green amenity in the fifties and sixties - more a social embarrassment. Nor was the spring environmentally innocent - the body parts of unfortunate frogs were liable to appear through the tap at certain times of the year and after the Sellafield 'accident' which dusted the hills with radio activity and caused my father to pour buckets of milk down the drain for weeks on end, it was invisibly contaminated. But we still drank the water - there was no alternative.
My parents were 'off-comers' - my mother a land girl displaced by the war; my father the child of an Irish immigrant family, cattle drovers and small farmers, displaced by poverty. He loved the land, loved farming, but could not afford to buy his own farm. So he laboured for another land owner in return for the croft. The people who wrenched a living from the land around us belonged to that land as we could not. They could all trace their ancestry back a thousand years to the Vikings who had settled there. Our neighbours never used their surnames but were known by their holdings - Willy the Crewe, Bobby the Row, Maggie the Inskip. The landscape was named in Norse - a river valley was a Wath or a Syke, streams were Becks, and the small strip of tree shelter behind the house was a Garth. The dialect spoken by everyone looked towards Oslo rather than London. It was a strong language, with few passive verbs or feminine word endings - if you were busy you were 'thrang', talk was 'crack'. It was muscular on the tongue and picturesque on the ear. The Queen's English spoken at home or at school seemed colourless by comparison.
Most people over fifty had never been further than the nearest small town in their entire lives and few of them could read or write more than their names. Having no electricity, there was no television to fill the evenings. People walked to each other's houses and had 'good crack'. As they talked, they peopled the landscape around me with stories.
Old Sworley who had hanged himself in the barn believing that he had killed his wife by pitching her down the well (in fact she'd managed to climb out and run off to Carlisle). The woman whose ghost was supposed to walk the track on winter nights, where her children had been lost in a snow storm. How people had burned their furniture to keep warm through the winter of '47. How Billy the Hope had spent three days floundering through the snow with a horse and sled to fetch the supplies for his starving family. His story, as they told it, was a tale worthy of a Greek epic.
And on those fireside nights I learned my own family stories as I listened to my father and grandfather talking about ancestors who went across the sea on sailing ships to bring back cargos of bananas and marry exotic women; of others who drove herds of cattle from Ireland to London; or despaired over errant children, disinherited their offspring and fought bitterly over religion. These were stories they had learned from their own grandparents. I was aware, even at nine or ten, that I was listening to an unbroken memory line going back two hundred years - stories passing like heirlooms from one generation to another. The tellers seemed to know exactly what great great grandmother Bridie had said to her daughter Frances Theresa when she came home with a baby she wasn't supposed to have - fathered by a footman at the house where she was in service. The fine rooms, the uniforms, the very porcelain crockery she washed in a lead lined sink were all there in the story, leaping like a hologram in the firelight before my eyes. The account of my great great uncle Edward who had stood preaching the gospel of temperance outside his father's pub on a Tyneside quay, was pure Catherine Cookson. It was hardly surprising that I grew up with a love of history, language and narrative that was somehow equated with the wild, untamed landscape beyond the kitchen door.
My parents were both book lovers. My mother could recite huge chunks of Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth. My father was more of a Marcus Aurelius man and very fond of the King James bible. Every three weeks the library van would arrive at a road junction one and a half miles away and my mother and I would trek down to it to collect the maximum allowance of books - which, as a fast reader, had to be made to last the full three weeks. It wasn't long before the reading became writing and by the time I was eight or nine I was composing poems and stories of my own. I spent my senior school years writing for teenage magazines - witty pieces about trying to be a trendy teenager in Wellingtons, or the dangers of milking cows in stiletto heels. Like many a budding lakeland author I had to escape the influence of all the other writers who had become associated with the landscape - particularly William Wordsworth. The answer seemed to be to leave. I was sixteen, restless, my head full of poetry and the thirst for new experiences. I left for London, swearing never to return until I'd achieved my ambitions. I wanted to go and live in the real world, rather than a rural backwater where life was a hundred years behind the times, to go to discos and have proper plumbing. Above all, I wanted to be a writer.
But in London I was lost. Naive, hopelessly unsophisticated, I hated city life. It was arid and claustrophobic. I hated the cramped bedsit with its unending view of more bedsit windows, the crowded tubes, the tedious clerical job, concrete horizons, grimed with soot and human detritus and more people than I could ever have imagined in one place at one time. I felt stifled, lonely and afraid, but was too proud to go home. Far from inspiring me to write, I dried up altogether.
A impulsive teenage marriage was followed by ten years following my husband around Africa and the Middle East. My primitive childhood proved to be good training for life in undeveloped countries. Exile sharpened feelings and memories and I began to write about home - not England, but Cumbria. One of my first broadcast pieces for the Qatar Broadcasting Corporation was about life on a Cumbrian hill farm from the point of view of an expatriate wife. I knew then, as soon as the words took shape, that I would have to go back.
A few more years spent in an English city, first as a wife and then as a single parent only confirmed that knowledge. I took a university degree, living in a cramped roof top flat with four children all at different educational stages, fantasising about space and solitude. I began to dream about the Lake District and woke one morning crying to realise that I was still in my city flat
The first two biographies were written in that crowded, noisy flat while the children were at school, or late at night when they were all in bed. I also began to write poetry which found an audience and a publisher - writing about what I cared most deeply about - the landscape of my childhood and the people who inhabited it. Not the romantic landscape of tourist postcards, but the reality of scratching a living on marginal land, where severe weather can wipe out a flock of sheep in a few hours and make the difference between survival or bankruptcy. And then in 1991 I was finally able to return home. At first I was treated as an off-comer, because I had lost my accent and become a stranger. But being there, reconnecting with the person I had been as a child was very important for me. For the first time in my life I ceased to feel like a displaced person and felt whole. And it had other consequences.
One day, researching a short piece for a school's programme, I discovered in the Dove Cottage library, manuscripts of journals and letters written by the women of the Wordsworth and Coleridge families. I remembered how, as a teenager, I had been offered the option of boarding at Keswick Grammar School in order to avoid the long journey to and from school during the week and had visited the dormitory, housed in Greta Hall where Coleridge and Southey had lived with their families and which had been hardly altered since they left. The Wordsworth legend of Dove Cottage and the daffodils was also part of my childhood. Now I realised that William and Dorothy had like me been returning exiles and that Southey and Coleridge were two of the original off-comers. To a young girl Wordsworth had seemed something of an enigma - how had such poetry come from such a dry stick of a man? But Coleridge had always attracted me - by his reckless spirit, his enormous, visionary intellect, an idealist without a scrap of commonsense. Southey I knew little about. As I read through the archive boxes of unpublished material, I became fascinated by the lives of their respective wives, sisters and daughters and the light their journals and letters cast on the characters of the men they lived with.
I decided to write the story of the 'Lake Poets' from the women's point of view. My own childhood - familiarity with unheated stone houses and the peculiarities of black kitchen ranges, isolation and the problems of transport in remote places - gave me a substantial insight into the privations they had had to endure. Their lives were very far from the Romantic legend of love and poetry in a cottage. There is nothing romantic about standing in a damp 'back' kitchen on cold flagstones with an icy gale blowing under the door putting wet sheets through a gigantic mangle with hands raw from the combination of water and cold and the abrasive surfaces of heavy linen bedclothes. I decided to write it as a story, rather than an academic history and the Passionate Sisterhood became my most successful book, but it would never have been written if I hadn't returned to live in the Lake District.
I go back regularly to the farm where I was brought up. My father's ashes are scattered there; his grit lodging stubbornly among the tufts of feral grass he spent a lifetime trying to tame. My mother, true to the tradition of ambivalence, remembers the flagstones and the mangle with a shudder and has requested a more comfortable resting place. I will probably follow my father and ask to have my dust returned to the hills where I was born and brought up and where I feel part of an ongoing narrative about people and their place in the landscape.
© Kathleen Jones
From: 'Landscape into Literature: A Writers' Anthology', Edited by Kay Dunbar, published by Green Books 2005. Also includes pieces by Brian Patten, Jane Gardam, Penelope Lively, Grevel Lindop, Hunter Davies, Ronald Blythe and Richard Mabey