This post is autobiographical. My roots of alchemy are in childhood, so here are some transformative impressions, verified by my mother’s letters to her parents, which were kept. The old alchemists valued what was considered worthless in the world. The private yet cosmic wealth of our pre-school sensations gets replaced by literacy – the separation and confinement of that limitless feeling into little lines and boxes. When we are on the verge – four, five, six years old – we embody clear messages of our destiny, which soon become opaque and forgotten. Pre-school memories are sensations, broad, precise and unique. I hope my share may inspire a few readers to recapture their own!
My family had to move house six times before I was ten. We settled in different parts of England: each is a home of my hexagonal soul. Here is Part One – because I wrote about it a lot – of my memories of Scotland, the Yorkshire Moors and Cornwall: 1949-55. (See also my earlier post, The Wrestlers).
I am the oldest of three children. A boy was expected, and my mother says he might have been called David. My birth on 14 January 1949 at about 7.30pm was rather a difficult one. I was a deep transverse arrest, and had to be removed with forceps under general anaesthesia. My mother felt isolated and in despair during her long and very painful labour. She was not allowed to see me all night, until the 6am feed-time, and was convinced her baby was severely deformed. My appearance was not reassuring. My head was grossly disfigured by a blood blister.
Peter sent a drunken telegram to his parents-in-law in Morocco: MARY IS WITH CHILD NO LONGER GOODY GOODY GIRL CHILD CALLED JANE REMOVED LAST NIGHT O HAPPY FOURTEENTH BOTH WELLER THAN – – PETER and received the following reply: STILL WISH TO KNOW IF SHE HAS YELLOW WHISKERS OUR LOVE TO YOU ALL JIM AND HELEN. On his visits to the hospital, he found his daughter rather a fearsome sight, and climbed into bed with Mary. He left mud all over the sheets, and the nurses were furious.
I was born in Ashford, Kent. My mother was in the middle of making marmalade – Peter had to take over this chore, much to his disbelief. They had digs near Crundale – two rooms and a pre-first-world-war cooking stove on the stairs going down to the cellar – at Huntstreet. a tumbledown farm deep in the local hills, with Jim and Vera White and their family of growing boys. Peter’s exams at Wye Agricultural College became irrelevant alongside the active work he did on the farm, assisting Jim White. When I was nine months old, he got a job on an experimental sheep farm in Glensaugh, Scotland, and we had the first of our many moves. We travelled by sleeper first class at great expense, because Peter would not allow Mary to breastfeed in public.
My sister was born in August, after we’d settled in our new home. She was a real baby, round and plump with deepset eyes like a quince. They called her Caroline, but ‘Quince’ became her name. During the birth, Mam my grandmother took me to Cardiff to visit “a very old lady” – Jim’s mother. In my earliest coherent memory, I am sitting on my pot at some point during this long journey in the train, and Mam is sitting near me on the lavatory in her rock-like way. After “Calaline” was born, Mam brought me back to Breck, and stayed for a while to look after us.
We lived at Breck Farm in Bransdale, where my father managed some 2.000 acres of sheep. In the fields, Daddy wore a kilt, and no pants. The male sheep, the tups, looked like him. On a narrow path through the heather one day, I came upon a large black and yellow serpent, velvety and striped like a bumble bee, and coiled up tight like an emblem. As I stopped, it uncoiled and slid away into the ground. I ran home and drew it for my parents: but no one knows what it was.
One day – I don’t know in which part of the country this was – Mummy and Daddy left me with a friend of theirs, while they went to look at a farm. I left the house, and went to find them. It was not our home, Bransdale, we were away, staying somewhere, but I was confident that I remembered the roads we had come by. It took longer and was much further than I expected. I came to a desolate farmhouse at a crossroads, and knew I was lost. The house said nothing. It was silent. On that grey open crossroads, the landscape in which I was swallowed up, cried and cried with me. It can never find me again. It can’t find its way home!
Then in the distance from the end of one of those four roads, a small black car appeared, and came near, nearer: and my parents were inside, they were looking for me. I got in, I said, “It’s a long way for children to have to walk.”
One autumn at Breck, there was an immense storm, and the tiles were blown off the roof of our house and crashed around in the yard. Daddy and Mummy strove, bent double into the gale, across the yard and under fire, to shut up the hens. For my birthday that winter, Daddy made me a red wooden cart with wheels, to pull around the yard, and a strong wooden cradle with rockers and a little hood for Susan, my doll. I saw him using the wood-plane in his tool-shed at the back of the house, but was told not to look – it was supposed to be a surprise.
A large family of Polish refugees called Kozera worked with us. Their mother “Mrs Kos” looked rather like baby Quince, and was very fond of her. She helped with the heavier housework. She had black hair in a bun, a kind round face and a big bottom. She worked very hard and her stockings fell down. She was piously shocked at Gaudier’s naked bas-relief The Wrestlers on the wall, and averted her eyes from it when she ‘did’ that room. Her big sons had spots, and their names were “Vladisloff” and “Stanislaus”. Their father, Pop, looked after the farm horses, and Radek from Cowpike Farm (who hated the Kozeras) drove the grey tractor. The hay was cut, and everyone picnicked at work in the fragrant fields among the bright flowers. How tall the grass was! taller than me.
When I was very small I watched the sheep at the Cockayne Ridge farm being dipped, one raw day in early spring. The men pushed them into the dark water with a broom. Then I wanted to do it too; I fell into the deep, black, stinging, tarry disinfectant. I dreamt about this many times since! I was fished out wailing, and taken home wearing Daddy’s shirt, teeth chattering. He worked for the rest of that day bare-backed in the biting March wind. The lane away from Breck rose and fell in humps, to Mrs Cos’s house. Further still down the dale, was a dank-smelling derelict stone house by the road. Daddy called this place “The Shambles”.
At four or five years old, I became quite suddenly a prodigious full-time artist. Peter says he saw me stare vacantly, two fingers in mouth, at a sheep being sheared, and then draw it accurately eight months or so later. Mummy made big drawing books out of cheap lining-paper as fast as I filled them. There is a taste of fresh boiled egg, as I drew: and the great scribble of my blue crayon on paper, on the kitchen table. How white the paper was, rather shiny and rustly. Mummy would unroll a length across the table, folding it back and forth. Then she rolled the whole thing the other way to straighten the curl, slit along the folds with a kitchen knife, and stitched them with a big needle and coloured darning wool. I sometimes drew all day long, eight hours at a stretch, months on end, my inner world – a release of creative tension?
I had vivid dreams and nightmares about Daddy. He was an intense and red fiery apparition, shocked from the war. I drew the Babies. My mother had lost one, and I felt that trouble. I drew hundreds of enormous pod-head babies and their weary mothers – the ready inspiration was a pile of baby magazines someone had left. I drew trains and squirrels with big pod-shape tails, I drew houses and childrens’ parties in purple and yellow crayon, I drew my daydreams about a great town called Gathertegen, filled with toyshops and the lucky children who lived there – Sarah and Jesus, the little girls Fingaloo and Crangt, and their nasty brothers Furt and Fart. Fingaloo had long yellow hair, and Crangt had black hair and dark eyes. She was having a party. I drew her running out of her house in Gathertegen into the violet purple night. All her friends ran out with her, but you couldn’t see them, because they ran behind, and exactly copied her movement. Crangt had beautiful round black eyes and a ribbon. Behind her, every window in her house was lit up with her party. This drawing is coloured yellow and purple like a pansy flower.
I met and played with a neighbour’s small boy called Tom-aas, and was fascinated by what happened when he sat on his pot. My mother got tired after a while of my drawing him and of penises like strings of sausages. Why not draw something else now? What about a lovely picture of a mummy feeding her baby? A series of patient madonnas with voracious babies at the end of drooping breasts followed. I also drew some people with their eyes all over the place, like Picasso’s monsters, which frightened me. My parents showed all this to their friend Herbert Read, but he didn’t put it in any of his books. My mother selected and kept a few of the best drawing-books, and many loose sheets. She said if she kept them all, we would have needed an extra removals van.
I was taken to dancing lessons, for me to learn to be with other children. But I danced around the room in the opposite direction to everyone else. Mummy was angry, and took me home. “I’ll never take you to dancing again.” Quince, who was always good, sucked her thumb shrewdly.
Peter says Quince was never good, but did suck her thumb shrewdly when she was not falling on her nose. What I actually mean is that she knew which side her bread was buttered.
I loved to dress up. We had a wireless, which I called The Babies, because it said This is the BBC. A vertical line of light displayed red and black markers of European city wavelengths, but I never could see the Babies inside, however hard I looked. When any kind of music was played I danced, especially if Mam had made me a new cotton dress.
I had a collection of elderly teddies, furry creatures, a black ragdoll called Beadie and one solemn china-doll, Susan. They were called “The Friends”. When Susan’s eyes got broken, she went away to hospital in York to have her head cut open, and came back with everything fixed, and wearing a new blue knitted dress, for my birthday.
Mummy painted Daddy standing by our gramophone with its big horn. When my parents listened to The Babies on the gramophone with its big horn, they had to jump up every few minutes to turn over the record, wind up the turntable, and sharpen or replace the red wooden styluses. The Babies kept them very busy. The Babies cried and sang, shouted and loved, like the wind, the curlews and the hills.
There was union with inner things and the things around, as with my parents. I would later suffer with my separation from that innocence; the landscape and its visions and sounds. From an early age I became a hunter for my home, for the unending “oneness”.
At Breck Farm I am filled with the elder brown contour of the hills across the Dale, and with the tough springy heather around my house. Those contours are my song. There is a wood near the house, and a river, dark, golden and gurgling over stones, where we take off all our clothes for bath, in summer. In winter, we wear a hat-a-coat-a-trousers and trudge in the crunchy snow. Down the dale, in the village, there was a party with Father Christmas all in red and white; each child was given a parcel.
Daniel came to stay with us in winter-time. He was on holiday from the sea-side at Scarborough. He stood very tall, with long ears, a rough grey coat, and an oaty smell. Whenever he opened up his big teeth, he said HEEHAW. Mummy tied a sack around him, and put Quince and me onto his back, to ride him in the snow.
The flowers in the ground were sun’s warmth itself. I played in patches of dark macadam and grass in the farmyard at Breck, and into the field. Daddy helped mummy sheep to have their babies. He pulled them out of their tummies from under the tail. He took their small wet hooves and they slid out sticky like yellow flowers in the sunshine. We had a lamb in the kitchen, Mummy put him in the oven to warm up, his name was Rossiter, and Quince fed him milk from a brown beer-bottle with a rubber teat. We drank his rubbery warm milk from this bottle too. My sister ate grass, just like Daniel. She chewed it into dark green slimy lumps. When I was little I picked up pebbles and held them in my mouth. When Mummy came I spat them all out so she wouldn’t see. People thought I might swallow them, and be ill.
My grandfather Jim loves pebbles. He says a pebble comes from God before any work of art. People find and give him pebbles from around the world: stones. He carries pocket stones.
I wore the grey jerseys and breeks that Mam knitted, climbed the drystone walls and gates, sang to myself and ground my teeth. Sometimes the air, the fields, the Cockayne Ridge, the brown moorland, the sky, stopped inside me, quivered and roared with a loud sound inside my arms and legs, in all of my being. It was too huge and I couldn’t move. And with this strange feeling, I had my own names for the dandelions that stood so tall, like me. They were Brave Golden Clocks. Other flowers that flew and shimmered in the air were ‘Butterflowers’.
I had an infant phobia about motor cars breaking down. We had a battered old Ford, made partially of wood, which often failed on the high moorland roads, or refused to start in the dark garage and had to be cranked. Daddy flew into terrifying rages, swore and kicked her. I sat inside the bad car, paralysed, pushing the seat in front to make it go. The wail of the starter, the grinding violent clank of the crank and the stupid helpless family sitting inside it, went on and on, and still it wouldn’t move. It was obscene. It was murderous, and my inside turned to water with sickness, sexual arousal and hysterical tears. I would get out and run away yelling. My mother says that they had to leave me in the house while they got the car started, and then come to fetch me. Even the waiting was a horror. During the rest of my childhood, with my parents’ help, I worked to rationalise this phobia, learnt about engines, starter-motors, drove tractors and so on. But until I was well into adulthood, the sound of a cold car filled me with lurching horror and disgust. I can even now feel that sick hatred, though I am able to smile.
Yet, when the car was not broken down, our journeys in it were a joy. I am told – and I do remember – that I sat on Mummy’s lap in the front and sang. I don’t know what music this was. I sang the journey as it flowed through me, and what I saw. When we moved from the Yorkshire moors to the South of England, I sang without stopping all the way to Surrey, a journey then of many and several hours. I felt even then, I must keep the record, tell the story, keep the car going perhaps, for the others. My singing celebrated the landscape, like a little work of unification. (I still did this, years later in Somerset: I hear something of the tune.)
I dreamed of noises that I couldn’t shut out wherever I went in the house, and about stupid little Ford cars across the Dale, toiling at road barriers on steep hills and being punished. I dreamed – through the fiery apparitions of Daddy opening his mouth wide – of caverns which opened into endless sequences of archways. They fell open in Daddy’s mouth into more archways, flights of steps and caverns opening into … It happened in a flash and had no end. I called them “visions”. With my eyes shut or open, they wouldn’t stop, and filled the air, red and dark; they shouted and flickered. And at other times, a range of high spiky sharp mountains screamed; they were myself and I rushed to my parents’ bed.
GALLERY of sketches done in 1987
Sometimes I lost my boundaries into a “roundy” box with no edge, into the vibration, sound and sinew of blood, fury and stillness, as light and as the gods. Everything got engulfed as this sensation. Within it, and as it, I could do nothing but be patient. I didn’t really mind it, it didn’t frighten me, or make me cry, but it filled the world, and it was overwhelming. Slowly only could I walk in it, like the Brave Golden Clocks.
(Much later in life, I began to recall this again, with a deep throaty breath. I called it the “hermes sensation” because it brought a blessing of the pre-verbal angel: the truth before we memorize the words that cover it, and which we cannot quite recapture.)
In other early dreams, all the windows in familiar stone houses in our Yorkshire dale would suddenly disappear. They were blank and I cried with terror. There was a long back garden, which I reached recurrently through the dark stairway to the cellar from Granny and Granpa’s panelled hallway at Fairmile in Surrey. I came out into that garden, and it was filled everywhere with blood and offal and sorrow and wounds, like a butcher’s shop. I had to work my way through all this to reach my mother, whom I could see by a tree in the next garden. I dreamed about my little sister trapped on the lavatory trying to give birth, with great hunks of gristly blood coming out of her bottom.
We went to France to see Jim and Mam in their new house at Les Charlottieres near Blois and the “Cossong” river. There was a smell of fresh walnuts in the trees. My mother took me walking, and we saw a row of tall slim trees along the edge of the field. They waved about and cried and cried in a high pitch of pain, and the noise was deafening and I screamed with fear. Mummy brought me back to them, patiently step by step. She explained to me that they are poplar trees. They are not hurt or crying, it is the wind blowing in their shimmering little shiny leaves.
It took a long time to approach them, until I understood. I love the sound of the poplar wind. I love their shimmer and song and the way they stretch all their arms up to the sky and wave together. Perhaps one of them had a smart plaster on it. I loved having a plaster put on my knee when I was cut or hurt. And I dreamed about trying to run, and being unable to move except very very slowly. This is what it feels like, to be a small child between dimensions; between no-time and time, between the dew of heaven and the in-car-nation.
My mother went to hospital and gave birth to another baby sister. None of us ever saw Bridget. She died in York a few hours after she was born. She had “something wrong with her spine”- a pair of gills showing. She had been an unwanted child, and this was a deep sorrow for my mother, who was never even given her to hold.
I had to go to school, and where we now lived was too far away from any town. We had to move house. There were six long months of snow that winter. As we packed up in April, the wide patches of snow melted and the grass came through in streaks, dank and brown, and grew green and strong again. The pale and delicate violet harebells danced and bloomed. I waved bye-bye with deep feeling, to the harebells. I knew I would not see them again.
photo by karen woolley
Quince and I made ourselves useful during the removal. We worked hard, wrapping up small planks of wood in brown paper, and carried them to the Removals lorry.
We moved to Cornwall, near the sea. In Surrey we stayed a few nights with my father’s parents Granny and Granpa in “the world’s great snare for mothers of small children” to rest before continuing West to our new home. They had a lot of unsuitable toys and breakable ornaments on coffee tables. The people in our new home in Cornwall, had not moved out of it yet, so we stayed a fortnight at Granny and Granpa’s while the Removals lorry sat in Newcastle awaiting orders, with all our stuff in it.
The social shock of Caerhays village school and of literacy was tearful and exhausting. I learned to read at 6, discovered (overwhelmingly) fairy stories, and became a bookworm. In Cornwall the hollyhocks stood tall. There were jewel-blue cornflowers and vivid scabious, white convolvuli in damp ground-leaves, delphiniums like blue and yellow candles, and scarlet pimpernels so tiny and glad. The shy herb robert opened rose-pink in the woody hollows, glad yellow daffodils danced, and shy primroses courted the spring. Those flowers and their names delighted me. Mummy and Daddy had first decided to get married when one of them saw a primrose in the autumn and knew only the other would see it too, with the same amazement. We made them tell us this story again and again.
All these flowers were angels in heaven upon the ground, growing in hosts of summer and spring. Among them, I drew bright princesses in their gardens. They had straight Egyptian noses, protruding upper lip and big white teeth – mine were falling out. They wore their black hair braided down their long necks and past their shoulders. Their skin was red because they were sunburnt. Their eyes were downcast, and they were covered, covered with jewels.
Here is a sensation which comes to me direct from six-years-old in Cornwall. It falls on a London pavement now, and fills me with an unconditional wellbeing … our white house at Ventonwyn, and red geraniums with their warm and pungent scent … the joy in the lane, in the warm sun, acceptance of each sound, shape and fragrance of life … even bad noises. There is an unconditional connectedness. It has no edge.
My new baby brother was born, in Redruth. He was called Simon. My mother had a marvellous labour, and a very hot summer followed, and he lay on the lawn and turned conker brown; his blond hair bleached snow white.
Obviously I remember the idyllic bits best. But a child strives with her grownups’ unspoken troubles also, with those of the world: and farm buildings would turn blank; and great fields of sorrow caught me where I couldn’t explain: only the wind, the bubbling curlews, the snow.
photo on flikr.com by salmando
My adventure invites fellow travellers. I am a poet, an artist and a seer. I welcome conversation among the PHILO SOFIA, the lovers of wisdom.
This blog is a vehicle to promote also my published work – The Sacred India Tarot (with Rohit Arya, Yogi Impressions Books) and The Dreamer in the Dream – a collection of short stories (0 Books). Watch this space.
All art and creative writing in this blog is copyright © Janeadamsart 2012. May not be used for commercial purposes. May be used and shared for non-commercial means with credit to Jane Adams and a link to the web address https://janeadamsart.wordpress.com/