… there you are.
I couldn’t have done this hobo nomadic thing before now. I guess I could, but it would have been very different. Before it would have been about getting away from something or trying to find something I didn’t have. I don’t feel like there’s anything I want to get away from or anywhere that I’m trying to get to today. There are some things that I feel like I should do – some things that are just in my head and on scraps of notebook and stuff at the moment and it would be disappointing for them to stay there forever, but I feel like (at least for today) I’ve let go of the fantasy that “When I have X…” or “When I’m Y enough…” or “When I’ve done Z…” then I’ll be able to be happy etc.
One of the things that I’ve come to know better through wandering is the recognition that any turmoil, drama or crisis is happening within me, it’s not the outside circumstances, it’s not the people I’m hanging out with, it’s the story that I have playing in my head. That’s what causes me any pain or disturbance. Other people may be sharing in it, but they’re having a different experience, for different reasons and doubtless playing out a different drama. And I’m 100% responsible for my own feelings about it. And that empowers me greatly, because then there’s something I can do about how I feel, I’m not dependent on anyone else for it. I can look back at my early decisions about the world and see where I’m fighting to be right about something in the face of the present reality. Because those feelings most often stem from wanting to be right about the world, wanting things to be as I’ve decided them. Wanting them to be as I decided probably 40 years ago or more.
What sort of decisions am I talking about? All sorts of things, but you can recognise them primarily by the toddler tone “I don’t need anyone’s help; Nobody loves me; Girls always steal your stuff and break it”. They’re just a selection of my favourites.
The ones that give me most pain now are things like “I don’t fit in, I’m not like everyone else, I’m not welcome here.” I remember clearly when I thought that for the first time. You see the big white van in the picture above? In 1969, people didn’t park their cars up in front of their houses like that, all the houses had walls and front gardens. But on that spot in front of the house that now has a white van, when I was four years old and newly arrived in the Croft, I went over to play with the kids from the street for the first time. I was wearing a grey duffle coat. I don’t know what happened really, some pushing, shoving, shouting? demands for money? a big push, a punch perhaps, tears? - but I came away quite convinced that I didn’t fit in that I was not welcome. And I strongly associated it with that spot. Whenever I wanted to replay the episode to bolster my belief that I’m an outsider (probably with embellishment to suit the context) I saw the toggle on my duffle coat, the lichen on the garden wall, the cold greyness of the pavement. These are the ways that we keep these things alive. A strong association with a place. And in time I’ve come to imagine that it’s still there, some remnant of the scuffle, the emotional upheaval, marking the spot in the road.
I went back there a week or so ago and knew that it wasn’t there at all. It’s never been anywhere but in my head. It’s just not there, it’s forgotten by all but me. What if I was wrong in the initial formation of that decision, what if I was wrong in all of the evidence I’ve gathered over the years to support my belief in it? What then? How might I live differently then?
So here’s something about how wrong I can be. When I was walking there, taking the picture above, I thought “Oh, they’ve moved that telegraph pole, it used to be on the other side of the road” I was quite sure of it. I thought it was very odd, I mean why would you move a telegraph pole just a few yards to the other side of the road? You’d have to connect all the lines up again and everything, it doesn’t make sense, but my memory was very clear – after all, it was not just a telegraph pole in those days, it was the acky post and as such the centre of our communal lives through those long hot summers of childhood (us, you know the kids in the street, the ones that I didn’t get on with… or well at some point i must have…). Anyway – so when I got back from my walk I got ready to write a post about the moving of the acky post and to provide proof of my discovery I went to look at this picture of my sister in about 1971 riding along that bit of pavement. And of course I found that I was wrong. The telegraph pole had always been in the same place. The lamp-post has been modified and the paving slabs have been replaced with tarmac, but the telegraph pole is in just the same position as it was 40 years ago. It was only ever somewhere else in my head.
This is a gulley between Kingshurst Road and Hazel Croft. A gulley is just an alleyway, a path between houses, I don’t know how widely the dialect is spread. It’s the bit that runs behind what used to be my grandparents’ house. I used to walk to school this way as it was a (very minor) short cut to Great Stone Road. It’s the gulley I referred to in this story.
In the early seventies, as well as shortcuts and ways to avoid the watching eyes of people who sat in their front windows, these were our bicycle race tracks. Hazel Croft is a cul-de-sac in the middle of a circle bounded by Great Stone Road and the crescent of Kingshurst Road and as well as riding in the street, we would find adventure further afield between the houses. One garage was the home of a witch. Someone found a dead cat behind that tree, allegedly its eyes had been removed. The pathways were rough untended gravel and dirt. Who knows how many knees and shins must have been ripped open there over the years?
Now it’s just overgrown with grasses and weeds. Not just because we don’t let our kids out to play like that anymore – mostly because these gulleys are fenced off to protect the houseowners from trespass and burglary. To take that first picture I had to stick my camera through the gap in this:
I put my pen in my pocket
As is my habit
But I left the lid off
Now my jeans sport a big black blob
And I don’t know how much ink I’ve lost
On Sunday I took a stroll over from Stirchley where I was staying to Northfield. I wrote this after a little wandering around.
I’m in Northfield. Specifically, I’m in McDonalds. It seems to be the only place open on a Sunday that you can sit and drink coffee. My Grandma would have been appalled. I’m pretty sure she’d be appalled by the idea of going out and paying just short of twenty-six shillings on a coffee served in a plastic cup, that you had to take to your own table. A table that hadn’t been wiped down for what looks like the last four or five customers at least. I doubt she’d like the music that’s screeching out of the loudspeakers, but if she was really here, I think she’d be most upset by the general state of the shops along the Bristol Road. To her, this was always “the village” because when she moved here at the end of the nineteen-thirties, that’s just what it was. I lived here from 1969 to 1975 but it still feels like home. We kept coming here regularly at least until my Grandma died in 1991. We think the 1970s were grim (I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy this week and it evoked very well for me the dark, brown, smoky atmosphere of my childhood) but I can’t believe that this town centre area was nearly as depressing as this forty years ago.
When I was in Worthing last week I asked what was wrong that needed fixing. It seemed obvious to Dan, who’s a native of the town and has lived there practically all his life. Perhaps it’s the same for me and Northfield, perhaps you need a real connection to see it. Or perhaps this bit of Birmingham really is more depressed than a seaside town in Sussex. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, they both need help and neither of them are getting it from the existing mix of public and voluntary services or the private sector.
I sat here and had my lunch today. It’s the churchyard of St Laurence’s Church in Northfield. It’s the church where I was christened 40 years ago this summer, it’s also the churchyard where my paternal grandparents are remembered. I attended the CofE primary school next door, which has since been turned into houses, so it’s the church in which I first experienced harvest festivals, carol services, cub scout church parades, the joy of belonging and of community.
At school and in church I loved to hear the bible stories and I loved the idea that the church, this church, was God’s house and that he welcomed us in. How cool, to be welcomed in by God!
I don’t know where it was along the way that I stopped thinking it was cool but by the time I was a teenager I know I was rebelliously sitting upright and eyes-open in school assemblies when we were supposed to pray. The idea of God as it was presented just seemed more and more preposterous, a way to make people do what you wanted them to do and I became very attached to my identity as an atheist – it was a way to be different, to stand out, to upset other people who were very attached to their beliefs.
I don’t feel like that today. I don’t attend any church, wouldn’t call myself a Christian… or Buddhist or Jew, Hindu or Jedi for that matter but I have a strong sense of universal spirit, of unity and a connection with all that is. I don’t distinguish much between the terms God, Life and Love, they’re all the same thing to me.
I’ve been consciously working on my spiritual awakening since before I started blogging – it’s the inside job that I referred to recently when I wrote about my uncivilized life, but I still find it ridiculously difficult to write about it here. And yet I know that it’s a really important part of who I am and that my story is all the more difficult to understand when the spiritual aspects are left out. I was asked yesterday whether my hobo-ings had a spiritual element and I replied that yes, without that it’s just another crazy social media adventure, but that doesn’t make it any easier to talk about.
I know that it needs to be talked about, written about, acknowledged, not least because it feels like a constraint on my writing (and being in general) to keep it hidden away. The block to being more open is only fear – of the usual things: ridicule, rejection, anger, in general “what other people think of me” and I know that the way to deal with fear is to go through it and hit publish…