Neko Case has been in my head a lot this week, particularly the album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, from which the above track comes. It reminds me of the last few years I spent living in Leeds. I unashamedly love That Teenage Feeling, even if it’s acoustic and the title is beyond cheesy, even though there’s pretty much nothing romantic about being a teenager -but maybe that’s why the brave friend Neko alludes to is still holding out.
As a teenager I hated nature and the countryside - I associated it with claustrophobic middle class car journeys and family day trips where there was an atmosphere of tension before one or more of us exploded or imploded. I aspired only to clubs which I was never let into, boys who didn’t fancy me (and I didn’t really fancy, but thought I should) and getting drunk on cheap vodka. I don’t believe in teenage innocence, everything matters too much at the time, at least it did for me, everything had to be analysed and compartmentalised until it was meaningless. I’ve spent much of the last few years trying to unlearn a lot of my ways of thinking since then and since before.
I moved to Leeds when I was 18, for University, I stayed until I was 24. During this period I changed my mind about nature. When I lived in Leeds I also spent a lot of time in the nearby Yorkshire country towns of Hebden Bridge and Todmorden. Working class towns, although increasingly gentrified, where many a permaculture-happy hippy, queer or lesbian migrated. Unsurprisingly several friends of mine either lived in those places or liked to visit.
I first visited Hebden Bridge when I was nineteen, with my girlfriend at the time. She took me to Sylvia Plath’s grave as well as Hardcastle Crags and all the other places which had inspired Sylvia Plath’s and Ted Hughes’ poetry. A few years later -after that girlfriend and I had broken up, then got back together again in some fraught polyamorous arrangement- we were introduced to a place near Hebden called Lumb Falls. It was a small but impressive waterfall, with a plunge pool below it. It was surrounded by woods, so fucking idyllic you’d want to cry. We told all our friends about it and Lumb Falls soon became a top Leeds queer summer hangout; we’d all leap in from the waterfall. This was unnerving and we felt like we were being so brave; then we’d see fourteen year old local kids who’d find spots to jump from double that height who put us all to shame.
I went back to Hebden Bridge last week, visited the friend who I used to go out with as a nineteen year old then had the fraught poly relationship with. I don’t even think of her as my ex now; when we went out it was such a completely different period in both our lives. Anyway, she lives in Hebden Bridge now and co-runs a market garden there. Before I came I said I was looking forward to helping her out with it but one of my main contributions was almost chopping my finger off with a scythe and then getting irate about the possibility of losing said finger. There was so much blood I wish I’d taken a picture. Everyone else thought I was being a drama queen and it wasn’t that bad and they were probably right. I still have all my fingers and they all still work.
Scythe incident aside -or maybe that adds to it!- it was so great to revisit Lumb Falls and Sylvia Plath’s resting place and see some of my friends again. Whilst back there I felt inspired to write something early one morning when possibly still a little drunk. Enjoy. Or call me a hippy. Or both.
NB Damage and fear are actually mine alone, the ‘we’ is just conjecture:
Full of damage and fear we climbed into the pool at the bottom of those falls, where the waterfall plunged. Despite some warmth from the now low sun, we shivered in the cold water. We slipped in on the green rocks as we entered, but soon got to the point where our feet couldn’t touch the floor. Where there was darkness. I still always get the initial fear at those points, fear of a hand or a crocodile or some monster lying beneath that will come for my leg and pull me to the bottom. No, there are no crocodiles in Calderdale, the mind isn’t rational.
We got used to the temperature of the water, swam around for as long as we could. When I got out I looked at my hand - the skin had gone from pink to white and the burn on my finger had turned purple where before it had been red.
We climbed into the water, scrabbled over the rocks. We didn’t jump in over the waterfall like we used to when we came here in our early twenties, before it was ever featured as a ‘must see’ place in the Guardian Weekend supplement. Now we've got The Fear -at least with waterfall-jumping- but even so I’m happier now than I ever possibly could have been then, the things that stalk me aren’t over with, but I have come to a point where I can see the slow beginnings of feeling at ease with myself.
From the falls I looked down across the river, surrounded by woods. That night we walked through the town and I found the hills that surrounded unbelievable, the big sky, all that space. I know it’s all the time spent in London; it was as though I’d never been to Hebden Bridge before. I must have been there nearly a hundred times.
When the sun set the sky became a shade of blue that signified night, blue but not black, as it was a couple of days before the shortest one of the year and didn’t properly get dark. As the sun was setting, what was left of the clouds turned orange. I kept thinking about the first time I went here with you, when we were going out, when I was nineteen. I can’t believe I lived until 31.
We sat on the bench near your house sharing a bottle of cheap red wine, looking out across the valley, and I kept repeating how happy I was. I tried to tell you all my thoughts on writing but I couldn’t articulate them properly and sounded like one of those eighteen year old Philosophy students we'd overhear in the bars in Leeds and laugh at from the wisdom of our vantage point of 23. I guess in writing terms, I am still the equivalent of one of those people. You told me about the things you were doing, how it was a struggle to keep afloat, but you read blogs by queer nomads who were hiking from Mexico to Canada and you told me about how they would write about being in the desert, their water and food having run out and they just had to keep hiking until they got somewhere with food and water. And you said to me, well, this is hard but at least I’ve got water and food and a roof over my head. And because my mind is drawn to dark things, I thought of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a book which I instantly related to, the doom and the horror of it. I feel like I’ve lived that in my own head throughout so much of my life. In the book they just carry on because that’s all anyone does.
I remember phoning my dad a few years ago. I was slowly trying to claw back my brain after experiencing an inevitable breakdown, something which most of my life had been building towards. I could eat again, that was something. I wasn’t back at work and I couldn’t stand being alone with what I saw as the terrible things inside me. I’d do better for a morning or an afternoon or an evening but the rest of the time was still fraught. I wasn’t sure it was possible to go on living with the horror in my head. The day I called him was a few weeks after the breakdown and I was sat on the grass of Islington green, waiting for a friend to go to a gig with, and I felt myself falling again.
I almost never talk to my family about anything personal, I called out of desperation, I was scared I had drained everything from my friends over those weeks and maybe I had sapped every reserve of empathy from them. I was scared to talk to most people anyway, scared to make myself that vulnerable.
I told my dad on the phone I was going crazy. The first thing he said was, ‘Don’t be daft! Of course you’re not going crazy’. Maybe that was the dismissive white male logic of a man whose motto of ‘just grit your teeth and get through it’ enraged me at the time, but for once I was grateful he’d said it, because I am gullible and part of me believed him. I don’t remember the second or third things he said, the last –which he admitted was cheesey- was that life is the greatest thing there is and even in a life of pain there are moments of light and it’s those moments a person has to live for. I was surprised my dad had said all the things I needed to hear at that moment. I realised that even though things aren’t always perfect between us and we will never truly understand each other, our relationship had become so radically different from how it was growing up, as to be barely recogniseable.
I don’t know if life’s the greatest thing there is, it’s just the only thing. Like writing is the only thing I feel driven to do no matter how frustrating and unrewarding it is. No matter if what I write is any good or not.
It’s morning as I write this. I make another coffee, prepare to climb to Heptonstall, make that obligatory pilgrimage to Sylvia Plath’s grave. And I feel all the shaken-upness in my body and heart and head I felt a few years ago when I could bear it no longer, when I was certain the only place it would take me was insanity, despair, death, and I feel OK.