Which Way to the Nearest Wilderness?

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau 

I was a pretty proficient reader as a child, and I have a vague memory of winning this book for some reason or another from school. I had completely forgotten about it, then for some reason, the title just popped uninvited into my head the other night, and I knew I had to read it again. I managed to find a secondhand copy, which, when delivered, turns out to be an ex-school library copy, still nestled in its plastic cover, and with a label stuck neatly into the front declaring it a gift to the school from the P.T.A. It has that beautiful, musty smell of old books and appears to have been last taken out of the library in 1991. I can't help but wonder by who, and what they thought of it. 

I remember reading this book over and over as a child. I really loved it, although I do remember not quite relating to the situations the main character, Eunice, finds herself in. She has a brother and a sister, and parents who are teetering on the brink of divorce, with a stormy home life characterized by constant arguing. I remember struggling with some of the words, but caring enough about the story to get out a dictionary and find out what they meant.

On reading it now, as an adult, I’m amazed by it. It’s a wonderful, forgotten book, and one of the best portrayals of girls and friendships as I’ve ever seen in either a children’s book, or even adult literature (although I will make an exception for Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, which I’m also reading again at the moment and which is like the perfect counterpoint to this book.) I wouldn’t say its feminist as such, but it is about girls who are not defined by their looks or even their talents, but by their friendships, personalities, morals, and philosophies.

It doesn’t, like most children’s literature, shy away from difficult topics like divorce, bitterness, or mental health issues. It’s ostensibly aimed at girls, but isn’t shrouded in pink or ponies or candy-floss. Nor is it  faux-darkly serious- There isn’t a vampire in sight. It’s a Ken Loach-esque naturalistic, social realist sort of YA, I suppose. The language is actually quite challenging: on the first page, words like philosophy, hobgoblin, façade abound.

It centres around Eunice’s decision to go into the wilderness, build herself a cabin, and live as a hermit, prompted by reading Walden. In the meantime, her sister suffers-and survives- heartbreak, her parents separate and precariously reunite, her quiet, sensitive brother requires- and survives- counselling, Eunice and her best friend set up a business, fall out, and make up again. Where a lot of YA for girls is all about boys, reinforcing the belief that a girl can’t be fully whole without a relationship, this book shows Millie stepping away her boyfriend when he declares he loves her, and eventually embracing her independence, even within the context of a relationship.

Reading this now, as an adult, I’m amazed by how many important life lessons are in there. I suspect they may have seeped into me without my knowledge as a read and re-read it as a child. Is this where my love of peanut butter sandwiches comes from? My ability to deploy sarcasm liberally? My-previously unsuspected, and completely surprising to myself- ability to bounce back from my own divorce? My love of my own company and need to retreat, coupled with an overwhelming love for my friends? Although I must admit, the idea of living in the countryside on my own fills me with absolute dread.

I finished reading it in three days, and I’m slightly stunned that one hardly-known little book could have that much packed inside it. I suspect they don’t make children’s books like that anymore.  


Harry, who had seven hairs on his head.

I've been thinking a lot about my Grandad Harry recently. I'm not entirely sure why- it's not his birthday, or the anniversary of his death or anything in particular. I'm not going to bother trying to shoehorn this post into any recent news events or make any great points about skepticism or science in it. My intentions are purely to tell you about him, because he is a worthy subject.



At school we had to do an English project on someone who had inspired us.   Of course, it being the early nineties, my English teacher found himself wading through twenty or so biographies of Michael Jackson. But I did mine on my good old Grandad. I wish I still had a copy of that project now.

He was brought up in a Catholic orphanage. I believe his mother died and his father couldn't take care of him and his siblings. I know he had a horrible time there, but the details are sketchy. I know the orphans there were very starved of love and attention. I remember him telling me how, one Christmas, the nuns had told them all how they were getting a very special treat. The boys were each presented with a bit of spice cake, which in their eyes might as well have been manna from heaven. It gave them all a tiny ray of hope, of excitement. When they bit into it, it was full of cobwebs. Those nuns must have been having a right old laugh at that. 

Despite- or perhaps because of- all of this, he vowed that his life-and the life of his family- would be filled with nothing but love and warmth and joy. Where he could so easily have been consumed with anger, he instead became what I consider to be the very pinnacle of what everyone should strive to be. He was a true gentleman. 

He met my Grandma briefly, then again through some mix-up with ration books, and so it began. (i need to check that story actually, i remember it being desperately romantic, but I can't recall the details.) Those two have taught me everything I know about love. Through some hard, poor, and difficult times they were the most loving and romantic couple I have ever encountered. You know when you're in the first flush of a relationship, and you do everything you can think of for someone before the fatigue of familiarity sets in? They seemed to be like that despite being together for many, many years. Their flat was full to the brim of knick-knacks, those little impulse purchases they had bought each other over the years just because they were thinking of each other all the time. 

He was gregarious, and would welcome anyone to his home with a massive smile and a huge hug. Whenever I took boyfriends round to meet him for the first time, he'd welcome them with "hello, bonny lad!" along with a (often to their embarrassment and my amusement) big sloppy kiss. Within about 5 minutes of arriving, he'd be offering you food, tea and whisky, and you'd be totally charmed by him.

He loved whisky, so much so that on his 80th birthday he got 18 full size bottles of it as presents from his friends. I used to go round to see him for a few hours and emerge into the afternoon staggering somewhat from all of the "wee drams" we'd share. Highland Park was his favourite: for his birthday I bought him a bottle of the expensive stuff. The next time I went round he said he had drank it all already, but later on, when he was more sick and I had to retrieve some from the cupboard for him I could see the only-half-empty bottle there, the cheeky devil. 

He had an amazing sense of humour. When he and my Grandma came to stay with me once to look after me when my parents were on holiday they told all their friends they were going to Kingston for the week, neglecting to mention the Park bit which would denote a sleepy suburb of Newcastle rather than Jamaica. He tried his best to be modern: he loved playing on the wii, pottering about on a computer, and listening to his iPod. He had a better mobile phone than me at one point. And he-and my grandma, still- also had modern attitudes. They knew the world was changing around them and they did their best to understand it, not be set in their ways and disapproving if us unruly youngsters. They didn't bat an eyelid when I would traipse in looking all sullen in my goth days, they just gave me a massive hug and told me I looked lovely all the same. 

When he became very ill, there were about four or five occasions when we seriously thought he was going to die. Each time he fought back, but became more and more frail each time. I remember his consultant pretty much saying after the first time that he shouldn't have still been with us, and that he wish he knew his secret. My auntie probably put it best: "he'll do anything he can to stay with her (my grandma)". Perversely, I actually remember the first time this happened as one of the best times I have spent with my family. Waiting in the relatives room, us assembled cousins, aunties, uncles and parents roared with raucous laughter at everything going. We made our own hilarious entertainment using nothing but an old copy of the Evening Chronicle and  some plastic packaging. Some would think that's weird, but I know Grandad would have wanted nothing less. At his wake we holed ourselves up in a room with copious amounts of port and wine, and screamed with laughter as more distant friends and relatives turned their noses in the air and probably thought we were disrespectful.

But he would want us crying tears of laughter rather than sadness.

Now, as you'll probably know by now, I don't believe in an afterlife. But I do believe in a legacy, and if I manage to have a legacy that's even a quarter as powerfully loving as Harry's, I'll know I will have led a good life. 


P.S. The seven hairs thing was a long standing joke. He used to count them and declare that he had seven hairs on the top of his head. No more, no less, always seven.

P.P.S. Its been requested that I mention something else also, something that I actually can't believe I forgot about: The Toilet Of Joy. I have no idea why The Toilet Of Joy came about, but it stems from a family trip to Ilkley for one of Grandad's birthdays. We had a meal in one particular area of a pub which had been roped off for us, and for reasons best known only to the god of wine, the entire family ended up spending much of the night in a toilet cubicle, in hysterics over a hand-dryer. This became known as The Toilet Of Joy. Something very odd, very noisy, and very wonderful happens when my family get together. 

What the Ancients did for me

I remember very distinctly one school trip from my days at primary school. I remember weeks of preparation as I helped my mum to convert a white bedsheet into a tunic, mum doing the sewing whilst i gave artistic and historical guidance, and I recall spending many hours lovingly painting a design of snakes and hieroglyphs along the hem. I remember in-depth discussions about the issue of my hair: a light shade of ginger simply would not cut the mustard on this occasion, and a wig of black, glossy tresses was constructed using an old headband and a bin bag. This was also the day that my lifelong love-hate relationship with eyeliner began. 

This wasn't just any old school trip. I was going to meet King Tutankhamen, and I needed to look the part of a genuine Egyptian to fit in, not to mention the fact that I had been practising for this moment for a while- I was known to have Ancient Egyptian days at home where I would wander around with an old gold necklace on my head declaring myself to be an Ancient Egyptian princess, whilst quietly cursing my more Celtic colouring and lack of servants, wealth, and ancient palace to live in. 

I was-and still am- utterly enamoured by the Ancient Egyptians. Nothing quite adequately describes the thrill of being faced with a sarcophagus or two on a museum visit. My favourite things to pore over for an inordinate amount of time are the smallest things, the charms wrapped up with mummies. Small, shiny trinkets that were so highly revered they were thought to have magical properties; it perhaps explains why I am so easily distracted by glittery shiny things to this day. 

My point is that this love of a culture so exotically distinct from my own was started in school. I have no recollection of history teaching in my primary school because memory is so bad, but I was left with a fascination of all things ancient and foreign, and that fascination still shapes my life today. Once I moved from primary school to middle school (do they even exist any more?), I can remember the thrill and excitement of starting a new subject in history, and all the possibilities it could bring. 'Ooh, the Romans!' I would think, 'there'll be people being eaten by tigers and stuff! Brilliant!' The Ancient Greeks, with their alarmingly modern gods arguing about the pettiest of things fascinated me back then and have continued to do so throughout my school and adult life. I remember a school librarian being somewhat alarmed by me dusting off and taking home the copies of The Iliad and The Odyssey to take home to read "just for fun" when obviously I should have been drinking cider on street corners instead. 

Why am I wittering on about this on a blog supposed to be about healthcare? Well, because I just happen to have been listening to a podcast discussion about Gove's proposed new history syllabus. I am very demonstrably not a teacher of young people, nor do I require any history in my daily life (nor do I actually have any idea about the details or practicalities of Gove's syllabus), but I think this may make me weirdly qualified to actually comment on this subject. Gove wants a more Britain-centric teaching of history: well guess what Gove: British history is frankly boring. Its also not particularly British, given that we are a mish-mash of Angles and Saxons. Sure, Harold got an arrow in the eye, but in the face of all that exotic otherworldly-yet-just-within-our-grasp excitement of the Egyptians, Moors, Romans and Greeks, any child in their right mind would be bored of this country's history. Not every child is going to end up a history scholar: the majority of them will, like me, end up in a job where they don't *need* any history. But the key is surely to get them to engage enough with the subject when they're young that they end up *wanting* it in their lives and seeking it out. 

So here's the thing: children at that age, before any prejudices of the state or the people surrounding them have properly kicked in, are open to and utterly interested by other cultures. When I think about it now, it would seem that my love for urbanity and multi-culturism has its roots in those days as a child learning about people different to myself. To instil some passion for history in children is to instil a thirst for looking deeper beyond surfaces and for searching for the hows and whys. It seems to me to be a real shame to politicise and manipulate this so it becomes focused on a narrower understanding of one country, and a series of dates. 

There's quite a high likelihood that none of this makes sense, given that its very early in the morning and I'm typing this on my iPod. Apologies for all the errors and/or fallacies and oversharing of my childhood geekery


Oh, and FYI: Elgin Marbles tour guide available to hire, for the mere price of train fare, London-based accommodation and a pint in that pub i like round the corner from the British Museum. I'm often vague on the dates and things like that, but apparently quite entertaining on the important bits. 

P.S. King Tutankhamen was very impressed with my outfit on that visit, and allowed me to do the demonstration of mummy-wrapping. I think it was the hair that did it. He was less impressed when one of the boys who had put decidedly less effort into his ancient styling kept demanding to know why King Tut had a Geordie accent and no sun tan if he was supposed to be Egyptian. 

PPS. Clearly when I was writing this I had forgotten about The Tudors. They were quite cool, particularly Elizabeth I. I still stand by my point though that British history just doesn't have the panache or history from further afield.