Monday, June 9, 2014

Millstone Grit


Turning across the park, the path is puddled with the aftermath of the spring rain. The smell of wet cut grass mixes with the stale almond smell of the lime trees. Late afternoon sun spills across the skateboard ramps.
I am in the city for only a day and a night, the first time I have been here since I was eighteen years old. Before arriving, I had struggled to place any memories, any of the local geography, but being here, now, the walk along this cracked path is like a peeling-back of the years; a litany of places I passed each day, set out in front of me like the stations of the cross. I am amazed by the capacity of the memory to hoard and hide; to surprise and entice. I worry that too much is coming to the surface, too soon.

The tarmac of the path is pocked and uneven, just as I remember it beneath my adolescent feet. I must have walked this route almost every day, sometimes more than once; to and from lectures, from pubs, from sessions at the climbing wall. For the time I lived here, I walked whenever I could, simply to feel the breathing city bustling around me, the noise of traffic and the whitened canyons of the buildings alien and unnerving. I came to the city like an ingénue, wide-eyed with wonder and distaste, appealed and appalled by the light as it slanted off limestone walls, by the noise of cars and buses, the narrow lanes and steps, hiding and enticing. I would walk with my head down, my neck thrust forward, and pause occasionally to look up at spires and turrets, pediments and porticoes, realising the city existed on many levels, each rarer, purer, quieter than the one below, as though the highest rooms above the noise and dirt of the street, the attics and lofts wedged beneath slated eaves, were inhabited by gods and angels.
I look up from my memories, and a place ambushes me. The cluster of red brick buildings at the park corner seem exactly the same; the pub where I drank during my first, nervous days in the nearby hall of residence; the telephone box where I phoned my parents to tell them, a year later, that I was leaving the university and going to do something else, something different, without knowing what it might be. Thirty-three years, I think to myself. Almost two-thirds of my life. I am surprised I can remember any of this at all.


The summer before I moved to Leeds, I had been reading Glyn Hughes' Millstone Grit; a memoir of coming of age in the debatable lands of the high Pennines, its wide moorland and deep, shadowed valleys. Growing up myself in flat lands of wide skies, the book helped me to understand how the geology of a place leaves its mark on the people who live there, as though they are shaped from the rock itself, chiselled and rough-dressed.
I had found the book on my grandfather's bookshelf, wedged between his 1896 edition of The Times Atlas (the one where swathes of the Arctic were still labelled as Unexplored Region) and his fading copies of Wide World magazine. The book interested me as a Geologist – it was the subject I was going to read at University, the one which had spoken to me amongst the drear familiarities of school – but it explained to me something else; something about our connection with the land, the ties which bind us to place. My grandfather spent almost sixty years of his life in a form of exile, estranged from the northern cities in which he had grown up, still remembering roads in which bicycle tyres could get trapped in the tram lines, and where queues of working men and women jostled for spaces on Sunday returns to the coast, away from the smell and heat of the mills. In moving to Leeds, I was reliving, in a way, his memories; I felt drawn to a city I had never known, experiencing a form of vicarious nostalgia; a yearning for a place I did not remember, but which was somehow coded in my DNA; it was part of the collective mythology of my family. I needed to live there, in the same way that I needed to leave home, to move away from the familiar boundaries with which I had grown up.


At the northern edge of the university quarter, I pass the students' union building. The tarmac road where I queued outside in the chill winter night to see Doctor Feelgood or John Martyn or Judie Tzuke is now replaced with clean flags of a pale, indeterminate limestone. A blue plaque above the door indicates that this is where The Who recorded Live at Leeds in 1970. Across the road, something tugs at my memory; some significance of place that I cannot yet unravel, some association with this road junction, this 1970s block of student flats.
The rear of the building overlooks a green place; a park of sorts, although clustered amongst the laurel trees are gravestones and memorials. In summer, I remember how students would sprawl across the grass with cans of beer and stick-thin roll-ups. Today the grass is damp with spring rain, the air misted with haze.
The ground floor of the flats is faced with square-cut blocks of gritstone, sheltered from the weather by the overhanging canopy of the upper floors. It has an enclosed feel; a stone-faced walkway with one open wall facing onto the park. The mortar, I recall, had weathered between the blocks, leaving finger-size indents and pockets. The keenest members of the climbing club had colonised it as a training wall, a place to harden the fingertips on wet days and winter evenings. I can see the familiar smudge of chalked hand prints at the starting corner; further chalk marks continuing the full length of the wall; the bigger holds identifiable by the larger smudges, places to rest and shake out aching arms, to chalk up the fingers before moving on. Two people are training there now: the familiar tense balletics of rock-climbing, at once fluid and controlled. I watch for a while, and a whole part of my youth spills out of my memory: weekends hitching down to the Peak District; the smell of Sheffield bus station on a damp Friday evening, the warmth of evening sun on the gritstone edges which overlook the soft valleys of Derbyshire; evenings spent here, on this wall, in the fading light, practising the same moves again and again until they are fluid, perfect, remembered.

I reach out my hand, and before I touch the rock I know exactly how it will feel: that roughness beneath my palm, the temperature the same as my own skin, so that it feels neither warm nor cold. I sense the tenderness in the pads of my fingers that I'd feel at the end of a long day on the crags; the sore dryness that felt cool against the damp sheen on the outside of a pint of beer. I turn my hands over in the summer sun, expecting to see the familiar scars on the knuckles from a day spent on coarse gritstone, but noticing instead the darkening spots of age, the wrinkled skin, the mis-shapen joint of a broken finger; a relic of a climbing accident during those years in Leeds. It is an injury which still pains me at times; it aches in damp weather or at the end of a day of manual work. There are scars that will never heal, I think to myself. We are marked by the places we live, the people we once were. I think of the friends I climbed with; the closeness which comes from sharing an intense physical activity with others; the invincibility of youth; the fading smudge of chalk on a gritstone wall.

9 comments:

  1. Hi Ian and great to see a new piece on The Printed Land. Indeed, that ability of memory to 'hoard and hide, surprise and entice' as so eloquently expressed here. A wonderful re-acquaintance with place. The movement through the city acting almost like a radio antenna. Initially the signal is faint but increasingly becomes 'tuned in' to reveal the full range of tones and depths of memory. Particularly liked the last section on the training wall. All best wishes.

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    1. Thanks for your comments and continued support. I have struggled to write anything for months, so this is a creaking re-exploration of the limbs, rather like trying to remember how to climb, I guess...

      All best wishes

      Ian

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  2. This doesn't read like 'creaking limbs' to me, Ian. Your intense personal geographies, your distinctive photographs, are highly valued. Keep on creaking!

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    1. Thanks very much! And thanks also for tweeting it - I haven't got round to doing Twitter yet (I suspect partly out of concern that it could consume half of my life!), so I rely on others to spread my posts to a wider audience

      best wishes

      Ian

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  3. Lovely and evocative writing, Ian. Always such a pleasure seeing a new post at The Printed Land. A few years ago I travelled with my parents to Szczecin in Poland, the place where my great-grandfather was from before jumping ship in South Shields and beginning a life in England. The place was called Stettin back then, a part of Prussia. Despite having never been there, or having even seen photographs of the city, I felt (we all did in fact) as though we somehow knew it, deep inside. It was a strange experience, and one not easily translated into words, but something of that coding in DNA that you mention was perhaps in place. A return of sorts. Thanks for the memorable journey to millstone grit country.

    Best wishes,

    Julian

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    1. That's a wonderful description of your visit to Szczecin, as though we knew the place before we were born. I wonder if we all have that to some degree?

      many thanks

      Ian

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  4. Especially favourite is your reaching out to touch the stone, knowing it, but drawn to feel it anyway - I've drawn on the same nourishment many times.

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    1. Thank you very much! I've just enjoyed looking at your blog (which is beautiful, by the way), and I can completely understand the sense of union you feel with stone.

      best wishes

      Ian

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  5. Lovely to read as I spent 20 years in Sheffield which, I am convinced, is such a vibrant place because it sits astride two types of rock. The millstone grit to the west and north with its dark moorland coat and edges and the limestone to the south creating a completely different landscape and atmosphere. My preference at first was for the grit and the beautiful big boulders of it lying around. I worked outdoors in the White Peak and came to love it too, especially the River Lathkill roaring out of its cave in the winter time. I did try some caving but did not enjoy it and prefer my rocks on the surface!
    Like you, I have long thought that rocks and landscape influence people and might be one reason for Britain's absurd power in the world over the centuries. We have such a varied geology and topography, that it has produced a very varied population. I too came out of university bitterly disappointed that I had not learned the things I wanted to learn; only reductionism. That was in the 70s, hopefully its better now.

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