~The ancient settlement twixt the Plym and the Tamar tells its tales~
“I don’t have to know what I am going to do until I’m going to”
sings out American singer song writer Michael Holt ( http://www.michaelholtmusic.com ) in a beautifully intimate concert in Plymouth’s Freedom Fields park in July, and the appreciative Transition Plymouth audience and their guests enter into the spirit of the evening with plenty of interaction between the songs Michael chooses in the moment, following the mood; elder Janice Lyons and her friend are particularly vocal with their comments, questioning the lyrics with gusto whilst enjoying every minute of them.
Michael, who is travelling Europe to learn about, and promote, Transition, has expressly asked for a new slant on concerts; audience and performer interaction. Nobody knows what is going to happen next; not even Michael, no programme, just his talent, his vast repertoire, and a trust in his own ability to gauge the mood and dynamic of the group as it changes subtly over the evening. We move from songs that remind us that we don’t have to use our brains to be fully participating humans on our life journeys but simply be human beings, accompanied by guitar, to deliciously moving classical music composed and played on the keyboard Michael has carried all the way from Canada, across mainland Europe, and which will accompany him all the way to Iceland when he leaves our fair isle.
Master of the unexpected, just as we are lulled into softness by his skilful playing, Michel dons bright shiny red nose and a funny hat and treats us to the most delightful nonsensical gibberish to accompany a tune reminiscent of olde worlde fairground hurdy gurdys. It seems there is no end to the courage and at homeness with the bizarre that Michael demonstrates in his efforts to entertain and to educate …albeit it far from the conventional. I am sorry I have agreed to take photos for Transition Plymouth as it seems to interrupt the intimacy somehow, but I am not alone, and pretty soon Michael vocalises what I have been feeling and puts an end to the intrusion of high tech machinery into our evening.
When Michael stops playing it seems as if there is something missing…as if a piece of the group has vanished. I feel suddenly empty, and perceive how deep we have gone in such a short and gently subtle time.
We pause for a break and I wander outside to look out at the sea which has beckoned enticingly
ever since Pat Bushell, my good friend and fellow transitioner, met myself off the number 80 and Michael off the Paddington train and we went on a walk through the neighbourhood immediately surrounding Freedom Fields. I ‘ll be staying here with Pat tonight in the beautiful old Victorian house she shares with her partner, and her daughter’s family. They are of the blossoming number of families who are realising that to buy a big house between you means not only sense of community and companionship for all members and ages of the family, but also that by pooling resources a much better property, and grounds in which to grow the family food, can be procured.
Michael and I learn that the park and grounds of the former hospital was the site of a battle between the Royalists and the Roundheads, where Plymouthians firmly ousted the Royalists from their borough, though apparently the park may have had its name since 1439 when Plymouth first became a borough and mock fights took place to remember the frequent skermishes between the locals and the Bretons who would just keep popping over the channel and trying their luck. Plymouth’s bus station still goes by the name of Bretonside in memory of the city’s association with their sea faring and not always friendly neighbours.
We pop into the community cafe to ensure all is well for our evening performance and Michael, with that incredible confidence all Americans appear to possess, when considered beside our own English reserve, strides up to a man who is sitting in a chair leaning against a wall, his belly hanging over his trousers, his late middle aged face large in its long since given up expression, and asks cheerfully if he is planning on coming along to the event. I am taken aback, this is the last person I would have gone up to to talk about what we are doing. I listen curiously to the conversation. When it seems clear that the man is not going to come along, and never planned to either, Michael, who has said just enough to have the man asking
“What’s Transition then?”
hands the ball over to me and saunters out into the sunshine to join Pat. Flabbergasted and floundering I search my stock of ways to talk of Transition and grabbing desperately at straws say
“It’s about helping people, to get back their sense of community, it’s about helping the elderly and the young to come back together and …”
“Helping people?!” the man practically spits the words out at me. A steady sinking feeling begins to descend over my belly, as I have already been berating myself at the use of the word “help” as being wholly inappropriate for the Transition movement. I can’t stop now though, I am caught. I continue with my theme but the man is having none of it. He has a story of his own to tell.
It is a tale that has me weeping inside for its truth and closeness to my own experience. The man is clearly upset to the point of fury at the death of an old woman he knew, in a nursing home, from dehydration. He snarls and snaps out his disgust at the so –called helping services and their appalling lack of love and care. I agree with every word though it is difficult to tell him so for at some level his relief at being able to share his story has opened the floodgates and he is unstoppable. Inside I feel the pain of my father’s recent death partly due to the fact that he had been spending a week, which turned out to be three, his last three, in a nursing home where the social services, in their wisdom, had placed him temporarily out of my mother’s tender care for he was too heavy for her to lift and unable to walk. As my mother and I tried to get her help for him at home, the nursing staff at the home went blindly on feeding him pills without my mother’s diligent monitoring of the dosage until there came an urgent letter from the doctor’s saying that his condition was critical. Three days later, in Derriford hospital, he was dead.
The man in the chair and I have connected. Joined in our loss and pain and the helplessness we feel in having observed basic human kindness removed from our loved ones by a system blinded by rules and governed by money, we talk on, and the man, having shared his pain, is able to listen to me, and get curious. Hope kindles in his eyes, momentarily, until
“You’d all better watch out” he says “they‘ll soon put a stop to all that if they find out”
Smiling, I tell him that Transition flies beneath the radar, glad that Rob has always had the good sense to maintain a degree of caution, and the man in the chair and I part company, friends, and wishing one another well.
My heart is warm from the very human connection made, it is also wringing with shame as my prejudices have been shown up in full technicolour. Appearances, it seems, are all. A man whose body has gotten way too large for his frame, a man for whom the trials and tribulations of life have carved a face and posture less than attractive, and I would have dismissed him, as one that could not understand. One who shares the same pain as I, even now as I write this, close to a month later, the lesson of this encounter remains raw; how many more have I dismissed through the middle class prejudice I thought I didn’t have?
Pensively, I join Michael and Pat, waiting for me in the sunshine outside, and we continue our walk. As we venture farther from the park we cross another and pause to wonder at the strangely compelling graffiti on the concrete shelter at its entrance. A dripping candle straight out of Dickens is depicted beside a tropical fish, a pair of goggles, and in fancy script the name Pan. I entertain the thought of what future archaeologists might make of this, when we in our own times have drawn a blank.
A little further on and a pair of magnificent old trees remind us of a more traditional and infinitely more satisfying part of park culture, and we pause beneath them to breathe a little.
As we gradually meander our way back along the streets of a city I am always amazed by for its endless neat rows of housing, a gentle rain spots down upon us and reminds us that nature is always present for those that can appreciate her gifts, and Michael stops to admire the quaintness of a couple of terraced rows back to back, each replete with its very own large recycling bin.
Pat tells us of the continuing frustration of attempting to change the habits of a people accustomed by our modern ways to a throw away culture without any concept of where away might actually be. Transition Plymouth has just started a new sub group concentrated around re-visioning waste as something altogether more positive and useful (the Excess Resources Group or the Rubbish Group for short) and she & Michael share transatlantic stories of varying degrees of success.
I want to know what made Michael set out to give concerts in the name of Transition; did he perchance have a dream of the sort that sent me off on a six month walk around the land of my birth some 2 years ago?
Pat and I enjoy hearing his story. Son of activists, Michael’s love of music didn’t always sit well with him; how could he do both? Finally, he accepted his gift and concentrating on making that what he did. His mom affirmed this when she said
“You know the world needs people who make it worth saving too”
And Michael knew his soul searching had given him the right direction. He started to, as he performed, take notice of the things activists were doing, and becoming curious, simply that. And the more curious he became the more he wanted to know until one day, on tour in Germany and Belgium in 2011, he became across friends who told him about Transition, and was hooked.
Off he went back to Truro, Massachusetts, the place where his parents had retired to, the place where he had first communed with nature, and bought his nonagenarian dad the Transition Companion for his birthday. Instantly hooked his dad set about buying copies for younger friends all over town; thinking he may be a wee bit old himself to start a transition initiative. He had been looking for years for a way of bringing community back to the place where he lived. Meanwhile Michael was dying to read the book himself, and so it was that his dad gave him back the book that had so inspired him and Michael knew what he had to do next. He embarked on his next tour with the intention of bringing back more food for thought for his father; how was it that Transition Initiatives did it in the different places, what was there to be learnt from all those towns and cities out there doing transition for real? And…just maybe, he could also inspire a little more Transition action by spreading the tales he heard as he travelled between the places he visited.
With the concept of Lounge Concerts as his tool, Michael set out to spend two or three months giving a concert a night to any town, village or city willing to host him, to sing his sings, to ask a lot of questions, learn the stories, and share them as he went.
Lounge Concerts, as one might guess, take place in people’s homes rather as the salon parties of old Victorian times, I imagine. In Freedom Fields we are in the little community cafe, but in every other respect it is as we are in someone’s living room. We are a small intimate mixed aged group, sitting on a motley assortment of sofas and odd un matching chairs, and we are relaxed and chatty… until we return after the break, to be asked to sit in a circle for the storytelling.
Michael and I have set out the seating in a cosy circle, but getting everyone to sit in that circle proves easier said than done. We incorporate one woman and her young international language school lodger by shifting the circle to include their table, but still we end up with a secondary row hiding conspicuously behind the bolder folk firmly ensconced on the much coveted sofa.
Some have come especially to hear my storytelling, having missed it last time I came. I give a shortened version, being very aware that after already sitting through one performance people will start getting antsy if they have to sit quiet too long in the second half. I soon open out the circle into hearing the tales of Plymouth and am not disappointed. Mouths firmly opened and loosened by Michael’s innovative song singing style, those gathered are very willing to share their stories. This is as Michael had hoped; the second part of his lounge concerts is all about conversation.
We are told of the brand new Education group and the Waste group, of the food group that goes from strength to strength, we hear of the veg growing in the community garden behind the cafe and Freedom Fields Festival that takes place every summer, even this year, in spite of the rain, and Michael tells of how Transition is so much more advanced in England than he found it in Europe where there is a some frustration as to how get people to join in and where a sense of urgency overrides the sheer positivity that is Transition’s stock in trade.
To be sure there is plenty of positivity in Transition Plymouth tonight and even the fact that the transition shop they had for a while in the main city shopping area having now been taken back by the owners hoping for higher rent has not dampened their enthusiasm nor their determination. Little by little, and slowly, slowly, Transition Plymouth gathers momentum and steadily grows new tentacles.
As the stories and tales continue to be shared I begin to feel a desire for more singing together and am thrilled when Michael suggests we do this to finish. It seems we all felt the same and people look positive and expectant.
“What shall we sing?”
Maybe something traditionally English, suggests Michael and, typically English, we all look around the circle in a kind of helpless failure stupor.
Just as it seems our Englishness is about to tie us up in proverbial knots of self conscious self effacement, Sarah chimes up from her seat in the back row, What about
“What shall we do with the drunken sailor”?
And we all groan in a kind of embarrassed delight that at least it’s one we all know. We know the song from our school days of course, but somehow it carries with it, along with a good rousing tune, that shamefacedly English knowledge that our heritage always seems to be about getting drunk.
“Let’s add Transition words to it”
I say suddenly, and we do;
What shall we do when peak oil comes
What shall we do when peak oil comes
What shall we do when peak oil comes
Ear lyy in the mornin’
And the verses go on and on as we get more and more enthusiastic as the familiar tune carries us confidently along
We’ll ride our bikes, and eat local food
We’ll ride our bikes, and eat local food
We’ll ride our bikes, and eat local food
Ear lyy in the mornin’
The man behind the community cafe and veg garden, whose lettuce we have eaten with our shared supper, shows yet another talent and plays our accompaniment on Michael’s guitar, and we all smile at each other and rock and sing and thoroughly appreciate the fact that we are here having a sing song together rather than each being cooped up in our respective homes with only TV, Facebook, or You Tube for company.
We have finally convinced the young man who came to us after a day’s busking to play his didgeridoo for us, and are at last replete with that satisfying feeling of having left no impulse unexplored.
I think about the walk around the park Michael and I took just before the event and the inevitable performer’s pre show concerns, and smile at the happy outcome of our evening.
As we pack up the musician’s equipment Sarah Greep, Michael’s host for the night, comes over and we chat as we work.
“You must come and see Devonport”
says she and I promise with gusto. I never can resist an opportunity to be shown around someone’s local patch. The very best stories come from people talking about the neighbourhood they call home; especially if they have been born and bred there as Sarah has. A pure bred Janner, and although my cousins are Janners too, I know their mother, as my father was, was a Lancashire lass like me. Sarah is the first true blood Plymouthian I have ever knowingly met.
Michael shows up late the next morning after being given his own personal tour of Devonport, and we all breakfast late on Pat’s delicious home baked bread, home made jam, eggs from the family’s chickens, and, as we talk about jam making without sugar try out Michael’s precious apple butter, brought over from Europe. Sarah receives a copy of Michaels’ newest CD Jubilation “as rent”, on the proviso that she only listens to it when she can concentrate on the lyrics.
It’s now August, and Pat meets me off the bus again, we are off to meet Sarah for our tour of Devonport. Once again we pass by the glorious wild flower treat that has been planted in full view of a monstrous sixties concrete block of many eyes, and shows in its glory the paradox we live in;
times of change, times when the modern is becoming outdated side by side with a growing wonderment with what was here all the time, before we thought concrete and cement were the answers to hard work, homelessness, and difficult to heat drafty old Victoriana.
We walk past too an idyllic row of houses that enchant me so I could have moved to Plymouth on the spot for the opportunity to live in one. Somehow so much more precious for their presence in a city so full there are rows upon rows of housing that speak not to the soul, their occupiers obviously think so too and each is painted lovingly in an attractive range of pastels as if straight from an artist’s easel.
Walks with Pat are a delightful mine of stories of being a young woman in the much coveted – by folk of my generation, the post baby boomers, at any rate – swinging sixties. I hear of how the young people growing up in the fifties were quietly made miserable by those gentle times my mum remembers with such longing. As the young adults who had spent childhoods hiding down air raid shelters, and sharing a mars bar with four other siblings as the rationing went on and on, the quaintly innocent daring of the first rock and roll, coupled with the absence of planes dropping potentially lethal things onto their homes and workplaces, the new parents simply relished that times were now safe again. Meantime the youngsters did as the young are born to do and quietly seethed inside in response to the apparent lack of awareness of their elders to changing times, until it was time to rebel openly.
As I look at sixties concrete architecture in disgust and ask why oh why in a hand flinging kind of despair, Pat tells of growing up in an environment full of buddleia growing out of derelict buildings, their fading grandeur knocked for six by the dropping of shells over six long years, and of grown ups talking endlessly, ceaselessly, of a thing called The War. Being born the year it ended not surprisingly for people of Pat’s generation this was a thing they felt was better forgotten, and the sooner the better.
The mood of the sixties then, along with the highly colourful move for world peace, was to tear down the sad remnants of that world which had been a source of such misery to them and their parents in its brokenness, and to build afresh; Brave New World. Down with the wounded still standing testimonies to a pain too acute still to be felt, and up with new simple streamlined structures; modernity had arrived.
Covering over the broken jagged edges of the destroyed once proud ancient building s of their forefather’s cities with smooth cement and concrete must have felt wonderful to those sensitive yet desensitized souls, carrying with them in their very genes the deeply suppressed pain of those that had had to keep calm and carry on, and the feverent calling of the young to make their mark, to better the world they found themselves born into.
Like sticking plaster over a dirty grazed knee, like bandage over a broken limb, concrete and cement replaced the devastation of the once thriving lively hubs of our cities, whilst beneath and around it, the proud vestiges of times when master craftsmen built structures to stand the test of time, to grace souls with their beauty, and in perfect harmony with the surrounding landscape, still stood.
As I often do in this maritime city, I feel the heartbreak beneath the surface. Crying out to be seen as an elder in a nursing home barely cared for by lowly paid staff, the city’s past reaches out endearingly to my soul and after a brief stopover in Stoke to collect Sarah, we begin to explore Devonport, and my heart strings are pulled upon, again and again.
First stop is Diggin’ It, a Lottery funded community garden just down the road from Sarah’s home. Sarah has great memories of it from when she volunteered there before starting her own jam making business. We walk around the impressively sized site
and Pat spots veg needing to be picked – broad beans looking huge and artichokes going to seed. Sarah looks a little sad as she describes the enthusiastic head gardener that had made it all seem such fun and the droves of volunteers he had attracted and kept and of how the funding ran out and he had had to leave. The place cries out for him to come back but the new funding that was acquired is more for youth work than community gardening and with the change of focus the new management team, overworked with the now familiar bureaucracy, can no longer put gardening at the top of the list of priorities. The young manager describes his part times position duties; approximately 4 full time posts rolled into one half time position.
Pat suggests giving volunteers a share of the produce in exchange for their labour; poorly built council flats are visible through a gap in the plants as we hear this overworked young man tell us that this is not possible as it is illegal to give volunteers anything in exchange for their labour. Feeling slightly sick we leave the site with its beautiful vibrant show of bright summer flowers along the entrance trellis,
and acknowledge that once again, money has become the master not the servant, and until we all wake up from believing that story we are about as far from equality and fair trade as we were in the times of slavery.
Headed now down towards the river Tamar and the park that sits above it, Sarah points out big holes wrenched out of the metal bridge we cross
From the war
The holes look like those a tin opener would punch easily out of a tin can; the metal of the bridge is more than a centimetre thick. The enormity of what the war did to the fabric of our cities, let alone its inhabitants’ hearts, is almost too big to take in, and I for a moment remember those countries which are being bombed to this day, and shudder at the thought that we dare call ourselves civilized or human in any way, shape, or form.
Over the bridge and into the park we go and two large trees look out over the estuary. It is beautiful, till one sees the view to the right
I ask of the large square soulless construction I can see down below on the river bank
It’s where the ship building happens…
and boy, is it ugly. Who are the people who design ship building buildings? Has anyone ever taken them on a walk around the neighbourhood they are to create a new part of the environment for? Or are they too told what to do by their master Money?
As we linger and try to get photographs of this otherwise lovely spot without the eyesore appearing, Sarah tells us that just a little further over is the planned site for the new incinerator. The incinerator the brave people of Ivybridge fought to keep out of their town and won, the incinerator whose burnt remains were to have been dumped in nearby Buckfastleigh, till we campaigned there too; the incinerator that would not be needed if only we would learn to think of our waste as a valuable resource ourselves and stop expecting the authorities to dispose of it for us. There has been a public campaign here too, and a little like the recent campaign to prevent Costa Coffee from coming to Totnes, the little town with a local independent coffee shop on every corner, the public, and the local council have been totally over ridden at district council level.
The same story is told. Local councillors were not listened to. District councillors with no local knowledge passed judgement upon the settlements within their jurisdiction according to criteria set by far away government directives. It feels the time of saying “enough is enough” is now frighteningly close. How much more are we going to take of a system gone horribly, horribly off its tracks?
With images of the magnificent Tamar; the natural border between Devon and Cornwall, sitting beneath an invisible fog of toxic particles; the residue of the rubbish we are too blinkered to take on as our own responsibility, I shudder and my heart goes out to the people of this place, and only hope that their appeal will be successful.
We arrive after another stroll at the place where Devonport once had its fine Fore Street. Large old black and white photographs cover the wooden screens that shield a new building site from view. Attracted from across the street I go to look more closely at the picture that is bigger than me; so big in fact we can virtually go right up to it and imagine walking down the busy vibrant street it depicts. Fore Street pre war.
Lining the street on both sides as far as the eye can see are local shops full of shoppers, a mixture of horse drawn and newly wheeled transportation line trundle along the metalled road. It looks like cities I have seen in South America, still doing business that way; alive and about people not machines or technology.
Next to this picture is another. It is entitled “Fore Street after the war”. It looks like many a familiar street of nowadays; full of derelict sites and hoarding boards, empty patches of waste ground, and dotted with people looking lost in their own environment.
Like someone has just removed the meaning and purpose from their lives. Yes, it looks a lot like a scene from today. Pristine buildings of the twenty first century do not make up for loss of soul, make no mistake. Pristine buildings of the twenty first century are about as much use to humanity as a person who has lost their connection to their ancestry and sense of place. It seems that we are still trying to rebuild our cities after the war, without foundations, without any roots in the past, without any connection to that which we have come from.
As we stand and look at shreds of our past an old man comes by. His face lights up as he sees us gazing at the old Fore Street.
“I remember it”
He says, and tears well up in the corners of my eyes which I make no attempt to stop. His delight in our interest is heart stoppingly touching. We ask him questions, eager to have a teacher
“Could you get down there between those two buildings?”
“Oh aye, and the other side too”
His eyes take on a faraway look and I know him to be lost in his memories, like my father was in his latter years. I smile and know that this is often a good place to be when you are nearing the end of a full life.
He moves off slowly, meeting our smiling eyes with his cheerful smile, and deep inside we all feel the very human connection we have just made. We move along too, lighter for our meeting with this elder, and Sarah tells us the tale of the Monument of Devonport.
Once upon a time Devonport was called Plymouth Docks; not a highly romantic name I am sure you will agree, nor one that encourages a sense of community, but rather smacks of hard work, grind and toil, ugly functional buildings and hard drinking to cope with the being there at all.
The people came together and decided on a name for the place they called home; a name to make it feel like home. A place to be proud of; one with more of a sense of the importance it truly had – the port of Devon, not just one more, but the most significant, one that valued their daily toil. To celebrate the new naming they commissioned a monument, one from which the whole beautiful bio region in which they lived could be visible – to all.
Money was not to be an issue; everyone could contribute a little, and soon there would be enough, for a down payment to the builder at least. Work began in earnest, but pretty soon the builder realized that the money he had been promised was not going to be so easy to come by as he had been led to believe. For a people with many mouths to feed and a lot of drink to be purchased to starve off the pangs of desperation money did not come easy and soon slipped through their fingers. Money promised for things that were not a necessity soon slipped down the list of priorities and the monument, now raised from the earth in a tower of achievement had but one owner, its builder, and the excited choice of a statue of the king for the top was soon forgotten and the unfinished monument, made to mark the naming of a now established settlement, stood proud and high above its people, but not one of them could go up and admire the view.
By the time Sarah was grown to womanhood, some 190 odd years later, the long since dead builder’s family had sold the monument they had never really had the need for to the council for £300 and the once inspiring tower, the once proud symbol of a people claiming their sense of place to be worthy, had fallen into disrepair. Sarah’s husband had attended the primary school that had been built at its feet at the turn of the last century and ever looked longingly up at its neighbour, wishing he could climb the steps that led to its fabled view of all the land for miles around; the sea to one side, far off Dartmoor to the other.
When Sarah decided it was about time the monument was taken seriously all but the front wall (showing still the date of its construction) of the local school had been taken down and its once proud neighbour was surrounded by an ocean of litter.
Photographs did she take and emails did she send. Misunderstood by a local paper was she, but finally discovered that a local group had secured the necessary funds to restore Devonport Monument to its former glory and Sarah and her husband were taken up the steep and narrow winding steps to the top to see the view, which you can see on Sarah’s Devonport page (link coming soon).
We go to see the monument. We stand in front of the Guildhall, with its graceful Athenian look, standing side by side with the Egyptian style Odd Fellows Hall, and rising up between the two, adorned by scaffolding, is the once proud monument, in the process of finally claiming its birthright.
Inside the Guildhall, where we eat delicious homemade soup and home baked bread for lunch in the white tiled former mortuary turned community cafe, there are old photographs, one of the monument, in its heyday,
rising up between the Guildhall and the Odd Fellows Hall, a single Morris Minor parked where now rows of twenty first century cars line both sides of an avenue once meant to be grand in front of very new flats with small balconies, looking for all the world as if they had been imported from a Brazilian seaside resort.
It looks incongruous and Sarah says so. It seems that every time new buildings go up here the legacy of the past catches up with these homes; when will those with jobs in government offices finally stop listening to the rules and follow their hearts instead. You don’t solve social deprivation by building new over old, by papering over the cracks, by putting sticking plaster over wounds.
For how much longer are we going to keep on trying to grow anew without tending to our roots? When will we stop trying to go forwards before we have even grieved for the past, let alone given it and us time to heal? When will we stop negating the feelings of hundreds and thousands of people who have given their youth, their labour, their children and their labour, and eventually their lives so that others can live the high life?
It is wonderful to me that Devonport Monument is going to finally give the pleasure it was meant to give, and to help us remember to celebrate the endeavours of those people who went before us. I hope entry to the top of its tower is free for all those who live around and about it and that its restoration signifies an honouring of all that has gone before.
We leave the Guildhall behind and set off to our final destination; Mount Wise Park. I, accustomed to strolling down the middle of Totnes High Street, stroll down the middle of the quiet back road, but come back on to the footpath at Sarah’s timely reminder that to do such a thing here would only likely earn me abuse from a passing motorist of the kind extolling my ignorance as to the proper use of a pavement.
As we near the park gates Sarah rides on ahead a little and as Pat & I wend our way towards Mount Wise a billboard catches our eye:
The pessimist complains about the wind
The optimist hopes the wind will change
The realist adjusts the sails
It speaks to me, the eternal optimist, about why it might be that I haven’t made much of a success in my life; why whilst others have their own house with gardens in which to grow their veg, I have been too busy offering my services for free to good causes, forgetting that charity, after all, begins at home. It explains why I have no home of my own nor land to grow veg upon, and that no one is going to help me to get that as long as I continue to open heartedly give out of love and not for profit.
It reminds me that there is a place for everything; including a very sensible regard for the times that we actually live in, that for however aware of the things that need to change one might be, however good it is to be one of those that hold a strong vision for how the future shall be, it is also prudent to be aware of the prevailing wind and tack accordingly.
Up on Mount Wise, the place Sarah tells us she comes to when in need of centring and coming back to a strong sense of self, the wind blows balmy, and I let go of the idea of the early bus home and sit with my companions on the bench overlooking the Sound. Basking in the late summer sun we gaze out at boats big and small, the boatyard Sarah tells us has been in her friend’s family for generations, his ninety year old grandparents still living in a motley collection of multicoloured outhouses huddled towards the back of the yard against the lee of the wall, and the Royal William yard across the estuary.
Recalling teaching herself to ride her bike in the park, having worked out the garden path was way too short to learn to find her balance, and teaching herself to swim on the Hoe, we are reminded by Sarah’s tales of growing up in the city that life is very much what you make it, and that there are always opportunities for a healthy happy life.
Pointing out over the waters of the Tamar to our right and the first gentle hills of Cornwall readily visible at the other side, Sarah tells us of school summer camping holidays sent as a teenager there, the first holidays she had ever had. Walked every day they had, after the ferry boat over, tramped over hill and dale, visited the idyllic beaches along the coast, and experienced life out of the city for the first time. I feel the taste of anticipation as I contemplate all those lovely new places I have yet to discover and resolve to come back and explore some more, and Sarah points out a small red boat in the water that looks just like hers.
We wander back down the pathways till we meet roads again and Sarah and her bike take their leave and Pat & I set off in direction of the bus station.
On Union Street, that old sailor’s haunt, we pass the old palace theatre in its grand baroque style, Sarah had told us about it as we went in to sample the cosy splendour of the Devonport Playhouse,
still kitted out like a theatre of old, still putting on plays and musicals. The Palace Theatre has not been so fortunate, it has the buddleia Pat remembers from post war derelicts growing out of its uppermost windows, and though its glorious tiled murals are clearly visible in arches above the doors, and bronze replicas of long gone Frankie Howard show posters are fitted into the paving stones outside, the building is clearly disused, not, as one might deduce from coming across such a fine example of architecture in such a state, through lack of an interest in the performing arts, not at all, Plymouth always boasts a very fine season of great plays, operas and musicals; in the very modern looking building on the totally rebuilt main drag of the city centre.
Why then has this gem been so abandoned? Sarah tells us that its owner is soon due out of prison, where he was sent for having allowed drug use in the building in its most recent incarnation as a night club. She has considered writing to him to ask what he proposes to do with this city treasure. As Pat and I look up in admiration at the fine decorations a young woman pushing a pram comments to her friend
“They really should do something with that place”
And I feel both heartened that the palace is still loved, and saddened that we live in times where we have been taught to wait for the mysterious “they” to come and put right all that which we would know perfectly well what to with if only “they”, whoever “they” are, would disappear from the scene and let us get on with it.
We walk on and pass a Portuguese taskinha and cannot resist popping in for a couple of pasteis de nata. It is hard to decide who is more delighted; the Portuguese man who serves us at being asked for our order in Portuguese, or me to have found somewhere to practise my beloved rusty old Portuguese again.
Munching on the sweet eggy pastries we stroll though the city centre and as the rain comes down in a sudden summer downpour we marvel at how it kept off exactly long enough for our trip through Devonport.
Memories of monuments, parks, and quaint houses, of wild flower havens, proud river estuaries and the sheer resilience of the people of Plymouth abound as I hop back onto the number 80 and look forward to furthering my acquaintance still more.
I come home from my visit to Devonport with a jar of Janner Jam http://www.facebook.com/JannerJam, http://www.jannerjam.com/local-page.php homemade strawberry jam, a gift from Sarah’s kitchen. Wanting to celebrate the local in her home city and knowing only of Plymouth gin, Sarah started producing the jam as she wanted Plymouth to be known for a local food too.
Tamar valley strawberries are the best in the world. Grown in the fertile soils of the banks of the river that separates Devon from Cornwall, these sweet juicy berries have to be eaten to be believed. I remember the incinerator plans and can only hope that the strong shoots of the new way that honours the past, has an eye on our grandchildren’s future, and lives in the moment, will find their way up through the cracks in our decadent society soon; there is much to be remembered and loved and to nourish us all.
If we can forget the rules and remember Michael’s wise words “I don’t have to know what I am going to do until I’m going to” I reckon we could be well on our way.
Many thanks to Sarah Greep, Pat Bushell, and Michael Holt for inspiring me, and this blog.
& any factual mistakes will be all mine, of course:)