Opposites: Sunshine & Shadow Over My Fence At 5 a.m. Or A Case of Elephants in The Corn And Other Unreal Realities

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It makes you want to burst into song. You know, that cheesy Oklahoma number: There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow. There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.*

When I was small, and we still lived in Love Lane House in the midst of the Cheshire countryside, my mother would always sing as she went around the house doing chores. This song was a favourite: Oh what a beautiful morning, Oh what a beautiful day.  She had a nice voice and always sang with great gusto. This in turn provided much needed reassurance on days when Miss Goodwin put in an appearance. Wednesdays. She was mother’s home help, and she came once a week to clean the acres of red quarry tile floors that ran throughout the house.

To a child she was an alarming gnome-like figure. Her straggle of black, limp hair had much in common with the wet floor mop that she wielded with dogged determination. As she twisted the mob head in the bucket, she would peer down at me through round, black-rimmed spectacles that made her eyes stand out on stalks. I thought she was probably a witch. I also associate her with green liquid soap – a cleaning product of times past. It had a repellent smell.

But mother went on singing, and all seemed well apart from the line about the corn being as high as an elephant’s eye.

This was a mystifying notion for a country child who, though surrounded by farm fields, had never seen elephants there, nor crops that grew so tall. My father worked for an agricultural merchants, and early on I learned the difference between the grain crops he dealt in. In those days we did not know much about American corn, which we anyway call maize, and corn was a word commonly used to refer to wheat.

A case of cereal confusion then.

Many decades later when I was out and about on Kenyan farms, and wondering at the height and vigour of some of the maize plots, I could well see how you might lose an elephant or two in there. In fact African elephants are very partial to scoffing poor farmers’ white maize crops just as they are ready to harvest. They can eat in a night produce that would have lasted a family half a year.

Anyway, there are clearly no elephants in the  wheat/corn in the photo. It is only half a metre tall. But the light is truly extraordinary.  A false dawn ripening since in reality the crop is still green with only the barest signs of turning. I kept my eyes open long enough to frame the shot and then went back to bed, inner sight still glowing from the vision: did I really see that strange light, and does this happen on other mornings when I’m not awake?

Mother’s voice comes winging back across the years: I’ve got a wonderful feeling/ Everything’s going my way.  Did I ever believe this back then? Mother was someone who ever came with undercurrents, despite the nice singing. For some reason the cornfield elephant I now picture has eyes the colour of summer-blue skies, which is odd. All of which is to say, childhood impressions, layer on layer, randomly and silently absorbed in the presence of unaware adults, can run deep. Like elephants in cornfields, you just never know when they’re going to ambush you.

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*Lyrics by  Oscar Hammerstein II, music by Richard Rogers copyright 1943 Williamson Music

Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge: opposites

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Vibrant: me on Lamu Island far too long ago

 

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It was a four day trip over Christmas. We’d been living in Kenya for three or so years by then, and another five to go before we would return to the UK for good. Lamu Island  set my imagination alight. Later I began writing a teen adventure aimed at the African schools literature market. It was published by Macmillan in their Pacesetters series around the time we left Kenya in 2000.  It’s still in print, and even if I say so myself, quite a good yarn. I have a feeling my brain cells were a little more vibrant back then. Perhaps they are craving the African light…

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Vibrant

Tales from the Walled Garden #2: back to the potting shed

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This is my Aunt Evelyn in around 1927. I’m guessing she’s about four years old when this photo was taken. She’s in the walled kitchen garden at Redhurst Manor, Surrey, where her father, my grandfather, Charles Ashford, was head gardener. In Tales from the Walled Garden #1  I included an excerpt from Evelyn’s description of what she calls her father’s ‘holy of holies’, the potting shed. She spent much time there as a small child, ever under strict instructions to be good. Here’s some more of what she remembered:

The potting shed was filled with a wonderful mixture of smells of the sort you find in a ‘20s hardware store. Tarred string was the main one. Then there was the strange jungly smell of the raffia hanks hanging on the door. It suggested faraway places. There was bone meal, fish meal, sulphate of ammonia, Clays fertilizer, Fullers Earth, Hoof and Horn – everything to help bring in good crops – and all stored in wooden bins with brass bands and rivets and a wooden bushel or half-bushel measure on top.

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And now Evelyn will show you around some more of her father’s gardening domain. She’s even drawn you a map:

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Let me take you down the steps from the potting shed and into the kitchen garden. To the left there is a very long, narrow border under the high brick wall. This is where the herbs are grown for the kitchen. Either cook comes herself, or she sends the little kitchen maid to pick what is required for the day. It might be mint or parsley, chives, tender little spring onions or sprigs of fennel for the fish course – all the herbs in their season. If cook comes to the garden in summer, she also makes a quick inspection of the fruit cage to see what is ready.

With the exception of strawberries, all the soft fruit is grown in the big cage: fat red or yellow gooseberries, raspberries, luscious loganberries, all the currants – red, white, black, and later in the season the enormous cultivated blackberries. Many times I have slipped into that big cage to pick the huge fruits, especially the gooseberries, crouching down between the rows, hoping I wouldn’t be seen. These large red varieties, Prince Rupert, Wonderful  and Roaring Lion are hardly seen now, but those monsters of my childhood were a joy to eat straight from the bush. I never liked cooked gooseberries.

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Our kitchen garden soil was heavy yellow Surrey clay, and so enormous quantities of lighter stuff had to be dug in each autumn. Also a number of green manure crops were grown to be ‘turned in’ before food crops were planted. One of my father’s favourites was groundsel. This was dug into the big plot where brassicas would be planted.

In spring I would be sent out with a bucket and thick leather gloves to gather the lush green tops of nettles. This was not my favourite task. These nettles went in trenches beneath the seed potatoes because they contained a lot of iron. All sorts of natural substances were added to the soil of that garden. The only chemical preparation my father bought was Clays fertiliser and perhaps Bordeaux Mixture. Everything grew extremely well for him. Everything was tended with loving care. Season after season this was the pattern of things in the gardens of our estate.

Within the mellow brick walls the sun beat down, warming the fruit in the cage, the trained trees on the walls, and giving warmth to all life in the rich soil so that all the fruit and vegetables flourished.

On the walls were trained the top fruit: William pears, yellow plums, Victoria plums, nectarines, quinces, medlars, and some very special apples. Tucked into the angle of the south facing wall, which was the warmest spot, were a fig tree and a lovely peach. Below each wall was a deeply dug bed, and towards the potting shed there were artichokes, celery, spinach and, surprising for those days, sweet corn. My father was very good at growing sweet corn, and it was a great favourite with the Major.

Next to the big fruit cage a few rows of catch crops were grown. These included lettuce, carrots, early peas, and beetroots – anything else that had a short season. Across the grass path was the asparagus bed. This would have taken a long time to prepare and bring into production. It would have been a Sabbath Day’s job to dig the trenches north to south, two feet deep at least and filled with well rotted manure, light compost and a good sprinkling of silver sand worked in well. The raised bed should be salted as this is helpful to the plants and discourages slugs and weeds. A good bed should last twenty years.

My father grew wonderful asparagus. There was plenty for cook to prepare for the house, and the surplus was sold at the village greengrocer. I can still recall succulent dishes of this delectable vegetable, dripping with butter and served up for Sunday dinner at home.

We didn’t know how lucky we were all those years ago. So many good things to eat every day, and game from the numerous shoots that the Major held on his land. All the fruit we could eat in due season, and a good roof over our heads in the gardener’s cottage at the edge of estate.

To be continued.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

B & W Sunday ~ Stronghold ~ The Telling Of Family Tales

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Most families tell tales about their origins: legends of high-born connections, of inheritances lost or missed-out on, of forebears famous or notorious somewhere in the family tree. These stories, the ideas of who we are become strongholds of sorts; a defence against times when others make us feel ‘not good enough’, or just plain dull.

I seem to remember when I was eight or nine telling one very competitive school friend, and as a piece of deliberate one-upmanship on my part, that one of my ancestors was a well known poet and buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. Mother had told me so.

Indeed, Mother told me lots of family stories about her Derbyshire Fox and Bennett antecedents, and because a) she still had her own childhood interpretation of what her own mother had said, and b) was framing them in a way she thought I would also understand, the ensuing narrative, much like Chinese Whispers, came out more than a little garbled. In other words, our family connection to the poet ancestor is probably so much tosh.

From time to time I have little delving sessions on the internet in a bid to clear up the maternal myths, and last year came across two fellow searchers into the Fox family of Derbyshire’s High Peak. It turned out we were each descended from three siblings William, Robert and Deborah Fox, all born at Callow Farm in the manor of Highlow, in the 1770s. And it’s odd, but I find I treasure this present-day, albeit tenuous blood connection, almost more than anything I might find out about our mutual family past. I mean, well, who would have thought it; without the internet, we never would have found each other.

The Fox siblings’ father, George Fox, came from many generations of farmers. Over the years the family appears to have owned several pieces of land in the parishes of Hathersage, Longshaw, Eyam and Abney (one was a sheep run, others were possibly both farms and lead mine workings), but the Foxes, certainly in recent centuries, were mostly the tenants, first of the Eyres at Highlow Hall (pictured above), and later of the Dukes of Devonshire who came to rule much of Derbyshire from their own dynastic stronghold of Chatsworth.

If the Eyre name rings bells, well it is true (just to add another story thread) that Charlotte Bronte was staying with her friend Ellen Nussey in Hathersage in 1845, around the time she was writing Jane Eyre. Mr. Rochester’s Thornfield Hall is said to be drawn from another Eyre family stronghold, North Lees Hall. She and Ellen went visiting there. Other local features are also present in the book, including Hathersage itself, which was apparently the model for Morton, the village where Jane Eyre ends up after running away from Edward Rochester.

My Fox ancestors, it seems, were also good storytellers – fact mixed seamlessly with fiction. When Robert Fox’s son, my great, great grandfather George Brayley Fox was forced to sell up his possessions at Callow Farm in 1892, this piece appeared in the Derbyshire Courier:

Derbyshire Courier 25 March 1893

My own feeling about this ancestral yarn is that it was a bit of a face-saving exercise for a family that had indeed been part of the local scene for generations. Some of the details may well be based on some misremembered version of reality. Early medieval charters of the 12th and 13th centuries certainly have Foxes farming in pretty much the same location. Now, I and my two fellow Fox hunters are trying to tease the facts from the myths.

But one thing I do know (because I have the photo), my great grandmother, Mary Ann Fox, rode her pony along the winding lane from Callow Farm. She would have ridden past Highlow Hall on one of her regular missions. Grandmother said she went to Chatsworth Hall to deliver the farm tithe in eggs to the Duke of Devonshire. Here she is c1880s in her late teens, before she was silly enough to run off with a Manchester spindle manufacturer and, at thirty, end up the widow of a bankrupt with three young children and a stepson to support:

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And here is Callow farmhouse, the photo taken by a family researcher in the 1970s. It sits on a hillside below Highlow Hall, and looks down on the River Derwent and the small town of Hathersage. If there is a house of 1391 here, as the newspaper article suggests, then it is very well hidden inside a very much later exterior:

Callow Farm, Hathersage c 1970s

But if I said that these images and family tales have not affected how I see myself, then this would not be true, although it is only recently that I have seen this. For some reason, too, in my later years, these particular maternal ancestors seem to mean more to me.

The thing that speaks most loudly is not so much the gentry connections – real or imagined – but the sense of landscape, of the bleak uplands, the rugged scarps of millstone grit, the arcane, but tough world of lead-mining in which all classes toiled from the Eyres downwards; the fact that men and women worked so hard in this land, lived on oat cakes and homemade butter, cheese and ale, reared often very large families, and (in a surprising number of cases) lived into their eighties and nineties.

Somehow the more I uncover of my ancestors’ world, the more it becomes my stronghold, the mental hinterland wherein I am truly rooted.  I stand up more strongly, look out across those moors with their prehistoric stone circles, and ancient burial cairns, the stone walls, and the sheep fields. The wind is in my face. My gaze broadens and lengthens. It is like standing on top of the world, looking down the endless spiral of time of which I am a part, and forever will be.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Reference: For more about the Peak District

Black & White Sunday: Stronghold  Go here to Paula’s to her and others’ strongholds

A Long Time Ago in Africa

 

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Well this is what happens when you fiddle about in Windows Live Picture Gallery. I rather like the effect – posterized for posterity, an arty rendition of UK expatriate in 1990s Kenya. The original shot is thus pretty old, just like me. I was standing in the back garden of our house in Mbabane Road, in Nairobi’s leafy Lavington district, under the loquat trees. The house is gone now, and I can see from Google Earth that Madison Insurance who owned the compound, have given it over to some development of upscale townhouses. Across the road was  the run-down state primary school. I imagine it is still run down. My days back then had a daily soundtrack of children’s voices – chanting times tables mostly.

In the photo I’m wearing a self-made suit (tunic and pants) of batik cloth created at a workshop by street boys trying to get their lives together. And I’m wearing a string of Kazuri Beads, glazed ceramic beads, made by women trying build themselves and their kids a future. Kazuri means small and beautiful. The little factory in Karen, Nairobi was a joy to visit. The workshop shelves were lined with glass jars of bright beads, rather like a picture book sweet shop, while at benches in the the airy room, women created beads and threaded necklaces in colour schemes of their choosing. I’m only sorry that I seem to have no photos, but if you go to the link you can see the factory today – much expanded and employing men too.

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I still have the beads and the suit, and still wear them too, although the batik cloth is a little thin, while I, sadly, am not.

And now here’s a picture of our house – home for seven years.

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It came with the usual services that accompany the living quarters of TCOs (Technical Cooperation Officers) working for Her Majesty’s Department for International Development. These included a well secured compound perimeter with lights, a 24/7 security guard, house alarms (checked monthly), internal security gate, barred windows, guard dog, and regular applications of pesticide by Rentokil. Phew. We did not like any of  this much, although we did like Patrick, our day guard, such a tall and gentle man. It was hard to imagine him fending off intruders. He had a farm back home in Western Kenya where his wife stayed in the good stone house he had built for her, along with their three children. He used to go home twice a year to plant or harvest his maize crop.

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To make up for all the oppressive security, during the day I used to walk around the district on foot, roaming along the avenues. I wasn’t sure what it was I supposed to afraid of, although I did know that people did have their homes broken into, and that expats who insisted on driving large new Land Cruisers were often relieved of them (on their own compounds) by guys with AK47s, and strangely enough, soon after said expats (usually diplomats) had arrived in country and taken possession of the new vehicles via customs and imports at Mombasa port. The word on the street was that these robbers were highly connected. Very highly connected. This situation frequently reminded me of one of my father’s favourite sayings: the fish goes rotten from the head, although one would have been foolish to say this too loudly, or even at all back then.

Farrell Team Leader, Graham, had a works Land Rover for work, but otherwise we drove a battered Suzuki jeep. It had some interesting features. A previous owner had cut a hatch over the back seats, and made a fibre glass lid to go over the top. For game viewing you could simply unclip it. I didn’t drive it much, because that was the really scary thing – Nairobi driving. I often used to ponder if I could get to places by driving on the very wide pavements. Once when I forgot I was in Kenya and slowed at a zebra crossing on a city highway to let a pedestrian cross, the poor woman looked as if she would faint. I was lucky that  the Suzuki and I didn’t get flattened by a Tusker beer truck, while I and the woman stared at one other in a state of frozen confusion, neither of us able to move.

The other thing that used to scare me about driving was that parts used to fall off the Suzuki. G’s nonchalant response to my concern was, ‘Well if you were still going, you obviously did not need it, whatever it was.’

On the whole, then, it was better walking. I could peep through the cracks in the big steel gates that protected ambassadorial and diplomatic residences, and count the excessive number of garbage bags put out for BINS, the private refuse removal company. I’d see street kids and Maasai, greet the security guards who sat out on the neatly trimmed verges and chatted house to house. I was intrigued by the barber who had turned a fallen flame tree into a salon, and  I liked the smells of all the garden trees – cypress, frangipani, the warm musky smell of fever trees. When the rains came the streets would be filled with silvery clouds of termites on their nuptial flight. At dusk, the frogs in the Nairobi River way below our house would strike up frog songs that resounded across the valley. The crescent that adjoined Mbabane Road was called Applecross – a bizarrely English name that evoked pastoral perfection of the sort that had never existed outside colonial settlers’ minds.

When we took over the house from G’s predecessor we also took on the resident house steward, Sam, whose homeland was in Maragoli in Western Kenya. He had long worked for expatriates, but back home and also on the borders of Nandi he had small farms – three in all. His first wife lived on his ancestral land in what had been the Maragoli tribal reserve in colonial times. He still called it ‘the reserve’. He said he had poor relations on the other smallholdings, but they were not looking after the land properly and this caused him much concern. Apart from home leave, he stayed in Nairobi with his second wife, living in the servants’ quarters at the bottom of the garden. One reason for staying in Nairobi was so his three youngest children and a grandchild who had come to live with him could go to school across the road.

Now meet Sam, with guard dog Kim. We eventually had to hand Kim over to a vet, this after he started attacking children who came to play with Sam’s children on our compound. The vet told us that some German Shepherds were prone to this behaviour, and once begun, this was not a habit that could be broken. She told us she would try to send him to a rescue centre that kept such dogs, but otherwise he must be destroyed.

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We did not ask which of these had been the outcome, but after having one sweet little girl’s face stitched up at the hospital we could not risk it happening again. Luckily the dog missed the child’s eye and the wound healed well. Here she is then, Sera, fully recovered with only a hint of a scar under the right eye.Zaina and Sera 2

And next comes Silas, Sam’s youngest son.

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And Sam’s grand daughter, Zaina playing badminton with Silas on the back lawn.

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Then Sam off-duty out on Mbabane Road. He only worked half days as we didn’t have enough house work.

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And  this is Francis, who stood every day on the corner of Mbabane and James Gichuru and sold us The Standard and Nation newspapers. He turned the newspaper round deliberately because it was featuring the British envoy, a man somewhat outspoken on Moi regime corruption.

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And finally me again, not looking quite so postered  (but oh, so much younger) with poor old Kim, and those Kazuri beads again. Interesting days.

Tish and Kim the dog

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

 

Related:

Looking for Smut: Work on Kenya’s Highland Farms

Valentine’s Day Runaway

 

Flickr Comments ‘A’ words – go here for more bloggers’ ‘A’ tales and photos

Valentine’s Day Runaway

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Friday February 14 1992 was the day I ran away to Africa. I was finally fleeing a marriage with too many guns in the closet, and much else besides. And I was leaving behind home, possessions, an aged father and three much loved labradors. The springer spaniel, though, I would not miss. The little beast was demented and I wished the husband joy of her.

At the time of departure I had very little money, and I had left a legal aid solicitor to handle my divorce. (With guns in the closet I discovered that such matters are swiftly expedited). When I boarded the airport bus in Wolverhampton bound for Heathrow all I had with me was one canvas grip stuffed with some summer clothes, and a small cabin bag containing paperbacks, my Olympus-trip, a mini cassette player and Joni Mitchell’s Night Ride Home. I also had an Air France ticket to Nairobi and a stash of anti-malaria tablets.

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Long ago at Mzima Springs – the way I was then…

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I was off to be with the man with whom I was smitten, an entomologist working out in Kenya on a three-month contract to control an introduced crop pest, the Larger Grain Borer. I knew little about him, and still less about my destination. Years before, in a frigid Scottish university, I had written a masters thesis on the socio-economic relations between Mbuti hunters and Bantu farmers of the Congo. I had never been to Africa, nor wanted to go there. I had read too much about forest buffaloes, ants and yaws in the Ituri Forest to find the idea appealing. I was not the sort of person who craved adventure or who had travelled much. I was a museum researcher and an armchair anthropologist. When I set off from rural Shropshire on that dank and gloomy day, it was to meet up with the flesh-and-blood man who had sent me the plane ticket. I did not expect to look out of a plane window somewhere over Somalia, and fall in love with a continent.

It was un coup de foudre as the French say. Ludicrous and nerve-shattering. Perhaps I should not have flown Air France, (although with hindsight I have to say it was one of my best flights ever). But as we approached Nairobi the condition only grew worse. It seemed there was a plane jam at Jomo Kenyatta International; the 747 could not land. Instead, it circled and circled Mount Kenya. I could not believe it: this god’s eye view of the vast exploded volcano presented to me again, again, and again. Then, as a final flourish to this extraordinary entrée, we made our descent over the green highlands of Kikuyuland, the smallholder farms so lush from the short rains.

Those landscapes fused onto my retina, bedded in my cerebral cortex, and I was changed.

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My man in Mombasa – the way he was then…

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When I finally met G at the airport, he seemed like a stranger. I noticed that his hair needed cutting and he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt with an oddly tropical look, this when I had only known him in the thick jumpers and anoraks so essential for surviving winter in rural Shropshire. It was a disquieting discovery to see that I did not know him at all in this landscape. As he drove me into the city I gazed out at the plains bush country around the airport, found myself blinking at the crowds and traffic chaos in downtown Nairobi. Someone had turned the colours up: it was all too bright, the road reserves dazzling with pink bougainvillaea, yellow cassia trees; the bright clothes and brown faces, the white smiles. When I arrived at the Jacaranda Hotel in Westlands I was still in tourist mode. I thought I had come to Kenya for a couple of months at most. Neither of us could have guessed that we would not live again in England for another eight years, or that our Africa journey had only just begun. And so yes, to thieve a line from Ms Brontë, and one so apt for this Valentine’s occasion – “Reader, I married him”; I married the man who bought me a plane ticket to Africa. How could I not?

napier grass on the Rift

Kenya’s highland farms in the rains

© 2014 Tish Farrell

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Carnations, Crooks and Colobus at Lake Naivasha

On Kenya’s Farms

No way back from Africa: the road to Hunter’s Lodge

 AILSA’S TRAVEL THEME: ROMANCE

DP CHALLENGE

Weekly Writing Challenge: My funny Valentine for more bloggers’ stories. The ones below especially caught my attention:

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