As a small child, after my dad bought a car, we used to go on various jaunts and, of course, to visit our grandparents in the nearby towns. I would be slumped in the back after an evening at my Grandma’s house in Little Hulton, full of prawns and salad cream and Tunnocks teacakes as a general rule. My grandmothers were not great cooks, it must be said, a fact brought about by World War and a lack of ingredients rather than a lack of skill. My grandmother’s go-to family tea was a table groaning with celery sticks, iceberg lettuce, prawns, tinned ham and salmon all to be drowned in the tangy vinegar splendour of salad cream. There would be butter to slather over crusty bread though never when it was ‘too new’. My grandmother had an odd dislike of fresh bread. There would be pop, a beverage which she always referred to as ‘mineral’. Cream soda and dandelion and burdock were my favourites. Tea. There was always a pot of tea and white tea cups.
We didn’t always have tea there. Often we just drove over for an hour or two to visit. My paternal grandparents lived nearer, eventually moving to live at the bottom of the road and we would also ‘pop’ in there, my dad reading the Bury Times as my grandma attempted to out talk the budgie, Joey. Other times we would be in the car returning from a trip to the cinema or the theatre, Bolton Octagon being a favoured haunt of my childhood.
As we drove up Heap Brow, a steep incline towards home, there would be a small road sign stating that in that direction, pointy bit indicating right, we would find ourselves firstly in Pilsworth and then Indian East. We never turned towards Indian East, our route lay with a left turn towards home.
I would always look out for this sign and on my more daydreamy evenings I would ponder what Indian East might be like. I didn’t know anyone at school who lived there. And when we had travelled that route sometimes there was nothing very interesting, some fields, the warehouses and yards of the industrial estate and a lone pub, whitewalled and stranded. I would forget about the existence of Indian East then, taken up with the view from the car window and thinking of other daydreamy things. Only when we passed the sign did I recall ‘Oh yes…Indian East. I must have missed it.’.
It was a shining beacon of a place, harbouring all my childish hopes for a town. Green space and old buildings, possibly half-timbered, on wilder days they had turrets. The streets of Indian East would be higgledy-piggledy and you had to walk there because if you drove, well, as the years rolled by it appeared to me that the road broke its promise and seemed not to take you there. There must be a turn off that I missed. There was magic in this idea, that this place could only be reached on foot. It was hidden from view. It was quiet, the silence only broken by the song of birds, the whirr of a lawnmower, someone singing as they hung out the washing. The Indian aspect of its name puzzled me. There were plenty of Indian ladies in Bury. They clacked around the market in their glittery golden sandals, their jewel like saris bundled under heavy winter wool coats. Occasionally you might glimpse a soft, brownskinned midriff as a lady bent to tend to her grandchild in a pushchair. They were colourful, like fairies to my child self. They had long hair, plaited like Rapunzel and elaborate earrings.
Perhaps, I thought, Indian East is like that. Everywhere in Indian East is colourful and gilded. I had an idea that there were boats, something like a gondola, which might transport people along the River Roach from the centre of Bury. If there were unicorns then you’d find them in the stables at Indian East. Fires there were obviously lit by dragons.
Food of choice in Indian East would be cake, Battenburg probably because it had the colour scheme. I had it all worked out. An eco-system all to itself; it would be sunny in Indian East when it was not in Heywood. They had a lot of thunderstorms too, when the sky would turn bruise black. My favoured weather system. They also had more snow, ten feet deep at least when ours was only slush because Indian East was hidden in a valley, hence its lack of visibility from any of the major roads.
One day, I thought, when I’ve passed my driving test, I will drive to Indian East. Clearly we never got there because my dad was never driving there, we were always heading elsewhere, even when we turned in the direction of Indian East. We were on our way to Pilsworth Road or out towards Heaton Park.
One afternoon in the 1980s the truth of Indian East was revealed to me. It was, literally, a revelation. As a child I had read the sign, very clearly, from my seat in the back of the car. Indian East. I had never questioned my interpretation of this road sign. The words had conjured up the place, with its every last letterbox. I had no reason not to believe in the existence of Indian East. It was on a road sign. They didn’t make road signs to places that did not exist. I had built a city on the back of my reading skills.
I was having driving lessons by then, scooting around the environs of our town in Mr Purvis’s Mini Metro and we stopped at a junction on Pilsworth Road. Mr Purvis gave his usual careful instructions; he was a Geordie man, very patient. As he imparted driving knowledge I looked up at the road sign in front of me. There were two places listed. Bury, right and to the left Ind. Est.
Wait a moment. Ind. Est?
I looked around, at the warehouses, the tarmacced yards and drives, the high security fencing and the sets of traffic lights that Mr Purvis liked us to practice going through, junction after filter after cross hatched junction.
In one moment a city fell. The spangled ladies of Indian East vanished in their market coats, shooed into the gondolas and skiffs by the burly chested security guard from Industrial Estate. They had no place here, no place anywhere. The sign had never read ‘Indian East’ at all except to my childish eyes and I had never corrected the mistake.
To say I was heartbroken, would not be hyperbole.
I stalled the car. Mr Purvis waited patiently, puffing on his hundredth cigarette as I sorted my gears and started the engine.
I’ve always been a book lover, ever since I finally had the words to read ‘Old Dog Tom’ one of the epics of the reading scheme at my 1970s primary school. No, it was not written on parchment or etched in stone. It was colourful though, I remember lovely ochre and chestnut tones and there was always something about the rhythm of the title ‘Old Dog Tom’ 3,3,3. Literary magic. Could not tell you now what that story was about but the feeling of it, the colours, the sound of it lodged in my mental geology like mica.
I read and re-read Ladybird books. I mowed my way through Enid Blyton and Sue Barton District Nurse. My mum was adept at leaving books idly on stairs and upturned on tables and in this way I found ‘The Pigman’ by Paul Zindel, Jean Plaidy’s young queens historical books and Alan Garner’s ‘Owl Service’. I roared through Alan Garner, Elidor settling into the old geology like Lewisian Gneiss.
Harriet the Spy was another geological deposit, a book I still have, yellowed and creased to glory. It is no lie to admit that many of my writing skills come from the way that book made me think about people and about their stories and their secret inner lives.
Another totally immersive book for me was The Adventures of James Bond Junior 0031/2 written by the mysterious R D Mascott. At the time I had no idea it was by a mystery author, some thought it was Dahl, others that it might be Amis. I just thought it was brilliant. I borrowed it over and over and over again from my primary school library, a small corner room at the top end of the hall that was a haven of hidden stories. These are the proper libraries, the ones that are quiet with secrets not brash with the council’s corporate hype. A library should be dusty and hidden, the shelves should be tall so that readers can scuttle between them undisturbed. There should be paperbacks and bookworms not protocol.
This book might seem an unlikely choice for a ten year old girl but believe me, I thought this book was the Bible. I liked the adventure of it, the gripping writing style and the fact that this boy just wandered around the countryside finding out secrets and solving a mystery and then, at last, not being given credit for it. It was not a sop of a book. One of my vivid recollections of its storytelling was when he ends up in the river trying to get away from the bad guys and gets his leg broken. I can’t tell you how that book imposed itself into my head. It was a wonderful place to run around in.
That’s the key. It’s what is in your head, the secret places, the hidden dreams and desires, and stories need to reach those places. We all love different stories because we are all different but we connect as tribes through those stories. I like witchcraft and the supernatural, you might like horror or crime.
You find your tribe. You build your hut. You read.
I love Autumn despite the fact that the dawning of September gives me panicked flashbacks to my schooldays. Riffling images of black polyester blazer, mustard coloured Hush Puppies and the crack of Tracey’s nose after Karen hit her with the hockey stick that time. Her nose swelled like a vast purple balloon, an image that has stayed with me. Purple. Yes. Imperially so.
Autumn has the best colours and I love the cooling weather plus there is something lush about the name ‘October’. It might be the ‘ber’ at the end, reminiscent of bears and other predatory wildlife that roam the fictional forest that fills my skull. Oct, too has a sharp clicking sound to it and probably accounts for the fact that one of my favourite aquatic creatures is ‘octopus’. November is good because it has a ‘v’ in the middle and also the word ‘ember’ which reminds us that we can light fires in the crisp Autumn darkness to chase away the less welcome spirits or invite others in.
I was at the gym the other day listening to a boring woman drone on about bad weather. She hates bad weather because when it rains ‘You are stuck in the house.’ to which I replied ‘Why? Don’t you have a coat?’, which comment went down like a lead balloon but I was in that sort of mood. What sort of a sop doesn’t like bad weather? As Billy Connolly tells us ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing’. Cold? Put a jumper on. Anyone who won’t venture out into the rain is a hopeless write off, especially in this country with its daily meteorological smorgasbord. Seriously folks, the weather here is a breeze compared to the monsoons of Asia and the wild hurricanes of Tornado Alley in the US. Get your boots on. Knit a scarf. Get out there.
I visited California on my honeymoon and it was relentlessly sunny. After about five days my husband (Welsh) and myself (Northern) began to crave some clouds. Just a few puffy ones, possibly a bit of cirrus streaked across the unending blue. Then, after a week of sweat and squinting, even with sunglasses, we needed a fix of cumulo nimbus, a great towering thunderhead and possibly a bit of a chilly breeze, maybe a spot or two of rain. It was torture. I am not of a sunny disposition it has to be confessed. I don’t roast or bake on the nearest beach; when I’m on a beach I like to build a sandcastle, which is no small embarrassment to my now grown up children.
Eventually the skies opened and we were treated to a vast and monsoon like downpour just as we decided to visit the La Brea Tarpits. It was one of my favourite moments of the generally wonderful honeymoon, the rain trickling down my neck from the collar of my cagoule as I looked at the black gloop and its cargo of concealed mammoth.
So here we are at October with its recent harvest of pumpkins. When I was a girl the only pumpkin I had ever seen was in my Ladybird ‘Cinderella’ fairytale book. Pumpkins were the fruit of myth until I visited the east coast of the US and was assailed by the pumpkin stands and general pumpkin bounty.
In more recent years the pumpkin has had a comeback in this country and I love their brightness and their fairytale aspect. The flavour isn’t half bad either, whether in a pumpkin pie or roasted with some walnuts and blue cheese. In case you were questioning my sanity I also love brussels sprouts and find it difficult to relate to those who don’t like them. What’s not to like? Green and tasty and like a fairy sized cabbage!
Autumn has all the best colours too, the vivid reds and umbers, burning oranges and the light held within the yellow ochres. There is the soundscape of the wind, of rustling leaves on branches and underfoot. You can’t beat it.
Flip over to the October page of the calendar, you’ll probably find it’s a squirrel or a dormouse armed with a hazelnut or dangling from an ear of wheat, although that’s probably a harvest mouse.
Harvest. Another lovely Autumn word. See, you just have to squint a bit at the season and you’ll be fine.