This repairing and mending


The seasons have been vacillating between summer and autumn. Early yesterday the garden was festooned with huge, dew-laden cobwebs but the afternoon was so hot, Canterbury was full of people in shorts and summer clothes.  This morning though there was a proper nip in the early morning air as I cycled down to buy bread and the school kids were all wrapped up in their blazers.

Last week at Tŷ Newydd similarly had both seasons. People swam in the sea and the river, ate breakfast outside but one day was cold with heavy rain. We had an after-dark stroll one evening, and our visiting writer, Larry Butler, offered early morning tai chi and it all felt part of the equinoctial balance that extended to the mixture of tears and laughter in the workshops.

Writing in Health and Social Care is the course Graham Hartill and I have been facilitating since 2008 and the experience is unlike any other writing workshop I’ve been part of.  A strong element is the house –Tŷ Newydd is Lloyd George’s old family home and parts of it date back to the sixteenth century. It also has a modern conservatory with exquisite glass and a lift giving wheelchair access to the library with its sofas, overflowing bookshelves and view of the sea. There’s always interesting talk in the kitchen where people make tea and toast at all hours, as well as around the huge oak dining table. In a world where conformity, branding and standardisation often take priority, it’s wonderful to be somewhere where there’s a sense of home, soul and history – all of which feed into our writing.

As I was getting ready for the course, I read Jaan Kaplinski’s autobiographical prose poem sequence Ice and Heather. The poet grew up in Tartu, Estonia, a town almost totally devastated by German bombers in the early 1940s and whose population doubled in size during the Soviet period when Russians were settled there. Kaplinski’s poetic genius is how his exploration of ‘home’ encompasses the personal and the universal, an inner and outer focus.  The following prose poem keeps speaking to me about both poetry therapy and houses – although I have a question mark around the ‘just’ in the last sentence.  Any Estonian-speakers out there who can unpick that word?

‘We bought this old farmhouse nineteen years ago. Its last inhabitant was an old bachelor who slept and cooked his food in the kitchen: the other rooms weren’t heated, and the floors there had begun to decay. The range didn’t draw, the ceiling was sooty and full of cobwebs. There were no flowers close to the house, only some big ash trees and lilacs growing nearby. The fences were falling down, the roofs leaked.  On the first evening I understood that I had to begin repairing, mending and adjusting the fences, roofs, floors, pipes, well and latrine, and that there would be no end to this repairing and mending. But I also understood that our life is nothing other than such a repairing and mending: and attempt to keep in order an ageing body, declining memory, clothes wearing out and a home going to ruin, if one has a home.  Life is just an endless work of repair.’

Jaan Kaplinski, trans. Jaan Kaplinski with Fiona Sampson  Evening Brings Everything Back (2004) Bloodaxe p.48