Written in September 2014.
In order to survive a period of hibernation, ie, not to die or go crazy, there are a few essentials that you need to get together. Apart from the first thing on this list, there isn’t a real order of priority and you could, of course, add to the list, but in my opinion, the basics are: about 6 cubic metres of wood; a cellar full of food; a load of alcohol; a big bag of grass and something to do.
I learned this a few years ago when I spent my first winter in Voditsa in Bulgaria. I was very naïve about what an Eastern European winter actually meant – so much so that the very first year that I was in the village, arriving in August, I rashly decided that I would stay for the winter. My new Bulgarian friend, Svetlana, who doesn’t mince her words, looked at me, narrowed her eyes and said ‘If you stay here this winter, you will die.’ She’s a lovely person but quite scary and she speaks like a Hollywood version of a Bulgarian spy, so I believed her immediately and went to Italy instead.
I returned the following spring and spent the rest of the year learning how to be a subsistence farmer – actually, that bit isn’t really true. In later years, I did learn about growing food and using the land productively but what I really did that year was begin to turn a large field into a beautiful garden. A small part of it was for growing vegetables, mainly tomatoes, but the rest was developed purely for the purpose of beauty and over the years, it’s been filled with trees, flowers, lots of sparkly things and more trees. My neighbours refer to my field as ‘The Park’ and it was source of wonder to everyone in the village – not because they thought it was beautiful, but because they had lived in Eastern Europe all of their lives – they knew what ‘winter’ meant and they wondered what exactly I was going to eat in January.
Jorge, Vasilka and Drago are my neighbours and pretty much everything they do is perfect! They grow the right amount of huge vegetables; preserve everything wonderfully; have great yoghurt from their lovely goats, know exactly what to do in each season and Jorge makes pretty good Rakia – the alcohol of the Balkans. During that year, I used to go into Vasilka’s kitchen and ask her what she was going to do that week because it was slowly dawning on me that this was not the British Isles and therefore anything I knew about growing vegetables didn’t count here. To emphasise the point, the temperature range in Bulgaria is -30 in January and +45 in August with no guarantee that it’s going to rain this week or next. So I reckoned that, as Vasilka had been doing this her entire life, I should do whatever she did. That sort of worked except that she also had loads of skills that I didn’t have and there were some things that I was just rubbish at, like milking goats, but I did learn how to do two important things. I learned how to preserve things in jars (not as simple as those words make it seem) and how to make Rakia. So as a consequence, I had a lot of things in jars for the winter – peaches, pickled cucumbers, tomatoes and loads of jam.
You may not know this, but Bulgaria is the land of fruit – I later came to refer to it as The Tyranny of Fruit but at the beginning I thought it was great. Just about every European fruit tree was growing in my field. In reality, there is so much of it that the only sensible thing to do with it is to distil it into 45percent proof alcohol – Rakia. Under Jorge’s instruction that first year, I made about 30litres of truly wonderful peach rakia.
So I had two of the components for my hibernation but actually, that word wasn’t in my vocabulary at the time. ‘Very cold’ to me, meant a biting wind that makes the top of your head hurt, blasting in from the North Sea. Minus 25 didn’t even compute in my brain, neither did ‘a metre and a half of snow’ so although I was getting prepared, I really had no concept of what I was preparing for. Svetlana approved though so I was obviously on the right lines.
Then I had to learn what a cubic metre of wood looked like. I not only couldn’t visualise it, I had no idea at all how much I would need and then, it transpired that you don’t just go and buy wood from some wood shop. Things are not that simple in Bulgaria. In later years, I understood the process and became part of the village wood allocation scheme but that winter, I just had to find someone who had some spare wood that they would sell. I succeeded and one day, three guys spent an hour throwing huge logs down from a tractor to make a really impressive pile of very big logs inside my gate. As I was watching this pile grow bigger, I realised that each log would have to be split and then stacked somewhere. Just as I was thinking that, the phone rang and an American guy asked if he could come and volunteer for a week – he was a lovely guy and he developed some good muscles in the next 7 days.
So, I had a mountain of wood, a bizarre selection of things in jars, a lot of litres of alcohol, a large bag of grass that had just magically appeared and suddenly I felt that I was prepared for the winter – that was because I didn’t know about the last thing on the list. I should drop into the conversation here that, at that time, there was no internet in the village and I didn’t have a TV but I did stock up on books – I did that by making all my visitors leave their books for me.
A lovely autumn slowly rolled by and on the first weekend in November, there was a light fall of snow and the temperature hovered around zero for the next couple of weeks before resuming its downward slide.
But I was then a bit distracted from the weather because my children came to visit. Actually they came to ski and I hired a car and drove south to the mountains to meet them. On the way, whilst I was having some driving adventures, as one does in Bulgaria, I pondered the value of unbroken legs and arms in my new role as a farmer. My daughter had brought me a selection of English newspapers so, while they skied, I sat in the sunshine, suitably wrapped up, reading the papers and drinking coffee laced with rum – a lovely skiing holiday.
I drove home, for 5 hours, in a blizzard. When I finally got to bed and closed my eyes, all I could see in my head were white dots but next morning the village was clear – dry and not a drop of snow in sight. My children left after a few days and as I got home from the station, the sky looked kind of full. It had begun to snow for real by the time I got home.
There’s something about that hush that covers everything with the first real snow fall – doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of the city or the depths of the country. I woke up the next morning to dazzling sunshine and a hush. I opened the kitchen door and the appropriate greeting for the day was ‘Woah..fuck!!’ I just could not believe how much snow had fallen overnight – well over a metre and it was weird snow! My dog, Jess, barked with delight and jumped off the porch …and promptly sank. It was so soft and dry that you could almost swim through it. My previous experience of snow was wet and slushy – not like this. The cats could glide over the surface but they weren’t that keen on playing in it.
After some energetic shovelling so that I could reach the wood store – must move it to a better place next year – I focused on getting the house warm and snuggling down. Down is the optimum word because that’s what the temperature did – down, down, down to minus 25 at night within the next couple of days. For about the next 6 weeks, it was never above minus 10 during the day and I quickly realised that Svetlana had been right – it’s very easy to die in minus 25. But the astonishing thing for me, coming from the North East of England, was that there was no wind. There wasn’t any sneaky wind chill factor of minus a lot when it looks like a nice day outside. In fact, if you sat outside, it took about 15 minutes before the cold really penetrated inside your body.
The house was warm, I had food and I could walk to the shop in the middle of the day for supplies …..but after I’d organised the essential life things – what then? There was a lot of the day to fill and I couldn’t spend lots of time outside – I had nothing to do! The first 4 or 5 days hovered around the edges of cabin fever – another concept that I hadn’t understood before. Then I sat down and had a long talk with myself – life was going to be like this for a good few weeks to come – it would end of course, because Spring would come eventually but meanwhile, I needed a strategy to deal with potential onset of madness.
The bag of grass came in handy here – very useful for opening up hidden parts of your mind – and I began to think about the things that I haven’t got round to doing just because I never had time. That’s exactly what I had lots of now, so how to use it….and then I remembered that I’ve always been intending to write a book. Lots of us have thought that, I guess but probably dont do anything about it – I’d just existed with this vague notion that there was a book in me somewhere. Now was the time to find it. ‘Fiction’ quickly came and went in my thoughts – I didn’t really have a story to tell but then I thought about what all teachers say ‘write about what you know’ and I have to be honest, that when I think about it, I have had a pretty unusual life that people seem to find interesting. But you’ve still got to have somewhere to start…..sitting beside the stove with my feet up, very stoned, lying back and just letting some images of my life come into my head……
Looking across the River Tyne when I was about 7 or 8 and seeing the street lights on the far side and wondering what was actually there. Walking down the track from my sister Lynne’s cottage in Galloway, in Scotland, with my partner, my daughter and two bags – on our way to live in India, oh and I was pregnant. Walking along windswept beaches. My friend Nigel’s Tipi in Galloway. Swimming in a fiord in Norway. My son being born in Goa. Working in the kitchen at the Ambassador’s residence in Copenhagen. Being scared in Cologne Cathedral. Looking for a house in Manchester….
I was getting a bit overwhelmed by it all and I came back to my search for the right house in Manchester. It took me six months but I eventually found what I was looking for – a shared house in a Co-op, in a cool part of the city with a south facing garden. Pretty specific requirements but then I’d lived in a lot of houses and I knew what I liked and what made me comfortable. Now that was an interesting thought – all of the houses I’d lived in…. perhaps that would be a plan for writing about my life. It would give me a structure to write and to think. This plan was pretty much immediately adopted and next morning I woke up with a new energy.
Life fell into a routine – I’d wake up, feed the animals, sort the Petchka out (the stove), get my coffee and toast and go back to bed. Typing in bed was the most comfortable and the warmest place to work and I spent the next 3 or 4 hours enjoying remembering things and typing. Then I’d get up and do important staying alive things – bringing in the wood, getting stuff from the cellar, going to the shop, playing around in the snow, chatting with my neighbours until 3.30 ish when the temperature would be begin to plummet. Dinner and maybe a DVD and think about the writing. I had already decided to call the book ‘23 Houses and a Tattie Shed’ (that means Potato Shed for people not from the north of England) and I had roughly counted the houses. I spent maybe 3 weeks writing about my childhood and some things that immediately came to my mind – living in Copenhagen when I was 17 and the years in India, being a hippy in Galloway.
Some themes emerged – some things that are important to me and that I’ve carried with me and it was fun to see where they started – things like music – I was a child of the 60s; football – Newcastle United are never far from my heart; shoes; cooking, glitter, dancing and of course travelling although now I don’t see myself as a traveller – I’m comfortable with the word nomad
One day, I wanted to make a list of the houses because I was a bit confused about a memory. I wrote down what I thought was the whole lot but there were gaps and some things didn’t fit…..and I could not remember actual years. This took me quite a few hours to sort it out and then I counted, not 23, but 35 houses that I had lived in. That seemed like an awfully big number – then I remembered another one – and next day, a few more until I arrived at the definitive list – not counting the house I was sitting in, I had lived in 42 houses in my 54 years. I was astonished and I couldn’t figure out how it all fitted together – some of these places I’d lived for a couple of years – actually I still don’t get that bit – there must have been a couple of timewarps somewhere.
So the title of the book changed and I carried on typing away and really enjoying myself. I didn’t write about the places that I didn’t like – there weren’t many of them but when there were more unhappy memories than good ones, the files went to the end of the queue. One day, I did a word count and I had written over 80,000 words. I was very impressed and started thinking about the end number – probably I should aim for 110 or 120,000 – that seemed average and achievable but then something unexpected happened – Spring came.
The temperature started creeping up – on the day it reached zero, it felt like a heatwave and I was outside in a T shirt. The snow disappeared and there were some snowdrops and a few days later the tips of the crocuses appeared. It was so delightful to be outside again and I had my first real experience of how spring literally bursts onto the scene after a long cold winter. You can almost feel the energy as the trees come back to life with the magnificent side of the Tyranny of Fruit – the blossom. I was enchanted by everything about the spring and the book was forgotten. I tried to pick it up a few times but I never could get the thread again.
That was 6 years ago and the word count has probably moved up to about 90,000. It’s been looked at and read through a couple of times and I spent a little bit of energy thinking about publishers, feeling that if someone liked it, I’d be motivated to finish it. And the title has changed again – it’s now ‘47 Houses and a Tattie Shed’.
PS. as of October 2015 it’s 48 houses …..and a Tattie Shed