Wednesday 7 June 2017

Like a Rootless Tree (Where Are Your Roots?)

“So, where are your roots?”

It’s not every day you get asked a question like that in the gents’ toilet at Bar Loco. At least, it’s not every day I get asked that in the gents’ toilet at Bar Loco. Then again, I’m not there very often.

It was the t-shirt, of course. My American Roots t-shirt. Specifically, given I was standing at the urinal, the back of the shirt which asks WHERE ARE YOUR ROOTS? in sans serif caps.

Caught off-guard, mid pee, I stumbled for an answer. “Well,” I said, looking down at my chest. “I’m not American. The shirt is. It was a gift from my bestie in Maine. I’m from Liverpool.”

“Cheshire,” my new friend responded.

“Erm.” Zipping up and turning to see who I was addressing. “Merseyside.”

“Cheshire.” He asserted, smiling.

I knew he was wrong. Liverpool was in Lancashire when I was growing up, until 1974 when I became a teenager and Liverpool became a part of the metropolitan county of Merseyside. But I didn’t feel confident enough to contradict him without googling it to check, and somehow I didn’t feel right doing that just then.

Our impromptu conversation (I was washing my hands by this stage) moved on to my Scouse accent—or rather, my lack of one. My sister is fiercely proud of her accent. My mother hates to be reminded of hers. I am indifferent. My accent was never strong, and I’ve not spent any significant time in Liverpool since I left at eighteen.

I was at University in Bradford for four years. London for three. Six months in Norwich staying in the nurses’ home at the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital (which sounds racier than it was, me not being a very racy chap). Thirty years and counting here in Newcastle. I’ve picked up a little dialect and inflection here and there. Talking on Skype with Fran three hours a day for six years has added an American twist or two. I frequently find myself somewhere mid-Atlantic, poised between tomahto and tomayto, shedule and skedule. Especially when reading aloud to Fran, which I do a lot. Especially reading books by American authors (ditto, we know a few). But that’s another story.

Where was I?

Ah yes. Bar Loco. I was there for the Newcastle Literary Salon spoken word event, and this month’s theme was PLACE AND IDENTITY. You can see where this is going—which is more than I’ve ever been able to do, really. I’ve never had much idea where I was heading. Not so much drifting as carried by whatever currents were in play at the time. Only in the past few years have I gained any sense of direction. Of purpose. Of—now I come to think about it—rootedness.

Noun. The quality or state of having roots, especially of being firmly established, settled, or entrenched.

Aside: this post’s title comes from the Damien Rice song “Like a Rootless Tree,” specifically this version with Lisa Hannigan. If you don’t know it, listen to it now. You will thank me. Really. As a friend of mine said, “I fucking LOVE this song!” (The expletive is deliberate, you’ll understand when you listen to it.) Several of those performing at the Salon—poets for the most part—had borrowed from song lyrics or titles in the pieces they shared. So I’m in good company.

I’ve attended most of the Salon events over the past year. I’ve performed three times (Jun 2016 | Jul 2016 | Sep 2016) reading excerpts from our book High Tide, Low Tide. This time, though, I was there to listen. To open myself to the frequently raw, gutsy passion of those who dare to bare and share at the mic. I’ve written before how potent and challenging the Salon is for me.

I wasn’t disappointed. One after the other, I was moved by performer and performance alike. Aidan Clarke, whose voice I would willingly drown in. Melissa Chaplin, who spoke of her own issues with dialect and accent. Iain Rowan’s performance resonated especially. He spoke of how our roots need not be limited to the places we grew up in; they can be all the places and connections we have made in our journey through life. And that got me thinking. Or rather, it got me feeling. Always a good thing for a writer to hear, so I hope Iain gets to read this.

I’ve never felt much attachment to my city and region of birth. My one remaining attachment to Liverpool is my mother. Despite having other family there, I know that when my mother dies I will never revisit. There will be nothing there for me. Nothing there of me. For me, places are rendered meaningful not by accident of birth or count of years, but by virtue of the events and relationships they held or hold.

One poem of Iain’s (“We Planets, We Comets”) recounted a summer of earnest and joyful friendship. It recalled university days and months—and poetry—of my own.

In the REAL WORLD nothing rhymes and no one cares
yet here
still, even
the furniture loves us.
Maybe we’re right
but know we’ll never leave this place
our place though fortunes raze our hopes
erase our friends and set our eager souls dutifully.

From “for Richard’s room.”

That’s part of my rootedness, for sure. Bradford. One house in particular. Where else? One cottage in Wales. A London bedsit. Our holiday cottage at Brough. Evening walks to Great Musgrave along “Memory Lane.” Keep ’em coming. The waiting room at the QEII Cruise Terminal in Southampton. Brayloo.

I’m liking this sense of rootedness Iain has gifted me! Roots don’t have to be where we were born or grew up. They are—or can be—collected along the way and carried around with us.

In which case my rootedness (I see this now) includes places I’ve never travelled. Not in person. Not in the flesh. But virtually (whatever that means) as Fran’s armchair travel buddy, tagging along in her pocket by the magic of Skype and instant messaging. Spain. Germany. Austria. Amsterdam. Peaks Island. Portland, Maine: a city I feel at home in despite my feet never having touched the sidewalk. Never having touched the pavement.

It’s a fundamental tenet of my relationship with Fran and the work we are doing in the mental health arena that physical distance need not preclude deep, meaningful and successful relationships. Our vision is a world where no one is too far away to be cared for or to care.

I once asked Fran what I contributed most to our friendship. She gave me the image of an oak tree, standing strong and tall. At the time, I hadn’t felt too grounded, solid, rooted. Looking back now, I can see things differently.

Rather than imagining myself rootless, I can choose to see myself, to feel myself, part of a network with roots deep and wide enough to encompass the globe. (Think oaks, not baobabs: a nod to the wisdom of Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry’s Little Prince who attended to the toilet of his tiny planet as we would be well advised to attend to the toilet of ours.)

Speaking of toilets, next time I’m in the gents at Bar Loco I’m going to be prepared. I know where my roots are.



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