Climbing the Stairs in Penrith: Or, Proving Larkin Wrong

I AM a control freak. I know this because I am always the one with the map, I am always the one cooking the roast, I am always the one who thinks that he’s got a plan. I tell myself (and others) that I’m being helpful, that I’m being organised. But I’m not. I am being IN CONTROL.

Does this look like a man in control? I’m actually holding on for dear life. Needless to say, this picture wasn’t taken in Penrith.

I know that this control freakery can be annoying for other people. I know this because my own father has stood over me before and told me how to butter bread the correct way. And I have found myself doing exactly the same thing with a friend chopping garlic (the mortifying thing is that it was also caught on camera: never has anyone ever looked so disapproving at another person for the way that they were chopping their garlic).

In This Be The Verse, Philip Larkin famously had this to say about what your parents give you:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

So it was with those cheerful words bouncing around in my head that I boarded a train destined for Penrith, where I would be joining my parents and family friends – let’s call them cousins and my aunt and uncle, because they’re the closest thing that I have to either: three generations in the same cottage for a weekend of eating, drinking and walking. What could possibly go wrong? A lot, Larkin would have me believe.

About an hour and a half into my train journey, somewhere around Wigan, I got a phone call from my dad:

“Dave, we’re at the cottage. But there’s been a bit of a calamity.”

“What is it dad, what’s wrong?” Is the kitchen flooded, I was thinking? Have they lost our booking? Has a tractor crashed into the car? Has someone broken their leg?

“It’s the gin, Dave. We forgot the gin…”

Fortunately, it turns out that they do have shops that sell gin in Penrith. What a relief! The wonderful bookend to the gin saga is, as we were leaving on the Sunday, my mother running up to me just as I was about to step out the door, an empty milk jug in her hand. “Dave, we’re staying on an extra night… Can you leave us some of your gin?”

So it really was remarkable when Saturday dawned and I didn’t have a hangover (I say ‘dawned’, but what I really mean is when I was woken up at about 9.30 on Saturday morning by my mother coughing loudly and not at all surreptitiously outside our bedroom door. It made me feel like a teenager again). I attribute this lack of a hangover to the youngest member of the party: Callum, aged one. Callum has, apparently, discovered stairs. He loves climbing them. I mean he LOVES them. Set free anywhere in the house and he would unerringly toddle off to the stairs, like a very slow, very drunken heatseeking missile with zero collision detection technology. Is that a duplo car to play with? It can climb the stairs with me! Is that a Mr Men book? I can throw it up the stairs…. Even sharing the task amongst ten of us meant a regular trip to the stairs to act as safety net/encouragement/carry-down-the-stairs. I don’t have a huge amount of experience with kids, but it turns out that you can’t be a control freak with them. An appeal to reason just doesn’t work with a one year old (“why are you climbing the stairs again? I mean, wouldn’t you rather play with your car… no, no, WHERE ARE YOU GOING?!”).

Here’s another place where my control freakery fell down. “What’s the plan?” I asked, when we eventually got up on Saturday morning, confident that the parental control freak and the certified twitcher would have it all in hand. “Go to the end of the road and turn either left or right, I guess,” was the reply. “You don’t even have a map?” “Yes, we have a map but we don’t really need one….” This lack of planning both worried and disturbed me. I went and laced up my hiking boots quietly in a corner (“we don’t have a map, we don’t have a map, we don’t have a map, it’s going to be ok, it’s going to be ok…”). This road was the right hand turn.

Which way? I don’t know, we didn’t have a map with us…

Summer’s last hurrah.

THERE CAME a point, when we were standing in a field, staring at a wall, when we had to admit that we were lost. After a brief discussion as to the merits of climbing over the wall or not, someone admitted to having brought a map with them (not me!). A brief consultation later and we headed out in the opposite direction.

Look, it was like this when we found it, ok? We certainly didn’t try and climb it.

Ok, so this gate was locked and we DID have to climb over it, but the map told us that it was a perfectly legitimate right of way…

It became clear to me why the gate was locked when these sheep began chasing us. There was something sinister in their coal-dead eyes as they pursued me across the field.

We escaped the sheep in one piece and made it back to the cottage for a spot of lunch/stair climbing. Somehow trekking through mud and over stiles seemed less draining than chasing after a one year old. So that afternoon some of us went for another walk to take a break from the stairs. We found a church:

Those who have read this blog in the past might think that I make a habit of visiting graveyards to take pictures, but this was just a coincidence, ok?

There is a morbid fascination in looking at gravestones, though. The older the better. But when does it become not ok to take photos of a gravestone? This graveyard was unusual in that it had some very old (1700s) gravestones and some very recent (2012) gravestones. As we entered the cemetery we exchanged pleasantries with a couple who had obviously just been to visit a grave. It’s not ok to take pictures of those graves. The basic graveyard rule of thumb, which I would commend to any budding cemetery snappers, is: if the headstone is still shiny, don’t photograph it.

Life over death.

Whichever way you look at it, it’s pretty creepy having a hand coming out of your tombstone.

After the thrill of the cemetery, we headed back to the cottage. Halfway back, we were met by Callum taking his dad, Steve, out for a walk. This time he’d chosen the buggy as his preferred mode of transport, rather than being strapped to his dad’s back (Callum can’t speak yet, but his cries of “choo choo! choo choo!” seemed to me to be a fairly unambiguous “faster, faster!”). I guess that I realised something then, but it didn’t click until later that evening when I was making dinner with Steve and his brother, Mat.

As previously discussed, I like being in control in the kitchen. So playing second fiddle to another chef required a lot of will power. I was smarting a little bit from criticism earlier in the day from Mat about the way I stacked the dishwasher (“stop, just stop Dave. That’s a spoon you’re putting an area clearly intended for knives”). It’s ok, I told myself, it’s ok – I’m still in control, even if I am peeling the spuds.

Operation Potato Peel went without a hitch, but then I started to wash the mushrooms and… all I can say is that Steve saw red. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? Never, I mean NEVER,  wash mushrooms, they go all soggy…” As I stood speechless (why would mushrooms go soggy? why would anyone question my authority in the kitchen?) Callum entered the kitchen, his grandmother in tow. He toddled over to me and grasped my finger in his tiny hand, tugging insistently, and I was led out of the room in the direction of the stairs by a one year old child.

Perhaps, then, our parents do fill us with their own faults, but somehow I’m not buying Larkin’s assertion that it only leads to more misery. After all, Callum’s decisive – and dare I say in control – action averted mushroomgate.

You can walk ahead of your parents, but you’re still walking in the same direction.