pilgrimaging

Another cold snap, after a couple of days of the Met Office talking about ‘potentially disruptive snow’, and train companies preemptively cancelling services in case it turns out to be the wrong kind. Came across, and added to,  a piece I wrote in Yorkshire in the lull between Christmas and New Year some years ago. The photographs were taken at a later date, when I was making a seasonal record of the place where I grew up. They are therefore unlikely to illustrate the meteorological conditions described accurately. Although they were in no way intended as an accompaniment to  the writing, its prior existence could well have informed  their creation. 

The 50s semi where we lived till I was thirteen, 269 Staincliffe Road, has been extended to the extent that the daughters of doctors and bank managers  I went to school with would almost have found it respectable. There was a field behind it,  ‘my field’, the house’s natural extension for me, though it belonged to the next door neighbour, whose  house is now also  double its former size. Where my field was there are now nine smart ‘executive’ homes. If the field isn’t there any more,  the view from it, still visible from the lane that runs behind, Scar End View, is better than I remember. It seems now to bear comparison with those in the supposedly superior Dales of holidays and Sunday trips. Now I’m seeing it through eyes that, unlike my octogenarian parents’, have looked at a lot of other places; seeing it through eyes too that have read  Defoe’s respectful description of the North’s industrial valleys — eyes which perhaps first began  to recognise this as their real home when reading Defoe’s Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britian before  teaching it to students at a Scottish university. The view from Scar End looks just fine  through the sub-zero haze of late December afternoons.

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On each of these afternoons, between Christmas and New Year, I walk north along Scar End View. Bungalows are steeped up from the pavement on my right,  the new executive homes above them, while an unfenced playing field, unsnatched by property people, slopes away from the left verge. Below this are more houses, the Moor End council estate, before land  falls away across the main road, Heckmondwike Road, to pastures in  valleys and moors rise to the centre of the country. In a couple of years’ time, a child who lives here will go missing  and a temporary media camp will be established.  My recently widowed father will welcome visits from the police to check his bins and garage.

I’m left in a state of something like suspension, like the year and the season themselves as I look out across the Spen Valley to the Pennine heights; in a recession, or maybe regression from the routines of my adult life.  Then each day I take a slightly different route on Kilpin Hill, now my preferred destination on these walks, though a place I didn’t even really know as a child, despite its proximity, a little north and west of our home. My travels then always took me south and east, to dad’s bakery in Green Lane, to Grandma and Grandpa’s in Thornhill, to school in Horbury, for shopping in the town. I’m childlike now as I explore the lanes of millworkers’ cottages, artisans’ homes of millstone grit, now quite bijou and always somewhat magical, because it  never seems possible to take  the same route twice. Bower Lane, Robin Lane, Cawley Lane, Cresswell Lane, Occupation Lane. Walking daily this December within the bounds of the triangle between Halifax, Huddersfield and Heckmondwike Roads, drawn  across Spen Valley’s  eastern side, I learn more of the lie of this land,  where paths known as ginnels run off the road and lead you as the crow files, while the lane  takes the long route, or turns abruptly into a modern estate. In reality, there’s quite a lot of modern housing: bungalows and semis from every  postwar decade fill the gaps where maybe meadows, fields like mine once lay between the cottages. It is still possible, though, to frame a view with no twentieth-century buildings, that could be forty miles further north, in a pretty dale that attracts the tourists.

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What I’m drawn towards is the end of the hill, where you’ve crossed the boundary into Heckmondwike and reached Halifax Road road: no more lanes and unknown territory. I’ve usually turned back before then, to retrace my steps or discover a new way home, but today I’m compelled to continue to the end of the lane, though this promises only more of the millstone grit and postindustrial grime I remember from childhood and have glimpsed today between the gaps in the cottages of Kilpin Hill. I walk on the road because frost and ice have made the pavement  treacherous.

A large building glows opposite the late afternoon, late year sun on the other side of  Halifax road. I know it’s a nonconformist chapel because I half-remember it from childhood. It’s far larger in scale than the surrounding buildings but it hadn’t been cleaned up when I last saw it, so it wouldn’t have stood out quite so much as it does now, spotlighted by the low-angled orange sun. The facade is audaciously grand: Corinthian pillars and cupolas. Upper Independent Chapel is inscribed in large legend across the lintel. I can’t make out if it’s still in use, or if it’s now offices or apartments.

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Some small disused chapels have become homes in more rural areas; medium sized ones in small towns like this have found ironic new life as Indian restaurants. Larger ones  now house the new, non-geographically specific design and technology industries, just as  old mill buildings have  become retail spaces or art galleries. Design consultancies and architectural practices  like to get their hands on buildings like these. Even when I cross the road, carefully — it’s slippery,  although the gritter has evidently been out — I can’t see any sineage to denote the current use, so I assume that it is still the congregational chapel it always was. I could ask, but  I don’t really need to know. There’s an unimposing modern door at floor level.

Back on the home side of the road, I turn round and it’s shining still, like a monument – mosque or temple – in an eastern landscape, oblivious to its context, where all  other buildings still bear coming up for two centuries’ worth of dirt, not big or bright enough in themselves to be lit up by the setting sun. Even the hall next door, much larger than the domestic buildings, seems dwarfed. They’re all already benighted and  forever grounded while the Upper Independent  seems to float alone, a Mecca beneath the milky gauze of a day that has tried to be bright and clear but is simply too cold not to be hazy.

Next day and in very similar weather conditions, I go back, taking  a slightly different route over the hill. An Asian family  exit through the chapel door as I turn away, but  I’m mindful of my forty minute walk back, during which time the light will be lost and the pavements iced. Whichever way you go back down, by Knowles Hill, School Lane or Church Lane, the hill is steep. I’m anticipating tea and Christmas cake in my parents’ warm lounge, and I fail to ask the Muslims about the Methodist chapel.

Almost obsessively, I seem daily to be re-treading, re-occupying my childhood. I think I’m finally beginning to re-route it. The day after it’s becoming cloudier and milder, and the view from Scar End more limited. No sun: it will be dark sooner, even though theoretically the days are already lengthening, the chapel won’t be glowing and I don’t want to see it dull. So I don’t go on to Kilpin Hill, but cut up onto Staincliffe Road. Just past 269 I take a left turn, into the grounds of the hospital.  Staincliffe General Hospital,  where I was born and three of my grandparents died. I was delivered in the old building, Victorian Gothic, off Healds Road, a few years before the maternity block, now the Bronte Tower, was constructed opposite our house. It was apparently snowing when I  first made the short journey home, at this time of  year, maybe even on this day. At regular intervals during my growing up one of my grandparents was admitted to the geriatric ward, a single-story sprawl between the old and new higher-rises, and didn’t come out again. I’d go with one of the living ones to the hearing aid clinic  in Outpatients, in the room at the end of a long corridor where I also visited the orthodontist yearly. Approaching adolescence, in the couple of years before we moved down to the new house,  I’d  use the hospital grounds as  a place to hang out with my friend Mark, one of the few local children I played with.

Now it’s the District Hospital, part of the Mid-Yorkshire Hospitals Trust. Other than in the context of NHS architecture, Mid-Yorkshire doesn’t exist. Both my parents have undergone minor surgical procedures here.  Both are  on a waiting list for a further operation in one of the   new wards  that extend far back, over fields and ginnels where I also played as a child, towards Halifax Road, which eventually  passes the Upper Independent Chapel, and continues into Heckmondwike. Later my mum will receive chemotherapy at the Boothroyd Centre, named for the former Speaker of the House of Commons from these parts, and a year after her death I’ll come to the mortuary to identify my father’s body. From the other side, Westborough, where I’m now heading, the new construction isn’t so evident. Turning round to look back at the hospital from the playing field between Healds Road and Green Lane, what you see is the original Victorian building: grim,  blackened stone rising to diminutive towers, as if from  across an impoverished Magdalen Fields.

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I’m heading, towards the new house, in the direction of places with which I was better acquainted as a child: the streets of Westborough, where dad had his bakery and shop, and Crow Nest Park. Park Road, Birkdale Road and West Park Street; Reservoir Street, Oxford Road and Stockhill Street, where girls I went to school with lived in architect-designed bungalows, or Victorian villas that were once the homes of the mill owners and managers. Where Staincliffe and Kilpin Hill have undergone some gentrification and growth spurts of new building, here there are signs of decay and of subdivision. Some are  now HMOs; others home to extended Asian families.

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I was walking around here, and along  the park’s broad  avenues on mild autumnal mornings a couple of months ago, when dad was having  hernia surgery in a hospital 20 miles away and there was less time to explore further afield; missing  my daily perambulation round Hunter’s Bog in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park. Next year he’ll be back in the Mid-Yorkshire Trust’s sister hospital at Pontefract for a hip replacement. He’d have needed  to wait much longer to get it done in the hospital up the road. He’ll make a third trip along the M62 to Pontefract for a second hernia op a few months before his death from a heart attack when out shopping for a new radiator valve.

Today despite all the new building and the midwinter muddy playing field, there still is a lot of green — allotments, fields, parks — or there would be had  the weather not  toned everything down into khaki. Nearly everywhere you can see hills: the foothills of the Pennines, above  valleys where the towns of heavy industry lie hidden, in the north, east and south; the high moors to the west where there are no more towns until you reach Greater Manchester. Despite its location near the hub of the industrial revolution, and its evident scars from that time, this still isn’t properly an urban landscape. I’ve lived in cities since I left here more than 22 years ago, and what I still miss is its openness and variety. Now it’s Scotland that I don’t want to return to. I will go back north tomorrow, but today I’m spending my first New Year’s Eve in a long time back here.  I call in the Westborough co-op to buy a bottle of bubbly and head straight  back down the hill.

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classes of 2012

The summer of 2012 saw, inter alia, the 25th anniversary of Edinburgh’s South Side Community Education Centre. As part of the celebrations, the writing and art groups mounted a joint exhibition in the centre cafe on the theme The South Side 1986-87. 

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ODYSSEY by Iain Matheson

She comes to a standstill at the corner of Hill Street. The bus had been prompt, she had been late. By the timetable there’s not another due for half-an-hour – too long to wait when she has just this one day to see the Edinburgh sights. She wants to walk but doesn’t know the way. She picks a boy to ask but he’s already gone, poking furiously at a screen in his hand. An old man passes, bent double, his life’s belongings in a dozen plastic bags, his momentum unstoppable. She flags down another man carrying a banjo.

‘Excuse me please, I’m looking for Blackford Hill, do you know if I can walk there?’

Banjoman stops, stares into space. Finally his eyes close; his head makes a slow rotation, once to the left, once to the right, back to the centre. His eyes reopen and meet hers.

‘No such place.’

Banjoman’s voice resonates as from the foot of a mineshaft.

‘Oh dear, are you quite sure? I saw it on a map and thought I’d like to go there.’

‘Tourist maps. This is the only map you need.’

Banjoman props his instrument against the marbled wall at the corner of Hill Street and unbuckles a rucksack. He labours inside for almost a minute till he produces a coloured, crumpled sheet. He stretches it loudly between his hands to flatten it, then beckons her. At the top, florid green letters declare,’The Southside’. She looks for a moment and says,

‘Yes, I’ve visited some of these places today, McEwan Hall… and the birthplace

of Harry Potter. Now, if you could show me which road to take for Blackford Hill…’

‘No such place.’

Banjoman’s phrase, repeated, combines fate and triumph. He points to the map.

‘That’s all the places there are. It’s a map of the world.’

She looks at him, bewildered, she says, Sorry? although she knows she has heard correctly. A map of the whole world.

‘But what about the castle?’ Once more the slowly shaken head.

‘Or Princes Street – I’ve been there!’ A raised eyebrow joins in the motion.

‘What about the roads at the edge of this map – they can’t just stop?’

Banjoman’s head changes tack; now it nods, the same, slow, reptile’s move, once up, once down.

‘But what happens when people leave The Southside?’

‘They don’t leave.’

‘And how do other people get here?’

‘There’s no other people.’

‘What about travelling to work, going on holiday, buses – where do the buses go?’

‘All in people’s heads.’ The nodding head now comes with a smile, lips closed.

‘So – so there’s really nowhere else? Just  – The Southside?’

Banjoman becomes animated, he raises an eyebrow and smiles and nods, all at once.

‘This is quite a shock. Do you think I could keep this map please?’

‘Take it, take it, I’ve plenty more.’

Banjoman nods twice to settle the matter. He struggles back into his rucksack, picks up his banjo and rejoins the flow of Southsiders on Nicolson Street. She stares at the map in her hands, appalled and secretly thrilled. Bowmont Place, Bernard Terrace, Middle Meadow Walk… singing inside she sets off to explore, the whole world at her feet.

*       *        *       *      *     *     *

As usual there were many creative writing activities at National Galleries Scotland. Shortly after the re-opening of the splendid Portrait Gallery I ran a five-week creative writing course on portraiture and character, which was repeated in the autumn.  In August cartoonist Malcy Duff and I collaborated for the third time on Text & Image, a course that looks at the history of combining words and pictures, then introduces practical exercises on interpreting writing as drawing and drawing as writing; illustrating writing and captioning images, and presenting text as image. Experimentation is encouraged, and we also include some sound poetry, creative reading and performance.

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This time we were based out at the modern art galleries for two full days, and able to use the wonderful resources of their archive, including artist’s books by key figures of twentieth-century art, as well as the temporary Picasso and Modern British Art and Munch exhibitions.

It is always a delight to work with Words on Canvas, a group of very talented writers that meet fortnightly at the Galleries. This year some of us also participated in a collaboration between poets and craft makers on an exhibition for the Pittenweem Festival, Fife.

In August Southsiders and WoCers  joined to give a well-received reading at the Captain’s Bar, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

In the summer I was invited to lead a series of four monthly workshops at the Hermitage of Braid, to produce textual art for its newly-reclaimed walled garden. Given the sort of summer we had, or rather didn’t have, we were incredibly lucky to be able to work outside on all four occasions, three of them in pretty good weather.

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Juliet Wilson, who blogs as Crafty Green Poet, wrote a haiku which can be read by clicking the link.


BRAIDBURN SYMPHONY by Olga Wojtas

I take my seat and listen

To my left, the bass throb of the waterfall

To my right, the soft rippling through rocks

Stereophonic streaming

The pizzicato of jogging shoes

A scherzo of children’s giggles

The faintest fluttering of leaves

A yap

A yap

A yap

Fortissimo barking

Chorus of apologies

The faintest fluttering of leaves

The bass throb of the waterfall

The soft rippling through rocks

I wrote the following poem to mark the occasion.

Braid

On the Occasion of the Writing Workshops for the Walled Garden, Summer 2012

June’s birdsong is all but washed away
by the shout of the Braid in July
in a hurry through the Hermitage today
on its course along the lower side of the garden wall
to the shore of a firth making scarce more noise.
Out in the North Sea it mingles  via the Humber
with the waters of  Spen and Calder which  return
to the burn that stitches the Pentlands to Portobello.

This is not the Water of Leith but of remembrance.
Above it all this sort-of summer sits a new Parnassus
on  the top-most terrace  where we are  inspired
by  coast-bound stream and   breeze along the Braid,
whose water, like the brook Derwent at the bottom
of  Wordsworth’s childhood garden, is ‘boxed’  but not here
‘stripped of his voice’, two centuries and thirty  steps  below
along the  southern edge of  an Edinburgh plot.

And if like that, could this not also be
the forest pool by which a goddess bathed
as a bewildered hunter chanced upon her and gawped;
or the bank where a visitor from across the Pond
planted lily of the valley with her betrothed
in memory of their first meeting here;
and  a perpetual memorial to the  woman  who tried
to rescue her dog in a spate like this and was drowned?

The rest of the work produced is available to read in a folder at the Hermitage Visitor Centre, and some of it will find a permanent home in the garden, alongside sculpture and other artworks.

I always enjoy participating in others’ workshops. In March I joined a session led by Ken Cockburn to mark World Heritage Day. To tie in with this year’s theme, the Roman legacy in Scotland, Ken devised a series of writing walks on the seven hills of Edinburgh. I went on the one on Salisbury Crags. Ken’s account, and poems by myself and other participants,  can be read here.

Elsewhere in 2012, I had wonderful holidays walking and writing in Swaledale, Yorkshire; and sea-bathing and eating in the south of France.

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Scar

On the slant of Kisdon Hill
the song of a robin sears the whole air
substantial as the drystone walls
that   brand the fields of Thwaite austere
and  project their shadow on the meadow
– here  angular, rectilinear, there
in  a random,  crazed geometry –
while underground levels invisibly divide
the land’s inside into seams and veins
directed at the artery
of this damaged country.

Yet along the inroads to the moor
stones from smelt-mill and lead-mine
crumble and return to screes
on the sides of  Surrender’s* shallow valley
and in  the steep ravine of Gunnerside Ghyll
where land formed from human hand
and the structures carved by nature
resolve in mutual cohabitation.

* The Surrender Mining Company is one of several that operated commercially  in Swaledale in the eighteenth century. ‘Surrender’ is also a legal term internationally associated with the handing over of mining rights and land.

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The former trip took place in the mini-heatwave at the end of March and the latter in the season of Alpine storms. In between the two, I watched more sport on TV than I ever thought imaginable. It started with the Tour de France, which I discovered on ITV 4 for the first time. Cycling + scenery = my kind of sport. Catching the mountain stages live in the afternoons was what I imagine playing a video game is like. Vicarious thrills, vicarious holiday, vicarious summer. The Tour was, of course, followed by the Olympics and Paralympics.  I overcame my initial cynicism to treasure the winning smiles of Nicola Adams, the first woman to win an Olympic medal for boxing; Katherine Grainger,  the rower who finally took gold after three games’ worth  of silver, and Adam Hills on Channel 4’s The Last Leg. The night after it was all over, Will Self, interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, remained unconverted: ‘the Selfs are not welcome at the court of King Coe’. Airing that, then, was maybe an editorial misjudgment on the part of Newsnight.

On t’medals table
if Yorkshire wer a country
it’d ‘a come twelfth.

ring cycles and the appreciation of opera

This morning I got a postcard from Scottish Opera, advertising their upcoming production of Massenet’s Werther, and claiming that ‘having joined us for 2009’s Manon, we know you appreciate a good French opera’. I’m not sure that they are qualified to comment on my appreciation with such certitude. I’m not actually convinced of my connoisseurship of ‘good French opera’. Cheeses and chocolate, maybe.

Radio 3 similarly claimed proprietorial knowledge of audience tastes when it broadcast Wagner’s Ring Cycle at a rate of an act a day over Christmas ‘for those of you for whom the prospect of the whole thing is too daunting’ – or for those who don’t enjoy  having too much on their plate, or something, as though it were  a turkey and plum pudding dinner. At least on previous outings of this occasional tradition of offering a Ring Cycle by installment over the festive period, the BBC  had the decency to present it as a concession to those not embosomed in twelve days of nuclear-family jollity, rather than to those of short attention span. A Ring Cycle, like a Test Match, is best savoured  not in bite-size chunks or edited highlights. It’s like a slow sea passage, a continuity experienced at the pace of its own unfolding. That, bah humbug, being said, there is something to be said for hearing it in a range of atypical formats, and the act-a-day version is not an uninteresting one. We can listen to CD recordings in ‘real time’ (actually, I rarely do) or attend a live performances if we can afford to do so. The radio schedule can offer something other to these, and intriguing.

The strangest Ring Cycle that Radio 3 has presented in my time was when it broadcast the whole 17 or so hours  one Easter Monday a few years ago. I contemplated the prospect of waking up to the birth of everything at the beginning of Das Rheingold, and set my radio alarm, but I slept through the quiet opening bars. I cleaned the kitchen floor during the colloqies of Loge, Wotan and Alberich later in the preliminary opera, but I started to follow the text during Die Walkure. By the time I made some dinner at the end of  Siegfried I was mesmerised; by Act II of Gotterdammerung I’d entered an altered state of consciousness and disorientation, no longer certain which recording I was listening to, or whether I recognised themes because I knew them, or because I’d heard them earlier in the day, rather than earlier in the week, which would be the case with a conventional performance, or at some point earlier in my life.  Afterwards  I ranted a bit over drinks and meals – I think this was before blogging took off – that this was silly, because it was unperformable. But even at the time I appreciated the opportunity radio gives to experience these strangenesses, just as I quite like snatching an hour or so of The Ring between feeding and visiting times  at Christmas.

It’s now ten years since Scottish Opera’s own magnificent Ring Cycle, which remains the cultural highlight of my life so far. We saw each of the individual operas rolled out over a three year period at the Edinburgh Festival, before transferring to Glasgow, before the whole cycle was put together in 2003, first in Edinburgh, then in Glasgow. Prior to the searing final performances at the Theatre Royal in November, we were able to sit at home and listen to  Radio 3’s  broadcast of a cycle that we’d attended, where we were among the enthralled audience, recorded in Edinburgh a couple of months earlier.

Even 2009 seems quite a long time ago now: I think I was impressed by Werther, but I can’t really remember.  2013 will also see  the centenary, and bicentenaries, of the births of Britten, Verdi and Wagner respectively, so I shouldn’t be short of performances and broadcasts  of good operas that I do appreciate.

midwinters

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each December day
the sun describes a low arc
over Capelaw Hill

Well, at least it did at the beginning of the month. For much of December 2012  lack of light made living in Edinburgh seem like living in an episode of The Killing. This is my third winter on this edge of town. For the previous nine years I lived in a fourth-floor flat with a view to Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags. There were many times when it was tempting just to sit and gaze out of the window, and some times of year when it became a ritual simply to do so: on midsummer evenings when light lingered long; and especially in December, when the sun would rise between Arthur’s Seat and the Crags, over whose flank it would describe a low arc before setting behind one of the spires of the South Side – where  I stayed for the  six years before that.

I was born in midwinter, on St Lucy‘s Day, the shortest day in Scandinavian tradition and some calculations of the Julian calendar,  when, according to John Donne, ‘the world’s whole sap is sunk’. A more optimistic take is offered by  George Mackay Brown’s poem ‘Seven Stars for Lucy’, in Voyages (1983). Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘Lullabye for Lucy’,  a setting of another text by Mackay Brown, celebrates the birth of the first child in thirty-two years in the depopulating valley of Rackwick on  Hoy, Orkney, where Max had made his home. With its reference to plants, lambs and ‘the brimming / Dance of the valley’, the imagery of the poem is more vernal than hibernal, but it’s a grand song to set you up for going out to mark the passing of another year.

According to family lore,  snowflakes fell on my face when I was first brought home from hospital early in the new year.  I have a vague memory of the existence of  a photograph posed just before I was swaddled into the back of my dad’s car, but maybe that’s just a picture I invented to accompany the story.  I was a winter child, and adolescent, and young adult; I adored the pale clarity of the northern winter light, and I never felt the cold. When I studied in Newcastle in the eighties, I did wear a coat  for an evening out, counter to local tradition, and occasionally felt a bit chilly in the flat when we couldn’t afford to turn the heating on, but I rarely complained. On the other hand, I had very poor tolerance of heat. In summer I lurked in the shade, a Niles Crane of a thing in high-factor sunblock and UV-protective clothing. Until I had a course of acupuncture and went into reverse. I discovered sunbathing, and just how bloody cold the east coast of Scotland can be in the winter. In the last decade, I seem to have achieved more of an equilibrium. All seasons, and the changes between them, are now sweet to me. It’s now January 2013, and, temporarily and thermally at least, what TS Eliot called ‘midwinter spring’. In my wee garden on the fringe of the city with a view to the Pentland Hills,  I’m well placed to partake of seasonal shifts and observe and write about their reversals and vagaries. I grew up in a location that could similarly be described as both suburban and semi-rural; it suited me, and I’ve come full circle again.