Moss

The wind was up, but it wasn’t the kind of wind that sunk its teeth into you, or was liable to blow even a lightweight person off a precipice, just a wind with a very loud voice, so I went up to the high bit of the moor to see the rhododendrons at the reservoir. They’d been severely chopped back since I last visited, to make way for hundreds of newly planted trees, but they were already making their return, creeping up the hillside near the dam. They love the acid soil around here, and in late May they make the deep tunneled lanes leading to my house blush quietly in the shade. I bought one cheap at a local nursery last month, but that’s probably nothing to get smug about. They’re invasive, and far from shy, so one could easily leap my garden wall all on its own at any point and make itself quite at home, free of charge. I’m looking forward to this one – and the other one I planted, in the front garden – getting really massive and purpling up the place, which probably shows how far I still am from being a proper gardener. I’m sure someone who was more horticulturally together than me would have used the space more carefully and thoughtfully, for more delicate plants.

A lot of this gardening feels like the moment when I realised I liked editing as much as I like writing: what you’re making is shaped as much, if not more, by what you take out as what you put in. I’m still making a lot of mistakes, being too heavy-handed at times. I got so enthusiastic about taking brambles out, and exposing more old wall behind my freshly flowering Hypericum, that I failed to realise some of them were holding the Hypericum up, and it collapsed. I’ve hoisted its trunk and tied it to the wall with string and I’m hopeful it will soon recover. Next to this area I’ve now made a proper seating area and a gravel garden, and I’m attempting to grow some grapes up the wall behind it. All of this space, back in mid-April when I arrived here, was brambles. Brambles which, given enough time, would no doubt have reached a long arm across to the bedroom window and found their way into the house via whatever cracks they could penetrate. Maybe they already did, last year. When I lived near here before, in spring and summer 2018, I used to pass the house, with its faded paintwork and filthy windows, and wonder what kind of birds and insects and ghosts lived inside it. This is a curious phenomenon that’s now happened to me twice: I walk past an unusual, eerie-looking house, and the house sticks in my head, and then a couple of years later – by a long series of chance events, rather than a determined mission – I end up living in it, and it turns out to be anything but spooky. I sleep softly and deeply here, which is a contrast to the suburban bungalow I moved from, where my sleep was dehydrated and superficial, and to the remote Peak District house I lived in a couple of years earlier, where I would often dream I was being tickled by the bony fleshless fingers of three disembodied hands or spooned by the corpse of a 17th century herbalist.

My route to the rhododendrons at the reservoir was a new one. I think I know the moor, but I don’t fully know it, and still wouldn’t, even if I walked it every day, from now until I’m no longer able-bodied enough to do so. But I am trying to expand my knowledge in the small ways that I can. I took some new paths, paths that aren’t in any of my walking books but are marked on the map, and they took me to an unfamiliar, lost valley, over a locked gate, following the green line on the crumpled paper but feeling a bit wrong all the time, like somebody watching from a window in a hidden farmhouse might gun me down. I crossed a meadow and turned a corner past empty stone barns with gaping roof holes, and was confronted with an abandoned cottage. The cottage’s locks had already been picked by foliage but there were signs of recent occupancy: dirty dishes in the sink, half-full bottles of spirits and nature books on window ledges, some groovy orange wallpaper – not yet peeling – that I found myself coveting a little. Films and books condition you to believe that an old, abandoned house with an exterior like this one is a place where something awful or sad has happened, but there were signs of a nice life being lived here not all that long ago: a life of spiced rum and birdwatching.

Around the back, though, there was a hole in the wall, and a scene of greater dereliction: scattered rubble, an upturned chest of drawers, clothes strewn across an old work bench and the floor. So many clothes. More hard liquor. It looked less like someone had died here, and more like somebody had fled, as an easier alternative to clearing up the debris of a party that got out of hand. The place definitely had an atmosphere though, like an invisible mist or a new mood had had time to set in since its abandonment. As if to underline this, a fawn fed in the woodland just beyond it, blurred and dreamlike in rays of late afternoon sun. I don’t think I’d have been totally nonchalant about spending the night alone here, even in June. If I go back, I will not be at all surprised if the house has vanished completely. A couple of nights later its high, bent iron gates, the sough of the stream behind it, and the fawn managed to infiltrate even one of the gentle, happy sleeps I’ve been having in my current house, with not totally calming results.

After a semi-nomadic life of many many houses, am I a little more attuned to the atmosphere of buildings than most? Perhaps. Earlier this year, an estate agent – one of the nice ones you sometimes get – told me that she had moments where she would step into a house and the negative vibes coming from it would be so overwhelming, she felt almost feel suffocated. One of the hardest parts of her job, she said, was to stay professional and positive at these points. This was not the estate agent who, last November, showed me a house up for rent in north Devon and, as we left, casually mentioned that there was a 1950s baby buried in the garden: a revelation that came as not quite such a surprise as it might, since the house had oozed claustrophobic sorrow from the moment I stepped inside it. I assume this estate agent knew a lot about atmospheric buildings too. Most of us have been in a lot of houses in our lives, but some of us have been in even more and thought about them on a slightly more complex level, and because of this, we can hear houses as they whisper stories of their past. This is one of the advantages of moving around a lot: you develop a sense for something sweet or sour moving through a building. It’s part of a bigger advantage: the stronger and stronger sense you develop of what works for you and what doesn’t. I am glad of this advantage, since it offsets some of the many disadvantages of moving around a lot, such as the vast amounts of money you cannot fail to haemorrhage, the toll it takes on your possessions, and the fact that you age a full further seven years each time you do it.

I admit it: I am tired of moving house. This one I am in now is my 23rd. I can blame my mum and dad for just under a third of those, but must take personal responsibility for the rest, even though sometimes my moves have been dictated by circumstances beyond my control. My last-but-one relocation must have looked, if you didn’t know the full details of it, the most farcical and baffling of all: a financially damaging nine month aberration on the opposite side of the country, which confirmed what I’d already known deep down for a long time, which is that Devon is where the greater, warmer part of my heart truly resides, and that, much as I can enjoy cities as a visitor, to actually live in one makes me feel like a caged animal. I have begun, recently, to feel not just like a person who moves house a lot but like a person whose actual job is moving house, and who very ambitiously tries to combine another full-time job alongside it: that of writing and publishing a book on an annual basis. Also, I don’t travel light or just move in and throw my stuff down in a temporary way: I have worked hard to make every one of the houses I have rented in the last decade into a comfortable place, unpacked quickly and thought the layout through more carefully each time. “You look like you’ve been here years!” friends often say to me two weeks after I’ve moved in. It’s not a bad skill to have but it makes packing it all up again sting that bit more, renders the transience that bit more taxing. More taxing still, however, is that all the admin around moving house puts you in a mindnumbing bureacratic limbo state. Filling out forms, sitting in calling waiting queues, setting up and cancelling direct debits, repeating your date of birth and your expiry date, going to vast lengths to letting agents that you’re a real person despite this weird, untrustworthy thing you do called “self-employed work”, striving to get your deposit back and not be charged £50 for a pile of leaves that was there before your tenancy began, becomes to feel less like a constant pain in the arse and something that you do all the time, every day, in place of being alive. Then there is the additional, personal admin, of finding polite ways to reply to the question “You’re moving house again? Why?” which, from ample experience, I can categorically state is far more exhausting than moving seven carloads of stuff over a distance of more than 300 miles. What I have learned, over the course of many house moves, is that nomads are often harshly judged by non-nomads observing from a distance, who, as they make passive-aggressive or sarcastically invasive pronouncements on your semi-itinerant lifestyle, seem strangely disregarding of all the unavoidable stuff that (especially when you’re a renter, not an owner) can influence relocation: the short term nature of some contracts, changing work circumstances, relationships, the health of someone close to you.

But, as firmly as I am sure I am currently exhausted by house moves – or, perhaps more pointedly, all of what goes with house moves – I am sure that I do not regret any of the ambitious ones I’ve chosen to do in my recent life. The thought of what my creative life would have been without them frightens me a bit. As I pay for another washing machine which I will leave behind at the end of a tenancy because it’s too much hassle to move it, see a lettings agency charge me utterly comical sums to reattach a shit dirty lampshade I forgot to replace or “sparkle clean” a house I’d already paid someone to make industrially spotless after I moved out (hi, Alexander And Co of Norwich, you shady money-grabbing bastards), I have a vision of myself in old age, coughing out my final breaths at the height of a severe winter, in the corner of a house like the abandoned one I saw on the walk to the reservoir, where I will have been taking up squatter’s rights for the previous six months or so. “The cause of Cox’s death and penniless status was clear: he moved house too many times,” the obituary will conclude, a week later. “On the plus side, it did make his books slightly more interesting.” You don’t have to go too far back into the Liverpool-via-Ireland segment of my family to find tinkers and other travelling types, which might be a small explanation for my wanderlust, but my nomadism isn’t exactly the traditional kind: it goes hand in hand with a deep love of home, a passion for soft furnishings and baths and books and records. I might be a rolling stone of sorts but I love moss and quite relish the idea of it gathering on and around me. I love the idea of a building I sleep well in every night, that becomes part of me, and opens its arms and lets me become part of it.

I actually lived in exactly such a house, from March 2014 to December 2017. This was the other of the two eerie looking houses I’d known of long before it was mine, which turned out to be anything but as spooky as I thought it might be. The house was pretty much the architectural opposite what I’d been looking for when I’d found it – I’d been keeping my eye out for a 60s doctor’s surgery, not an old granite gardener’s cottage – but it oozed kindness from day one. Twice, couples who stayed in it when I was away told me they’d been going through a rough patch but had come away from the building feeling harmonious again, as if massaged by its good nature. After I’d finished writing about it in what became the final section of my most recent book, realising even more about my feelings towards it in the process and referring to it as The Magic House, I gave the section to my mum – who’d also loved the house, and painted a beautiful abstract inspired by it – to read. When she’d finished doing so, she told me she that tears fell down her cheek. “Go back!” she said. But it was far too late. Apparently, a Director Of Visitor Experience was living there now. I don’t know what a Director Of Visitor Experience is, but it sounds very important. Imagine the weight of being responsible for visitors, and their experience! I don’t know if I’d want a responsibility like that. I felt the house had liked me but I wasn’t a director of anything, besides – in a way that usually seems tenuous at best – my own fortune, and, now it had a director of something living in it, I doubt it would have settled for not having one living in it again.

I had left The Magic House due to the symbiotic relationship between a sudden panic and a crazy idea: a sudden panic felt as a result of a rumour that my landlords were changing the purpose of the building (they still haven’t, almost three years on), and the crazy idea of going to a haunted hill in The Peak District to write a collection of sort of ghost stories. The change of purpose didn’t happen but the method writing exercise on the haunted hill and the sort of ghost stories did. Also, the rent had been too expensive. So I am glad I moved. But I really felt it at that house: the notion that you could make a place yours, even if you didn’t own it, feel deeply a part of it. Another me could have stayed at the Magic House forever.

I worked hard on making the interior and exterior of The Magic House nice, but not half as hard as I’ve worked on making the interior and exterior of my current house nice since April 11th this year, when I first dropped a car full of plantpots, a toolbox  and an old chair outside its locked front door. It feels like firmer commitment than I’ve ever made before, yet I’m not quite sure what to, because in the longer term chance and my landlords will be the deciding factor on that. It’s not yet been two and a half months since I moved here and already my girlfriend and I are eating veg that I’ve grown in the garden. Some of the stuff I’ve done out there is an impressive visual transformation that took a relatively small amount of work, but there are a lot of smaller transformations, some nigh on invisible, which took days of toil, several broken tools, and the bona fide worry that my arms might detach from my sockets. One was the removal of a past-its-best but extremely recalcitrant shrub, to make space for the third small veg patch where I’m currently growing corn (currently not massively happy), a courgette (fairly happy), and some squash (ecstatic). The roots of the shrub were far deeper than I imagined, but I was determined to get it out, and I kept returning with the spade and the fork, and the other spade and fork that I replaced them with, after I’d snapped them, digging wider and deeper on hot days, pouring with sweat, until finally the tangled, gnarly bits came loose. For all the trouble it had given me, the shrub didn’t look like much, when I lugged it over to the compost, but then I suppose most of us don’t, when we’re finally, forcibly removed from the place we’ve chosen to settle to a longer term location.

Gardening is full of phrases whose meaning you think you know, and have mentally explored, but which, when you’re up to your elbows in soil, you can’t fail to analyse a little bit more: “budding”, “going to seed”, “coming to fruition”, “branching out”, “putting down roots”. These phrases, especially the last, now seem illuminated in a new way to me, just as when I look at my mum and dad’s garden in Nottinghamshire, and look at photos showing its gradual transformation from a small, messy former pig sty in late 1999, I see stuff I never saw before: the deep love that’s gone into it, the gradual shaping of a place as two people put more and more of their personalities into it and allow their roots to go further into the ground. Sometimes, I think these are the two extreme types of beauty you see with a house and garden: the kind where their caretakers are constantly tinkering, constantly shaping and loving and crafting, and the kind – like the house I chanced upon on my moorland walk – where there are no longer any caretakers, and plants and moss and trees and insects have taken over. My house has gone very quickly from one to a semblance of the other, and I like both. But what is it all for? For me, at the moment, it’s the realisation that, just as living in lots of different places can be a pleasurable learning process, there might be another kind of learning to be found in staying in one place, and making it your own. Even if it’s not really your own.

But what is our own, anyway? “IT GIVES ME A PAIN IN MY HEART TO THINK OF ANYONE ELSE – ANYONE OUTSIDE THE FAMILY, ANYWAY – OWNING THIS AFTER WE’RE GONE,” my dad said to me recently, as I stood with him and my mum, admiring his cabbage and spuds. “BUT THEN AGAIN I SUPPOSE IT DOESN’T MATTER BECAUSE I’LL BE DEAD AND I WON’T BE ABLE TO SEE IT.” I want my books to get better with time but I’m not writing books because I want my books to be appreciated as part of some ultimate, posthumous reckoning; I’m writing books because I enjoy writing books. I’m not gardening because I want someone to come along and say “This was his garden: didn’t he make it nice?” when I’m not around any more; I’m gardening because it gives me great pleasure, in the here and now. Life, despite what we are sometimes conned into thinking (and the fetish for “ownership” of houses has a lot to answer for here) is not about working towards one particular plateau, a final, ultimate state: why should a person’s happiness at 75 be any less important than a person’s happiness at 25, or 55, or 15? You’ll lose stuff, you’ll gain stuff, you’ll lose stuff, material and non-material, at all different points while you’re here on the planet, and there’s not a lot you can do about that, and perhaps moving house a lot heightens the losses and the gains, but perhaps it just makes you more aware of the pattern, more accepting of it. Sometimes, when I pass the Magic House, I’ll have a sneaky look over the gate at two cordylines I planted in the front garden half a decade ago. They were already shooting up at a rare pace when I left, and each time I’ve passed since, it seems like they’ve grown another foot – particularly the one on the right, which now towers as high as the bedroom windows. I admit I was a bit sad about leaving them, just as I was about leaving a lot of the other shrubs and palms and wildflowers I – often with my mum’s help – established there, along with two of my cats, who are buried in separate patches of soil on either side of the house. But what I find now, as I check the progress of the cordylines, is that I am not muttering under my breath, “Those are my cordylines and now the Director Of Visitor Experience has them – the absolute fucker!” What I am thinking is, “Ooh, that’s nice – those cordylines are still doing well.”

My latest book Ring The Hill is now out in paperback. There’s also an audiobook.

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15 thoughts on “Moss

  1. You new pad looks very inviting, I’d love to garden there too, or at least spend time compairing what you’ve got in the garden form what I’ve got in mine. You can’t help but be inspired, when trying to grow something. It’ll be interesting to read how it did inspire you in you next novel.

    1. Thank you! But there aren’t any photos of my new house here. The house in the main picture is the abandoned one I found on Dartmoor, mentioned at the beginning of the piece.

  2. I love this! I do not have a garden and am desperate to move, but not a good time right now! This and the previous piece you wrote are so really spirit lifting.
    Thank you Tom😻

  3. Tom, How do you do it…keep moving? I have moved only 15 times and some probably don’t count….it’s exhausting, as you say, for so many reasons. Though I love to read all the writing you do about it. The house in this picture struck me rather sharply as it is so familiar, but I daresay there are many similar houses in England. I once stayed at a house identical to that one in 1962, over the Christmas holidays….it felt very Christmassy…probably the last time I felt that way about it. It was in Ashburton and there was a lot of snow that Winter.

  4. Mum has just read Ring the Hill. Mum : Why did he leave Devon? Me : Don’t know! Mum : Where is he living now? Me : Devon. Mum : Good!

  5. Loved reading this, and like others am glad you are happily ensconced in Devon once again which seems to be your spiritual home. We moved house nearly every year at one point, and it was all down to landlords, many of whom would assure you they were never going to sell the property and then nine months down the line changed their minds. The last rented place we moved out of the agency truly took the biscuit – neglected to tell the owners we had asked for a week’s extension (due to delay on house buying), so owner was upset when they found out and wouldn’t give us anymore time making us homeless for a while (hurrah for understanding friends). We cleaned the house top to bottom, agency checked and apparently found a small cobweb over the shower. Therefore would have to get the cleaners in (wouldn’t let us go and remove it), (therefore we lost our bond) even though landlord was redecorating before selling! Argh to landlords. But loved your descriptions of house ambiences. Sometimes they are indeed calm and soothing and let you sleep. Thank you for your writing.

  6. Another lovely piece of writing, thank you. Was The Magic House also known as The Psychedelic Shack? That was the address on a reused envelope from you and having loved the song for years and visited Dartington Hall after hearing your radio show from there the two are connected in my mind. I’m a bit envious of your new garden as I’ve lived in the same flat for 19 years and although I’ve made a lovely garden that evolves all the time the idea of a new patch to create is appealing.

  7. ‘The cottage’s locks had already been picked by foliage’ – I loved that image of green fingers getting through a door or window.
    I agree with you about how gardening is a transient pleasure. Creating a garden is a process that never ends, and how we feel when we are doing it is the most important thing. And we can’t ever truly ‘own’ our patches of land, nature teaches us that.
    Thank you for a most thought provoking piece; it made me re consider why I feel sad about one day leaving my own garden.

  8. I have to agree a happy home is reflected in the atmosphere and in the garden. Sterile, spotlessly clean show homes always make me wonder about the people who live there and their relationships. But after umpteen moves over the years I am so glad we have our own home. Waking up one morning to find our landlord hoovering the front room was an eye opener.

  9. I’m so glad to hear the garden you established at the Magic House is still being enjoyed by the current occupant. Seeing that would relieve my anxieties about letting it go. Having now gardened in the same place for 10 years, the thing that terrifies me about ever leaving is that the next person might pave over the whole thing, as far too many people do in my neighborhood.

  10. Loved this piece and brought to mind an old farmhouse not too far from where I live. Moved to Ontario, Canada in 2003, and moved into this house about two months after landing. As soon as I walked in, it felt like home and we started exploring the local area. The old farmhouse dated to 1860, abandoned and almost hidden behind the grasses in front and old farm machinery. Suddenly it was cleared, and the building was exposed a wooden building just about standing. I photographed it through every season, until somebody decided to burn it down. I went back to it and saw it smouldering but I did take a charred beam. Sad to see China and books looking forlorn among the ashes. Now you would never know the building was ever there.

  11. Great reading, can relate to a lot. My partner and I were looking for a new home three years ago, so I did the “Escape to the Country” thing and put three contenders in the ring, one being the “mystery house”. The first one looked great online, but when we got there it had no atmosphere, davoid of any character. The second, rather out of our budget, but on viewing we saw loads of potential in the house, but the garden was bland. The mystery house was amazing, after only looking at one room, it had the vibe, and so it should, it had been a hospital from 1910-1940s. As we explored the rooms, we were already planning where our giant bookcase would go. But it was the deshevelled olde worldie garden that convinced us, even though it was hiding under a tangle of ivy, we were excited about our future living there. Houses really do speak, if you know how to listen.

    PS: love the modernist painting of a house, is it one of your parents works?

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