Utterly Treeless History

I have to say, I don’t remember anyone at school mentioning trees; not in lessons, not in assembly, not in Canon Hill’s interminable religious services, not by way of idle Parents’ Evening chit-chat or even during our teenage, lurking-beside-the-Redgra-pitch-instead-of-going-to-P.E. episodes. Nah-ah. Trees didn’t figure. My family had no connections with trees, spiritual or otherwise. We didn’t even have a woodburner. And now here I am, in my 5th decade, and up to my armpits in them.

Art lessons. I remember those. Because we got to do something I found vaguely pleasurable. Mr Roach’s dark, brooding eyebrows were a legend. They were how he wordlessly prompted us toward the delivery of stormy seas, rolling landscapes or textured skies so thick with paint they refused to dry. Ever. He would sidle up behind you with a face like thunder, stare unmoving at your artistic creation and, as long as the clouds had ridges like rope and what lay beneath sported tacky slabs of paint, he would breathe ‘goooood,’ and melt away like a ghostly apparition.

I remember the smell of the high-ceilinged art room – gluey, damp, poster-paint powderish with that faint but unmistakable tinge of sweaty end-of-the-day school uniform. And I remember thinking that, if this was the only thing about school I even remotely enjoyed, then I was destined to become a menacingly sombre art teacher like Mr R. Or something to do with crafts in a Nursery School. Or the person who polished poster paint off the school’s battered parque flooring every night.

These thoughts didn’t flood me with inspiration, but they didn’t horrify me either. Not the way Mr Saxty’s Maths Room did (another story.)

By the time I was in the 6th form things had moved on a bit. Introduced to a subject called ‘Classical Civ’ I was an instant fan of Greek Myth, Roman Engineering, Cicero, Vetruvius, Euripides, Plato and Aristotle. So becoming a teacher was still on then, or a Historian with a capital ‘H’ – whatever one of those did. There was absolutely no mention of trees in Classical Civ – those cradle-of-western-civilization celebs chucked out a tsunami of utterly treeless writing. Makes me wonder now whether the Ancient mediterranean world even had any? Sure we had them up here in the north, without plenty of forests we’d have frozen to death, but perhaps the Classical world was just glorious inhabited coastline awash with sand, hilly greensward, and polished pebbles?

Anyway, neither toga-clad classicism nor trees mattered at all in Cirencester in the 70’s. As young people of those fabulously turbulent times, we would’ve drunk a lot more if we could’ve afforded it, but working weekends at Arnott’s department store only allowed for a half of Courage Best sipped slowly in the Crown on a Saturday night. There was no internet, just Radio 1 and the Top 40 on a Sunday, proper records (think they nostalgically call them ‘vinyl’ now), lame magazines, letter-writing, discos at the Rugby Club, lock-ins at the kinds of country pubs where drinking under-age didn’t seem to be an issue, swimming among the leeches at the Gravel Pits (now called Watermark Cotswolds in the holiday brochures and costing upwards of £2,000 per week), dancing like dervishes till the early hours anywhere we could, cycling everywhere without our parents having any clue where we were because there were no mobiles, and managing real friendships with other young people who you actually had to talk to.

Shit it was demanding. And character-building. Wow. Now that I think about it, there were some serious ups and downs.

Even after I ‘grew up’ and moved to Cheltenham to work full-time in a bigger department store, and even after I began to study again, with the OU, trees had no part to play. Back then If you’d asked me to ‘identify’ an individual specimen in Hatherley Park I’d have said ‘What? It’s a tree – they’re all more or less the same aren’t they?’

On the way to an eclectic degree, obtained over quite a long period in parcels of semi-spare time, I discovered without bookmarking the phenomenon at the time, that trees didn’t figure in the Renaissance. They weren’t a big feature of the Reformation either. Art in 15th Century Italy had virtually nothing to do with trees. The Enlightenment had no arboreal element UNLESS you focus your gaze on Science and Sir Isaac Newton, who became famously fixated with an apple that fell off one.

So it’s an intriguing puzzle to me that, as my life unfolded I became quite so deeply, so irrevocably immersed in, and so supremely comfortable with, the world of trees. Nailing down the key to the puzzle has become an aggravating itch, bit like my hair when I’ve spent too long on a construction site in the rain; catastrophically knotted and complicated by rampant, overgrown layers.

I’m as objectively curious as somebody who has no idea what this story involves. So, I think I’d like to apply some literary de-tangler and, in episodic fashion, see if I can discover how it all happened. My career, I mean.

It’s the ‘How Did I Get Here?’ question, isn’t it?

Oh shit, I think this might be my CV.