“Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than a moving plane, ship or train… At the end of hours of [train-] dreaming, we may feel we have been returned to ourselves – that is, brought back into contact with emotions and ideas of importance to us.” Alain de Botton
The ferry engines propel us sideways away from the embarkation pier and the landward side dips down, digging into the river. Standing on the upper deck my stomach lifts free with the riverward railings for one suspended moment before we all glide smoothly away into open water. It is the colour of pewter, with one shining white spotlight where the cloud cover has partially opened. An arpeggio of gulls flies up and down invisible staves and off towards Tynemouth. One black shag is an arrow shot along, a wingtip from the surface. It has been a long time since I left for the relentless hammered blue sun of India, a long time since I came back. The skies were the first thing I recognised, their wide washes and subtle greys.
I went to visit the Customs House on a January day that was bathed in misty, diffuse, silvery light. It had a dreamlike quality that reminded me of travelling, maybe because I had deliberately given myself the day ‘off’ to wander. In every direction there are constellations of details that may or may not join up the dots in synaptic flares later on, becoming a poem or a philosophy or a painting full of green parakeets and limbless torsos.
At the other side of the Tyne, a junk trader’s alley has sprung up at the Fish Quay. Hits Of The Sixties keep me humming and bobbing along the aisles of who-would-ever-want-that? Blank-minded and seeking nothing, I am drawn to a stall strewn with plastic wrestling action figures – look at their tiny faces! All gurning with emotions! What a range of expressions for little boys to emulate!
Moving along, I spy a pastel jumble of My Little Ponies. Whatever names the manufacturer gave them, all these snubby pony faces show the same wide-eyed docility. No righteous rage, no smiting of injustice, no anguish. Sugar and spice – no wonder I have always had the lingering sensation that childhood as a girl was oppressively bland.
But at least aged five I was not picking over rubbish tips to make a living. At least I wasn’t sold into marriage at ten, didn’t die of childbirth at eleven, wasn’t a blue-lipped death mask in the rubble at Bhopal. Be thankful for small mercies, but don’t ask me yet who I think is being merciful.
The Moon Cannot Be Stolen will play at the Customs House, South Shields on Friday 13 June.