Claire Mabey looks back on her lonely love affair with the wiley, windy moors immortalised by Emily and Kate.
The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand
Original illustrations by Aimee Cairns.
There was a time when I wrote bad poetry. Truly offensively bad: “Moss fuses to my bones / Yorkshire mud marries my skin”.
I was 26 and I wrote such things during the first months of living in Hebden Bridge, a small West Yorkshire town about three hours’ tramp across the moors from Haworth where the Brontë Parsonage sits darkly among trees and gnarly, cracked gravestones. Just up the hill from Hebden is the medieval village of Heptonstall where Sylvia Plath is buried. I think Sylvia Plath hated it. She wrote a desperately bleak poem called ‘November Graveyard’ about the place, which I read in the depths of despair and cried and wished for Mt Maunganui, where I’m from.
In time, a man also drove me mad in Hebden Bridge. But for a while I was crazy in love with the place. I became a committed fell runner and took to the Pennine Way every day for hours at a time. I foraged blackberries. I wandered beside drystone walls and discovered ruins among copses. I was immersed in a cottage-core fantasy that flew me, mind and body, from any existence I’d known prior. I drank flat, bitter beer at places called the Stubbing Wharf, and the Fox & Goose and the Shoulder of Mutton Inn and the Blue Pig. The sky buzzed dense with stars on my night rambles. It was a gentle solitary existence. Like something from one of my childhood storybooks that embedded in me a profoundly English imagination.
Then I met an Australian man. We were both at the pub watching rugby. Australia versus Ireland and Ireland only bloody won. I was ecstatic about it in the way that you only get when caught away from home, the only Kiwi in the village, and the patriotism amplifies tenfold. We fought, we drank, we ended up back on his house boat. It was all very Antipodeans Go Mad In Brontë Country until it turned a bit Heathcliff 4 Cathy. The Australian turned out to be one of those boy-men with subtly broken parts. He illuminated a discord inside myself. My imagination was part-English and my heart felt part-Yorkshire, but I was not either of those things. At times my accent rendered me unintelligible. “What’s Dunna?” The door person at the famous Hebden Trades Club couldn’t get to grips with my squashed vowels for a good while. “Fud? What’s Fud?” And I attracted friends who had wounds they thought I could heal – as though my foreignness was medicinal. One of them insisted I was an angel and had arrived to help launch her music career. I was an editor at the time, of books.
By the time the Australian arrived I had been the only person I really knew in Hebden Bridge for too long. I had wandered, enraptured, far on the bridleways and footpaths and had made closer ties with the mud, stone and grasses than I had with any person. That shockingly familiar Aussie accent, that particular sun-strong skin, suddenly and brutally prodded at my suppressed reserve of loneliness. And I moved away with that Australian man-child up the line to the harsher, brickier City of Leeds. I left a passionate relationship with land for a human entanglement that ultimately equated to a negative. I think of that fleeting thing as dark matter: inexplicably swallowing the potential trajectory of time that could have been.
My friends named the whole thing The Heathcliff Affair. Though the Australian wasn’t a foundling or violent or particularly terrible. Just the ordinary kind of wrong person, wrong time, wrong place.
I left Leeds, thin and wretched, after just a few months. I remember the way London sprang up around me like a pop-up book as I took the fast train to my refuge of New Zealand friends who lived together in a surprisingly vast house on Mysore Road in Clapham. I shared a room and a bed with one of my oldest girlfriends and slowly repaired myself.
We danced a lot at Mysore Road. We were a typical Kiwi flat, always going to gigs, festivals and never tiring of the wealth of things to do in London. “What old, partially broken, shit should we go see this weekend?”. The antidote of the ease of close friends and my departure from, what was in hindsight, a strangely isolated lifestyle for someone so young, began to soothe the confusion in my mind.
The Mighty Boosh was often playing on the large TV screen in our lounge. We had all developed a crush on Noel Fielding. One hungover Sunday afternoon YouTube suggested that we watch Noel Fielding perform Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ for Let’s Dance for Comic Relief.
Noel nails it. He takes on the classic red-dress Kate which was the video produced for the American release of the song. He is lush and intense, leaping with shapely calf muscles and seducing the camera with kohled eyes. We clicked to the original Kate Bush video as soon as it was over and proceeded to learn the choreography from the lit witch of pop music herself. The song was a spell: Kate Bush’s whimsical strut and creep in the dim-dark stoked the embers of my love affair with the wiley, windy moors.
By New Year’s Eve I felt almost whole again. We took drugs and went to a pub in Shoreditch. We requested ‘Wuthering Heights’ no less than eight times in a row before we got kicked out. We danced home and played it on repeat in the lounge. We particularly relished the move that imitates a ghostly Cathy pushing open Heathcliff’s window. That bit at least didn’t require us to flick our legs above knee height. I woke up on the couch on the first of January with an aching jaw, my muscles sobbing like I’d run 20 marathons, and a thirst that could never be sated. I had a mad craving for Yorkshire. I wanted to go back and run on the endless footpaths and bridleways. I wanted to wander down to the pub and pat the regulars’ lovely old dogs. I wanted to give myself a second chance, to not get distracted this time, to let myself be alone with that place and not get lonely. I realised, at last, that the kind of grief I had suffered didn’t have much to do with the Australian manchild at all but was deeply connected to my break up with Yorkshire, with my failure to keep a grip on it, and on myself.
Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ helped me re-formulate the physics of my choices. The hours spent immersed in her witchy dance of hopeless desire rewrote my heartbreak and gave me back my connection to the place I had known, in my bones, was vital to me.
In Kate Bush’s hands the fruity melodrama of Emily Brontë’s gothic love-horror between man, woman, and Nature is offered up like a love potion. She makes Cathy a ghost to wannabe. The supernatural brilliance of her voice lends a sexiness to the intensity of the longing which in the novel is creepy and frightening. Kate Bush conjured the song on March 5, 1977 in just a few hours when she was 18 years old. My birthday is March 9 and I would like to do a study on which star signs would most commonly rate the song in their top 10 lists – I bet Pisceans would be right up there.
When it was released in 1978 it rose to the top of the UK charts and made Kate Bush the first woman in the UK to have a number one hit that was written entirely by her own hand. In New Zealand, ‘Wuthering Heights’ spent five weeks at number one and got to platinum status.
That happy statistic is a testament to Kate Bush’s ability to write a banger. But I think there’s something more to it. We are not often characterised as a country of passionate people, but even a brief listen in on almost any aspect of any of our lives – RNZ’s Country Life, a rugby game, Courtenay Place on Saturday night, an online arts forum – will exude a swirling noise of strong feelings. Like the English we can suffer awkward manners that can stifle our true feelings (speaking only for patriarchally oppressed Pākehā here) but, like our appreciation for Bush’s brilliant song, we recognise and are drawn to things that share our sense of bold enthusiasm; our willingness to venture wholeheartedly into the unpredictable forces of both the human and the non-human varieties.
Exhausted and on the comedown, I had a moment of clarity that morning on January 1 in Clapham. My demands on Hebden Bridge to reciprocate my fevered obsession with it was always going to break my heart. Sylvia knew it, Emily knew it, Kate wove it through my body. I moved to the centuries-old village built and built again on land I knew nothing of, and I wanted to believe that it was because the place had called me to her: that the land itself was claiming a kindred spirit. I wanted to think it was as though I’d been discovered by a long lost relative and I didn’t ever want to be let go.
But I was. My decision to leave Hebden Bridge to go to Leeds with the Australian was met with zero resistance. Yorkshire did not miss me. Hebden did not rise up and prevent the train from leaving the station with its favourite flame-haired captive.
Our relationship with place is so strange. It is perhaps the most meaningful relationship of many of our lives. Place defines what we think, how we behave, what languages we speak and how we relate to other places and the people who live there. But the land itself, the soil, the grasses, the trees, the topography all have complex natures of their own. I wanted to feel that the restless Yorkshire greengreybrown wanted me with it so badly that I wouldn’t have a choice but decide that that’s where I was going to have to stay forever. I wanted the moors to possess me and shape me into one of its enigmatic creatures.
Many readings of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights make much of the quality of the landscape: that Heathcliff’s troubling character is mirrored in the unsettling “wuthering” of the moors. My overwhelming memory of reading that novel is that I recognised something wholly natural in all of the unnaturalness: being drawn in by the energy of the unpredictable, falling in love with the ineffable and the strangely familiar. We are made of the environment much more than it is made of us: even as we burn, poison and destroy it nature can re-wild itself the moment we disappear. It can’t be true in reverse: Human nature cannot sustain itself without the ground beneath and the sky above. We rely on it for our vitality in all senses of the word.
It’s how I feel about where I live now. Wuthering Wellington. A madness does sometimes emerge, pushed out of me by the wind that smacks at our house and lifts my son’s hair about his head like a dandelion. He is well riled by it: “Stop blowing me, Tāwhirimatea!” he roars.
I don’t think Wellington is my place. It feels wrong to admit it: I have lived here for many years now and I am thankful often. But restlessness is my persistent ghost. Only circumstance and lifestyle (I’m getting older, I have a child, I have money worries) keep me grounded.
But I am charmed by the fact that Wellington doesn’t particularly seem to want me either. We are shook, we are pushed, the sea trashes and sucks. I revere the enormous capacity of its moods. I think the South Coast could give the West Yorkshire moors a run for its money any day.
Emily Brontë instilled in me a compelling model for romanticising problematic, yet thrilling, relationships between people and place. But when the human kind of passion interrupted my early courting of the land of Hebden Bridge, it destroyed the far more important work of understanding my relationship with where I was and from where I’d come from. I haunted myself with regret for months before realising that I was only human.
But Kate Bush made me see that all the wuthering was perfectly natural. And it’s best just to put on a red dress and let your weird obsessions drive you to dance.