Georgia Denham Essay 2: happi home

A film photograph of the base of a lighthouse surrounded by foliage and blue sky
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Moving back to a family home is an experience shared by many creatives. This essay gives a personal insight into Georgia’s time in Happisburgh and the challenges and joys that change can bring to a composition practice and life as a whole.

This is the second of a series of essays presented by Georgia Denham, as part of her New Voices 2020 project.

New Voices: Georgia Denham Essays main page

happi home

Around the village, the lighthouse is near constant: cushions, doormats, postcards, glass paintings in front windows. Small beacons of community pride and delight. Cosiness incarnate. These nautical crests remind us, locals and outsiders alike, that yes – we have the prettiest lighthouse in all the land. Happisburgh may be familiar to you by name (pronounced ‘Hays-bo-rough’) – perhaps by its ‘happi’ name, or less happy reports of coastal erosion. Nestled between Norfolk towns, this small village is home to a mere eight-hundred people – and probably many more fossils on its prehistoric coastline. When I mention Happisburgh, it’s either obvious or not known at all. You may be questioning whether you’d once passed by, or perhaps remember visiting at some point. I assure you this uncertainty is in vain – once the lighthouse is seen, it is never forgotten. Like Britten’s Aldeburgh, once in the know, you begin to see references to the small town everywhere. Across the world, old poems or maps grant some small connection to our familiar. A small piece of home, guiding us softly. This often happens to me now with Happisburgh. It is a place of curious magnetism. A new North Pole for the North Norfolk sea. Scattered across books and articles, an impressive paper trail leads always to this place. When visiting Barbara Hepworth’s St Ives studio recently, I learned that she (along with Henry Moore) had holidayed in Happisburgh on multiple occasions. I think that if I discovered this a few summers ago, I would have kept this quiet, reluctant to acknowledge the idea that my mum’s new home was in fact quite cool.

When my mother announced she was moving to live by the sea, it felt disjunct and strange; we were land-locked people with land-locked ways. When I packed up the last of my (under) graduated life in Birmingham, I had a summer to kill before life began again in September.

I had long since flown the nest, but a nauseous pang still pressed on my ribs. Selfishly, I begrudged my mum’s choice for seaside change. How could this be my home now? Trapped in this small place, my creative mind felt even smaller. Amongst all this change, it was near impossible to be a composer. My New Voices project was ticking along with short, infrequent bursts of progress, and little long-term execution. I was afforded grace and understanding – by others of course, not myself. My real life was in boxes again, waiting for the wind to change. At the time it would seem impossible that I’d one day be looking back on this temporary move to Norfolk positively. I’d sworn off sand, salt, and anything to do with lighthouses.

For many of my generation of twenty-somethings, ‘adulthood’ feels suspended and out of grasp. Until very recently, my goal was not to become a ‘homeowner’, but simply to have more than one shelf in the fridge. A whole house of one’s own – dare I say, a m*rtgage – felt delusional. Watching almost all I had flit away monthly to my landlord, it was hard to believe there would one day be a desk that I didn’t sleep next to. I know that I write music best with long swathes of uninterrupted time, the freedom to sing melodies without embarrassment, gather snacks (and order pizza) at all hours. Occasionally tricky in communal student living, but near impossible when moving to the remote countryside to live with your mother. As a student, I made every effort to make my own lodgings feel permanent, craving some feeling of stability. I decluttered, crafted routines for myself, ran ‘flat-family’ games nights, took responsibility for communal tea-towels, cooked housemate dinners without recovering costs. If I invested, sowed seeds without pause, I thought a grounded feeling would come out the other end – surely? Ultimately, each year of university brought a new cheap creaky bed, a new cupboard allocation… a new shelf in a fridge. Without the autonomy to carve out a corner of the world, it was inevitably little more than a room in a house with a twelve-month contract. Every day, its permanency withered away a little more. I had outgrown the places I had grown up, and yet they were the closest I had to ‘home’. As beautiful as Happisburgh was, it was new to me and so, I was unable to relax into its comfort.

In this small community, I am still unsure whether I am local or outsider. In practical terms, I am the visiting daughter of the woman who arrived four years ago. So yes, there is some legitimacy here. Alas, my mum’s residency is a mere breath in East Anglian time. That long summer, this was brought into sharp focus one day, when I planned an idyllic cycle the few minutes’ walk to the post office. I pulled out of our gate onto the fast country lane, and after a few moments realised I was pedalling directly into the oncoming traffic. Swerving across to the left, cars had slowed to near stand-still in caution of my chaos. There were horns from every direction, and not a safe pavement in sight. The last time I had been on this particular bike was pre-pandemic, pre-Brexit, and on the right-hand side of the road; during my Erasmus exchange in the Netherlands, an upright bicycle with a basket was an almost cultural obligation. Clearly love for that time had rewired my British sensibilities in favour of more continental ways. Under scowling view of the lighthouse itself, I gathered myself, apologetically nodding and waving to implicated drivers. Some were sympathetic, others outraged. This is where I first learned how much of an outsider I really was.

After the near crash, the car that had been directly behind overtook. As they did, both driver and passenger shouted angrily at me. Hearing both voices simultaneously, I couldn’t process their words and they seemed to cancel each other out – especially in the local broad Norfolk-ian accent. Their brown car drove on until the lane became residential road, where they pulled onto the pavement edge and waited for me. A furious husband and wife sat scowling in the car, ready to deliver a telling off, the scale of which I’d likely not seen since my school days. Very aware of my near tragic fault just moments before, I was in no robust place for confrontation. My best defence was to kill them with kindness and poise: furrow my brow in relief, smile in true admission, without pause say “I am whole-hearted-ly sorry”. (My family have previously described this phenomenon as “Georgia putting on her Nigella voice”). I delivered a stream of penitent, yet charming, explanation to the angry couple – “thank you so much for slowing down so quickly… I’d just pulled out from my house, not ten seconds… you see, I last rode this bike when I lived in the Netherla–”. Be it my alien nature, admission of EU association or perhaps even just my being a cyclist, this approach seemed to have the opposite effect. I was not to be trusted.

“How d’ye mean ye jus’ pulled out your house? You just admitted y’ don’t live ‘ere. We know everyone in this village, and we don’t know you or y’ mam”.

“The last house before the corner – I…I just pulled out from there. My mum moved here two years ago.”

“Whichouse? Ther’ aren’t any houses back there.”

Twisting around, I pointed to my bedroom window – “the blue house, just there”. They turned and shuffled in their seats, examining my claims and murmuring counsel to each other. Now on speaking-ish terms, I leaned further into the hot metal of their car to avoid others who overtook closely on the narrow road. Left foot en pointe, the hard leather saddle helped centre my balance, but the bright sun was harassing my eyes. I reached into the bicycle basket to recover the wayfarers that I’d quickly thrown down in the earlier turmoil. Alas, a large new scratch. Returning from deliberation, there was at last recognition on the couple’s faces – “Ahh, y’ Rodney’s daughter”.

“Um, no, I’m Jo’s daughter. Rodney might be next door?” Even my house number did little to settle the matter – “no, that’s Rodney’s house. I don’t know a Joe, who is he? Are ye’ stayin’ wi’ Rodney?”. They both doubled down, and eventually I nodded and half agreed that I was Rodney’s daughter. As they drove off, they smiled and waved goodbye. Forgiveness and comfort found in the familiarity they’d imposed upon me. I heard later from mum that Rodney had lived in our house more than a decade prior, and on occasion she too would have interactions like these. With time (and of course attendance at local groups and parish council meetings), mum’s good intentions were gradually accepted. She had moved to find a home by the lighthouse, something her new neighbours could sympathise with – especially given the many red and white stripy furnishings they shared in common.

As empty nest mother and grown adult daughter, we settled into a time-warped, daily ritual, regressing into our former lives. Each morning, my mum would try to get me up, but I’d pull the covers back and snooze like my teenage-self avoiding the school day. The difference was there were no lessons to attend – at least not in a classroom. In the open water swimming group, my mum found fast friends who welcomed her, and in turn they welcomed me when I stayed that summer. As the day broke, we were off to swim with company in the sea and eat breakfast together with the sunrise. There seems to be an inherent kindliness in folk who greet the start of each day in fleece lined overcoats. No room for vanity or make-up in these early hours, the sea flushes lips and cheeks with their natural glow. With each day, sand becomes less bothersome and every grain begins to feel like a small kiss from the earth. Fresh takes on a new meaning in a cold sea, and I’m charged by its electricity when I go to my happi home. Like mother, like daughter, it was not long before I couldn’t stay away from the lighthouse.

Find out more about Georgia Denham

Learn more about the New Voices programme

New Voices 2020 Q&A: Georgia Denham

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