Even the casual birthday greeting from someone I didn’t really know meant something. That tiny effort to respond to a prompt from an algorithm made to create data-for-sale punches through the discomfiting medium and strikes at something worthwhile within. I hear the shouldered voices: they don’t even know you, what’s the point?, they’re only making themselves feel/look good, and am momentarily cowed, and I look again. Indeed: Happy Birthday mate. The ones who called me mate aren’t ‘mates’. Not sure they ever were. But they use the word. Choose it (however) casually. Because it’s matey.
And that can surely be no bad thing?
The cards on my mantelpiece are fewer, but are they the more sincere for being in(k)scribed and en-veloped? Even a small effort is an effort. It’s the thought that counts, when you know, however you know, that the thought’s been thought.
All families have their myths, and, like most myths they are rooted in truth, but grow fantastic foliage that can obscure the branches of reality that sustain it. Our myth of dad tells of a curmudgeonly unreconstructed enemy of modernity; mainly well-meaning but emotionally stunted; incompetent in most things except the journalistic career that filled his life; a joker whose humour seemed designed as much to exasperate others as to amuse himself.
As the youngest by seven years of seven siblings, it’s always been made clear that I got the best of dad as a child, and have only a shadowy sense of malefactions and misdemeanours that have at times been hinted at in the years of his decline since our mum’s death. But we all have our shadows and skeletons, and as I’ve reflected on dad’s death and therefore on my life over the past week I have come to the conclusion that even if I might not always have been as bad as dad, I am certainly not, at least not yet, as good a man as he was.
News came to me that dad had finally given up his ghost when I woke in a tent, in a field at a music festival in Wiltshire and checked my phone for messages. Immediately a family gathering on Facebook began sharing thoughts and memories: a 21st century wake. After an initial flurry of ‘glad he’s found peace at last’ and ‘wish I’d made the effort to go and see him again in time’ type messages, the mood quickly changed to derisive memories of his culinary abominations, and yes: there were many. In prime place was the infamous rice-pudding without rice (not detected until several bowls of sugary milk had been spooned out as the rice was usually a silt of hard grains at the bottom of the pan at the best of times). And of course, when a vegetarian of several years standing, I can never forget him nearly poisoning my (now) wife and me with a chilli-con-carne made with un-soaked kidney beans (and no chilli). We soon returned to a carnivorous diet. But memories of scones deliberately made with sour milk so far gone that you could smell them as the plate entered the room tend to obscure the fact here was an old-fashioned, un-politically correct (for no-one had even heard the term then) male chauvinist pig — who knew where the kitchen was and was prepared to use (and abuse) it. If, in memory, his cooking was worse than mum’s, it’s probably only because she didn’t venture much beyond cheese and toast or egg and chips when she ventured into the kitchen. I remember dad’s Sunday dinners with their delicious Yorkshire pudding, properly made in a big tin and served in slices (not those silly little individual jobs that ‘Aunt Bessie’ mass produces for the freezer), and a properly carved roast, the remnants of which would still be going as the homeopathic ingredient of mum’s hotpot several days later, if dad was occupied by a copy deadline (I still occasionally refer to going to the pub as ‘meeting a deadline’). Dad also baked the most delicious bread rolls, and I have never been able to match the taste and texture of the gorgeous fried egg sandwiches he would make for my breakfast before school (and yes, dear siblings: I know that your memories of schooldays are of trying to prise him out of bed in time to get you to school, but you also know now how sleeping patterns do change as you get older. And drink less.).
Dad’s typical Yorkshire tightness was eulogised in family memories from before my time of holidays to Cleveley’s where a local park was passed-off as Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and circuitous routes taken on outings to avoid gift-shops and ice-cream stalls. But who can blame him for minimising the cost with, at the time, six young children in tow? Yet there were always holidays, and day-trips galore, with bottles of pop in a string bag to leave in a stream to cool. By the time my most vivid holiday memories kick in, I had become almost like an only child, with my older siblings off doing their own thing, and dad transformed from lowly local reporter to editor of the Craven Herald, with an income that allowed me a reasonably handsome allowance for book-buying in W H Smiths, or shovelling tuppences into slot machines. Thus funded, I would be left alone for hours while mum and dad went off and did their own thing, whatever that was (and I got a hint of what that was once when I unexpectedly returned early from the amusement arcade to our guest-house room in Teignmouth having had an unusually unlucky streak on the roll-a-coin machine).
I often recall my breaking away from the political and social conservatism that I initially inherited from dad, symbolised most strongly in my pinning a ‘CND’ badge to my indie-overcoat as I went out of the door to college for my A-levels in the morning, and removing it before getting back in. Incidentally, I was doing A-levels at Nelson & Colne College having taken the more-or-less unprecedented decision not to stay on at Ermysted’s Grammar School, where dad had been educated too, and would later become a governor. Dad supported that decision, however reluctantly, made on the day my O-level results came out, and although it was Thursday – the hectic day that the paper went to print – he arranged for me to go on from Skipton to Nelson for enrolment. Anyhow, I remember being terrified when Thatcher-loving dad spotted my ‘Victory to the Miners’ badge that must have fallen out of my pocket in the car. I also recall him catching a whiff of joss-stick smoke from my bedroom the night of the Heysel Stadium disaster, and angrily denouncing ‘people like me’ who caused social disorder like that. Of course, what really upset me most about that was not the wrong-headed conflation of football violence and my fledgeling green-tinged leftish-pacifism, but the fact that actually I did care what he thought of me. I wanted him to be proud of me, and I know, now, that he was, when it mattered. The last, albeit indirect, communication I had from him was when my brother texted after I said I was going for interview as an English lecturer the week before he died that “he thinks lecturer sounds very posh and he’s proud.” Well, I didn’t get the job, which rather dents the poignant beauty of this story, but I like the idea that even when he was just about hanging on to the last slender thread of his life he could still muster the energy to bother being proud of me, however misguidedly.
For all dad’s sometimes reactionary opinions, he was always open to actual, living, in-the-flesh people in a way I’ve never quite managed to be. I might fancy myself as having more liberal and tolerant views but I find it much less easy to mix socially and make friends of people than dad did. You might expect, for example, that he would look at a hitch-hiker and launch into a diatribe about spongers expecting people who’d worked hard to afford the luxury of a car to give them the benefit of it for nothing, and if they can’t afford a car why can’t they get a bus like normal people? I can recall such sermonising from the comfort of his armchair, but in the car, if there was room, he’d pick them up and chat and find out about their lives. If there happened to be a lead for a story, all well and good, but he was genuinely interested in folk. My most vivid hitch-hiker memory was of my being in the car and his picking up a teddy-boy looking type at the foot of Wysick Hill (I had to move from the front-seat to the back: it wouldn’t do to have a child taking precedence over an adult, however infra-dig the latter’s appearance). It transpired he needed a lift to Skipton Magistrates Court, and dad took a seemingly casual delight dad in telling him, “Oh, that’s handy then, I’m on the magistrate’s bench. What are you up for?” I expect the rest of the journey was rather uncomfortable for the young man as he endured a lecture on the woes dad had seen befall the ne’er-do-wells that had passed before his (I imagine rather less than entirely acute) judicial glare.
Many of my earliest childhood memories are of just dad and I at home or in the car. As he worked from home as a reporter he could mind me during the day, and take me with him on reporting missions. If ever we heard a klaxon-horn we’d make a Starsky and Hutch style dash for the car. To a very small child, the Hillman Imp Caledonian was a perfectly adequate substitute for the Ford Gran Torino, after all they were both red with a white ‘go-faster stripe’. I like to say that dad was the original ambulance-chaser, but his finest hour at tangling with the emergency services came before I was born when he was among the first to the scene of a series arson attacks often enough for him to become prime suspect for a while.
However he gleaned his leads (my sister recalls his number posted in ‘phone boxes for people to ring once they’d called 999), there was always a sheaf of stories typed on the percussive typewriter that chattered and tinged its way through my childhood. Dad, who never sent an email and steadfastly refused even to charge, let alone use, the mobile phone he was given, had what is in retrospect a remarkably innovative solution to filing his copy. I don’t know if he came up with the idea, but he preferred to avoid the office and so when he had his week’s complement of stories typed up, he would bundle them into a neat parcel of brown paper, tied with string, and we would walk the few paces from front-door to bus-stop to wait for the X43 Manchester to Skipton “White Lady” . The package would be put on the bus dashboard “to be met at the station in Skipton”. On Thursday, the day the paper was printed, Dad would often have to go briefly into the Herald office. I can’t really remember why; maybe just to pick up his wages in a manila paper packet. Usually we’d park at the back, behind Skipton High Street, and go in through the printing works with their metallic-inky smell, and the deafening clatter of the presses and huge hot-metal typesetting machines. I would pocket little fragments of used type and be fussed over by the printers and the office-based reporters before we’d head off over the tops for the weekly shop at Morrisons. Yes, backward-looking technophobic dad, who would prefer to drive for an extra three or four hours en-route to the south coast rather than use a motorway, was among the earliest adopters of supermarket shopping, travelling all the way to Keighley for the convenience of a one-stop-shop, and giving me the privilege of a ride in the trolley to boot. Driving back along dry-stone-walled country lanes we would pass the tomato tree (where the discarded remnants of, presumably, someone’s picnic had allowed him to convince me that was where the tomatoes grew), and see someone out walking their Golden Lavatory-door, before passing part of the ‘Early Morning System’ on the approach to Stoney Bank Road and the descent back into Earby, and home.
On other days I might accompany dad as he drove the Barlick & Earby Council of Social Services charity mini-bus, rounding up all the area’s blind folk to take them to their weekly social. Or I’d go with him on his rounds for the Skipton and District League of Hospital Friends, again in a minibus that ferried people to visit relatives at Raikeswood Hospital, and then pushing round a trolley of sweets, hailing and hallooing patients and staff alike. “Are you Jack’s lad?” would come the perpetual refrain (pre-echoing the “Are you Jack’s dad? I would hear from my son’s schoolmates three decades and more later) as I wandered round with him, munching on a chocolate-based freebie from the trolley that compensated for the hospital smell and the less than immediately appealing company of the old and unwell. I wasn’t much better at coping with institutional visits when he was in need of the concern and good cheer, rather than being the one doling it out. Even in his later years when he frankly couldn’t drive safely himself, he was still ferrying old ladies back and forth to church on a Sunday morning, until eventually he had to finally give up the freedom of four wheels after what was an apparently hair raising final journey, shepherded to a roadside halt by twin police cars as a he slipped into a hypo-glycaemic delirium. Even at that point, he was taxiing a one-legged friend back home, I seem to recall (possibly erroneously, but dad never let the facts stand in the way of a decent tale).
It has been all too easy to think of dad as little more than an embarrassment, at times, but he was a lot more than that. As my niece Vicky put it, Granndad Jack was “daft, exasperating, challenging, and funny”. He was also, well, a good bloke, and I wouldn’t be…
(well, that’s it: we can stop right there. I wouldn’t be without him.
Thanks to my lovely, inspirational English colleagues and friends, past and present, (and a stray Geographer!) for yesterday’s goodbye meal, and for their support and kindness over many years and especially these recent difficult weeks.
on tenuous thread my lodestone lurched and wavered, tracing black intents, it felt your field, when I felt failed (inflected new my future tense
At the weekend I heard the sad news that my favourite English teacher, ‘Delme’ Thomas died in August. I felt saddened because it is sad news in itself, and 72 has long since stopped seeming like a ‘ripe old age’, but also at my own failure in leaving it too late to get in touch with him again. I’d intended to several times over the years, but never quite got round to it. Not long before the summer holidays I googled him to see if I could find an email address, and found one, but waited until I had time to sit down properly and think what to write. Well, of course I didn’t carve out that time. It’s too late for him to see it now, but I have taken the time to think about the teacher of mine that I most owe my being an English teacher to, and the one I have most wanted to emulate. Sometimes (it doesn’t happen often), when a lesson has gone well and the students leave the room bubbling with enthusiasm, I think, “that’s how Delme would have done it”:
His spittle-flecked enthusiasm drew us in
To 1984 in ’84.
Round shoved-together tables, clustered lads,
Set free from deadening dictatorial rows,
We mapped the tension, characters and plot
With sugar paper, coloured pens galore.
The whirling-limbed and laughter filled approach
Of those thin lips, eye-beams, that signpost nose;
The floppy fringe flicked back Fred Trueman-like
As he threw back his head with a guffaw,
Then bent, nicotined-breathed, to chat with us
As though we mattered, since, to him, we did.
He led us then down the glass corridor
To watch Dench and McKellen in Macbeth
On huge en-cabinned screen, on video.
(He made the ‘d’ alone last half that word!)
In that melodious South Walian lilt
He spoke of cinema, scarce drawing breath,
Yet somehow no superfluous words were spilt.
We went to Harrogate theatre: Oscar Wilde’s
Coruscating wit seemed no more sharp
Than what we heard each day in Delme’s class,
Addressing politics, Pontypridd or Pope,
Cynddylan on a Tractor, Evelyn Waugh,
A Neath fly-half, or Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’.
That he was younger then than I am now
Seems quite absurd; he had such gravitas –
Yet leavened with a levity of touch.
I wish I’d written, got to see once more
My English teacher, whom I owe so much.
A while back, folded in the inside pocket of a jacket I rarely wear any more, I came across a couple of sheets of paper covered in my pencilled scrawl.
Some considerable time before, I’d been looking at the film Whale Rider with my year 8 class at the time. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, the central character, a young girl named Paikea gives a speech in honour of her grandfather at a public speaking competition, beginning: “This speech is a token of my deep love and respect…”. I asked my students to write a similar speech, and got some wonderful pieces of oratory from many of them. As they were working I wrote my own speech, too. I thought it only fair that if I were asking them to pour their heart and soul into their writing, as Paikea had done in the film, that I should be prepared to do likewise.
Here, for mothers’ day, is the speech that I wrote some seven years or so ago.
This speech is a token of my deep love and respect for Jean Muriel Heald: my mother, and the mother of my six brothers and sisters.
It will be four years this September since she died, but she is every bit as real to me now as she was when I lay my head on her chest with her cancer-ravaged arms around me, her youngest child, and I sobbed my goodbyes to her for the last time.
My mum was proud of me, and loved me, from before I was even born, and I knew that pride and love throughout my life. So did my brothers and sisters; we knew it, and are privileged to share it still, along with the thousands of children that passed through the playgroup she ran, each one of them loved too (she ran that playgroup for love and never made much real money from it). Many of those children, now grown up, came to her funeral or sent tributes. A few of them were not fortunate enough to know much love at home, and so my mum became for them the model of love that she is for us, her own children.
My mum was proud of me for my vocation, for my becoming a teacher, and I look to her for inspiration, as she was my first teacher. If I can pass on even the tiniest fraction of what I learned from my mum, and that she in turn learned at the knee of my granny that I never knew except through mum’s words, and whose wedding ring I now wear, and my grandad who is a shady memory of a kindly man sitting me on his knee, giving me sweets from his bottom drawer; if I can pass on a fraction of that ancient river of love to some of my students, then my life will have been worth something.
It is not so easy to pass on love to adolescent children for whom that word is so easily turned into a joke rather than a precious treasure to be nurtured at all costs. But if I am going to be true to the legacy passed on from my mum, it is my duty to try, even when I fall short, even when I fail, even when the love and care and concern I want to show is rejected or mocked or ignored.
And I will hold to those moments that allow me to think that sometimes my mum’s dedication has, however imperfectly, flowed through me. As she treasured every card and gift from her own children and those in her care, I will treasure those far more rare tokens that come to me. The pen bought by the A-level group delivered by the student who came to the staff room to say, “Sir, you’re a better teacher than you think you are.” The card from the student who said, “Thank you for believing in me when no-one else would.” Even, the smiles in the corridor, and the “thank you sir”s by the classroom door. For each of these is a reflection of the love we are all capable of, and which I learned first from Jean Muriel Heald, who died on September 22nd 2002, and whose love – to me – can never die.
In the very small hours of Christmas Day I sent an email to my students. Copying it below gives me a chance to share a T S Eliot poem that had somehow slipped my mind, if it ever lodged there in the first place. I am familiar enough with the other Ariel poems, but this ‘addendum’ to the series, sent out, I understand, as a Christmas greeting from Faber’s, the publisher where Eliot worked at the time, seemed strikingly apposite.
I have assembled my daughter’s new bike and brought it inside; the presents have been put under and around the tree; I have bitten off the stalk end of a carrot; eaten a mince pie, taking care to leave plenty of crumbs; and written a letter from Father Christmas in a painstakingly shaky hand, sealed with red sealing wax.
I can now go to bed, not with the same excitement as my daughter did several hours ago, but with perhaps a stronger sense of waiting, because I know my waiting is for something far greater, far further off, and far less certain than the wait to open a few presents in the morning.
Many of you too will be thinking towards your future, and back to simpler childhood times, amidst one of the last festive seasons before you face a fully adult Christmas. My favourite poet, T S Eliot, knew about this, so you I offer you his poem on the subject as my Christmas greeting to you.
Merry Christmas, and all best wishes for a happy and successful 2013, and beyond.
The Cultivation of Christmas Trees by TS Eliot.
There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish – which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,
So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St.Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):
So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.
O God of moving air we adore you
In the breath that fills our lungs, that gives us life,
In the mutter and murmur of words barely spoken,
In thrumming of larynx, in strumming of sitar,
In sounds of every harmony and timbre,
From whisper to whistle to fiddle and foghorn.
O atmospheric God, we detect you
In nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide,
Shifting in current and vortex and eddy,
In every loving phrase we utter,
In every flutter of leaf on tree,
In every billow of washing on line,
In every bellow. In every kind
Of flurry and hurry of breeze and blow,
In blast of tempest, in motion of mistral,
In distant rumble of lightning storm’s thunder,
In blunder of typhoon, in twist of tornado,
In whirlwind and cyclone, in chinook and zephyr.
O God of hurricane and vapour,
Of respiration and inspiration,
Speak to us in the turbulence,
And in the small, still, silent,
Sweet voice of calm.
She spent her last days in Pendleside hospice in Nelson, and it was very early in the new school year that I got a call to say that I should probably get over from Doncaster quickly as her condition had deteriorated.
Recently I came across a few small pieces of notepaper from a pad that sat by the telephone at mum and dad’s home to take messages. On the night that I travelled over, after seeing mum in the hospice in the afternoon, back in my childhood home, those scraps of paper were all I could find to write my last letter to my mum.
She couldn’t read it herself, so the next day I asked for some time alone with her so I could read it to her. In some ways it seemed a little over-formal, but I was grateful that I had the chance to think about what I wanted to say and to put it in order. What else was said by mum and me at that time will remain between us; suffice to say it was both rather less, and profoundly more, serious than these words now seem, and at the end she rallied for a good few more days before she finally died. I want to share as a tribute to my wonderful mum what I wrote those ten and a bit years ago, thinking they would probably be my last words to her, fearing that she may never hear them, but so grateful that I had the chance to say my goodbyes as best I could:
My dear, dear mum,
Judging by how you have been since I came over to Pendleside from Doncaster this afternoon, I don’t think you’ll get to read this. As I put pen to paper now, I don’t even know quite what I want to say, regardless of whether I can let you know, or whether I’m really just writing for myself.
I told you again today that I love you so much and I’m so thankful that you were still able to say the same to me. But then, we knew that anyway, didn’t we, and have done as long as that love was a possibility to be known?
In your case, that’s from the moment you realised I was being formed in your womb. For me, it is ever since I learned from you what love means.
It is something I began to learn from you before I was even aware of myself as something separate from you. I learned it in the nourishment and warmth you gave me at your breast. I learnt it in the security you gave me in your arms. I learned it in the confidence you gave me with every word of praise and encouragement, as I learnt at your hand to walk, to talk, to love stories and songs and games and giving. I learnt it from your giving – of yourself – in the sacrifices you made for me, many of which I could only know of later; most of which I will never know.
I thought I was fortunate enough, in having you as my mum, to have learnt all I needed to know about love. I was wrong of course. My own wife and family came along in due course, and, of course, in them I found ways of loving and being loved that were new to me but not to you. And I relish in the obvious pleasure it has given you to share in something of this extension of that one great love that first I found from you.
But now you are teaching me something yet more of the lore of love. As you lie dying, frailly, peacefully, confidently, you are showing me something I gave lip-service to, but could never truly grasp: that love does not grow weak and die with the body.
I instinctively shy away from pious sounding phrases that may cloak unpleasant truths or possibilities in a coat of woolly warmth that may protect us for a time. So, if I read in a sympathy card when you are gone: “death is not the end, but only the beginning”, I will understand why it was written, but I will not accept it. Death is the end. It is the end of the time we’ve had the privilege of spending in this world with you in it. It’s the end of the body that gave me my life, and then nurtured it and that even today in its weakness could hold mine in embrace that no one else will ever be able to give.
Death is the end, of all that, and much more. But mum, you are showing me that it is also a beginning. Auden in a poem that has become known by millions, wrote “I thought this love would last forever: I was wrong.” But as I looked into your eyes today and you looked into mine and squeezed my hand, and your thumb played across my fingers, I realised: “I thought your love died with you: I was wrong.” Oh, I knew anyway that I would remember your love, and that, in some vague way I would continue to carry it with me. But I had not grasped at all what I am now beginning to experience – that your love is something so indescribably powerful that, well, it’s not simply that death cannot halt it, death just has nothing to do with it. Death is a product of time, a part of creation. Love is a manifestation of eternity. And it’s only in eternity – not beyond, but beside time – that we shall see you as you are truly made to be.
But, mum, as I read this back, I wonder if I’m just falling myself into the pompous proclamations I curl a lip at.
What I’m learning from you in your dying is not really fit for words to describe anyway. So, until the end – and the beginning – comes, I will continue to love the broad smile that can still play across your lips, the freckles on the back of your bony hand, and the undecayed spirit that no cancer can conquer. And mum, I will go on loving you, and everything about you, as long as the thin sliver of time hides you from my earthly senses: until, together, we shall see Him as he is.
The blogging crusader that is David Mitchell @DeputyMitchell came up with a wonderful idea for the day that we are still only just about in in the UK, but being a global project there is time for plenty more posts yet. Here is my contribution:
I can’t remember what I was doing on February 29th four years ago, but thanks to this wonderful blogging project I’ll always be able to remember this one.
I teach English four days a week at a secondary school, and yesterday I remember walking into the staff room and thinking how lucky I am to be doing a rewarding job that I (mostly) enjoy, and to be living in probably the safest and most civilised period in human history in one of the most prosperous places on earth.
Really, I can’t believe my good fortune at times.
Then today, the special day of 29th February fell on my day off, so after a leisurely breakfast and a couple of espressos spent reading some of the earlier posts on this blog, I got changed into my cycling gear and set off on this ride: http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/71847190
Turning those pedals through the near-deserted South Yorkshire countryside it felt so good to be alive.
I know that many people don’t have the blessings in life that I’ve got, and that makes me all the more determined to enjoy mine, and to try and share them in whatever small ways I can.