Cover Reveal

(swoon)

I am so thrilled with the final design for my book cover. Mark at Mecob Design has found a way to represent subtle aspects of the book really beautifully. I couldn’t be more pleased. TTSOD_FINAL

Because of my background people have often asked if I wanted to do the cover myself. I knew I never would – it is a particular professional talent that goes way beyond ‘being an artist’. But I feel that Mark has clearly shown great artistry as well. I know for sure I would never have come up with such a complex yet simple and compelling image. I will of course, be flinging it around with abandon – please don’t let me stop you if you feel like doing the same!

Twice the Speed of Dark will be published in a few weeks – I will of course keep you updated.

Local Roots

On Monday I will be appearing at the Henley Literary Festival at an event on the theme of Local Roots. I grew up in the Chiltern Hills in a village called Stoke Row which is not far from Henley. The landscape is part of Twice the Speed of Dark  – not quite (as the cliché goes) a character, but certainly part of the scenery flats.

I am delighted to be included in the festival, a little bit intimidated at the thought of being taken seriously, even if it is mostly because I happen to have been born locally.

Chalk hills don’t have streams. When we visited other rural landscapes, I found the presence of streams and waterways kind of exotic. The Chilterns had wells. The house we lived in when I was born was called the Pump House – a little cottage in woodlands above Watlington. It was built, I believe, above one of the deepest wells in England.

In Stoke Row there is the Maharajah’s Well, a strange and wonderful object. The tale was that someone from a nearby village (Checkendon, as it happens) saved the Maharajah of Benares’ son from drowning and in gratitude, the Maharajah, moved by the pathos of the dirty, waterless villagers, organised and paid for the digging of a well. It was capped off with an Indian architectural housing complete with elephant and dome, and a beautiful little hexagonal cottage for the well keeper. I don’t imagine I was the only Stoke Row-ian who was baffled by the benefit to our village, when the good deed was done by an inhabitant of another village some three miles away. But it could be that, with regards to the address of the story’s hero, I have got it wrong and thus, am the only Stoke-Rowian who is perplexed in this way. (Certainly, there was a widely held belief with regards to the drowning/saving part of the story.)

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The Maharaja’s Well in Stoke Row

I think that I am writing about wells as a response to the idea of roots. Both represent ways to reach water. In fact, roots in chalk lands, don’t go deep, they go wide. When there is a storm, beech trees fall, levering up great plates of earth, an underworld sun of clay and soil that has made the best of shallow topsoil above the un-nourishing mass of chalk. Wells, in traversing that same lifeless, permeable mass, go deep.

roots

The Chiltern Hills, my childhood home, are as close to the territory that hold my roots as any where else I have. Being white, middle class, generically southern, with broad British ancestry, tales of heritage and belonging are not my birthright. Being opposed to nationalism and uncomfortable with patriotism, this is easy to accept. But my soul does have roots in that landscape even if generations of family do not.

I love it, not because I belong there, or because it is part of me. But because it is one of the first ways I learned of beauty, and that is, like water, something that makes us too.

Dragonflies and Sea Frets

(Or: Applying The Essentialising Filter ™️ of bereavement)

dragonflies sea frets

It is now a month since my father died. Grief came in unanticipated form, insinuating itself subtly, damply, into the walls, floors and ceilings, draped light as a sea fret over the roof tiles and filming the windows. It is as though my present and my past are living under gauzy occupation.

One afternoon at the hospice, shortly before Dad died, I wandered through the gardens lured by an elusive thought that glimmered in my peripheral vision, or appeared hazily in the unfocused space between my eyes and the plants. I chased it like a gormless cat, wittering through trees and past flowerbeds, trying to hook imaginary dragonflies out of the air. I had a sense of anxiety that took me a while to catch. Moving, pacing about, allowed the fragments to coalesce: Is there anything I need to know from Dad? Is there anything I will regret when he is no longer here to ask?

I thought about this for some time. My conclusion was that I already knew what I needed to know. I knew about our relationship; I had, after all, witnessed it, helped make it. I had told him often enough that I loved him – he couldn’t doubt it. There was no family history that seemed crucial enough to uncover. His privacy was not suddenly up for public revelation. What I did not know about him was not for me to know.

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People often talk of regrets when a loved one dies. My wondering amongst the gardens of the hospice was, it turns out, a futile attempt to catch this before it could happen to me. As so often in life, I am smart-arse enough to imagine I can improve on the natural order and then discover with surprise that the natural order is more wily, more subtle, more complex than my speculations had allowed.

The gauzy shroud of grief acts as a 360-world filter. It transforms not how the insta-squares of the surface look but what we see inside; in the walls, the floors, the ceilings. In the marrow and the heart. I have spent many hours this last month thinking that Dad was so much better, so much more than I had realised. How I regretted my cloddish lack of appreciation. These thoughts are the lures that lead to biting onto the hook of guilt.

The newly dead are transformed through the membranous filter that comes between life and death. They become essential, pure, shriven of the clunky mechanics of actually being alive. When we think of them we may not call to mind the annoyances or the disappointments. It would seem churlish to do so. It is as though the faults in our connection, if they ever existed, can be laid as errors at our own feet. In realising this, I have managed to avoid guilt. But my view has shifted. I know more about my Dad now than I did before he died, because I see him in his essential form.

dragonflies sea frets 4

 

I am left struggling with a feeling close to outrage that things will go back to normal. This process is so fundamental, so insinuating, so life-changing. Going through such a time it is hard to realise there will not be some kind of result at the end. At the very least a beautiful insight: a sense of purpose perhaps, a wish fulfilled, a change of fortune. But no. Life will go on as normal, there’s no prize for having been bereaved. It serves no end. Grief is not a process that leads somewhere, it is an interruption. When I get past my somewhat childish annoyance that this horrible effort is not part of a bigger plan, I know really that this is ok. I watch over myself with curiosity as the sway and swing of life changes me. I am not made better or worse but I am tempered by it. And I am still blessed.

Post Script

As I stopped writing this, presuming it complete, I had an idea that there may after all be a reward. The fundamental shift I have experienced in the soul of my life, the groaning dread at going ‘back to normal’, these could after all lead to a change. I dread returning to consuming chores, scratching my head to come up with alluring ways to bend the people of social media into potential buyers for a book that hasn’t come out yet. I dread deciding whether I need to get another cleaning job to pay for the second-hand car that I bought on a credit card so that I could have the freedom to visit Dad whenever necessary. I dread giving up the freedom that car has brought. I dread all the bloody thinking about it, about money, about leveraging what could be called progress from next to nothing – ideas and pennies. This big, fundamental shift, the trick-turns of new ways of seeing, the Essentialising Filter of death make it entirely possible to imagine refusing to do these chores. Just don’t. Do what matters: write, read, earn a bit of cash. Breath in, hang out with loved ones. Let progress look after itself. What matters is in the bones, in the eaves, in the air. I can feel the weight of it shifting inside. I can see it, glinting, precious, in my peripheral vision.

Imperfect Allegiance / One Army

It seemed inevitable that when the world changed in 2007 the world would change.

Working as an artist soon after that time, I made a piece in response to what appeared to be the implosion of capitalism and the welcome prospect of change in the structures of global power. The piece was called Refugee: End of Empire. It consisted of mass-produced Regency figurines in their gilded pomp, their faux bucolic innocence and pure whiteness in a refugee camp. I imagined them as both ends of the British and European Empire/capitalist order: the colonisers themselves, and cheaply churned out, whimsical representations of those colonisers populating windowsills and mantlepieces all over the home land, not a bullwhip or manacle in sight. With the financial crash I imagined their time was over and they were going to find themselves homeless, ejected, powerless.

 

But of course, a powerful system has many resources and the death-grips of that system are frightening and harsh.

Yesterday I listened to the last in the Undisclosed series of podcasts on the Freddie Gray killing. It is such a heartbreaking story. It is not a story, it is a reality. It is a heartbreaking reality. A boy was killed by the police. An appalling death, in a long list of such dreadful killings of black men and women, for which no one has been held to account. The podcast has an addendum hosted by D. Watkins in which the wider issues, the circumstances that made this boy’s death possible are pulled apart and investigated. There is invaluable historical insight from Dr Marcia Chatelain, demonstrating that the circumstances of America’s birth and rise to world power cannot be disentangled from its benefitting from slavery and that this context shapes all the arcs in Freddie Gray’s short and terrible story. D. Watkins, with eloquent anger, hones the contemporary context; the perfidious inability of so many white people to accept the current reality and take responsibility, beyond an occasional bit of privilege-checking, for the vastly, disgustingly unfair system that we live in. It isn’t enough to say you are not racist, if you are daily profiting from a system that is.

These are hard words to hear. Hard but fair. I know they are fair because I know I am the inheritor, however inclusive and broad minded and unbiased I may try to be, of empire. I may reject the regency figurine view of my past, may feel ashamed of the colonial history of the country in which I was born. But that is not enough. I know it when as a young traveller, hanging out in Amsterdam for a year, a feckless blow-in, I was considered less of a foreigner where I worked than the Turkish women who had lived there for years, whose children were born there and attended schools in the city. I know it when I read that my application for anything will be treated more favourably because I don’t have a foreign name. I know it when I think with sorrow, then relief, that also in England, my daughters will have to work harder than their black friends to get arrested and criminalised. I know it when I read about Freddie Gray.

A few days ago there was a programme on Radio Four called A Split in the Sisterhood. It was interesting and frustrating. It is easy to bemoan the constant levels of inter-factional warring that goes on within the feminist movement. I am an instinctive feminist. Not an academic or particularly learned one. I have read lots of the books and missed many others. So, often the differences are lost on me. There is one enemy, so why can’t there be one army? That has been the question that rises from my frustration. And yet, in the light of understanding gleaned from people like D. Watkins and in talks such as The Art of Trespass by Kit De Waal, and many others, I must understand that of course, there needs to be a reassessment of internal structures, that if women of colour feel that they have been sidelined, steamrollered by the white hegemony of the feminist movement, that is untenable; it is a huge failure. But many white women will reject this claim. As I said, it is uncomfortable.

And it is, practically, difficult to negotiate. We may find ourselves uncertain of how to operate alongside people who may expect allies to speak out on their behalf because ones own relative freedoms should be used to amplify the plight of those subject to greater restrictions. Others may want us to stop presuming our right to speak for all women in a way that, often historically, has meant only white, usually middle-class women. It is not easy.

But that is ok. Suck it up and learn.

One army is better, against such an entrenched and ruthless enemy as the status quo. One army. So I wonder if we could engage, with differences and faults accepted but subject to further honing, in an imperfect allegiance. Our paths through life may only give us limited ability to understand the complexities of other lives. But our hearts should be big enough, wide enough, to make an imperfect allegiance and learn from each other on the way. We may not get it right, but we can all respectfully act on the assumption that if we accept a view we haven’t experienced, stay open, it will be got right. We can accept the imperfections, make the allegiance and be open enough that in walking side by side, we will learn. Then maybe, we will make a world that has changed.

Black Rocks and Sparkling Seas

Last week we gathered for my father’s funeral. Though sad, still sad, it was a very happy occasion. He had asked that we lay on a party that he would’ve loved to be at. We certainly did that and he was greatly missed. My brother and sister both spoke at the service and I wrote the piece following this introduction, which was printed in the Order of Service.

My parents divorced many years ago and both went on to have very happy and successful relationships with other wonderful people. They remained great friends. That past and beautifully revised relationship was not marked during the service and I wished that there had been a way to acknowledge it. So, whilst this piece is about my Dad, it is also a way of honouring my Mum, their time together and the wonderful childhood they both made for us.

Black Rocks and Sparkling Seas

Since Dad died, my memories of him have all included water: cold and brown, foaming across rock worn into dark hollows by the river; beaches where the lure of the sea meant there wasn’t time to lie in the sun; boats decked with good cheer and uncertain destinations – sailing boats, motor boats, rowing boats. My first time snorkelling, my last time diving. A childhood in which adventure thrived.

The car was packed. Mum and Dad in the front, us three in the back; no seats, the luggage made the seats. Tents and bags sculpted to resemble a place for us to sit rather than a disaster waiting to happen. It was covered with three blue sleeping bags that would make our scant beds once we arrived. I am not sure how long the journey was but we seemed to slide about on top of the luggage for days, getting hotter and hotter as we headed South, finally crossing on the tatty ferry to Porquerolles. Then, it wasn’t the luxurious resort it reportedly is now. It was a beautiful, rough little island with beaches and a campsite, a town with a square where an old man and a monkey vaguely harassed visitors and shops which sold harsh red wine by the plastic litre bottle.

We camped with two other families; ten or so children become a feral tribe, barefoot and brown for what seemed like a whole carefree summer. Dad, then long-haired and medallion-wearing, spent hours in the sea with us, chasing, throwing, racing, pulling rafts, crashing and diving through the surf. He was shoulders to stand on and dive from; an inexhaustible engine towing us across the waves; an accomplice in those long and happy weeks of beach life.

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A few years ago, Dad and I went on a dive at Black Rock in Brighton. It was a fairly grim October day, there was a vicious surge. Visibility was around one metre. Don’t even ask about the temperature of the water. At around ten metres depth we got to see the tracks of the bizarre Victorian railway that for a while cruised above the sea along the Brighton front. It wasn’t quite the same as the snorkelling that Dad had taught us on those French holidays – seeing a bright green octopus fifteen metres below in crystal clear water of Porquerolles, then diving for sea urchins which we ate with a teaspoon on the beach. But it had the same sense of adventure, of things being possible. Dad was the first diver in the family, engaging keenly with laborious BSAC training in Reading pool and off a brownish beach in Swanage. We all caught the bug eventually – though we smartly took up the sport in light-weight tropical waters.

Dad took Joe sailing in Scotland and the Channel Islands, in companionship with his brother Sim and his friend David and their sons. Happy adventures on top of the sea rather than in or under it – though tales leaked after the fact reveal that it was occasionally a fairly close-run thing.

On trips to Wales, we would walk for hours, finding rivers to swim and streams to dam. Damming a stream could become an epic mission of opportunistic engineering, using mud, branches, moss, stones; a library of local materials pressed into experiment and service. I can still feel the bite of cold in the bones of my wrist, the wet cuff of a coat a zinging reminder once the return leg of the walk resumed. There was one river where dad would sit above us, blocking the flow of water that fell from a narrow channel of rock. Once we were in the right spot he’d unplug the flow and it would come whooshing onto us – the daft thrill of anticipating a sudden surge of freezing, sinus-warping unpleasantness; we loved it.

As well as building or being a dam he’d take us to look at them. The three of us squinting into a sun that bleached our vision as if the sight were already a fading polaroid. I do remember being impressed with the various sizes. But I also remember not having a clue as to why we were there. Of course, now I see it. We were there to wonder. And what a gift. Life is an adventure, life is full of wonder. Look at it children, look at it with joy and see what you can make of it.

What a blessing. With all my heart, thank you Dad. For all of it.

 

Golden

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The heat keeps on, pressing my skin, the continuity is a reminder of where I was just a few days ago. Though time stretches strangely in strange times, makes it seem like I am remembering an epochal, ancient past or a current, fleeting dream.

I was revisiting a place I knew well, my childhood home was not three miles away. A landscape that I love: beech woods, fields and lanes, buildings of red brick and flint. Too many cars but enough space. I could walk once more in the woods, sheltering from the heat and collecting my thoughts. The woods have always been a place to think, to re-order myself. I get the same sense of grounded wonder in a cathedral, a similarly cool and elegantly spanned space. The beech woods and the cathedral create a modicum of awe that sets the tone, then leave us alone, content to let private reverie occupy our attention. With hindsight, I have understood that this, in part, in distant childhood years is what my father was offering me, all three of us, on our baffling day trips to see dams and bridges. Look at the grace of this structure, look how it achieves itself so effortlessly. Look.

Once my thoughts had been reordered on the short walks of this recent visit, I went back to the newer, harder to navigate terrain – smaller and infinitely more vast. A hot room, my dad so thin, the rugged, narrow mountains of his knees rising sharply from his shallow body. The sheer, spare cliffs of his beautiful face. The heat, the heat. The creaking of wooden floors and the electric fan rumbling like thunder edging the unfamiliar horizons. Space stretched too so that the horizons, for some time, were met in this narrow view.

The heavy victorian gothic of the hospice building did not do as a good job as the beech trees of keeping the unusual heat at bay, at least on the sunny side of the building. But it held us all gently, kindly, kept us together and cared for us as we said goodbye to my father over a rapidly changing week this June. Over days that included his birthday, which was also the day he accepted that death was coming, then ordered a gin and tonic for himself, his partner and for me. And only a few days later, Father’s day. The day he died.

After he died, when it was time to leave, I found it hard. I wanted to stay in that dark wooden interior, the gentle embrace of ancient luxury repurposed into a kind of universal love for those suffering at the end of their lives and those suffering at the end of another’s. The care that enclosed me and my siblings, and dad’s partner, had also enclosed him, keeping us all together. It was hard to leave him there, though he had gone.

My dad was an architect, a rock climber, a diver, a sailor, a lover of songs sung with heart. In these later years, for the ever-present joy of sport, he played croquet, one of the most entertainingly vicious games there is – schadenfreude is almost written into the croquet rule book.

He loved with a big and generous heart, if not always with the quickest sense of another’s needs. But he cared deeply and with great, throat-catching emotion about those he loved. He believed in his family. He believed with atheist conviction in the true importance of fairness, liberty and equality. He was a great thrower of parties and a marvellous host.

Sometimes in his time at the hospice he asked us to leave him. It was hard for one of the gifted hosts of the world to be unable to attend to and join his guests. I knew he wanted us with him but it was difficult to rest when his thoughts were on us. So we spent time in the beautiful grounds, in the woods, and in the rooms provided for us – the people visiting a loved one. In that time, my daughter sent me a link to a film she has made as a choreographer and dancer. It is a beautiful piece called Kintsukuroi/Golden Repair. The piece is dedicated at the end to my father, Philip Allison.

That is in itself, a form of golden repair. A way of making the cracks and scars beautiful. To know, from his actions and from evidence of photos and papers on his work table, how much pride he had in his grandchildren, how he looked for ways to support them in their reaching for value, how he sought ways that he could nourish them in their claims to a life of beautiful meaning. And to see that love and respect come back to him. To watch my daughters becoming magnificently themselves with his love and support even as I watch him slide quietly away.

This is a common time, a universal time. We have all said goodbye to someone we love. And we all stumble through helping each other to navigate the sad days and long nights of goodbye. And so many people, in our sadness are pouring their own gold to help make the repairs. Letters and memories, messages from people who loved dad or who care about us. They offer such kindness. I am thankful for all of it.

I would also like to particularly offer my deep gratitude to the Sue Ryder hospice in Nettlebed for their beautiful humanity. I will be trying to think of a way to fundraise and support their work.

dedicated to

I send my love to my brother Joe and my sister Thea. I am so glad we were there together with dad.

And Lilian and Phoebe. Beloved

And Pierre

Kintsukuroi/Golden Repair
Sue Ryder