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.)

2127260_9bc5429c
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.

dragonflies sea frets 2

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.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-07-08 at 17.32.43

 

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.

 

Ravelling

handsome gjMy grandfather died of a broken heart six weeks after my grandmother. He had not expected to live without her, instead had meticulously planned for her comfort and security on what seemed to him to be the predictable certainty of his own death from a heart attack. But cancer doesn’t like predictions. Cancer, with its usual arrogant flare for such things, changed the story, rendered his meticulous, patriarchal, loving care unnecessary. A heart attack did kill him, but only after the death of my grandmother from bone cancer and the torture of six weeks of bereft and baffled mourning.

John Wood, we called him Grandjohn, was an imposing and impressive man. He came from a teetotal and dutifully obligated chapel background, as austere and spare as his name. He had no faith himself but was imbued with the characteristics of his family’s church, though he seemed to burst those narrow parameters at the seams. Six feet two inches, brown as a conker, bombastically sure of himself in a way that could be intimidating and even a little bullying. He was very handsome, dashing, though in his lifetime this was completely invisible to me. It took unearthed photos of his beautiful youth for me to see him as others would have.

He was politically and socially conservative but his personality was that of a daredevil, an adventurer and often, an absurdly, comically impatient lunatic. He drove his sports car onto the pavement to get around cars that were a little slow to pull away when the lights turned green, fury testing out his heart attack thesis once again. He snipped all the wires of the speakers round a hotel pool because the music irritated him to wasp rage. As a young man, he and his brother raced each other on motorbikes across the twin track parapets of a railway bridge. He was tremendous fun, gleefully leading us into some reckless endangerment, some motorised or wheeled or speeding adventure, always operating in secret away from our anxious and loving grandmother. We kids would get our roller skates and he would take us off in the car to find a ‘nice flat road’ when really, all the roads were flat. The car journey was a ruse so that, once safely round the corner away from grandmother’s eyes, he could tie a rope onto the bumper which we could then hang onto as he towed us, swinging wildly round the corners of the expensive, residential streets.

It is easy to see why he had predicted such an end for himself, correct medically even if the narrative didn’t work as he had expected. He smoked as a young man the way it seemed he did many things. He wouldn’t appreciate the Spinal Tap allusion but inside the conservative, blazer-wearing teetotaller, much of his personality was turned up to eleven. He inhaled his pipe smoke, he boiled his tea to a tar-like sheen, tanning himself from the inside as his sun-worship from March to October tanned him on the outside.

He once swapped a lawn mower for a tuba, and revelled in the blast of deep, music-less sound he could make with it. In the same way, he loved my bass guitar, the rumbling resonance gave him a profound and, to his mohican-sporting granddaughter, gratifying pleasure that, for once at that time, connected us in a way that was not fraught with judgemental disapproval on both sides.

It was deeply moving to see my grandfather in the new light cast by the loss of his beloved wife. This man, large, colourful, imposing, intimidating, suddenly showed a frailty that seemed almost miraculous. Not because we needed to see it or welcomed it, but because his certainty about everything had given us absolute certainly about him. Anything outside of those cartoon clear lines of expectation had a fragile, magical quality. I felt a kind of awe in the face of his inability to live with his loss. He lost weight, he cried about a dog that put its head on his knee in mute empathy. He still complained about the noise when he came to stay with us, still told everyone what the best way to do a thing was and you’d be a bloody fool to consider other options, but there was something new and tender that had not been part of our connection to him. Perhaps it had all been reserved for beautiful Daphne, his true love, his reason for living, and with her gone, he had to share it unexpectedly, perhaps undesirably for him, with us.

I never had any doubt that he loved us all very deeply. It was a love that was built on expectation. He expected us to do well in life, to work hard as he always had, to achieve what he presumed for himself and for us, our merit in the eyes of the world. An old-fashioned love predicated on the achievement of comfort and safety. Dreams were to be let off in searing firework flashes around the edges of the serious business of life; in the roar of a motorbike engine and the atonal and offensively loud blast of a tuba kept in the bedroom wardrobe.

After he died, I spent a surreal and magical few days in my grandparent’s house with my mum, my aunt and my sister. One of the pictures that stayed with me, a comfort many times and a profound reminder of the precious gift of connection was an open atlas. He had a conservatory, called tellingly, the sun room. Even when it was cold, if the sun shone in a clear sky he would open one of the doors so he could lie in the sun, tracking its progress, moving round from facet to facet of the hexagonal room. In that room, next to the padded sun bed was a table and chairs and on the table was an atlas open to the page that showed Australia. There was a blue airmail letter from my brother, travelling around Australia for a year. He had described the recent leg of his journey and my grandfather had looked it up in the atlas. It must be what he was doing shortly before he had the heart attack. It gave me great comfort, seeing these papers that connected them. Even with the moment long gone, those connections remain, making an invisible ravelling that perhaps is the real structure of our lives.