Master teaser, my father exasperated my young self one year in the early 1950’s by saying, “This year our holiday’s in Stopaton…” It took me a long time to figure out what he meant. I think he too would have been perfectly content with ‘stopping at home’ during Plaguetime. He always had less contact with the outside world than I have had and yet he started off my various passions, some by his own practice, some by projection of his own desires.
In Margin Released, JBPriestley says he was very fond of his father – indeed he says he loved him. I own up to fifty years of regret that I never made it clear to my father that I felt the same about him. My mother said that during the Sunday afternoon before he died on Thursday 11th March 1971 he had said to her, “I wonder what Colin is doing now…” I wish I could have told him. I might have been digging in the garden, mowing the lawn, doing a painting, listening to some symphony or the other… Why did she not phone me to ask?
Two or three years ago, waiting for evening dinner during a Toovey Compositional Music Get Together in Benslow, Hitchin, I was sitting next to a lovely old chap with whom it was very easy to strike up a conversation.
ninety-year-old funny man
always bursting into unaccountable laughter
bubbling up from somewhere deep in his being
played the piano sometime
somewhere in a place in Cheapside
and was on demand to play for female students
because he made them laugh so that they became
keen to join the choir all this he told us
at the Benslow dinnertable with sparkling eyes
– when were you in Cheapside? I asked him
& after silent contemplation for the ticking off
of years… –1960 he said and 1 said:
– we might have passed each other in the street:
I worked around that time in Cheapside on the corner
near St Paul’s opposite the Central Telegraph Office
– I started working in the CTO when I was 15 he said
– in 1944… I asked him
if he’d known a Mr Blundell…
– yes he was a supervisor he said
was a supervisor from when he came home
from India in 1946 till he retired in 1969
having constantly been overlooked for promotion
this ancient laughing man had known my dad! he said:
– he was one of the nicest people there;
you could go to him about anything
and he’d help you… he had a nickname
but I can’t remember it – Joe I said;
– his first names were Clarence George Francis
which he hated; I know they called him Joe at work;
my mother called him ‘Clance’…
– the more I look at you
the more I can see your father in you… said John
That was pleasing!
A poem from 1971:
content with woodlice
sandstone studies indications
of continuity certainties
order like the path through profusion
peace like a garden
the garden is my young father
built out of his body
containing his mind-order –
his eye framed it
I have become his garden
It was only when I was going through his papers (which I expect my mother threw in the dustbin fairly soon after his death) that I discovered that my father had fought a long battle with the Central Telegraph Office (which became Cable & Wireless) for recognition as a Supervisor having performed the role for many years for no extra financial gain. Letter after letter ignored by the boss-class. He was obviously too nice for them.
Among his papers also was a quotation from Kipling’s IF. I can’t remember which lines he recorded on a scrap of paper in his careful sloping hand-writing but he will obviously have read the whole poem at some stage (perhaps when he was in India in the War) and it all seems to apply to him but he will not have known that Kipling was a Gurdjieff-follower. The poem is built around the concepts of non-identification, not making accounts, keeping to external considering, avoiding self-justification, doing a pendulum with Triumph & Disaster (two impostors) and ‘making internal STOP!’ All of which my father practised in an other-than-conscious kind of way.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
My father possessed the Earth and everything in it though nobody noticed – it’s taken me many years to realise it.
Ten days after he died I composed a little piano piece to celebrate his life. It was the first piece in which I used his initials (CGFBflat) as a motif. They appear somewhere in every piece of music I’ve composed since to express my gratitude for his having encouraged me to start off on musical composition about which he knew nothing at all; about the formal theory of which, though I have continued to bash away at ‘composing’, I still know nothing at all about serious theory! One musically trained student told me he wished he had my freedom from theory! In relation to my ‘From Brighton to Timbuctoo’ piece, Michael Finnissy said that my father had ‘very musical initials’; they occur in that piece over and over again which has been played twice by Andrew Toovey’s Ixion group, Colchester in 2006 and in Doncaster in 2016 when I was congratulated by the Mistress of the Queen’s Music! During the first brilliant Finnissy workshop I attended in 2006, the most mind-catching thing he said, amongst many, was that a piece of music should go ‘from Brighton to Timbuctoo’. This happens to characterise the music of many composers I admire who seem to just start somewhere and keep going without conventional form, without formal opening or ending, or much in the way of repetition, and then finish somewhere quite other than where they began. I had long been in the habit of just ending a piece when I got to the bottom of the page.
Like Priestley’s father, mine ‘…was completely unselfish, brave, honourable, public-spirited’. He would probably have been ‘the kind of man Socialists have in mind when they write about Socialism…’ I’d put him there as a loving person except that it’s now inexplicable to me that he had chosen to be an unthinking Tory; brain-washed by the Daily Express, he would insist on talking about ‘the wogs’ he experienced in India during his time there 1941-46 as a member of ‘The Royal Corps of Signals’. He did not approve of my being a keen supporter of CND in the early 60’s. I know nothing about the way he came to be ‘on the right’; many people who survived active participation in the war wanted a change from the old ways and helped create ‘The Spirit of 45’ which the current (2020) fascist dictatorship is intent on completely eradicating. Two years of so-called National Service turned me into a left beyond Left pacifist…
Oh, Left & Right – such a meaningless dichotomy beloved of the Fascist Tendency to save them the bother of thinking clearly – there are only two alternatives from which everything flows – money-mania or people-concern. John Barnes clearly had my father in the latter category; he certainly didn’t belong to the moneyed classes.
He had a foul temper at times which, modelling on him, I learned how to practise most expertly. But, from his gentleness, I learned drawing, making music, constructing gardens with rockeries, woodwork, teasing, laughter, cementing, precision effort (with tongue between lips), journeying and a delight in the repetition of special phrases: on the walk to the sea from ‘Mrs Head’s’ in Boscombe in 1946/47 every time we passed a wall built of odd shaped bricks with blue bubbles on them it was a running holiday joke to tell me they were ‘bricks baked at the bottom of the kiln’; he was keen on the idea of ‘doing your own washing’ – getting on with what you were doing without bothering anybody else or being nosey; he often said that an alternative idea to the one under consideration was ‘a different kettle of fish’; I don’t know how it might be spelt but he always exclaimed ‘budgi-hi!’ when somebody in a TV film came to grief or was shot dead – sounds like an expression he might have learned in India.
It upset me greatly that he was in the habit of mind-reading a sudden lack of interest in me in relation to something we were engaged on: he stamped out of the room one Christmas evening when he was explaining how a magnet worked with careful pencil diagrams, complaining that I wasn’t listening to him – I know how rivetted I was; returning from a long cycle ride to the coast in 1951 during which I whistled Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances on and off he told me I had lost interest in the trip just before we stopped up a hill for a wayside cup of tea. It was very far from being the case. On the other hand, there were times when we seemed to be best mates – on a one day there and back 84 mile ride to St Albans in 1952, on visits to the Proms and Sadlers Wells. In the programme the very last time we went to a Promenade Concert in the Albert Hall was Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms which, to my surprise, he seemed excited by.
On the basis that you should listen to what you say about other people in order to understand yourself, as Gurdjieff advises, I come to realise that everything I say about my father is part of who I am.
I too am made up (mysteriously, even to myself) of anger & passivity. The mystery, the magical. I think that somehow my father provided me with a sense of something mysterious & magical in other people’s lives – philosophically in relation to life in general and just by his own sense of Being, possibly in relation to his representing for me the ‘India of the Mind’. In Margin Released JBPriestley says: ‘It took me years and years to learn that it is the mystery that creates the magic, that the enchantments imagined on the outside vanish almost immediately once you are inside, that indeed what is truly magical rises from your own depths… the strongest lines in the pattern of living remain unbroken…’ My father, a ‘disappointed man’ (WNPBarbellion), intent on doing his own washing, keeping himself to himself, just got on with his own sense of living, dug happy allotments, cared for his greenhouse, had been the masterful garden designer of his little suburban plot, and kept his own counsel. These are my imaginings – I do not know what it was like on the inside.
Since I’ve mentioned WNPBarbellion, whose books came to me from a recommendation in something by HGWells, here’s a little poem from my collection Found Poems 1988 which nicely illustrates what it is to consist a blend of misery & humour and an overarching desire to come to figure out what makes other people tick:-
never never never again
some girls up the road
spent a very wet Sunday morning
playing leap-frog in their pyjamas
around the tennis lawn
it makes me envious –
to think I never thought of doing that
and now it is too late
they wore purple pyjamas too
I once hugged myself with pride
for undressing in a cave by the sea
and bathing in the pouring rain
but that seems tame in comparison
WNPBarbellion: Journal of a Disappointed Man p302
And from his Enjoying Life (page 45) also in Found Poems 1988:-
I should like
to have a psychological jemmy
to prise open the minds
of some of these strange
secretive men and women flowing along
to rifle the caskets
of their innermost consciousness
of all its wealth of personality
and life history if I were a millionaire
I would hire an army of private detectives
merely to satisfy my curiosity
about some of the people
I see in the streets of London
I should like to be able
to put a penny in each one’s slot
and draw out the story
of their life in a long tape
My father is here! Curiously, a few days before my notebook record of his death, there’s an untitled poem I wrote which seems to pick up something of this way of thinking. There must have been something in the air…
It’s challenging to write about somebody who is supposedly so close to you but who floated around so distantly; my father seemed most at home digging his allotment or making sure the plants in his garden were thriving with the appropriate fertiliser.
It was around 1953 when I first read WHDavies. When I declared to my parents, more or less seriously, thinking they might be amused, that I wanted to be a tramp when I grew up, they were furious and told me I’d never get on, that I had no ambition. Neither of them knew what was going on inside me; you never ever know what’s going on inside people: in my diary of 1953 I was writing about composing my first symphony! Still haven’t done that so I suppose I never did really ‘get on’.
Having read JBP’s English Journey [July 2020], I now understand why, apart from my ambition to be a tramp, my father was so desperate for me to get a solid job-for-life in the Civil Service. Life was so uncertain in the 1930’s (much the same as it is now that the Fascistories have all but demolished the Caring State) it must have seemed to him that it would be best for me to follow in his footsteps. I went along with the idea innocently, without question, without looking for anything else – without even a notion that there could possibly be anything else for me to be like a National Trust Warden, Youth Hostel manager or cruise-ship captain. Meeting me for lunch one day in a pub down by the Thames, he hoped I was doing the right thing proposing to quit the horror of being an office-wage-slave to go in for teaching.
I wish he could hear my music, read what I’ve written at such length, see the Magic City paintings, the watercolours, the things I’ve built with wood & bricks, walk in the six gardens I’ve created complete with rockeries and hidden places, each one from bare patches of earth, designed to have carefully-mown stripy lawns with precision edges intended for comfortable reading in summer sunlight. July 1930 aged a month off 21
The story goes that my father was waiting on the steps of the CTO for his girl-friend who was very late and the person who was to be my mother turned up instead. I can quite understand why he would have fallen for her! I turned up nearly ten years later…
Googling simply PETER WEIR – A CENTENARY CELEBRATION (also in ROOM 9) will get you to one of the few really positive things, apart from bringing me into the world, for which I have to thank my mother. She ‘…had done well in a conventional way at school; she ‘matriculated’ but never developed herself intellectually in all her 93 years, being more than mentally burdened by my sister’s progressive disability, but she must have known something about my inner being…’ She presented me with a copy of Peter Weir’s The Island for my 14th birthday. ‘…Maybe she knew somehow that it would fit the way I was – that it would resonate with me stylistically, atmospherically and in the way it brilliantly conveys a still, sad, dreamy, ecstatically hopeless resignation? I imagine her picking the book up in Bentalls of Kingston and reading the first page. Peter Weir’s masterpiece remains as captivating for me now as it was then – the trance has persisted during all these many years. Such are the accidental events that make us what we are…’
I didn’t feel it was sacrilege at the time but while my father was away in India my mother used the pond as a dumping ground for ashes from the fire and kitchen rubbish. I used to dig in it and remember coming across baked beans…
I have always been very grateful to her for having taken me to the Odeon, Worcester Park. We split our sides laughing at the Marx Brothers’ Night in Casablanca (1946) but I also learned very successfully from her how to have a fear of heights – we were watching a film concerned with mountaineering when she hid her face in horror. We often used to have to get off buses because she was feeling travel sick – from her I learned how to be a Kwell-addict.
This was my father coming up to 21 around the time they must have met. It seems to me that there’s an innocent, wide-eyed, what might have been, openness to experience in the photo. He had no academic qualifications which perhaps gave my mother a feeling of being superior. I don’t remember him reading at all. His dreams for me were entirely self-generated so he must have had ideas about what a creatively urgent kind of life might be like. He was quite accomplished with pencil & paper. My mother had no time at all for the music he wanted to listen to – Smetana, Verdi, popular classics. But she’d flounce around when he wanted to listen to the Proms. I decided to be like my father.
And here they are together; there are few photos like this…
My mother did read a lot. I used to make trips to the library in Shadbolt Park (my father’s favourite local place) for her but I’m not sure she liked my wayward choices. I well remember her reading Gone with the Wind – a sizeable tome; Timmy the cat was sick in it while it was open; she tore the affected pages out of it and when it had dried outtook it back to the library. What did I learn from that?
It must have been a long courtship – they will have met sometime between 1928 and 1930; she was 20 in 1932. they got married in 1936, with never a thought about the impending and long-lasting disruptions to their lives. Then I came into being in October 1937 – I don’t think I was a disruption – at least not in the early years!
And I look at me during one of my initial experiences of a carefully mown stripy lawn, perhaps packing a seaside bucket with grass cuttings in the first and splendid version of my father’s garden – the pergola, the trellis for roses, the vertical slabs of coloured sandstone. After around 80 years I can be there now – the whole feel of it is mine still.
We were never a very talkative family; to write about my father all I have to go on are old photos carefully stuck in albums to start with but the photographic record seems to fall apart after my father was called up to win the war – I think it must have been in 1940, not long before my sister was born. I remember standing at the front door of our house in Worcester Park one morning waving to him as he went past the house we always called ‘Mrs Lewis’s’ and shouting as usual, “See you tonight!” as I must have done on many previous mornings. My mother said, “No, you won’t…” He was off to Huddersfield to become a soldier; going back to that doorstep then now it doesn’t feel as if my sister was around – I remember nothing about her being born in February 1941 so maybe my mother was pregnant when he went away… It all feels like writing a novel based entirely on old photos and my memory – just what it’s like when I walk back down my time-line, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting whatever there is to experience.
From 1936 to 1940 when my father went off to war he had already worked so hard to establish his garden in which I was very much at home, knew every rock and slab of sandstone, every bit of crazy paving, walked the paths, went under the pergola with great pleasure, poked in the pond, loved the way the sedums spilt over rocks there.
I can only imagine how my father must have felt about his creation, Arcadia in Suburbia – I imagine that’s how he thought of it; I certainly took it that way! What care he took over the placing of stones & rocks, the roses climbing the pergola, the apple & pear trees down at the end. It’s easy to project my own garden-trance back into him and assume that he got it from his father who I think cultivated a rockery in his garden.
The climbing roses have already taken to the pergola, the golden rod buzzing by the wooden door and privet hedge intended presumably to keep me and my sister from the pond unsupervised. This will have been around the time I started at Stoneleigh West infants school. The war was on and I’ll have been conscious of Hitler’s bombs exploding in the night. I don’t look very ruffled. I always walked the mile to school by myself. Bomb shelters were in an area where foundations for a new school building marked the end of the plan. Once, inside the bomb shelter, I overheard a teacher describe me to another as ‘a round-the corner’ sort of boy – was this because I kept my own counsel even then or was I really perceived as devious in some way?
My father must have been anticipating a small contented suburban life, everything to play for in 1936; catching the 7.30 Workman’s special train every morning from Worcester Park – later on I often watched it parked on the downline ready to make its slow way back over the points on the bridge over the Kingston Road to take the crowd on the up-platform to Waterloo. Annual holidays long before that to Wales, Southend & Bournemouth; the painstaking making of a garden; the making of myself; visits to Ilford where his parents lived in a bungalow (an Indian word!)
I think these two photos must have been taken at the bungalow in Ilford. A happy-proud sort of time before the war changed everything.
It must surely have seemed likely to be a cosy suburban existence lasting for the rest of one’s life… But, no! Came the war & my father was suddenly shipped off to India to defend it from the Japanese. Just imagine! It’s all one can do: in one way a huge disruption but in another, for my father, a reconciliation to the enlargement of life, filling the whole great globe with your soul; the sea voyage round the Cape – he talked about Cape Town, sent back postcards, but I suppose he might also have gone through the Suez Canal. Calcutta, Rangoon in Burma – a larger & larger view of the world, the enlargement of the soul; the total novelty of it. What must it then have been like to return to the old life – the narrowness & the ordinariness, the regularity, the daily grind to the CTO office (where at least he helped John Barnes)? Especially since my mother, as I suspect, seemed unable (or unwilling) to deal with the enlargement soul.
The intricate design of his small garden was perhaps likely to have been eclipsed by the alien complexity of huge India. When he returned to the patchwork oblong enclosure behind the mid-terrace house perhaps he felt the garden had to be simplified to compensate for India. It was still my own large haven though.
His father dead while he was in India. The garden re-designed. The escape to the allotment between the ordinary terraces newly built in the mid-thirties. Charlie Farnsbarn coming up the road at 6pm every day (was that his name or is it what my father said because he didn’t know his real name?), Mrs Manning doing everybody’s shopping (except ours) daily trudging along with her wheelie basket.
Anyway, I had learned to knit and used regularly to send my father in India knitted comb cases. He sent me a fragment of the Taj Mahal and a mango seed, an army book about things it was OK to eat if you were stranded in the jungle. Though I’m sad not to have kept these it was probably the time when I began to develop my hoarding instinct: I still have the beautifully carved little table he brought home from India or Burma which was never on display in Elmstead Gardens. Its history demonstrates my father’s enthusiasm for things unique & strange and my mother’s lack of interest – her jealousy, something she suffered from all her life.
Though I bet he never saw a member of the Japanese invader, his experience of ‘fighting the war’ in India will no doubt have changed his view of the world; he was certainly full of stories of his experience but whenever he started telling one my mother would walk out of the room, with some excuse or another. It has always seemed to me that having sailed across the oceans to India, visiting Cape Town on the way, been in the streets of Calcutta, seen the Taj Mahal, understood something of jungle life in Burma, travelled around in trains with a bag of water dangling out of an open window to keep it cool, his spirit will have become as large as the continent itself: thus I create my own ‘India of the Mind’. I wish I had heard more of the stories that died with him. His past remained always a mystery, something that had happened in another world entirely; I do not know what my mother & father ever talked about. I built a picture of him as a loner.
But the bright-faced youth of 20, open to all experience, did hold on to his sense of fun & daftness in spite of everything through the War and out the other side. The teasing & the running jokes were perhaps part of what JBPriestley calls ‘a lost bright kingdom’ of judicious silliness. I don’t remember my mother being part of it, though she and I did sometimes have our mad moments.
He hadn’t lost the ability to tease. I walked with him down the Mall to Buckingham Palace, tanks rolling in Peace celebrations. I asked him why there were so many windows in the Palace; he told me that the King and Queen spent each night in a different room; they had to push the Royal Bed from room to room before they could sleep in it. Then there was the time when I asked him what was under the tallboy in the front bedroom where relatives were collecting their outdoor clothes after having been to tea – a very rare occurrence – and he said that if I put my face down close to the two inch slot under it I would be able to smell and hear a gale coming from the other side of the universe. I did and could. Once, outside Rudkin’s, the greengrocer ‘up the top’, I asked him why the sky didn’t fall in. He told me that ever so far off there were huge white pillars holding it up. I looked across the allotments over the road trying to see them. I still look now from time to time towards a horizon.
Perhaps it was part of the Indian experience, the expansion of his soul-life, that had him creating ambitions for me that would have been impossible for him to fulfil. He would not have known where to start with musical composition or get seriously into painting or making constructions à la Kurt Schwitters. But, largely having been propelled into such things by entering into his Pure Dream of Possibility with dedicated enthusiasm, I’ve always done things in my very own way, ‘round the corner’, DIY.
All this is, of course, just my construction of things. All contributing to my ‘India of the Mind’. My father projected himself into me all those years ago, now it’s my turn and I can’t consult him. We tell ourselves stories all the time and this is my story about him. I compare what he perhaps felt by thinking of my own slightly similar soul-enlargement in the 1990’s: first time up in a aeroplane, first time abroad since reading Richard Jefferies in Paris in 1953, then comparatively short excursions to Egypt, China, Jordan, Uzbekistan, America, Chile, Mauritius, Zimbabwe, Spain, France & Italy, cycling from John o’Groats to Land’s End three times – a sort of minor approximation to what my father might have experienced during five long uncertain years away.
By 1945 my sister started showing signs of of meiositis ossificans entailing many visits to the hospital at Stanmore and then Guilford, Epsom & London. Her progressively worsening condition must have been another major disruption to my parents’ life together making it difficult for them to focus on anything else.
Judging by the shape of the roses on the pergola, this photo of Margaret aged about two was taken at the same time as the previous one of myself standing in the same place with the same small bike by my side.
And, skipping across nearly 20 years here she is in exactly the same place in 1960 showing signs in her arms of meiositis ossificans that was to render her incapable of managing without constant help by the time she died in 2005. She’d proudly, and with constant amusement, beaten the doctors’ prognostications by 34 years – early on, apparently, she overheard a conversation between them and my mother during which they suggested she wouldn’t live beyond 30. One night when she was ten I was woken up by her shouting from her bedroom, “I don’t want to die!” over and over again.
At ‘Mrs Head’s’ in Boscombe in 1946 there was a conversation during which my mother’s mother expressed the view that my parents were wrong to have had Margaret while the War was on as though it had something to do with her disease.
It occurred to me much later on that all my physical excesses – long distance cycling, walking, making gardens, playing hockey – were a sort of compensation for her sad lack of mobility.
My father started off my passion for bonfires – we had them, not just on bonfire night though they were always very special occasions, at the end of the sacred alleyway between the Coopers and the Grimshaws down which on other days while it was still a cinder track bordered by grass I used to dance at the age of 6 singing something akin to what much later on I would come to recognise as a Havergal Brian (or maybe Schnittke) symphonic cadence, self-generated, somehow preserved till now in the neurons for when I make a bit of music.
The shed in this corner of the garden was one of the modifications my father made sometime before 1950. We had spent weeks cutting a shed-length piece of wood about two inches by ¼ inch off a large plank with a handsaw to make a gutter side.
This is the sacred ‘Putney’. I remember telling my mother on at least one occasion, “I’m going out to play by ‘the Putney’. Why I called the simple manhole a ‘Putney’ I have no idea. On this last occasion I saw it, just before the move up to Vale Road, I checked the solid metal inscription – it was not ‘Made in Putney’. We used to go to Putney shopping or on the way past Hurlingham to Studdridge Street to visit the old aunts Annie & Ella – it was a place I was keen on – maybe that was it!
My mother had a very negative attitude to the neighbours! I don’t think it was shared by my father though I suppose he had to go along with it. On one side the despised Jehovah’s Witnessers – later I quite fancied Ann Goymer but dare not take it anywhere on account of her curious religious beliefs whatever they might be – we called ourselves ‘CofE’ . On the other side, lived Mrs Grimshaw: “There goes old Flos again,” (my mother’s voice!) – she had only had to hear a bit of music on the radio to be able to play it by ear on the piano; since she couldn’t read music I was very much impressed in spite of the fact that it seemed we weren’t to think much of her. “There goes Mrs Manning again…” off down the road with a wheelie shopping basket to do all the neighbours’ shopping. I secretly admired her kindness. And all the rest of them – ‘Old Clarkie’ springs to mind – good old bloke, father of one of my only friends; ‘Old Pask’ who built his own car from scratch – how I admired that, now I come to think of it…
How was it I became what’s called a ‘Polarity Responder’? The story of my life really. Always do the opposite of what’s expected; Gurdjieff’s always acting ‘otherwise’. My parents were Tory voters so the day I first voted I remember walking across the wooden floor of the voting place thinking, “I’m a Socialist!” and that was that. From whom did I get my bloody-mindedness? Where from? Whence the ruthless determination? I had been described as ‘shy’ – so I acted up to it until, much much later I reframed shyness as being an intense listener and then, even later, as being in Meta-I.
I suppose a studied silence is going to seem to an outsider as being ‘shy’. I still relish the feeling of what I now call ‘self-noughting’. How did I get through it all? It was something to do with my father’s long absence. Iris Murdoch is strong on the influence of the Distant Notion of Ideal Perfection which has to be brought back into the here & now. I think I clung to something like that in an Other-than-conscious kind of way.
Where did I get all this from? It was from modelling on my father – his silent reconciliation to the way of the universe, in spite of…
For some weeks, I had been groping around attempting to provide this endless rigmarole with a final fullstop (at least for the moment!) – the effort has been contaminating my time. I don’t think I knew my parents and I’m not at all sure they knew what I was or where I was thinking of going at any time. They had no idea that Grammar School boiled down to an other-than-conscious serious study of eccentricity and the invigorating notion of ‘blood, dust & cucumber’. This was the kind of thing which when I said it in company for effect would have had my 90-year-old mum putting her finger to her forehead and twisting it to indicate that she thought I had a screw that needed tightening.
In Kennedy’s Latin Primer there were lists of nouns whose performance was out of the ordinary in some way and the words for ‘blood, dust & cucumber’ were of this nature. I can’t remember how it was, nor can I find the source in my library but the words stuck together for me in combinatorial mellifluity. I wonder if my enthusiasm for creative conjunction began there; it got reinforced many years later when I came across Arthur Koestler’s concept of ‘bisociation’ – put any two or three things together and the rubbing can produce a creative spark like spinning a stick in flint.
I woke up thinking all this at 4am today (Wednesday, 16th September 2020) and then remembered a very short essay by JBPriestley, number 43 in Delight, I’d read the night before:-I would just call this Glob Blood, Dust & Cucumber and be done with it. That was my bright idea – I had to get up for five minutes and write it down. At the same time I noticed a picture I’ve had on the wall above my computer for many years.
And I scribbled in my notebook ‘Why the picture of a signal box up there on the wall?
The answer came a couple of days later: in Plaguetime one has to learn to throw the levers so ideas get constantly shunted around; it keeps you going; you are the signalman. Down one line is the idea of ‘going out to play by the Putney’ – it’s a line I particularly enjoy shunting myself down.
And then, in an old Zen text, I read that ‘the mind is something that does not function if it becomes attached to a single situation… No-mind [the Correct Mind] wanders from place to place…’
Then I just stopped…
9 thoughts on “Plaguetime 15 BLOOD DUST & CUCUMBER”
A heart-warming story of your life. Thank you for posting Colin.
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Hi, Peter! It’s so good to hear from you, now and again. Brings back those very fine times we had! The experiences with all the Delicates, chasing the Seven Rabbits (by which I have always since lived!) the flight over the house, the wind chimes… Colin
You may have wandered from place to place but what a delight it was to read. The relationship between fathers and sons is not an easy one to untangle but you managed to supply us with a pathos that struck our deepest chords without the sentimental gibberish this topic often succumbs to. I’m not saying there isn’t any heart-strings being pulled here, it’s just that they don’t get in the way. What a lovely time-line to follow!
I couldn’t help to think about my own father/son relationship and him being shipped off to France at age 17 and how on some level a part of him never returned, but that’s another story for another time.
I’m sure your grandchildren and children will relish this story and your new Room book that I hope will be available soon.
Thank you Colin for this marvelous and enchanting glob!!!!
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Thanks, Patrick! Of course my father’s return from India was perhaps the most telling thing in his life. It surely released something in him – it was that part of him he brought back from India – what I call ‘the India of the Mind’ – leaving the wide-eyed innocent part behind in the jungles of Burma.
Containing all these Plague Globs, the new Room book is growing fast…
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Beautifully written, and wonderfully annotated with the photos, Colin! All those memories of your father that you’ve shared, especially those poignant ones where there was an element of mutual misunderstanding between the two of you, brought to mind this recollection of one such incident with my father. It was sometime around 1968-69, as the Vietnam war was raging at its most deadliest, when I confided to my father that I was thinking about taking a year’s hiatus from college. And he suddenly, unexpectedly, shouted at me in anger to the effect of how could I be so stupid at a time like this – didn’t I realize I could be drafted into the military if I gave up my college deferment?? I was stunned, and at a complete loss as to how to reply. So I said nothing, left the room, and the topic was never revisited again (probably because I obediently continued with college). Only years later, after he had died, did I understand that my father had seen such unspeakable things in his time as a medic in combat during World War II, that he was not angry with me, he was frightened for me – knowing, as I of course did not, how horrible war is. I never got the opportunity to share my belated understanding with him, and to thank him for his response to my foolish idea.
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Thanks, Tom. What you’ve written makes me realise that my father’s apparent ‘annoyance’ at what he took to be my lack of interest had a positive intention: he desperately wanted me to maintain focus without understanding that I hadn’t lost it. We never talked about it; even then I avoided self-justification. Gosh.
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What a wonderful evocation. I do find that we seldom understand our parents until well after they are gone. It is only in retrospect that one realises who they were and what they were trying to achieve was not what one thought it was in one’s childhood and early adulthood.
I always felt my Father was my rock, my love for him was matched equally by my exasperation at his unfathomable conservative leanings and apparent determination never to show any emotion, (except when his sister died). I loved him dearly, now that I realise his strength, dependability and what he was actually about, I love him even more.
From Patrick – “you managed to supply us with a pathos that struck our deepest chords without the sentimental gibberish this topic often succumbs to.”
Yes indeed, thank you again for sharing the makings of Colin…
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Thanks, Pat! Writing this took me ages. Putting the photos into the text was a real dog. Then I realised that I’d re-invented my self yet again. Though I fancy that it’s only after fifty years that I recognise my father fully for what he was for me, I reckon I’ve thought of him at least once a day in all that time. I use him as a kind of yardstick – ‘I wonder what my dad would have thought of…’ whatever it was – computers, modern advertising gimmicks, terrorism etc. He-in-me is very reliable!
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