+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘The Mother’

Changing tunes

Thoughts from the history of music

I mentioned the other day about having a backlog of ideas to write about without forgetting what they are. Some of them have been bubbling around for a few years now, when I’ve read a book or watched something on the telly. For example, a few years ago I was given a copy of the book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley. For the past thirty years or so, Stanley has been one third of the band Saint Etienne, who I’ve loved almost as long, and who right from their start in the late 80s have made pop music that cuts across categories, combining fantastically catchy pop hooks with lyrics that are pitched at just the right level between meaningful and slightly inane; but at the same time squeezing in London hip hop, club beats and art school sound collages. Their first album combines pop bangers like “Nothing Can Stop Us” with voice clips of Richard Whiteley and Willie Rushton; the second has excerpts from the 1960s British films Peeping Tom and Billy Liar, and a man ordering chicken soup.* Their songs “Like A Motorway” and “Hate Your Drug” are arguably the best attempt anyone has ever made to revive the 1960s “death disc” genre,** but at the same time they care as deeply about London psychogeography as Geoffrey Fletcher, Iain Sinclair or Patrick Keiller. In short, they cover such a broad area in their music, that it is not surprising Stanley wrote a broad, broad book.

Yeah Yeah Yeah is a history of British and American pop music from roughly 1945 to 2005 or so; the start and finish dates are a little vague, but it was intended to be the history of British and American pop music over the years that the 7” vinyl single was the dominant distribution format. Naturally, though, it is a history of pop music that doesn’t at all mention Saint Etienne; they are gracefully elided from the chapters they would naturally fit into. I wasn’t really surprised; it would seem a bit gauche to pretend to write about yourself in the same detached and journalistic style as the rest of the book. It left me thinking, though, how would Bob Stanley have written about his own band if he hadn’t been in his own band himself? It’s another of those impossible counterfactuals, one even more unlikely that most, but nevertheless I find it an interesting thought.

I personally became interested in pop music at the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s, something of a strange period that’s often considered a somewhat empty one, a period in which music was doing little more than treading water waiting for the 90s to start. Music from before that period is something I largely know about purely by the regular processes of cultural assimilation (aside from that covered in the folk-focused Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young). The Parents had a very curious, eclectic and limited record collection, which I naturally went through as a teenager, but it gave me a very one-sided view of things. The Mother seems to have been a sucker for the slightly-novelty single when she was younger: her 7”s included “Deck of Cards” by Wink Martindale, the original Doctor Who theme, and “Dominique” by The Singing Nun. She’s also rather liked rock or pop versions of older orchestral music; in the 60s she was buying “Grieg One” by The Second City Sound***, and at the start of the 80s she often listened to the band Sky, with their electronic versions of classical standards.**** Naturally, my knowledge of popular music from before “my own time” ended up being very strange, patchy, but with a deep knowledge of some curious corners. Yeah Yeah Yeah therefore was a fascinating synthesis, a map and a guide to a vast and complex landscape where previously I’d only seen the summits of the mountains peeking through the clouds.

The last portion of the book, though, I found less satisfying. Not just because Saint Etienne weren’t in it, but because in general my own musical tastes have tended towards the slightly niche and obscure, and those particular niches just don’t get swept. In particular I used to be a big fan of Belle and Sebastian. More recently I have gone back and explored some of their own influences, such as Felt, or some of the bands which recorded on the Sarah Records label. These are niches that tend to be seen as not just obscure but wilfully obscurantist, even though that is a very long way from the truth.***** I wasn’t surprised that my own particular hobby-horses were not deeply investigated, but it felt a shame that the 90s in general seemed to be quickly skimmed over. Possibly this was because Stanley felt unable to handle the days of the CD single; I wondered more, though, if it was a general reluctance to deal with the area he felt personally involved in.

The rise of streaming services is often given as something which has fundamentally changed the popular music landscape; and it is indisputable that the music scene today has changed completely from what it was 20 years ago. Personally, though, I feel the change wasn’t driven so much by streaming, but by communication; by MySpace letting every single band in the known universe put up their shopfront and become known across the world. It immediately broadened the scope of every music fan: the trickle of information about new bands that came from the weekly music press suddenly became an unstoppable flood. I, for one, felt that in 1995 I could at least be aware of all the bands in the genres I cared about, but by 2005 that was becoming completely impossible. I can also see how, if you were to write a book about pop music, continuing it past 2005 would seem impossible too.

When I reached the end of the book and read the acknowledgements, I wasn’t surprised. Yeah Yeah Yeah was put together with the help and influence of a number of key members of the ILX forums. Personally, I haven’t used ILX for more years than I really want to think about; but when I saw many named I recognised from ILX in the back of the book, I suddenly realised why some of the book’s arguments and standpoints felt so familiar to me. Of course, given I was a fan of Stanley’s music all along, given I have always been a fan of syncretic, holistic thought and of “reconciling the seemingly disparate”, I would have agreed with much of it in any case. As books go, this one will be staying on the bookshelf.

* One piece of trivia I only discovered when fact-checking this post: the woman on the sleeve of their first album, Foxbase Alpha, is apparently also the woman who says “Can I take your order?” on “Chicken Soup”.

** Yes, it’s a real genre. You probably know the most famous “death disc” track, “Leader Of The Pack” by The Shangri-Las. Incidentally Saint Etienne’s discography is awfully complex and only partially available on streaming services; “Hate Your Drug” was a B-side to the single “Hug My Soul” and an album track on some versions, but not all, of Tiger Bay—it wasn’t on the original UK release. For reasons I have never understood, the rear sleeve of “Hug My Soul” features a black and white photo of a kitchen with random items labelled in Icelandic.

*** If you’ve never heard of The Second City Sound, it’s OK: I suspect The Mother only knew of them because she lived in said second city and they were a local band.

**** Later on still, when she no longer came across new music herself, I managed to get her into William Orbit and The Penguin Cafe Orchestra: I figured they were exactly the sort of thing that would follow on from her previous musical habits.

***** Incidentally over the years I’ve seen many people say they thought Belle and Sebastian would have been a perfect Sarah Records band, if Sarah had still been around when the band formed. I don’t think is true at all; moreover, I feel anyone who says that can only have a wild misunderstanding of Sarah’s aims and purpose. That, though, is a topic too large to fit into this footnote.

Sons and daughters of the soil

On local history (in general)

A train of thought has been slowly easing into the station over the past few days, after I read a very interesting blog post by historian Caitlin Green about the Ridings of Lindsey and the route between Lincoln and Grimsby—at any rate, the route between Lincoln and Grimsby mapped in 1675 by the Scottish cartographer John Ogilby. Ogilby was the creator of Britannia, Britain’s first road atlas, in the form of 100 cross-country routes drawn as strip-maps at a scale of 1 inch to the mile. Nottingham to Grimsby via Lincoln is map 78.

I recall watching a documentary when I was a child about the history of mapping, which discussed Ogilby, and for some unknown-to-me-reason it was illustrated with rostrum shots of Ogilby’s Grimsby-to-Lincoln route. I was baffled and amazed. Firstly, that of all places, they had decided to show a map of the very village I was living in at the time; and secondly, that our village was on Ogilby’s map. Our village was on a route from Grimsby to Lincoln, but it certainly wasn’t on the main one.

Nowadays there are basically two reasonable routes between Grimsby and Lincoln. You have the main road, the A46, with various straightened-out parts and bypasses and suchlike. Parallel to half of it, though, is the B1203: in general it still goes through villages rather than around them, and it goes up and down a lot more. The A46 cuts across the Wolds from Grimsby to Caistor, then runs south along their foot to Market Rasen, minimising the time it spends on the hilly ground. The B-road’s route is closer to a crow-flies route from Market Rasen to Grimsby, but as a result much more of its route is in the hills. This is the route that appears on Ogilby’s map, following much the same route as the B1203 today. However, it wasn’t until I read Dr Green’s post the other day, that it really occurred to me that, of course, Ogilby’s route didn’t quite follow the same route as the modern roads. The question of exactly which routes were meant by Ogilby when compared to modern topography is a very interesting one.

My thoughts on this led to a bit of a Twitter discussion with Dr Green,as to how Waltham has developed over the years and how the pre-enclosure road from Waltham to Scartho might have survived as a footpath down to the 1950s. That’s not really what I wanted to talk about today, though, although I might possibly write something about it in the future. The train of thought that’s been wandering around in my head this week is more about the importance of fine-grained local history, and how easily it is lost.

The Mother spent a lot of time over the last twenty years researching our family tree—or, rather, her family tree, as she gave up on my dad’s when she discovered a number of things in the early 20th Century which didn’t quite tally with her views on how People Used To Behave.* From her grandmother, she inherited a Victorian Bible with lists of various marriages and dates of birth inscribed on the flyleaf, and various stories about how her family were descended from Spanish pirates who had settled in Cornwall in the 16th century. These had presumably all come from her grandmother’s parents, who had been the first generation to move out of their tiny Cornish fishing village and had moved to London to marry and have children. I don’t remember meeting my great-grandmother, but apparently she was always also very proud of her “genuine Cockney” roots, having been born in Soho. My mother got right onto all of this, feeding the information into Ancestry, linking it up with other people who could trace their roots back to the same Cornish fishing village, and so on. However, all she ever seemed to be interested in were names on a chart. She entered different ancestors’ names into the data like a birdwatcher who is only interested in ticking each species off in a book, or a trainspotter who does nothing more than gather numbers. That’s…not really what history means to me. To me, history is more about what these people actually did. How they lived their lives, and what the world was like around them.

When we moved to Waltham, before I started school, we moved to a new-build house on a clean new estate with barely any sense of history. My parents, too, seemed to have no sense of history or of the landscape around us. I remember asking The Mother one day what we might find if we did an archaeological dig in the garden, and she replied with: “nothing at all, it was just a field.” It took a few years before I realised that one farmhouse left behind on the estate was much older than all the other buildings; or before I realised that one cul-de-sac was in the middle of a mature avenue of trees. As far as my family were concerned, or anyone I knew, the village was tabula rasa, a clean slate with no history save for the old windmill and the part-Saxon church. All of the roads might for all I knew have been there for eternity, whether built two or two hundred years before. History, to me, was the sharp-angled village library, built in 1981.

At secondary school we learned about enclosure and were shown before and after maps of each of the local villages. Most of the roads, we were told, were built at enclosure, which is why they have sharp bends or zig-zags where they cross the parish boundary. So how did people travel before that? There were few if any roads marked on the pre-enclosure maps. What route was John Ogilby marking on his map, if all the roads were built later? If I thought at all to ask any of these questions, nobody quite knew how to answer them.

I recall someone from my parents’ generation who had grown up in the village telling us that a slight rise in the Grimsby road, close to the old village school, was called Pepper’s Hill. As a name, it didn’t appear on any maps, and I have no idea where it came from, or where she had got it from. Moreover, why did nobody else know about this, and why had nobody told me?

Traditionally, history was always seen as a grand progression of Great Men, of names and dates and battles and similar Important Events. That’s still believed in some regressive, reactionary circles, but it’s not true. There are many histories, and everyone’s story is a history in itself. I love the history of place, the fine-grained history and archaeology of a small piece of topography, the sort of history that asks where the roads really did run in a particular village a few hundred years ago. It’s one of the reasons I waffle on here so much about local cemeteries and suchlike, and why I think it’s worthwhile to look at just how individual places and neighbourhoods have changed. It’s even more important to look at a regular neighbourhood than it is to study the history of a castle or a palace; but so much is lost, or overlooked, or just forgotten. My great-great-grandparents left Cornwall, and left behind them so much knowledge of their tiny village and of their local towns that is all gone completely now, so much dust in the wind. I can go back to where they came from and walk the same streets; I can go to the village museum and see walls of photos of Victorian fisherman who are probably all distant relations of myself; but I have no connection with that landscape or with any of the people. My family has jumped too many times, and broken its connections at each one.

If you go all the way back, back to when the English first arrived here, just think: there is so much that has been forgotten and lost. There are so many rivers in England called Avon, and we do not know the pre-English name for any of them, because Avon is just the Welsh word for “river”. There are so many kings of Britain, from the period after the Romans left and before the English arrived, whose names and numbers and forts are forgotten and missing from the record completely, because they had the misfortune to lose a war. The history we do have now is the history of survivors, but sometimes we should remember there is a history of the forgotten too.

This post is a bit of a mish-mash, a bit of a strange ramble around my mind, but I suppose what I’m really trying to do is set out some sort of a manifesto, for why I like to study history, for why I went and got myself a degree in archaeology, and for what I think is important in those fields. Above all, this is a plea to know the land around you, know its shape and how it came about, know what was here before you and what you have inherited. I hope that wherever I live in the future I will always try to learn about the landscape around me; and hopefully now I’m an adult I will have the resources to be able to do that. This land is our land, but we merely hold it in trust for our descendents; and the same goes for our history too.

* My great-grandparents got together circa 1910 or so but never actually married—because my great-grandfather was already married to someone else. Allegedly, a few decades later someone used this fact to taunt my grandmother, and she immediately punched them to the floor. There were also other bits which would be hard to even draw on a standard family tree, such as the distant relative of my dad who got married to his stepmother’s sister.

Look into my eyes

A brief digression into heterochromia

Yesterday’s post about applying human assumptions to the rest of the universe set my mind off running down another tangent, about our tendency firstly to oversimplify the world, and secondly to insist on the validity of our oversimplified mental map of the world in the face of all the evidence that it is wrong.

One of my early memories of The Mother, from before I started school, is talking to her about eye colour: what colour my eyes are and what colour hers are. “Mine are different colours,” she said. “One is greeny-brown and the other is browny-green.” It’s a very subtle distinction to make, even when you’re four years old, but nevertheless one you can understand. “Yours are almost blue,” she said. And—as I learned when I looked—my eyes are almost blue. Most of the iris is a very pale blue-grey. The central ring around the pupil isn’t: it’s a greenish-hazel colour.

When I was older, in biology class at school, I found that in class you occasionally discuss things like inheritance and eye colour and so on. The teacher, or someone else in the class, will ask you what colour your eyes are. “Blue on the outside but green in the middle,” is not, it turns out, considered an acceptable answer by most teachers, even less so by most of the other pupils. “That’s impossible,” is the answer you get.* “Your eyes can’t be more than one colour.”

Similarly, anything along the lines of “My mother says her eyes are slightly different colours” gets the same answer. “That’s impossible. Your eyes can’t be more than one colour.”

None of these people, as you might imagine, ever seemed to think it might be straightforward to confirm or deny whether I was telling the truth, at least not in my case. Even though they could easily have just looked into my eyes, they didn’t bother. It was relatively recently that I discovered it’s called heterochromia—central heterochromia in my case—and it’s sufficiently common for the Wikipedia page to have a gallery of celebrities who have one form or another of it.

Similarly, one of the things we were taught in school biology class was the now extremely discredited concept that there are only a handful of “races” in the world: Caucasian, African, Oriental and so on. The teacher pointed to someone in the class and said “which of these is he?” “Caucasian,” everyone chorused. But then he pointed to one of the children in the class whose parents were from Pakistan—and almost everyone in the classroom seemed completely stumped. “…African?” someone attempted after a lot of hesitation, before I think I put my hand up and said: “Caucasian is the closest.” What I wish I had said, what somebody should have said, is: clearly this classification scheme is a load of nonsense.

There are so many things in the world where, given a simplistic explanation or a simplistic and naieve classification scheme for something, people will believe in it intensely, hold it tight to their hearts, even when it only takes the slightest amount of evidence, staring them straight in the face, to show that it clearly is wrong. There are so many “facts” in history that are accepted as the truth, even when it’s clear to see that they are a nonsense. “Columbus discovered America” is the most blatant example that springs to mind, but there are many, many more. Why do people do that? It’s easy, I suppose. People believe what they are taught, especially when they are taught it when they are easily impressionable.

As for me: well, I did certainly believe everything my teachers told me, when I was young enough. At quite a young age, though, I started to notice when I was being taught things that clearly weren’t in line with the evidence in front of my eyes. The colour of my eyes for one thing. Maybe it’s a curse, to be able to notice that and have to stand back and go “hang on a moment there…” I prefer to think it’s a benefit. I can’t imagine, whichever, that I will ever stop doing it.

* Unless of course the person in question has already read this blog post via a time machine.

Fun times

Or, another post on death, discussed somewhat bluntly

I’ve written a few things so far about my father’s death, just over a year ago now. Some were recollections written recently; the post about his death itself was written down not long after it happened. I’m glad I wrote it when I did, because, in trying to write this post, on how it felt to “host” a funeral, to be one of the more prominent mourners at it, there is an awful lot that I realise now I don’t remember.

It’s amazing just how long it takes to arrange a funeral, after someone dies; all the things that have to be aligned in everyone’s calendar. It ended up being booked for a date about three weeks or so after his death, which at least gave me time to discuss with The Children whether they wanted to go or not; give various other relatives time to decide if they could make it, and so on. “There’ll be a good turnout for his funeral,” one of his old colleagues had said. “There’s always a good turnout for funerals.” He had never been social in any way during his working life; after he retired work funerals had made up a good proportion of his social calendar, or so it seemed. A group of his old colleagues had made a point of visiting him regularly during the four years of his terminal illness; part of me thought it was rather nice of them, given I’d never have thought him likely to do the reverse, and part of me wondered if they were just getting themselves stoked up for the eventual social event that would result.

We got to The Mother’s house in plenty of time, we thought, before anyone else would get there; plenty of time to get The Children into their funeral outfits but not enough time for them to get into a mess. We had, I hoped, already sorted out the debate as to who would travel with who; sorting out the various priority arguments as to who would get to ride in the undertakers’ limousines. My father’s family could hold grudges for years;* if one of his older sisters fell out with the other over some aspect of funeral etiquette, it would be quite plausible they would never speak to each other ever again. Thankfully my cousins all arrived to try to negotiate and marshal things; The Mother sat stony-faced in silence, letting the debate all happen around her, trying to avoid getting involved.

The cortege arrived, and slowly everyone shuffled into their correct seats. “Just follow us in your car,” said the undertaker, “and turn your car’s lights on. That way other people will know you’re with us.” Is this some rule of the road that all drivers know except me, I wondered. The hearse and the limousine pulled away, and I pulled out of the drive behind at dead slow pace.

Being part of a funeral procession gives you a certain amount of privilege, the privilege to make other people stop or delay what they are doing. We glided serenely down the main road into the village, dead straight for a mile. I concentrated on keeping my speed even, worrying throughout what would happen if some random driver did pull out and separate me from the rest of the procession. Who knows if anybody saw us, or realised what was happening? The village church is on the main road, but when we arrived all normal road rules went out of the window. We drove into the middle of the road as if turning into the lane alongside the church; but instead, glided like swans onto the wrong side of the main road to stop on yellow lines, facing the wrong way into the traffic. We carefully unloaded ourselves onto the pavement, and the Rector was there to greet us solemn-faced, her surplice flapping in the wind. I left the keys in the ignition so the undertakers could shunt the cars out of the way for us; it felt unnatural and wrong.

Funeral orations must be a key skill for a priest. As we sat in the front pew listening to her New England vowels, I thought about all the things we had said to her, me and The Mother, when she’d come to gather information for it. I had been pretty open and honest with her about everything I saw as Dad’s faults, his coldness, his distance, his sudden rages. The Mother denied much of this had ever happened; I wasn’t sure if this was a desire to hide things from the Rector, a pair of rose-tinted grief spectacles, or a lifelong inability to admit he had faults. It was impressive to hear the Rector’s editorial skill: how she turned the account of how my parents got together into something resembling a romcom meet-cute, when phrases like “restraining order” are arguably more appropriate. They say, once you’ve seen the inside of a sausage factory you never want to eat another sausage. I’m sure I’ll be rather more cynical listening to funeral tributes in future. Anything at all negative, anything at all that might give the listener uncomfortable thoughts, is carefully wiped away to avoid upsetting them.

I stared at the coffin, looking awfully small. We’d gone for a wicker coffin, nicely rustic and biodegradable, ignoring the undertakers’ warning that it would creak like a ship in a gale as it was carried down the aisle. It was something Dad genuinely did believe in: self-sufficiency, living at one with the land, biodegradability and so on. Of course, due to the delay between death and funeral, and the amount of necrotic flesh already inside his abdomen by the time he died, the undertakers had also recommended we had him thoroughly embalmed. I knew, therefore, that sitting there by the lectern was an environmentally-friendly fully-biodegradable basketwork coffin with a thoroughly-unfriendly preservative-pumped corpse inside it. I still sit and wonder sometimes, a year since the whole arrangement went into the soil, what the relative rates of decay of coffin and body are, and just how recognisable his body still is.

At least myself and The Mother had immediately agreed on the coffin, knowing he would have liked the idea, because talking to the Rector we had disagreed wildly as to what else he had believed. For example, the Rector had asked if he was an religious man: not a surprising question, given that she had probably never seen him inside her church, whereas The Mother is there weekly.**

The Mother: Oh yes, he was always very religious.

Me: Really?

The Rector: I’m sensing some disagreement here…

The Mother: Of course he was religious!

Now, if I have to be completely scrupulous and honest about it, I can’t say. At no point in my life, no point at all, did he ever give me any indication of what he did or did not believe. The only thing I can say is: The Mother, ever since a sudden draught of religiosity when I was young, has gone to church every week as routine as clockwork, dragging me with her until I was old enough to say no. My Dad, barring weddings, funerals etc, went grudgingly once a year to the family event where they give everyone an orange and peanuts.

The Mother: Well, I know he was religious.

I don’t remember, now, what hymns she chose, only that the Rector thought them rather too mournful for a funeral and tried to get her to pick something less depressing. The Mother doesn’t do cheerful at the best of times. The Child Who Likes Animals could not cope with the sound of everyone’s voices around him; I held his ear defenders firmly on his head.

The undertakers hoisted the coffin to their shoulders, and started to process out down the aisle. As we had been told to, the family pews followed behind, through the middle of the other mourners, out into the cold of the church porch. Built in the 1970s, every surface of the church porch seems to be tiled, and at all times of year, whatever the weather, it is freezing cold. The cars were where we had left them, but flipped around.

“Do you want to wait and say thank you to everyone who came?” the Rector asked The Mother.

I was all for staying; it would have been good to shake the hands of anyone who didn’t want to go to the cemetery, or the buffet we’d laid on for afterwards.

“Oh no,” said The Mother, “I just want to get going and get it done with.” And so, to the cemetery, we went.

* One of my dad’s sisters once bought him a ticket for an event he was going to go to anyway, as a present. He was so insulted they refused to speak to each other for over a year.

** Barring pandemics, naturally. But it was the case then.

Heart of stone

Or, taking The Mother shopping

The other week, I said how you can’t just bury a dead body without there being an awful lot of paperwork involved, at least not in any sort of above-board way. Moreover, one thing I didn’t even get to was that: when you do bury a body, you can’t just pop the gravestone up at the head of the grave there and then. The rules vary from place to place, but to avoid causing some sort of tragic subsidence-induced gravestone-toppling accident, you have to leave the grave to settle for a number of months with some sort of temporary grave marker in the ground instead. Then, some while later—and potentially when you’ve saved up the money, because gravestones are expensive—you can pull up the temporary cross or whatever and replace it with the final thing.

As the months pass after the funeral, then, you can slowly start thinking about what style of gravestone you might like. The Mother, naturally, was all for just going through the catalogue the undertaker had sent her in the post, but I thought it might be a bit nicer to see if we could find a local independent business to work with, instead of a faceless national chain. “I bet all the ones in the catalogue are hugely overpriced,” I said, appealing to her miserly side. “Why don’t we find a local stonemason instead, who you can go and talk to?” But of course I knew we couldn’t get a gravestone put up until May, and in May it would have been impossible to go looking for one. Eventually, though, I realised that we should probably start thinking about getting one before it became impossible again. So, I made the trip up to The Mother’s house, so I could get the wheels in motion.

I was all prepared to go with the “this will be cheaper than the undertaker” line again, but it turned out she had lost their catalogue anyway. “It doesn’t matter how much it is,” she said, “if it’s for your dad.” If only he’d had the same attitude about me, I thought, and didn’t say.

The other thing I didn’t say, but which to my mind was constantly hanging in the air, was: do that many people choose their own gravestone? It must be all people like The Mother, widows and widowers. How much do they actually think to themselves: this will be my gravestone one day? Do they revel in it, or do they just try to blank it out of their mind? I’m sure The Mother, who has been blanking things out of her mind and refusing to talk about them her whole life, will be doing the latter almost without thinking about it, as she’s had so many years of practice.

It’s strange how many Elderly Person tropes The Mother has seemingly adopted. I wonder at what point do they suddenly become the logical way, in your mind, to behave. Her current preferred way to pay for things seems to be to carry around one or two empty coffee jars filled with coins, and complain about how heavy they are. She can’t walk unsupported for more than a few yards without being at risk of toppling over. “You should get a stick,” I said. “The doctor told me to get a stick. Your uncle’s going to make me one from a Brussels sprout plant.” I tried to explain, firstly that he’s probably thinking of a Jersey cabbage; secondly that she doesn’t want an all-natural grown-in-the-ground wooden stick, she wants a nice light sturdy and easy-to-grip medical grade one; and, thirdly, she wants a stick now, not whenever my uncle manages to harvest and dry out a cabbage stem. Nevertheless, without a stick, I still managed to get her to the stonemason’s showroom without her toppling over at any point.

When I was a student I spent a number of weeks making site visits to various disused graveyards around the Isle of Lewis, and I remember thinking at the time: they must be terrible places for family history. Not much of the local stone on the Isle of Lewis is actually carvable; it’s too hard for that. So, most of the grave markers from say 150 years or so ago are plain, rough, uncarved pieces of rock that just happened to be roughly the size and shape of a gravestone. If you wander round one of those graveyards, all you can see are these rough teeth, no inscription, no date, no information. No risk of that now, of course. Moreover, graveyards all seem to have extensive lists of what you are and allowed to put up. I say “all graveyards”; I can quite believe that The Mother’s parish council are particularly pernickity and snob-nosed about it, going by the tone of the signs at the entrance. So, we’re not allowed anything more than 42 inches high; no life-sized angels for Dad then. No kerbstones around the grave, just a headstone. All the inscriptions and designs must be approved by the burials clerk. No inscriptions on the sides or back of the headstone. Incidentally, if you go and have a look around the cemetery you’ll see plenty of graves that do contravene the modern rules.* Clearly, they were erected in a more liberal and tolerant time than we are in now. The modern within-the-rules graves, though, are certainly much more legible than the older ones, to say nothing of those ones I saw on the Isle of Lewis, because they all tend to be in polished black marble with gold or silver inlaid lettering. And, indeed, that was the sort of product the stonemason guided us towards. “It weathers well,” she said.

“Won’t it get dirty from the rain? From all the pollution in the rain?” said The Mother.

“No, it’ll discolour a lot less than a paler colour,” said the stonemason. I’m not sure why The Mother thinks she has particularly dirty rain.

“I hate to be blunt about this,” I lied, “but we do want to plan ahead because eventually my mother will be, you know, using it too.” She looked at me, her expression cold, just as always.

“Oh yes,” said the mason, “a lot of these stones will have space for two inscriptions.” At least we definitely can’t have any of the tacky heart-shaped ones, I thought. “Or you can have one that has two halves, and we will leave one half blank.” My grandparents’ headstone is like that, in the shape of a book; but they died three months apart so the thing came along in one go. It would look a little odd just to fill half of it in for now.

In the end, to be honest, I think it went relatively well. The Mother will be happy with a nice, straightforward, classic design. It might look like most of the other graves in the cemetery, but at least it will look reasonably aesthetic, at least I don’t have to guide her away from something awful, which is mostly what I was expecting to happen.

“Typical,” she huffed, as we got back into the car and I pulled away.

“What?”

“That solicitors over there,” she said. “The first thing it says on their sign is: we can help you with divorce!”

“It’s something a lot of people need,” I said. I often thought, when I was a teenager, that The Mother would have been much happier if they had divorced, when I saw the effect my dad’s frequent sulks and rages had on her.

“Yes, well,” she said, “they shouldn’t.” I turned the stereo on, so we didn’t have to speak.

* I can’t be sure about that last one off the top of my head, to tell the truth. In Greenbank Cemetery, which I wrote about recently, it seems to have been standard practice to put the family surname on the back of each headstone, which must have made navigation an awful lot easier.

Black comedy

On death, and its absurdity

Almost a year ago, give or take a week or two, my dad died. I wrote, a few days later, about the experience, or at least part of it. Starting from being woken in the middle of the night by a phone call from the hospital, and ending with myself and The Mother walking out of the hospital, wondering what would happen next. I scribbled it down a few days later, after I had had a couple of days to process it, but whilst it was still relatively fresh in my head. The intention, naturally was to write more about the experience of being newly-bereaved, the dullness of the bureaucracy, of everyone else’s reactions to you, the hushed voices and awkward moments. Of course, none of that ever got written. Nothing even about his funeral. Much of it has now faded. I was thinking, though, now that I’ve relaunched this blog once more, maybe I should go back, go back over those few weeks last October, and try to remember exactly what it did feel like.

What first struck me at the time, though, is how darkly comic it all seems. I touched briefly in that previous post about some aspects of the bureaucracy, how hospital staff, when it happens, silently upgrade you to being allowed to use the staff crockery and unlimited biscuits, at the same time as quietly closing doors and shifting barriers around you to try to stop everyone else noticing there has been a death. Afterwards, though, it continues. The complex arrangements of paperwork that must be shuffled round to make sure the burial is done legally. The way customer service agents on the phone switch into their “condolences” voice, when for you it’s the fifth call of this type in a row and you just want to get them all over with. On that note, at some point I really should put together a list of how well- or badly-designed different organisations’ death processes are (the worst were Ovo, whose process involved sending The Mother a new contract that they had warned us would be completely wrong and should be ignored, but that they had to send out).

The peak of dark comedy, though, has to be everything around the funeral arrangements themselves. Right from our first visit to the funeral home, a tiny bungalow just next door to The Mother’s favourite Chinese takeaway. Like probably most funeral directors in the UK now, it used to be a little independent business but was swallowed up by one of the big national funeral chains when the owner retired. Because of this you can’t phone them up: all calls are routed via some impersonal national call centre. They have two people locally staffing the office, and they work alone, one week on, one week off. You have to admit that that’s a pretty good holiday allowance, but it is for a job in which you spend most of your time alone, apart from potentially with a corpse in the next room to keep you company. At the time of course, we knew none of this, so just decided to pop in to the office as we were passing on the way back from some other death-related trip.

Now, if I had written all this down at the time, or at least made notes, I’d have been able to recount exactly what was so strange about the little office. Such a hush inside, almost as if something had been planted in the walls to soak up sound. The cautious, tactful way the woman behind the desk asked how she could help us, and in my mind, the dilemma of how exactly to say. “We need to bury someone” just sounds that little bit too blunt, but equally, I didn’t want to dance around in circumlocutions all afternoon. She sat us down and took us through all the details, each one laid out in a glossy catalogue sent by Head Office. None of the prices, of course, were in the catalogue, and looking through I found it almost impossible to tell which ones were meant to be the cheap ones and which the expensive. Indeed, anything as vulgar as money was carefully avoided for as long as possible, and when it really had to be mentioned, the undertaker wrote down a few numbers on a piece of paper and passed it over to us, rather than do anything as shocking as say a price out loud.

The thing that I really couldn’t stop laughing at, though, I didn’t notice until after we took the brochures back to The Mother’s house. It was a small, three word sentence in the details of one particular coffin in the coffin catalogue.

Steel coffin

Yes, you can have a solid steel coffin if you like, in chunky thick blackened-finish steel. At a rough guess the steel in that coffin must weigh somewhere around 60 or 70 kilograms, so you might want to warn the pallbearers first. What made me laugh, though, is the thought that maybe, until they put that line in, someone somewhere didn’t realise that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to cremate a sheet steel coffin. Maybe they didn’t even realise until they opened the oven and found it, glowing a dull red still, all stubbornly in one piece, the contents turned to charcoal instead of burning.

A death

So, it’s never a good sign when a hospital phones you at 2am, is it.

My dad was diagnosed with cancer a little bit over three years ago. No doubt it was growing inside him for a year or two before that, but three years ago was when it suddenly became symptomatic, when he woke up one morning to discover he was randomly bleeding from his nose and his mouth, because his blood had given up on the concept of clotting. Prostate cancer had already spread from his prostate through most of his skeleton, to the point that it was Definitely Not Curable. Manageable, though, so much so that he may well, they said, die of something else first.

At first when the phone rang, I thought it was my alarm. Then realised it was a landline number, from my old home town, some sort of switchboard number. I didn’t catch it before the phone stopped. Then, whoever it was immediately rang back a second time.

I’d last spoken to him a couple of weeks earlier, after he phoned to tell me that he’d been to his consultant again. That was that. Not worth taking any more chemotherapy. He was going to be keeping him on one of his current treatments: it might, if he was lucky, keep him alive until the end of the year. If it didn’t work, he probably had a few weeks left.

I answered the phone rather blearily, to a random woman with my old home town’s accent asking if it was me. I found I couldn’t really speak, because I had already guessed where she was calling from and why she was calling. “He’s very confused and very tachycardic. We think you should come to the hospital.”

My mum had phoned a few days earlier to tell me he’d been admitted. He was having trouble breathing, so they had rushed him in in an ambulance, on oxygen. His spleen was failing. “They said his spleen is dead,” in my mother’s words. Now, I know you can happily live without any spleen at all, if you have to have it pulled out for some reason, but when a cancer patient suddenly starts to have unconnected organs turn into big and entirely non-functional lumps of meat, you know it’s not going to be long before phrases like “multiple organ failure” make the rounds.

The hospital was four hours’ drive away. I sat down and had a cup of tea.

Driving through the night, I wondered quite how I was going to react. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my dad show any sort of emotion of any sort. The day of his mother’s funeral, or any of the days leading up to it that I was home for, he didn’t cry a single tear. After the funeral we went home for lunch, then went out to buy a new camera. I tell a lie: he could get angry, he could shout, he could withdraw into a fuming silent rage. I’ve never seen him be sad, though, or show any kind of tender emotion. The roads were quiet, at first, and I had plenty of time to think about it. By 6am I was overtaking long lines of trucks heading to the North Sea ports, all of us still over half an hour away from our destinations, and I was driving towards a faint smear of dirty orange dawn light. By the time I reached the hospital, worked out where to park, it was just about dawn.

Of course, being half asleep when I’d answered the phone, I hadn’t actually thought to ask where in the hospital he was. It’s a big place, although strangely smaller than it felt when I had to go there to have my teeth sorted as a child, but the oncology ward was a very, very long walk from the entrance. When I reached the doors I had to ring a few times before a nurse came to the door to let me in; and then they hadn’t heard of him.

“Is he in A&E?”

“No, he’s an Oncology patient, and he was admitted on Sunday.”

She kindly led me to the nurses’ station and sat down at the computer, working down the list of wards until I spotted his name. And then another long walk, almost all the way back to the entrance and round another long set of stairs and corridors. I glided through the ward doors behind a nurse coming onto shift (hospitals are generally terrible at security) and found the nurses’ station. “Someone phoned about my father; he’s dangerously ill,” I said; they didn’t really need to ask who I was. “Oh!” they said instead, “you drove all that way straight here!”

He was in an isolation room at the far end of the ward. Not covered in tubes and probes as you might expect, other than an oxygen tube to his nose. He was almost naked, seemed to have thrown all the covers off the bed. Pale, almost hairless save a whiskery patch on each side of his chin, as if hairs had poured down from the corners of his mouth. He laid awkwardly, but he was awake, mumbling. My mother was there, and one of my uncles. I have a pair of uncles who are identical twins, and now I only see them occasionally every few years, it can be hard to work out which is which. I mentally started thinking to myself to avoid saying anything which might imply I thought I knew which uncle it was.

Dad’s eyes were dull, but he looked at me, and said something to me. “See, I said he would come to see you,” said my mother. He mumbled. Even unintelligible, he still had the same patterns of speech. He fumbled, moving his legs, trying to slip one out of the bed.

“Lie down and rest,” I said, like dealing with a sick child.

Mumbling: something about getting up. His breathing was forced, gasping, but strong and regular.

“No, you need to rest. You’re better here.” His skin was speckled with strange, fresh moles, some of them gory red lumps, like overactive birthmarks, standing proud from the skin by a quarter-inch or so. He was covered in bruises, including a large one roughly where, I suspected, the “dead” spleen would be, although I found out later that was just where all his medication had been injected. He started to pull at a sticky pad on his leg: it wasn’t actually being used, but looked as if it might have been for fastening a catheter tube down. “You can’t pull that off,” I said, “it says the glue is too strong. You need a special solvent.” It did indeed say “only remove with alcohol,” and I don’t think it meant “take shots so you don’t feel it.”

Mumbling: thirsty, maybe?

“Here’s your tea,” said my mother, passing him some very milky tea in a lidded plastic beaker. I knew when he had been admitted he had been nil-by-mouth; had that passed because it wasn’t necessary, or had that passed because he was on the way out anyway?

It felt like a long time, at the time, but writing this a few days later, my memory has compressed hours into a few flashes. My mother phoned the friend who gives her a lift to church every Thursday. “I’m in hospital,” she said, as if there wasn’t anyone else in the room. “They called me at 1am.” I wondered to what degree I was the second resort - how long had they waited between phoning each of us? I don’t trust my mother’s memory for facts.

He drifted away to sleep a little, but the nurses came to wash him and change his sheets, as they did at that time every morning. They asked us to leave the room, so we headed down to the deserted hospital restaurant, another very long walk away, down the same corridor that led towards the mortuary. I didn’t really want to eat, even though I had been starving whilst driving, so from the breakfast selection I asked for just a coffee, a sausage and a slice of black pudding. “Just that?” said the server, with a very puzzled look.

We sat by the window looking at the morning sky, and having relatively normal conversation. I tried not to wonder whether he would die whilst we were having breakfast, and instead wondered as to whether he would actually die today at all. This might be a false alarm; just a turn he had in the night.

He was still alive when we came up to the ward, in clean sheets, covered up now, still slumped sideways and vaguely half-awake. The nurses tried to rearrange his pillows, sit him upright, and he slowly drifted off to sleep. His breathing still the same: harsh, gasping, mouth open despite the oxygen tube by his nose. He slumped sideways again, and the nurses decided to leave him be. In his sleep, he dozily tried to pull the oxygen tube from his shoulder, but didn’t have the energy or the coordination.

The consultant and the doctors arrived on their morning round: a garrulous Scottish chap in a red shirt, Mr McAdam. “I’m sorry we have to meet like this,” he said, and complimented me on my facial hair. “We had a very lucid conversation the other day,” he said, “and we agreed it would be wrong to take any further serious interventions. Just too much suffering. He was happy with that decision.” And he ran through the list of problems my dad was facing. A burst stomach, leading to a thrombus. An infarcted spleen. Liver failure due to an additional liver disease. He didn’t actually say “multiple organ failure,” but he didn’t need to.

I realised, which I don’t think the doctors did, that Dad’s breathing was getting noticeably weaker as the doctors were stood around him. He was still breathing, though, even though it was definitely more shallow, definitely longer between breaths. The doctors filed out, trying to strike a balance between the bustle of rounds and the sombre tone needed around the families of the dying.

We watched him breathing, slower, slower and weaker, because there was not much else to do or think about. “I thought he’d gone there,” said my mum, “but then he started again.” She leaned in to see more closely, and held his hand.

There were a few seconds between breaths. The breaths themselves were shallow, hard to hear, very different from the gasping of a few hours earlier. And then: I didn’t think I could hear or see any movement any more. Nothing, and more nothing. I slipped my phone out of my pocket, and took a photo of him: the phone made his skintone much healthier than reality did. “I think he’s gone,” I said. It was five to eleven in the morning.

A nurse passed the door, so I waved and beckoned her in. “We think he’s gone.”

She looked down at him, carefully. “I’ll call the doctors,” she said, “so they can pronounce. Do you want a cup of tea?” She went out, closing the door this time, and came back with tea, in the big mugs of the nurses, not the small mugs that visitors get; and some biscuits. We sat, dipping ginger nuts, the almost-certainly-dead corpse of my father in front of us. “I keep expecting him to jump up and say it’s all a joke,” said my mother.

It took over half an hour for the doctors to arrive; their job is to care for the living, after all. We stood outside the closed door of the room whilst they ran through whatever it is they do, working in a pair, I assume in case a lone doctor might be tempted to Shipmanise a still-living patient. “Do you want to go back and see him after they have done?” said a nurse. We went back inside the room; they didn’t appear to have moved him at all. Still slumped against the siderails of the bed, mouth still open, eyes still shut. His skin, getting on for an hour now after death, was white-pale and waxy-looking. I took another photo; the camera still tried to give him a normal human skintone.

“I don’t want to say goodbye,” said my mother, but we walked out of the room and closed the door behind us.

“The doctors will write up their notes,” said a nurse, “and you have to go to…ooh, I don’t know!” She shouted to another nurse: “Where do they get the certificate? Is it the cashier?”

“It used to be the cashier,” said the other nurse, “now it’s the bereavement office.” Well that should be obvious, I thought. “I’d go in the morning, it probably won’t be ready today. Give us a call first to check. I’ll give you a booklet.”

We walked back down the long, long corridor, holding our fresh copy of “Help for the bereaved: a practical guide for family and friends” Where the corridor joined the next, we had to squeeze past a folding screen which hadn’t been in our way before, and a sign that said “For Ward 3 Enquiries, ask at Ward 4″; and I realised, it was a death screen, to make sure that no random strangers saw my father being wheeled in his bed, slumped against the siderails, over to the lifts and down the long corridor down towards the restaurant and the mortuary. We walked out down the corridor, and I wondered what would happen next.

Obituary

In which the cat, finally, is not going to return

The phone rang on Saturday morning, and The Mother was on the end. “I’ve got some bad news,” she said.

As a conversation opener, it’s not exactly ideal; but it is, at least, straight to the point. “What is it?”

“The cat’s died.”

The cat has been in The Parents’ care for the past 18 months or so, ever since we moved down to Bristol. Nevertheless, he was still always My Cat, and there was always the thought that one day he might move back in with us, once we had a house in a cat-friendly area (check) and cat-flap-friendly doors (uncheck).

Cat at Christmas

My dad found him, on Saturday morning, stretched out dead just inside the cat flap. No signs of injury. The night before, he’d been happy, relaxed and purring; the parents did not try to find out why he had died. He was about a month or so short of his tenth birthday.

Sad to think that I’ll never again be woken by him climbing on top of me and miaowing. He was, I always thought, an unusually intelligent cat: it’s hard to be sure, but I’m confident he understood at least five or six words of English, and when he was a bit younger he regularly wanted to play fetch. He also managed to survive three months living wild, a few years back, after The Mother lost him en route to the vet. Maybe there will be other cats one day, but they’re all distinct.

In a few months time, I might suggest to The Parents that they take on a rescue cat, because I’m sure The Mother is going to miss having him around the house. For now, though, I’ll content myself with getting annoyed at the random neighbourhood cats that dig up our back garden; and remember lying back in bed stroking one cat in particular.

The cat

Advent

In which The Mother sends an advent calendar

Despite my age, The Mother still makes sure to send me an advent calendar every year. I’m not quite sure why she feels the need. She buys me one, sends it, we remember to open the doors for a few days, then leave it and suddenly remember, around the 20th, that we now have a few weeks worth of chocolate to eat. So far this year we’ve opened it every day, but I’m not really sure how long that’s going to last.

When I was small, of course, I got one every year – but always kept the previous years’. This was in the days before chocolate advent calendars – or, at least, the days before my mother felt it worth buying chocolate advent calendars, which I didn’t start receiving until the 90s. Back when I was a child, every year on the first of December the advent calendar collection would be stuck up on the doors of the house, and every day thereafter I’d run around the house opening each day’s doors. We did, after a few years, start running out of doors.

It took a little wine to make a window

In which we discover a Lesbian who wants publicity

This post has nothing, really, to do with the above title; I was listening to a Hefner album this morning, heard the above lyric, and liked it. Maybe soon I’ll write something which applies to that title, post it under a different title, and so on.

I burst out laughing at the news – which you’ll have heard by now – that campaigners on Lesbos are suing a Greek gay rights organisation* with the aim of getting rid of the word “lesbian”. The word, they say, infringes their human rights. I’m smelling a rat over this story.*** I suspect that “campaigners” actually means “publisher Dimitris Lambrou”, who is the only person mentioned in any of this. If he wants us to stop using “lesbian”, he really ought to come up with an alternative suggestion, because “gay woman” doesn’t really cut it in my opinion. I suggest “dimitrians”, or possibly “lambroans”. Either would be ideal, I reckon.**

The Mother had something to add when she heard all this. “Back when I was a nurse,” she said, “we used to get crank calls all the time. One girl I worked with had a man on the phone, who said: ‘are you a lesbian?’ ‘No,’ she answered, ‘I’m Church of England’.”

I’m sure I’ve heard that story before, as a joke. Never mind.

“She didn’t know what it meant, you see,” continued The Mother, making sure I got it. “Mind you, neither did I then.” This would have been in 1960 or so. And I’m not surprised. Back then she was pure and virginal, The Killing of Sister George hadn’t been made, and I definitely doubt that The Well of Loneliness was on the curriculum at Cleethorpes Girls’ Grammar.

* actually, in the stories I’ve read, it’s not entirely clear what type of organisation is being sued

** He would no doubt object to “sapphic”, too, because he’s claiming that ‘new historical research’ has discovered that she was married and loved men. ‘New historical research’ presumably means ‘I looked it up on Wikipedia’, like I just did; it gives both of the stories Lambrou mentions and references them to a 1982 edition of her surviving poetry. In short, his claims aren’t new, by a few thousand years, and nobody’s going to be surprised by them.

*** it’s just as iffy as the “man regrows missing finger” story, also in the news, which Ben Goldacre has easily debunked.