Are these birthing pains?

 Posted by at 2:15 pm  Atelier, Fundamental Perversions  Comments Off
Nov 292014

Giving form to the unformable. I think of the traditions of painting and sculpture. These objects (from the past) seems so certain, so definite, that they became embedded in the narrative what we are, where we came from and what we might be entitled to hope for.

It seems so tempting when you write: tell our/your/his/her stories, as though one is suddenly confronted by something certain and tangible. I can almost touch it, with its firm clear structure. A form that we can all understand. It makes sense. It’s reassuring to know that we live in a world that can finally be described: this happened, and then that happened and I felt this, then I felt that . . . 

Of course one is really engaged in rhetorical sleight of hand, a PR exercise that might even have elements of self delusion. Though I have to accept that if the genre of confessional story telling is accepted as true and valid then we have an example of collective power. Power to impose specific political meanings on experience.

Even before we assembled this ragbag stall for our wares to slide about on and off, in and out of sight, but always there in the warehouses hired for the purpose; our wares, these bags of words, often appeared to be devoid of interest to others, too strange, too off the mark. We began with suspicion concerning words and meanings, of what this language business was about. We were suspicious of story telling particularly if it was accompanied by some sort of Protestant truth telling.

Yesterday afternoon I went to see Mr Turner, Mike Leigh’s latest movie. I loved Timothy Spall’s version of the artist. This awkward, growly creature who strove to find his way of applying paint to canvas, endlessly looking at the sea and making marks. Then if you don’t get it (like Queen Victoria) then why not bequeath everything to the nation then eventually us other poor dumb oxen will get it. And could we make of John Ruskin’s eloquence? Paint into words. Growls into paint. And it’s hard not to demand truth has a place in there somewhere. Great movie Mr Leigh.

Nov 262014
MAX Mug 2014 No1 - Head (Small)

At the BIG Mens Group (Hargate Hall November 13-17) this year I met Tom Falkner for the first time. He and I were in a small (x4 man) group together. Tom is about 70, Canadian, and the father of Rob Falkner. It was his first time at this men’s group. However, it was certainly not his first experience of men’s groups as Tom had been in the thick of them in London in the 1970’s (‘encounter groups’ in those days and more!).

There were many things I immediately liked about Tom, especially:
1. Turning up and being present
2. Being direct (“I can’t understand you Brits when you are are too subtle with your words”, he’d say)
3. Talking about the porous quality of ageing.

It is the last – the porous quality of ageing – which has really struck a chord and lasted with me. Of course when Tom spoke about this aspect of ageing, he was far more direct. “It is about loss and my lack of attention”, he said.
“Loss and different qualities of attention”, I replied and we talked about a question which I have been turning over in my mind: What if the whole of my/our ageing happens for a purpose? Tom and I liked the shift of emphasis.

Loss and different qualities of attention.

Don’t get me wrong, the worst of ageing – decline and the body’s deteriation – is no joke. But what if ageing is also about revealing our true character? This is where we also connect with a porous quality: What if our ageing is about becoming leaky for a purpose? Leaking in, and leaking out energy and passion to colour the world bright.

(“And her dark pubic hairs”)
Before we parted Tom and I agreed to continue to explore this further together, and under the above call-sign (NB: including the brackets). (“And her dark pubic hairs”) – the phrase comes from Norman Mailer’s 1984 novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance. For more see

Leaking in: a voice has also told me recently to ask for help – “Help us to all tell our stories”, it told me to say. We invite others to join us in the exploration of loss and different qualities of attention. And using different kinds and forms of ficto-documentary activity* .The voice went on, try face to face, on paper, privately and publicly, and online. Here is a recent example of one storytelling style:

“But the histories are rubble now and mostly lost in time, and there are only a few surviving fragments of individual stories, broken narratives, a dusty blue atmosphere of men’s past sadness, and a few lasting things like photographs”.
This is a sentence I wrote recently from out of one of three stories I have to tell about men in my family who mean the most to me – Grandfather, Father, Brother. See previous post and below to find out the blogs where you can read them and more.

* On Loss and Different Qualities of Attention: different kinds of ficto-documentary activity

- “Ageing is no accident” Theory
David Hillman. Force of Character, and the lasting life (1999)

- Who Are You?
Grayson Perry at the National Portrait Gallery (until 15th March 2015, FREE Admission)

- Blogs and ‘CAT and the Listening Tree’ websites to listen to stories and share our own

Nov 262014
GRANDFATHER Family141 (Small)

This is my grandfather aged twenty six and wearing military uniform. GRANDFATHER Family141 (Small)

His uniform is from the First World War, and my guess is that the photograph was taken in 1916, and he had just been commissioned as an officer. But I don’t know. I don’t know when he enlisted, or what he did in the war. I don’t know whether he was in the trenches, and I don’t know if he was wounded or harmed in any way. All I have is this photograph. It is a large print, and on close looking I can see is the beginning of a soft moustache on his youthful upper lip.

I do not remember seeing this photograph when I was young. I found it in an attic box, and it must have been hidden or put away. The print has also been damaged with what look like accidental scratch marks on his cheek. However, to me the marks on his soft young cheek make me think of deliberate violence.

My grandfather died in 1940. He committed suicide.

Having been born more than ten years after his death I never met my grandfather. Once I heard him being called a “war hero” but I don’t know if this was true. My mother, who was his daughter and born in 1916 herself, hardly ever mentioned him, and said nothing about his time in the First World War. There were some later photographs of him in her bedroom from when she was a child and he was her Daddy, but she told no stories about him at all. There was a family code of silence about both his life and death.

I guess not talking about him may have been part of my mother’s way of dealing with being bereaved by suicide. His death in 1940 came in the dark days of the Second World War, so she was enough occupied by that, serving her country in the war effort, and falling in love with my father who she had met in London. FATHER Navy141 (Small)

He was a naval officer, and, on active service, and in the thick of danger too.

Children quickly arrived after my mother and father married, first my older sister, then my older brother born in 1943. He was called Ferrier. It was the same name as my grandfather. I don’t know if the name weighed on him, but I think so. Although we preferred to call him ‘Fred’, as I look back now, I think he was marked out by his name from birth. BROTHER Fred141 (Small)

My brother Fred also committed suicide. It was in 1973. He was nearly thirty at the time and I was twenty two.

My mother and father did not talk about my brother’s death any more than they had talked about my grandfather’s death earlier. We all shared the same grief and sadness, but we went on keeping the family code of silence. I would even say it felt natural to remain silent, after all I had been brought up with the code since birth. Only after they both died in the 1990’s did I feel that I had permission to begin to explore the shadow spaces of our family code, and face my own deep fear of silence which had bound itself round and round my heart. Naming it over and over has released its hold.

I am free to go back and explore. Entering a shadowy labyrinth, I try to trace back the woven thread to the origins of my family code of silence, and the harm of suicide over three generations of men. But the histories are rubble now and mostly lost in time, and there are only a few surviving fragments of individual stories, broken narratives, a dusty blue atmosphere of men’s past sadness and losses, and a few lasting things like photographs. There are also medals from the wars: a string from my father’s active service in the Second World War, and none, or none that I have ever seen, for my grandfather’s service in the First World War.

I wonder over that absence of medals, that and the scratch marks on the young mans’s face in the photograph of my grandfather. Wars mark men for violence, and their sons, whether they actually fight in them or not.

*Remembrance and Absence: this is the third of three stories I have to tell about men in my family who mean the most to me – Grandfather, Father, Brother. The other two have been published here