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

Jun 072013

Last weekend’s Guardian Review (Sat June 1st) reads like a sign of the times short story or novella. The beginning section is about the imminent destruction of the buried classical city at Mes Aynak, which is to be found in eastern Afghanistan. This vast city was the crossing point between East and West for more than a thousand years after Alexander the Great passed through and a Greek city was founded, and now famous for the fabulous Gandhara Buddhist and other treasures that are being found there since its redicovery in the 1960′s. The narrator is an old-boy British patrician writer/explorer called William and the unfolding story of imminent destruction is due to the “rescue dig” being organised by a French team lead by a man called Marquis – what else could he be called? – who is also famous in Kabul for the quality of his wine cellar. Everything must be dug out in the next year or in order to allow the Chinese who have “leased” the equally vast copper reserves to be extracted. Except of course for the presence of the Taliban who have more explosive ideas how most thoroughly to destroy the remains of the city and its Buddhist relics, or to flog them “illegally” through the bazaars of northern Pakistan to the western Art World for huge sums in order to finance the purchase of more weapons . I long to go.

This story alone is worthy of the beginning of a Wu Ming collective book, and another section the Guardian Review (P 11) in fact has a review of Altai. The new narrator of this section describes the highly successful (“uputdownable”) Wu Ming writing style, which they have created for themselves, as “feuilleton fiction”. I long to write like that.

The next section is an account of a book called Spam, about the internet stuff (the stuff we don’t want but, like the best nineteenth century novels, appears ‘to have life of its own’) in which the teller of the story wonders how our online life might be different if we thought of it as “Weeds”. On the same page there is a review of Italo Calvino letters.

Of course I wont be buying any of these books I tell Calvino, but I know, like once on a winter’s night, that I have already fallen into the story. The next section is called The Burning Question. About the book by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark, it has a question for us: What will happen if we try to burn all the world’s currently known and extractable fossil fuel reserves. The answer is that we will asphyxiate ourselves long before this is possible (the science suggests that anything more than about 30% extraction will be our certain suicide note).

And so the story continues – But you need to be patient with me. I’ll get there, in fact the novel has already started, we are all, so to speak, in the middle of it, you just haven’t noticed yet: there is a muddled atheist professor (Steve Jones) who pleads about being misunderstood; there is a history of Werner Herzog novelistic view of our plight as “frail, vulnerable humans between indifferent nature and punishing God”; there is a short vignette about ‘cli-fi’ writing.

That is ‘cli’ for climate, I tell LULU, and ‘fi’ for fiction .

Laughing out loud

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Dec 082012
wordstall pipes

I said: it’s not going to get any better . . . then the thought seemed to run out of energy, the thought itself about to evaporate after hitting some blockage in the road. After all sometimes it was apparent that things did indeed get better. Sometimes. Although they were just as likely to go wrong, to get worse.

Is that what you think? I asked her. That things are going to get better?

As usual all I had to offer were questions and questions about questions. You see I want to understand.

No you don’t, you just want to stop me from doing anything that doesn’t include you.

There was Virgil and Dante down there in the inferno, tourist with guide gawping at the variety of sufferings imposed on Dante’s enemies. Dante’s Commedia. That word comedy. How many in the crowd laughed at the public executions – the hangings, Monsieur le guillotine, let alone the far greater excesses of extravagant punishment. Does the suicide bomber laugh as he pulls the plug, presses the switch. I read in the Guardian a few days ago that the face of the suicide bomber somehow survives the explosion even though the rest of the skull is in a million fragments. Hysterically we laugh our way into some new hell. Excited as hell. Laughing out loud.

And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ (Revelation 21:5)

And to go with this Naomi Klein picked up this from Condoleezza Rice:

‘The world is a messy place, and someone has to clean it up.’ (September 2002, on the need to invade Iraq).

Life is not just a comedy, it’s serious.

Yes, of course it is I’m tempted to say but don’t because I’m distracted by this bi-polar sort of vision of it being both, like two images superimposed one on top of the other. Could we do the serious stuff in the morning and then go to the pub in the evening and have a good old laugh about it all.

I think we should split up, she says using her most utterly serious tone.

Really! But I can’t hold the outrageous laughter inside anymore and out it splutters and then roars.

In the heat of that ecstatic moment everything was possible and nothing impossible and nothing mattered.

A few minutes later it really did and it really hurt. The pain was sharp and overwhelmed me.

‘People were in prison so that prices could be free.’ Eduardo Galeano 1990.

Wise man, I thought.


Thanks to Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine) for the quotations.

Nov 192012

P tells me she has found a guru. P you remember is my wife of quite a few years, let’s call it twenty four years. Another one, I ask. Why am I asking her when the bottle is at her elbow? She looks at the glass of wine (red, if that’s of any interest) in her hand, swirls the contents (the final ten percent actually, though I had just refilled it for her) gently, looks up at me, looks back at the wine. I assume she is considering her options: throw it or drink it; which would be the more attractive action, give her the most satisfaction.

How come I married you, how did I get so lucky? You’re more attractive and more intelligent and no doubt that includes emotional intelligence, than me. The feedback from those proprioceptive nerves in my facial muscles suggests that I am smiling as I say this.

She throws it.

I lick what I can of it as it runs down my face. And for once I think myself fortunate that I’m wearing an old black T-shirt.

I mean it.

Careful I don’t want to waste another glass of wine. I wonder what it’s like to hit somebody over the head with a bottle. It was your lucky day. Every day that you wake up next to me is your lucky day. But.

I know that BUT that you’re talking about. Even if I forget it at times. I know I shouldn’t. But I do. I might go a whole day without giving thanks to whoever we are supposed to give thanks to. And then, of course, I panic because I don’t know how close I came to the edge of the cliff while I was so out of my mind as to forget what I should never forget. Who are we supposed to give thanks to? These days? These days that we only believe in alcohol and drugs as ways to get us through the days.

And nights.

Yeah, and nights. Though to be honest I prefer to sleep.

Don’t I know it. I shouldn’t say this but I like you. I even like having sex with you. I still can’t believe it even after twenty five years. I know you’re not so bright but I’m impressed with the fact that you don”t let it bother you.

Can I have another glass of wine. Please. She was almost hugging the bottle.

No I don’t think so. I think you’ve had enough and you forced me to waste a glass. That was your glass.

Surely “forced” is a bit strong.

The question of this guru was irritating, scratching at the edge of my mind, but I wasn’t at all sure that it was a good idea to pursue the question. Just leave it; if she wants to say anything about about him (or her) then she will. But is she waiting for me to ask her? A old man with long hair and beard, straggly hair and beard, but dressed in white robes, white gleaming robes. So white that it hurts my eyes. Standing by a river. He never stops speaking. Probably in Sanskrit. Chatting in Sanskrit. And she is sitting cross-legged at his feet. Adoring him. Have I tuned into the right image?

Let’s go for a walk.

It’s dark. And cold.

It’s alright, she says, adopting a very kindly tone, I’ll be with you. I’ll take care of you. And you can wear your new overcoat.

But I don’t have a new overcoat.


How much of life is pretence?

If I insist on my right to not go then what? The river bifurcates, divides, splits, branches. Me on one, she on the other. Me at home, standing up for my rights but lonely.

The air is sharp with crystalline fragments that pierce the lungs. Our breath steamy. I’m laughing too, happy to be in this night of essentialism.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what I’m going to do.

Did I know this already! Had I dreamed it last night? Is she having an affair with this teacher of hers, this guru. I don’t even know whether it’s a man or a woman.

I think: it doesn’t matter. It would take a lump of courage I don’t have control over to say it out loud. And then there’s this other bit, this but of a but of a But I don’t want to be left alone. I could walk to St Pancras and catch a train to . . . Paris and then. Walk out of one life and into another. That’s what she is going to do. An epochal change. Why don’t I?

Beginning of Term Report

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Nov 092012

The concrete realisation  of what was merely a dream, or, perhaps, hope might be a more accurate designation; a hope (or hopeful dream) given shape after intense bouts of thought and occasional painful but necessary harangues with two others, actually three others – others that must be described or at least alluded to by words that have the capacity to glint knowingly in the weak winter sunlight – this realisation as I have called it moves ahead. A momentum marked by hangdog expressions of turpitude and a distinct sense of sliding back. The youngest is already over forty and as for the others that comprise our minimal crew we have lapsed into unrecognised seniority: no fame, no fortune, achievements severely limited by inadequacies of both a personal nature and mysterious social “events” that have severely tested and warped our collective capacities. Though it has to be added that the marked individual distortions are a constant source of aggravation and wild comedy.

Have you noticed how noses and eyebrows are antagonistic? A’s heavy, wiry eyebrows bristling at any who come within spitting distance are combined with a nose so delicate, so self-effacing that you might wonder why he bothered to have one at all. Except, of course, there are the functional necessities to be taken into account. Whereas B’s nose rages before him, striated with mad colourings, pores so open you might think they were the openings to his very soul. Sprouting hairs from cavernous nostrils that leave you grasping for non-existent scissors. But then those eyebrows! Barely there, almost invisible against the ruddy leather of a forehead that surely has suffered too much arduous weather, the chemical fallout of a world gone mad.

There had been, after much deliberation, an agreement, a decision made, to head for the beach this weekend. To see the damage, as L put it. And it was true that we had all seen news reports on the terrific storms that had lashed the coasts, high winds and high waves, uprooting and downgrading, in a night of punishment and penance.

Did you mean us to walk?

Is there a problem with that?

I wondered about time. The commitments, unfinished projects, deadlines already long past.

Though I suppose the past is a sort of distorted present.

Did you see that guy, huge as a stuffed cardinal, his hierarchical scarlet has greyed out, patchy with unshriven desire, layers of would-be holiness, but it takes all sorts, I hear you say. Did you see him? No? Carrying his slice of cake. Heading for his friends, oh no, they look like family. A sister and a wife.

I would like to sleep. A ten minute power nap.

If only I could see a way of getting to the point.

P has joined us, P, my wife, though she would prefer me to say ex-wife, we are meeting to discuss money, here she is striding boldly along, heels click clacking on the tiled floor. She looks good, I  have to say. Life has only got better for her with each succeeding day since I was sent into exile. Until such time (like now) that I am needed. Otherwise no longer required. Out of service. Awaiting redevelopment. No reasonable offer refused. No planning permission required. Or we might be meeting to discuss the divorce.

But there are one or two details which I have not bothered to bore her with. Much better, it seems to me, to let her believe that I am clinically depressed, and close to suicide. after all she was the one who diagnosed me with a potent mixture (on different occasions it’s true) of obsessive compulsive disorder, something, somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and a chronic anxiety/depression. Well why not?

The beach was a splendid idea. Storm clouds are gathering on the horizon, puffing themselves with pride as they are inspected by their commander-in-chief. She is lambasting them, filling them with thrilling violence, which she longs to unleash on us. As usual we expect the worst but hope for the best. Wasn’t it ever thus.

The Joys of Print

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Oct 192012

There is a rose, a single pink rose, on the table in a white vase, a dull yellow tablecloth, salt and pepper pots and a small white bowl stacked with those narrow paper containers of brown sugar. At three tables lone men sit with their laptops. The coffee is cooling. There is no sign of a grand crime of passion about to erupt. We will quietly get on with what we have come here to do. In my case writing these words which will, after a certain amount of thought, reflection and amending, hopefully within twenty four hours, be posted on the blog. Continue reading »