Our David’s Birthday

Twenty eight years ago the whole family sat round a huge round table at a Chinese restaurant in Leeds, celebrating our David’s 21st birthday. A few weeks later he took his own life. None of us had the first idea how troubled he was.

I’ve chosen this photo, because here he is maybe two months after we adopted him. His brother and sister were entranced by him. We all were.

The thing is, you live imagining you have all the time in the world, until you don’t, and then it’s too late. Years after he died I wrote a poem for him; I thought about how my own Dad never told me any stories about his life, about his childhood, about who he was before he married, before I was born, and about how I never really knew him.

I wanted to tell our David the stories I failed to tell him, because, after all, I thought we had all the time in the world, or we didn’t have the time for it. And then it was too late. So here it is, a belated present for his 48th birthday.

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I made this box,

ran lead, quick, in the veins of driftwood roots,

the silver grain of bleached board and the wind-eyes

of burnished beachstones – rose quartz, granite, flint, 

bound them with silver wire to honey oak, red pine,

and clenched them tight with sea-rust iron nails.

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I made this box for you

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I filled it with fragments, beachcombed 

sea glass, wisps of snagged wool.

I wanted you to know

the random loveliness of being alive,

to know it in your bones and blood.

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I put in :

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snow, to remember draughts

and rooms with cold corners;

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a black handled knife, sharp as silk,

in a grey-vaulted market, the scent 

of cut flowers to show that fathers 

give like the gods; a bicycle stammering

through stems of barley, willowherb,

to understand that gravity may be defied;

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the humped glass of a brown river,

black branches snagged on the weir’s rim;

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these bundled letters in different hands 

and inks to show how words fall short of love.

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I put in riddles:

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silhouettes of mountains, oiled gun barrels,

a sheriff’s badge, a dust-blown street,

a child running in a drift of grasses,

a scrubbed deal table in a pitman’s house.

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I wondered if you’d find the answers

or if I might understand the questions.

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I did not want to put inside my box

your cold clay mouth

this pale oak chamfered cube

and my two hands holding it, all

I wanted was you holding my box

in a high place

where you could only fly, not fall

For my Dad on Fathers’ Day

I think this may be the only photo I have of my dad as the centre of attention, proposing a toast at the wedding of his brother Alec.

Like everyone else’s dad, especially men of his generation, he could have been so many things. He could have gone to Grammar School, but my gran couldn’t afford the uniform. He won a scholarship to go to art school, but it ran out after a year, and he had to leave. He was a rambler, a birdwatcher, a singer in the chapel choir. And for fifty years he was a woollen spinner.

In his heart, I think, he never accepted it; he bore it. He just got on. It never struck me at the time, but it does now, that he had no ‘best mates’. He was sociable, he was good company, but never had any close friends. It bothers me, quite unreasonably. It never seemed to bother him.

I’ve found myself writing about, and for, him more and more recently. For this Father’s Day, I thought I’d share the first poem I ever wrote for him, and the most recent.

Maestro

His hands cross-hatched as a chopping board

from breaking yarn- a million creels.

I think he dreamed moors and opera, in the mill;

his nails were horny, blue with old dark blood,

caught by flying shuttles in the humming  sleet

of shivering threads. Miming in the din,

the racket of machinery, the deafening beat

of spinning-mules, close air thick with lanolin.

Chapel  choir –  his tenor voice came reedy-light.

Round and ringing if he thought he was alone

with Jussi Bjorling on the gramophone,

the gathering wave of ‘None shall sleep’;

a duet to bring a dreamed La Scala to its feet,

his voice like a moorland wind, and rich as night.

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The latest one was harder to write. My dad’s father, grandfather John, by all accounts, was not an affectionate man. My dad was, but he found it hard to show it, spontaneously. He wasn’t cold, or distant. But something in him was withheld. This is just to say, ‘I love you, Dad’.

What remains

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How do you know that this is love? Is it

the moment that draws you in, the saving stitch?

One moment out of all the moments,

out of all the wrong notes, the missteps.

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Because I thought he didn’t know the way of love,

didn’t know the tune, the words, 

they were what other people spoke,

they were borrowings, and he wasn’t one

to accept with grace, always on guard. But

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he’d go out, not saying where, come back

and give his grandchildren each a Marathon.

He wasn’t a man to pick up a child

so a child could slip into his shape

as cats do. A silent gift of chocolate bars

was him articulating love.

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What they remember of him, my children,

what they tell of him, is Marathons.

Remember when our granddad gave us Marathons?

What remains of us might just be love

but the story’s always Marathons.

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A grating roar

“Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

From : Dover Beach. Matthew Arnold

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I seem to have come to a point where I cannot watch any television news programmes, I switch off most radio news programmes, and fear for my spiritual well-being every time I visit Facebook. I am angry to the point when I am lashing out at friends who I cannot see or meet. As a ‘shielded’ person during the English catastrophe of a ‘lockdown’, I have only left our house twice in just short of three months. There is no action I can take against the people responsible, or to help those who they harm. Rage against the machine.

More reason, then, to remember as I try to do every year, one of those who would not be content with shouting into the void.

When people murmur in a mildly moralising way about peaceful protest, maybe they should stop and think about Emily Wilding Davison.

A militant suffragette, she was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for breaking windows, setting fire to mail boxes, and on one occasion for attempting to horsewhip a clergyman who she mistook for Lloyd George.

She undertook repeated hunger strikes in prison, was forcibly fed 49 times, and attempted to kill herself in Holloway by leaping off a landing. She said after that she thought that her death might cause people to pay attention to the cause of women’s suffrage. On June 4 2013, Emily Wilding Davison travelled to Epsom, went to the racecourse on Derby Day, waited behind the railings at the bend to the final straight, and as the horses came round the bend, ducked under the rail, and walked in front of the king’s horse. On and off for 30 years I tried to find a way to write about it.

I think about images that have, one way or another, changed how we see the world, and maybe changed the world itself. The terrified villagers of My Lai in Vietnam, and the small girl stripped naked by napalm, her mouth a silent scream; a Buddhist monk in flames; a student holding up his arm against a tank. A white policeman kneeling on the neck of a black man until he dies.

I was staggered when I learned that the death of Emily Davison was filmed live by a Pathe news camera, and duly appeared in British cinemas. I had thought the stills I had seen were remarkably in-focus single camera shots. I could not understand their clarity. How could you do that with a plate camera? I wondered.

Camera obscura               

(Emily Wilding Davison. June 1913)

The reason for your being here

is out of sight. They can’t be seen –

your Cause’s colours sewn inside

your decent coat: white, violet, green.

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The cameras sees the moment 

you began to die:

the jockey,  trim in silks, is doll-like

on the grass and seems asleep;

his mount is spraddled on its back;

its useless hooves flail at the sky.

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Your spinning, flower-trimmed hat 

is stopped, distinct, mid-flight;

your hair’s still not come down;

you’re frozen, inches from the ground;

your boots are neatly buttoned,

take small steps on the  arrested air.

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You’re stopped in time. No sound,

no texture, no sour odour

of bruised grass and earth. Just

silence and the alchemy of light.

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How did you comprehend

the shock of heat, huge muscle, hair,

in that white moment

when the dark came down?

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The camera cannot tell;.

it’s business neither truth nor lies.

It shows a fallen horse. A woman falling. A crowd

in hats and blazers staring down a long perspective;

the field intent upon the distant fairy icing 

grandstand. The waving flags. The finish line.

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Until the image blurs, dissolves in silver flowers,

it’s there on celluloid in shades of grey;

the camera only says that in that instant     

you are dying, and everyone has looked away.

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[Camera Obscura. first publ. in Larach . WardWoodPublishing 2014, and subsequently in The Forward Book of Poetry 2015]

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Day after day we are bombarded by images that tell us about the ugliness that the world is capable of, and the arrogant ignorance of those who perpetrate it. We are all getting too good at looking away.