Friday, January 25, 2013

1979

Mornin' varmints.
Well this week we put up ashore and loaded on some new cargo, and one of the things we brought aboard was a big bag o'sorrow. 'Course we didn't realise it was that.
Now I run Happy Shippe, anyone will tell 'ee that, but sometimes sorrow is a powerful thing and with Sheephouse, we didn't find out till later that that black bag contained some powerful memories for him.
I'll tell 'ee. I've read what he has written, and it'll wring yer withers. It's sad stuff, so you've been warned.
On a positive note though, we dressed Mog up in that small bear outfit again just to cheer him up, and before you knew it, the sorrow was forgotten, and then Mog blundered into the bag, releasing the catch by getting caught on it, and all these black sorrowful and velvety butterflies was let loose into the cabin and there was that darn cat a chasin' and a swipin' at them, till they was no more.
And you know what, Sheephouse (ever a man to play his cards close to his chest) didn't look sad at all, what with all his memories getting caught and crushed by a stupid cat dressed as a small bear!
No, infact he laughed. A great laugh,. And then he reached into another of his bags and brought out a lovely picture of a smilin' man and a smilin' lady.
Beautiful they were.
And we knew.
Oh yes we knew.
And he smiled and we smiled.
And then he reached down and picked up Mog the bear and sat him on his lap, and stroked him till his purrs made the decks quiver.
And all was right with the world after that.


***

Last night we watched 'Kramer Vs Kramer' a film I had long heard about but never seen. It was made in 1979, and it was a revelation as to how uncluttered and un-footery the world was at that time. No mobiles, no computers. Phones attached to cords. Letters. Books and newspapers. 10x8 colour transparencies (!), hand-drawn art roughs, you name it, and it had it in spades.
Aside from being a fantastic cultural shock (there was a can of Coke Tab, on a table . . .remember Tab?) it was also a brilliant film and not at all how I imagined it to be.
It was forthright and powerful with some truly excellent acting and a great story.
It was a real kicker in terms of defining memory - yes I can remember that year, but details? Well, details are an interesting point . . .
Anyway, I loved the feeling and rather like my 'Time Traveller's Wife' blog, the film moved me in a rather specific way. It took me back to '79. A key year in my life.
Actually, I don't need much prodding - the year is etched in me in such a way that my feelings about it aren't very far from the surface.
This posting is all the more poignant, because my son has recently turned 17, which is how old I was when the following occured.
Was I really as young as he seems?  
Really?
I am not sure how he would cope with a similar situation.


***


It seems strangely narcissistic to open oneself up this way and bare a piece of the dark inner-earth of one's soul to the daylight gaze of a cold world, but sometimes stories need to be told and this one just fell out.
Why post something like this? I don't know, I really don't, as usual, I started the week wondering what the heck I should write about and this just came to mind.
Is it cathartic? I am not sure actually.
I am (as far as I am aware) not in need of any catharticism, but in the manner of a lot of the posts on FB, a seed is planted and I start typing and an end result is achieved via a long and circuitous route.
I am not sure what my Mum and Dad would make of me publishing something like this for all and sundry to see. I hope they would understand.
It is a sad wee tale of a teenager trying to find a place in life against the odds, but in time I overcame my sadness for the events of that year and moved on, and now more often than not, I'll find myself smiling about that all too brief period of time.
My Mum in her later life, had a great antidote for everything. She laughed. And the older I get, the more I realise the wisdom of this.
I was lucky with my parents. No angst or alarms, no trouble or ill-will; just a home filled with the love of two people in love.
This is for them anyway.



Mum and Dad - Summer 1975
And yes, that chair my Dad was sitting on was somewhat of a family joke.



Right. Here goes.
1979 was a massive year for me.
The main event (if you can call it that) was my Dad dying from cancer.
It was a grisly death actually: the hollowing out of a man who had always been fit and healthy despite the rolly-up fags stuffed with Old Holborn. He'd always been a busy man, always on the go, damn, he'd even taught PE during his brief tenure in the Forces, so he was pretty fit, but as everyone knows smoking is a terrible thing - it usually catches up with you somehow and it did in a terrible way.
He, like most people his age, had smoked from his early teens - he even used the turnups on his trousers as makeshift ashtrays . . that's how ingrained it was.
But I hated it; travelling the 365 miles from London to Scotland for holidays was truly awful - it was like being in a tin can pub, the air thick with the blue haze of serial Benson & Hedges Gold, which were his choice on trips (so he didn't have to roll any). I could and did withstand the Old Holborn, but the B&H were just disgusting - they left me feeling sick and exhausted, and even an open window couldn't shift them.
Smoke suffused my life.
Dad with his roll-ups, my sister with her Gitanes, my sister-in-law with hers, our friends Trevor and Olive with theirs, even Steve's Dad smoked cigars!
But in the end, it was only Dad that got cancer.
It was in three places: firstly his lungs, secondly his liver, and thirdly his bloodstream. The latter is rather wonderfully described as Metastatic Cancer and it basically means that parts of a tumor can break away and travel either through the lymphatic system or the bloodstream to other parts of the body.
Really, to put it another way, it's a fully loaded Colt .45 sitting in your hand, waiting . . .
I saw him fail and shrivel and hold back the real story about the pain, but you could read it in his eyes and the way he seemed to shrink before our eyes.
Yes, for all of us a big time; no two ways about it.


***

But let me preface all this with a little bit of history.
We'd moved to Scotland in 1977; Mum and Dad had retired and I was still in school, so we headed North to the place we had originally bought as a holiday home in 1967 (for the grand sum of £150!).
I went into Fifth year at Lockerbie Academy on anticipation of my exam results from the school I had been at in Harrow and all (for a tiny period of time) was right with the world! However, unfortunately for me, it came to pass when I opened said results envelope, I discovered I had managed to achieve the heady heights of 7 unclassified results.
To those of you less aux faix with the English educational system, this was lower than an F mark, and basically it meant that I had failed to make any mark on the exam process whatsoever. To all intents and purposes, I was, to put it bluntly, officially and unequivocally, THICK.
Yes, that is THICK with a Capital T, in bold, and maybe even italicised too . . .oh, and fire-engine red  . . there . . . THICK!
During my short tenure in Fifth year, I tried against all odds  to make friends - I was the only English kid in a Scottish school in the 1970's - it was bloody difficult. I knew no one, but I tried and it was slowly starting to happen. But then my results arrived, the axe fell, and I was whisked back quicker than you can say "Jack Robinson" into Fourth year.
I had to try and go through the whole process again, but things had changed overnight.
Why would the kids in Fifth year now be interested in a lowly Fourth year?
To be honest, I sort of got along, but I was actually known as the 'English Bastard'; and that is no disservice to those Lockerbie Academy kids, they were just being how they were - Scotland was a vastly different nation then.
(Nowadays I would say that as a nation, Auld Alba has become diluted by incomers and slowly the dreams of generations of English Kings has come true. The land is theirs. Their dead bones can now rest easy)
But back to Lockerbie - the kids who befriended me were actually a pretty savvy bunch, but they had no interest in furthering their education. They saw life clearly and wanted money, so at the end of Fourth year off they went to become mechanics, farmers, you name it.
I'll never know why they befriended me - maybe they saw something in my shame, but then again, maybe they were just being that beautiful thing - Scottish! Welcome without question (mostly), hospitality in spades, but ever a canny eye on the treachery of houseguests (see the story of Glencoe for this). As I say, it was a very different world.
Actually, in reality a number of the Lockerbie kids with my interests (art and music!) became friendly with me too (thank you Paul and Alan Currie) however after a school day, travelling home at night on the Moffat bus, I felt castigated and so just immersed myself in my own world of music and dreaming. The children from Wamphray really didn't like English people, and the Moffat kids . . . did they think they were better than me? Yes I believe so, but to counter that you have to realise that they had all known each other from the year dot, so it was an impossible circle to break into. I also had a big placard with ENGLISH & THICK! on it. Invisible except to those who knew my shame, which was pretty much everyone.
Anyway, it didn't kill me and in the summer 1978, a lot of them left and it was back to making mostly new friends again.
I got a summer job that year courtesy of my Dad, with the Forestry Commission, spraying weeds and general work. It paid really well and despite the difficulties of being a 16/17 year old lad having to work with a bunch of really down to earth Men ** for a Summer, I think it helped me with what was to come.
I grew on those hillsides and on those long Land Rover journeys to the middle of nowhere.
I had to come out of my shell because if I hadn't I would have foundered, and I wasn't going to let that happen . . I had a HiFi system to save up for!
I finished the Summer better off, stronger and thinner, and with my new found confidence it was easier at the start of 'new' Fifth year.
Lockerbie Academy in common with many rural schools had kids bused in from surrounding areas (a lot from Langholm, some from other areas) and it was with this new intake in that new Autumn term of 1978 that I bonded. I think they felt they were outsiders like me.
So I'll raise a fully-charged thunderjug and a big thank you to Mark Boyde, Dave Ainslie, Derek Irving and Charles Armstrong-Wilson.
We had a lot of laughs.
I would also like to thank my friend Steve, who must have been scunnered with the weekly, loooong letters I used to write to him detailing school . . sorry mate.
Anyway, the future was set, and Mum and Dad and I thought it would be a good idea for me to go to college, and in particular Art College as that was my main interest, so I started working towards it. Things crept ahead. Life was enjoyable.
Winter of 1978 was a happy time. Our little cottage bedded itself down as it had for the previous 200 or so years; days got shorter; meteors rained down on the clear vista of sky I could see from my bedroom; frosts penetrated deeply and a lot of snow fell. But the cottage was cosy, and we got through with warmth and happiness and a great deal of love.
I started working in earnest for my Highers. The (self-imposed) pressure was on.
Dad and I (though we had always been close) became closer.
If I close my eyes now, God how I wish I had realised how little time was left, but who can read the future? You cannot tell what is coming.
Some brief memories:
Snowball Fights.
Walks through the fields in the bitter air.
Cookie (our cat) repeatedly singeing her tail on the flue of our multi-fuel boiler.
Trying to get our rear wheel drive Vauxhall Viva through 5 inches of snow up the steep hill to the A74 so that we could get some shopping.
Laughter.
Evenings at Trevor and Olives.
A trip to Leadhills at night to deliver Aunty Jane back to her cottage in Symington Street - a journey fraught with danger: frozen roads, diamond reflections, massive snow drifts and steep drops at the side of the road.
My Mum in the kitchen, with Dad and I waiting in anticipation for some hot freshly-buttered Welsh cakes.
Endless trips to Moffat Library.
These are very powerful memories to me - the air is thick around me now (as I type this) with their tangibility.
Then, in Easter 1979 it happened.
Dad had a car accident whilst he was voluntarily helping out on a milkround for a local dairy and that was really the start of everything.
My theory (unproven) is that the accident jarred the Cancer into virulent life.
From being diagnosed as having had a heart attack not long after Easter (because of pain) it was roughly three short months of shrivelling and pain and the shocked realisation that everything was changing until he died. I was in the process of sitting my Highers.
Thinking back, I have no idea how I managed to get any, but I did.
My life became a round of empathy from the children who had previously been standoffish. Teachers looked sadly at me. My registration teacher had moist eyes. I wonder if it finally hit home that I wasn't just an incomer, I was like them, trying to get through school with a modicum of dignity.
And then term ended, and I went to London to work on the Michelin Guide for the Summer (yes really the famous red-covered Michelin Restaurant and Hotel Guide).
I've often kicked  myself that I didn't stay. Mum and I could have mourned together, but it was not to be. She felt it would be better for me to earn some money, so I went South to stay with my brother and sister.
Gosh I wish I had stayed.
I returned to find Mum a fiercely independent woman, but an incomplete woman.
Half of her had gone and she was trying hard to put a brave face on the hole in her heart.
She laboured on at our lovely old cottage, and we lived a sad but vastly supportive existence with each other until the summer of 1980 when I went to London to work again for the summer and then left for college in the Autumn.
She tried her best, but it was hard for her and slowly, loneliness and the heavy impracticality of living on her own in the middle of nowhere got to her, and she moved to Lincolnshire.
And with her moving, my home was gone forever.
I've never really thought it about it this way before, but I think I mourned that almost as much as I did my poor dead Father, and I don't mean that in a callous way. Dad understood.
Our cottage had as powerful a hold on his heart and soul as it had on mine.


***


But what has all this got to do with the ever present theme of FB - Photography?
I had never thought about it before, but somewhere deep in my memory, I can recall making some self-portraits on a Polaroid camera which I had been given for my 13th birthday and had never really used because the main thrust of my thoughts at this time were music, both listening to it and making it. I wish I still had the portraits now, but I believe them to have been lost when my Mum's house was cleared. In my mind's eye they are telling photographs of a difficult time. But then again maybe they were just rubbish . . .
Self portraiture is a weird thing - I believe that every photographer has made at least one. Some of them are very good but most of them tend to be ordinary. Whichever they are, they are important because that slice of you in time will never be the same again.
But as I said, I cannot find the self-portraits, and the thought of a more modern self-portrait would be far too narcissistic, so instead I have opted for a couple of different portraits - creatures in difficult circumstances.






Ilford Galerie, Grade 2
Winter Kill Number 14
Printed on Ilford Galerie, Grade 2. Selenium toned.


It is never easy viewing images on the web, so here is a  760 DPi section.
This would be a decent size for an exhibition print.
As you can see, the level of detail (and I am not talking sharpness - you can see the camera shake) goes on and on. ***
Ilford Galerie is currently the finest Fibre-based paper you can buy (in my opinion)



This poor young deer is a sometimes common site when you are out in the glens around here. Basically what happens is when the snows arrive everything gets covered to a great depth. The deer (and they are plentiful) are unable to see their footing and can, as happened here, get caught in the snow-cloaked fences. Unable to extricate themselves they soon become exhausted and Winter claims another victim.
It must be an awful death.
I stood rather amazed in the low light of dawn when I came across this. I asked permission, made my photograph, and wished the creatures spirit well.
It was made on my Minolta Autocord (a 1958 export model) and was Fomapan Action 400 at EI 200 developed in Barry Thornton's 2 bath.
It is a sad photograph to me. The deer is a victim of terrible circumstances. it was not able to survive the rigours that life threw at it. Poor thing.
On the other hand, the photograph below, shows fortitude and stamina in difficult conditions.




Forte Polywarmtone, Grade 2
Mountain Pony
Printed on the lamented Forte Polywarmtone. Grade 2. Selenium toned.
Unfortunately my scanner has imparted a pinkish tinge to it.



It is never easy viewing images on the web, so here is a  760 DPi section.
This would be a decent size for an exhibition print.
As you can see, the level of detail (and I am not talking sharpness) goes on and on. ***
A quality paper - much missed.



These mountain ponies are probably long gone now as the photograph was made about 8 years ago. They are tough creatures, used in areas of the Mounth Plateau in Angus where Land Rovers can't go. I think they are rather beautiful, but there is a friendly aloofness about them. Yes they'll come up and nuzzle you, but you can also see they are thinking 'A human . . how pathetic!'
The day I made this photograph was extremely damp indeed, and very cold with it. A dreary mist kept coming in, bringing rain and a bitter wind. I was in two minds to continue walking actually, but I did anyway.
The camera was good old Oly The Rollei, film was HP5  at EI 200, developed in 1:2 Perceptol, for 13mins at 24C. A great combination. Perceptol and HP5 go together like you and me.
The pony was soggy in the cold, but as you can see, it held its head high in that curiously noble way equine creatures have.
I asked its permission, made its portrait, and thought no more of it till it was developed and printed.
It is my wife's favourite photograph of all the thousands I have made.
This beautiful animals lifting of itself above adversity makes me think of one of my favourite quotations:
"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." 
It is often quoted as being of Far Eastern origin, however it belongs to a Greek: Heraclitus (Ἡράκλειτος). Born in Ephasus in 535BC.
Apparently the actual quote is:
"You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you."
It is known as Fragment 41, and was quoted by Plato in Cratylus
One of  Heraclitus' other quotes I rather like too:
"Good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character."
And such it was for me in that momentous year of 1979.
I am not sure whether I have a 'good character' or not, all I can say is that that terrible time has laid a deep foundation within me.
As the saying goes, whatever doesn't kill us makes us strong.
Moments in life like the death of a parent can be an awful shock to the system, they take time (in my case years) to work their way through your internal workings, but one day you find yourself with a smile on your face thinking about something they did or said and your heart is no longer heavy.
Death is always worse for those left behind.
For myself, I wish I had been able to experience my Dad's wry humour and sage wisdom and advice as an adult.
But who knows, maybe one day . . .
As usual, God bless and thanks for reading.





** Real MEN. Workers, Drinkers, wirey and wizened by weather and outdoor work. They were a hard bunch.
They called me 'The Pauchler' because they believed I emptied some of my spraying chemicals out before climbing a hillside . . not true . . . I had the muscles to prove it.

*** You will not get this level of detail or smoothness of tonal transition from an inkjet or a resin-coated print. The emulsion on a fine quality enlarging paper is an incredible surface - it seems so at odds with today, and yet I believe that the fine print made on high quality paper will continue to be made, simply because it is the zenith of the craft.
I stand by my statement that Ilford's Graded Galerie is the finest paper made today.

5 comments:

  1. There are two types of wisdom in life! One learnt parrot fashion and used as a credit card to academia and the other absorbed slowly, analysed and digested from life, by a laid-back but astoundingly observant mind! Society values the credit card knowledge, gained and spent at speed and ignores that growing reservoir of wisdom welling up from life's stream! But this is an ethereal knowledge to which my friend Captain Sheephouse has in vast abundance and always has! To visit and glimpse into his mind, is like a brief glimpse of a lush oasis in an otherwise barren desert of words but with the odd purgatory that life throws in for measure! Yet every experience, no matter how turbulent and unbearable has been used to learn from, embrace forgiveness and formulate a man of whom I consider to be amongst the finest human beings that I have ever known! I suppose in a sense, a person of whom I aspire to be! I see the red fire engine highlights in the text of "THICK"! If society's exams could afford such a conclusion so early in a gifted boys life then we should all be damned! Damned to the hell of a society that we all to readily see falling apart before us!

    I knew Captain Sheephouse's dad and he was a second father to me and a fountain of wisdom that he plainly gifted to his son. I knew him well enough to know how proud he would be, to see his son grown into such a unique genius and word smith of finely wrought manuscripts! And a kind accepting person and the best friend I have ever had, to boot! Stephen.

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  2. And you know what folks . . I didn't have to pay him a penny to write that!
    HS

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  3. Apparently not? The cheque just bounced!

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  4. Despite the sad (but uplifting at the same time) content, I was in stitches looking at your dad on hs chair. I think that one image probably says a lot about his character as it comes across to me through your writing - he had a sense of humour, didn't take himself too seriosly and knew what the important things in life were. Another finely-crafted, heartfelt post.

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  5. Thanks Bruce - again very much appreciated.
    As for Dad . . I'll leave the story about the ex-Army camp bed for another time!
    P

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