Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘family’

Jepsons stone

I understand why they took my father. To most people he was one of the nameless who went out nights, worked his shift, and came back tired. Someone was watching him though, someone who knew what he was really about, and that’s why they took him. He was also a writer, you see? He was an explorer of ideas, a lover of maps and books, but only those closest to him knew about any of that.

They took him long before he’d had time to perfect his craft, long before he became really dangerous to them. He was still coming to terms with his powers, getting into his stride, finding the words. But I suppose, given the course he was on, they felt they had no choice.

At weekends, I’d wake to the sound of his old Underwood typewriter as he hammered out pages of manuscript. The Underwood was what he used to capture words that seemed right to him. But after a while he’d end up destroying them, having decided they were no good. Meanwhile, the rest of his work, the more speculative ideas, he’d write up in his notebooks which he’d consult from time to time, searching back for fresh avenues to explore, for things he’d missed.

He had a neat hand, a draughtsman’s hand, so his notes and diagrams possessed a beauty that went beyond whatever they were actually saying. After they took him, a man came asking for his notebooks. He said he was a friend but, I’d met him before and I knew he wasn’t, not really, and I told him we hadn’t kept them. He came again forty years later, a wizened old man, still on the trail, still something deceitful about him. I told him the same thing. Even after all this time, you see, it pays to be careful.

In the afternoons my father and I would be off scrambling up some nameless gully on the moors. It was in such places, where the rocks broke the surface, the earth hinted at its secrets, and he would scratch at them, peer at their traces under a magnifying glass. He was good at finding pyrites for me – fool’s gold – not that he was fooled by it. He was never a seeker after gold, not the ordinary kind anyway, but he enjoyed splitting the rocks for me to see. And then he’d tell me we should always be careful not to chase after everything that sparkled, because it might not be what we thought it was.

Yes, it was a different kind of gold he was hunting, a secret thing, the philosopher’s gold, I suppose you’d call it, a mysterious thing hidden since the dawn of man. It wasn’t that others wanted to take it from you, more they had to stop you getting hold of it in the first place, because that kind of gold was the key to everything, you see? That’s why it was so dangerous.

Often, my father and I would be out over the hills where the old maps said the standing stones used to be. Balmy days and bleak days, we would seek their traces in the dun-coloured grasses. I could see those hills from my bedroom window, miles away. Indeed, I could see the whole moor spread out like a map, and then there we were, he and I, in the map itself, looking for the stones, solving mysteries.

My father said he believed the stones had marked the passage of the seasons, in ancient times. That they weren’t there any more is the reason we’d lost our way, he said, and that was why no one ever looked at the moon any more, or could name the stars. This was important, he thought, and it was thrilling to me he was on the trail of a thing that could restore such marvels to the world. It was this, I’m sure that roused the same forces that had taken the stones and hidden them away, this same power that had taken my father.

The night they came for him, I hid his notebooks. I would decode them one day, I thought, but I’ve had them fifty years now, and they remain as puzzling as ever. Which of his ideas are worth the smoothing out into clearer prose? Which are the fool’s-gold sparkles of frivolous intrigue? I don’t know. Mould mottles their pages, and they’ve become brittle. It adds a fragility to their beauty. But still, I guard them, though lately I’ve been thinking the secret isn’t in them at all, not like I once thought anyway, not a clear arrow to point the way. I think the secret lies elsewhere, off the edge of the page, and you have to ride the beauty of them, as if on a butterfly’s wings, to get there.

Besides his notebooks, I have his watch but I don’t wear it. We inhabit different times now. He was spirited away to a place where I fear he must walk the moors alone, and without his maps. The watch still ticks, though the date is faulty, settles between days, as if pointing to another reality, one in which my father has been trapped all these years. But I have the feeling that in continuing in the spirit of his work, I am asking the same questions he asked, and if I can reveal the answers, those who took him have no reason to go on holding him, do they? They will have to let him go.

I have written a million words by now in search of answers, and in that time I have grown old, much older than he was when they took him. But I will bring him back. One day I will pay their ransom. Then I might wake again to the sound of that old Underwood, as my father banishes the emptiness of night, and restores to me once more his world of marvels.

Thanks for listening.

Read Full Post »

surface-hands-ellerbeck-abt-1913

If you and I traced our ancestors back, say a couple of thousand years, we’d find we were related. But that’s the thing with family trees. The further back you go, the branches widen, sweeping up more and more of us. Even a couple of hundred years is enough to ensure you’ll score some landed gentry among your lot. There’s likely the occasional murderer, too. But you’re only one in tens of thousands of souls, all related in the same vague way, so it doesn’t mean anything, does it?

I used to think there was nothing worse than some ardent genealogist banging on about his family tree. On and on they’d go, like you could be interested. I mean, what did it matter that so and so married so and so a hundred years ago? But then you get the bug yourself and you begin to see things differently. You begin to understand the fascination.

First, you simply want to honour your family by getting all their names in order, names you heard as a child but never met because they were long dead. Or maybe they’d branched off a few generations ago and gone to live on the other side of the world. So now you want to get them straight in your head. You want them with the right spouse, the right children. You want to pass them on to your own kids, a neat little package of heritage – like your own kids could be bothered. But then you tap into something else, you experience a “wow” moment,  and you realize there’s much more going on here.

Tracing your family history is like sketching out a story, and stories are powerful things. Suddenly, they can transform those dimly remembered names into heroes, into characters of mythological status, and myths are strange things. Once we tap into them our lives change, because that’s what myths do. They come from our deepest past, and they energise our present.

My Irish grandfather, Michael, came to Lancashire to work the quarries as a farrier. Whilst here, he had a fling with a mill-girl called Lizzie. Then he lost his job and went back to his parents’ farm in County Mayo, leaving Lizzie behind. But Lizzie discovered she was with child. So, urgent letters were exchanged and Michael returned to a hasty marriage.

He settled in a village on the edge of the Western Pennines, raised a family of four, one of them my mother. If he’d been a different kind of guy, I wouldn’t be here to tell the story. I imagine a hard-working, happy-go-lucky character, a bit of a charmer, and full of stories, not all of them true, but when things got serious, he’d always do the right thing.

That mill-girl had a brother called Richard. He married another mill-girl called Annie. Then he got swept up in the Great War, and died of fever in Mesopotamia, never saw home again. Annie struggled for years on a war-widow’s pension, then left for Australia on the promise of a better life. There, she married Fred, a German guy – at a time when German guys were still unpopular. I’ve not followed him up yet, but I’m thinking Fred must have been something special. Anyway, the two of them went on to pioneer land near Pingaring, and they seemed to make a go of it. That’s where her story peters out for me, them living a cowboy and cowgirl kind of life in the vastness of Western Australia.

This is not to say my family is any more or less fascinating than yours. We can all find the archetypal stories if we look. It’s not about the bloodline. Blood means nothing unless there’s money involved. Annie’s not a blood relative, but I think about her story a lot. Romance, tragedy, courage, adventure and triumph over adversity. It’s got everything and I find it inspiring. Even across time, something about her story, played out a century ago influences the way I think today.

But there’s more. I’ve researched the life of an obscure Victorian man of letters. He’s no relation at all, yet I ended up living his story as intensely as if it were a part of my own. So it doesn’t need to be even a vague family connection either. It runs much deeper than genealogy. It transcends blood and kin. It reaches back to the collective from which all stories rise.

If by some magic we were able to meet those people for real, there’s a chance we might not like them very much. We would find them too human, rather than the perfected heroes and heroines of our imagination. What we’re doing then is projecting parts of our psyche upon a bare structure of names, dates and events. What we tap into are latent energies that seek passage into consciousness, and they take powerful form as stories.

As we unearth these stories, we’re not uncovering the literal truth of a past life. Rather, we are exploring pieces of our own selves. Doing so, we grant new life to the mythical foundations of the past, all our pasts because the thing with myths is they seek renewal for each generation who stumbles upon them. And they reward us with fresh meaning and direction.

I’ve discovered no celebrities, no toffs, no great statesmen, in my family tree, at least not between here and the early Victorian period. Any further than that, who knows?  Four generations seems plenty for keeping it real. Four generations, and the stories are still plentiful, still of sufficient resolution for one’s imagination to get to grips with.

The best stories do not need kings and queens to act them out. We find them in the ordinary. That’s why they’re of such universal appeal. Colliers, labourers, crofters, weavers, quarrymen, farriers, domestics, pioneers and conscripted soldiers. That’s my lot. Plus of course life, love and adversity,… the stuff of stories and the bedrock of existence.

It turns out, genealogy isn’t boring after all.

Read Full Post »