Review of And When Did You Last See Your Father? (4)
The last three posts and this one are a little more than a review of the above named book. They are also personal explorations of the father archetype for the present writer.
One of the things my brothers and I have always liked doing is going camping. I remember many great camping trips to the UK and the continent and indeed in our own wee country Ireland from the early eighties through to the late nineties. Camping appeals to something very basic within the human psyche - for me it's the closeness to the ground, the clay and the grass and the fresh air that matter and also the primitive nature of it - one has none of more obvious modern conveniences around one. I wish I could associate camping with my father. Unfortunately, due to his losing the use of one arm with polio early in life and his consequent disinclination to much travel as well as lack of money meant that he did not accompany us on many holidays, much less camping ones. What brings the issue of camping to my mind is that Blake Morrison writes of his many camping expeditions with his father who was an outgoing adventurous type. Camping is also great for bonding. These trips which Blake undertook with his father were exercises in male-bonding between father and son. I envy him his memories, though at the time, being a bookish indoor type he did not thoroughly enjoy them.
I also remember some years back counselling a young lad who had lost his father. At the time his father was only getting back into his life after an absence of many years. The one great memory he had of his dad was the time he took him up the Dublin mountains camping. I remember getting him to close his eyes and my doing a little meditation cum visualisation of his last camping trip with his father. I can remember the boy telling me that the visualisation was good. Healing, I would call such an exercise. I then told him that maybe asking a good friend to go with him to retrace the steps of that trip might be another healing exercise. This he did and so the trip proved to be, though needless to say he could not capture the original magic.
Blake's account of one of his camping trips with his father is very vivid indeed:
Then we came north again, nosing through the drizzle round Grasmere and Rydal Water, listening to the car radio, the weather forecast, the latest on Cuba. 'It's bound to clear up soon,' my father says, who is never one to complain, whose meteorology is a science of optimism. To him rain is the natural order of things, which in the Yorkshire Dales is about right, and anything other than rain is a blessing. 'Lucky with the weather,' he'll say when it's heavy and overcast. 'Marvellous day,' denotes high cloud. 'Miraculous, like being on the Riviera' is when the sun, however briefly, gets through the clouds... We take a left turn to Skelwith Bridge...Grasmere...Chapel Stile...and as darkness begins to fall we settle on a spot by a stream. It is a low unsheltered strip of flat grass...Already I'm nostalgic for the site we found last night, but to which my father says it would be bad luck to return...We tie the tent flaps and set off for the pub, leaving the shaky house by the stream. As we drive, the Home Service is taken up with presidents Kennedy and Khrushchev: the smiley young hero has blockaded Cuba; Russian ships are sailing towards it... (Op. cit., 73-74)
During his father's final illness Blake begins to search through his father's study and his desk and finds that Dr Arthur Morrison was an inveterate hoarder. He had kept everything, literally everything: "...nothing had been chucked, nothing let go of...cigarette lighters; leather watch straps; a magnifying glass; Remembrance Day poppies; unsigned cheeky suggestive Valentine's cards..." (ibid., 87) My own father left practically nothing behind him. He had been poor all his life - a postman - the only earner in the house and had to support a wife and three children. He had a few jackets, a few pairs of trousers and shoes and one very good overcoat - a Crombie - which I still have and wear occasionally with great pride and with a deep reverence for the man who originally bought it. Unlike my father, I am an inveterate hoarder who simply has too many things about him.
For Blake the history that really matters are all those stories his father told him as a boy. I have written in these pages about the importance of stories in our lives. See this link Stories.
My father used to say that places up here got their name from the time that Charles the First, or was it Cromwell, crossed the Pennines...I'd not believed him...but never mind: he had told me, that's the only history that matters. (Ibid., 88)
I'd imagine that it is quite hard for a son to live up to a father who has been very successful in life. Blake's father was a consummate outdoors man, an extravert who was good at sports: squash, tennis and rugby. He used to say that he had a good eye for a ball. When the younger man was at college, I think, the father thrashed him at a game of squash. He also did the same at tennis. I know this would do my head in - a father there goading me on to be better at sports, to be like him. Also Arthur wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and had often told him that there was a medical practice he could walk into. Obviously Blake did not follow in his father's footsteps and achieved a Ph. D. in English Lit instead, becoming a writer and wonderful journalist. Some sons must find it hard to survive their fathers. I know I would if I had been Blake. However, it would have been nice to have had a father with an interest in sports and activities who could have brought us places. In comparison my father had been a weak sort of man, a poor man who had been beaten down by life. He had looked after an ailing mother widow, an older alcoholic brother before marrying late at 40 years of age. Not too long after being married the poor man lost the use of his right arm to polio. In fairness he worked all his life, first as a postman then as a security man. I have memories of his doing a lot of shift work and overtime and being very very tired. He worked very hard to support us. Hence, he was not around as often as my mother. In this sense, I may be said, like my brothers, to suffer from the "absent father" syndrome. My father was off there in the distance earning too little money while my mother did all the looking after. In hindsight as I explore this whole father archetype I realise that my poor father did not have many options. There were few jobs about that paid much then and he had to work far too hard for what little of the world's goods we had as children. However, both my parents encouraged us to get a good education.
Above I have uploaded a picture of my mum and dad from the late fifties.