Archive for November, 2015

In the summer I attended celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of my old school, Anthony Gell, in Wirksworth. As part of the celebrations, they aim to gather 50 short pieces of writing from people who worked or studied at Gell during its 50 years of community comprehensive education.

I was asked to contribute, and considered it an honour. But all the work it has taken to bring Kikimora to publication meant that I had not yet found the time. Last week I was gently reminded that the deadline is the end of November, and today I finally sat down to write my piece. It ended up going somewhere I hadn’t anticipated.

“Why bother to learn a dead language?” people typically ask after hearing I have a GCSE in Latin. “It’s useless.”

Everyone knows that you learn Latin by sitting in a classroom reciting en masse, “Amo amas amat…” – the conjugations of the verb to love. I’m afraid I didn’t do much of that in my class of one, sitting in the office of my Headmaster, Mr Pearce. Latin was not on the curriculum of this small, rural comprehensive, but Mr Pearce was more than happy to teach anyone who showed interest.

Why did I want to learn it? I’m not even sure. Something to do with a general interest in ancient history, with mythology and magic – those were the things I associated with Latin. Though if my interests had lain elsewhere I suppose I might have associated it with medicine, with biology or with the church.

What I didn’t realise I was signing up for was something which would alter the way I perceive language, the way I learn, and even the way I think.

Almost the first thing I was taught after amo amas amat, was to examine my existing vocabulary for associated words: amorous, paramour.

When I learnt puer (boy) I found: puerile.
Agricola (farmer): agriculture, agrarian.
Mare (sea): marine, maritime.
Nauta (sailor): nautical… and so on.

Latin words form the roots of countless other words, not just in English, but in many European languages (all of the so-called Romance languages – Romance as in Romans, not as in love).

Now whenever I encounter a word I don’t know I break it down into its constituent parts. What does it sound like? What root might it be formed from? It’s surprising how often this proves a useful technique – allowing you to at least get close to the word’s true meaning, even if not quite all the way.

What I learned in my Latin lessons was not a dead, useless language, but the ability to think around a problem, to analyse and dissect, to look past the unfamiliar and try and find something recognisable.

That is a valuable skill – particularly if you apply it to more than language. For instance, to culture, to creed, to lifestyle.

We live in dangerous times. There are many people who, for their own selfish reasons, want to foster a culture of us and them, to instil fear, distrust, suspicion, hatred. But most people – ordinary people who don’t have vested interests in arms, in land grabs, in oil, in religious fanaticism – aren’t so different from each other. Most people just want to feed their children, to love whomever they love, and go about their lives peacefully and without fear.

I’m writing this on Saturday 14 November 2015 as the world reels from the latest terrorist attacks in Paris, as the inevitable backlash against Islam rises again in the West, as the thousands of refugees remain mired in border camps throughout Europe, alternately vilified and beatified by a press pushed one way by public outcry and another way by their corporate paymasters.

I can’t help feeling that the world could be a better place if people everywhere learned to look beyond the unknown, the different, the perceived-to-be-threatening, and instead look for the familiar – people just like themselves, with the same desire to love, to nurture, to live in peace. Stop seeing them and see more kinds of us. After all, it is harder to gun down us, than to gun down them. Harder to blow up us than to blow up them. Harder to deny food and shelter to us, than to them.

Four years ago today my dad died after a brief struggle with chemotherapy. He had received a diagnosis of prostate cancer a few months earlier, but wasn’t noticeably unwell before beginning treatment. After one chemotherapy session he went into hospital, and died within the week. But this is not a post about the pros, cons and issues surrounding cancer treatments. Perhaps I’ll return to that another time.

Dad had always wanted to write stories, but work and family commitments meant that he didn’t get very far. After retiring, he began to write up some anecdotes and reminiscences from his childhood. Like him, these little stories are characterised by humour and self-deprecation. One of these days I would like to publish something for him, though it is a task I find many reasons to put off. Working through it all will be hard and emotionally draining.

I had published Darklands, my first novel, just a couple of months earlier, and am grateful that he got to read it, and see that I had finally achieved something we had talked about so often.

I have dedicated Kikimora to him, although I hesitated over it – since it concerns some very poor parenting, and I didn’t want to imply any association with his own parenting skills!

All of these are strands I could explore in more detail, but all I really want to do today is read you a poem.

My family are not religious. I am an atheist. Other members of the family fall on a spectrum from atheist to agnostic. I have always felt uncomfortable about religious funerals for non-religious people. Bereavement is a tough time, and maybe organising the funeral doesn’t seem like the most important thing when there are so many other important, difficult, upsetting things to do. Maybe people aren’t even aware that there are alternatives. But to me it did seem important that we get it right – and amongst all the sorting out of bank accounts, subscriptions, paperwork, and more paperwork, notifying people, crying each time we did – planning a fitting send off for my dad was the only uplifting and comforting part of the process.

My had a Humanist funeral, and it was just right. We listened to Vaughn-Williams’ The Lark Ascending, and Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World. The speaker read a eulogy my sisters and I had prepared, and this poem by RF Delderfield.

My sister remembered reading the poem in the novel, Diana. We searched for it online, and were surprised that it seemed very little known. At the time we couldn’t even find the poem online (although you can now, if you search). Instead we had to dig out the battered old paperback (no mean feat in a house filled with thousands of books!), and copy it out for the speaker.

We knew that my dad favoured cremation over burial, although some people struggle with the idea. I think perhaps reading this poem might change their minds. In its deep connectedness with nature, with ongoing life and the passing of time, it seemed then and still does now, a perfect tribute to him.

On Foxhayes edge go scatter my ashes
above the ground in sunlit splashes,
Where all about my powdered bones
the trefoil weaves between the stones.
Where what I was feeds foxglove roots
and robust April parsley shoots
Five miles or more from a churchyard drab
where underneath a lettered slab,
the body that has served me well
would bloat in clay, pathetic shell.
At Foxhayes edge atop the grass
I’ll sense successive seasons pass
I’ll see the beeches overhead
turn tangerine and rusty red
I’ll hear the sky-seen of their leaves
wind gossiping to younger trees.
Then, with the fall of blue-smoke dusk
I’ll settle in the rustling husk
of brittle, sun-dried bracken stalk
to hear the spruce and larches talk
And see the lovers come and go;
or later, when the New Years snow
builds up in drifts below the hedge
crisping the blades of dock and sedge
I’ll wait content, to stir in sleep
the hour the earliest violets peep
for with them all the wood will rustle
under the west wind’s old maid’s bustle
lifting perhaps a speck of me
and bearing it due south to sea

RF Delderfield

We found a peaceful spot on a wooded ridge overlooking the village where he had lived for 40 years, and we laid his ashes there.

Tonight I’ll be raising a glass to his memory. Good ‘ealth.

mum and dad, hiking

Mum and dad, quite a long time ago