Waking John – a life of stories

“The last time I saw John was at my daughter Laura’s 40th celebration, a lunch out at the end of November. Seated at either end of a long table, I went to talk to John between courses. He told me a story from our childhood that I hadn’t heard before. It involved the fire brigade being called out on Christmas Day, the first year that we moved to the house in Ebbisham Road. I had no memory of it. ‘You would have been too young to remember,’ John said. As the oldest of us, John held many stories that only he knew, many that will remain untold. I am glad that I heard just one of them, the last time I saw my big brother John.”

John at his 21st party, 1976

The passage above is from ‘One of Five’, a tribute to my brother John, which I read at his funeral last week. A life is made up of stories. Some of them die with a person, untold. Others are told repeatedly, like the story of when our father brought Belfast home for Christmas dinner … a man who lived in a shack in the woods and who drank at Dad’s local. Our mum gave Belfast (and Dad) short shrift, and the poor man, who already had a Christmas dinner lined up at the White Horse, ended up with no dinner at all. John retold that story, too, the last time I saw him, as well as the new one I hadn’t heard before.

The celebrant leading the funeral asked John’s four siblings to contribute stories to allow her to compose a eulogy, ‘The Story of John’. We each added them to a shared document, filling in the gaps that one couldn’t remember, correcting details that another had misremembered. Or had they? Listening to ‘The Story of John’ at the funeral, something didn’t seem right to me. The celebrant said that John had left England to go travelling at the age of twenty, after completing an apprenticeship as a tool maker, This puzzled me, as I have a photo of John at his 21st birthday party, held in the garden of the house he still lived in with me and my family, in the hot summer of 1976. I also remembered that he was living at home when I left to study at Thames Poly. He was 23 then. He had, though, left for a while to live in a shared flat, taking my records with him. Much to my annoyance. We fell out over that, never having had a cross word  between us before. The records were returned; peace was declared. As soon as I bought my own record player, with my first grant cheque, the records moved out of the home we had shared and moved into my room in the Halls of Residence.

How can I piece together John’s timeline, and get the details of his story straight?

At John’s wake, old stories were retold, new ones emerged. A tale from a cousin of how his brother helped John cover up a love bite by hitting him with a piece of scaffolding, turning the offending mark into a more acceptable injury. That was new to me. The same cousin and I shared the well known story of how John used to hide his Doc Martens under a hedge in a nearby alleyway, changing out of his ‘respectable’ shoes into them after leaving home, as our mother didn’t approve of his ‘bovver boots’. An old friend of John, who seemed to have hardly aged at all since I last saw him in the late ’70s, shared that he and John had worked together in Jersey. I knew that John had lived out there, but hadn’t been aware that Glenn had been there with him. Jersey is where he met Angela, the girl who was to become his fiancée, though they didn’t marry in the end. Angela was at the funeral, as was another of John’s exes. A third ex was to find me, through this website, in the days following the funeral, and between us we pieced together John’s timeline, the story of John.

I was indeed right: John had not gone travelling until his twenty-fourth year. I discovered that he left for Jersey after an unseasonal snowfall in England. He had been fed up for a while, and when it snowed at Easter, he left almost immediately, to join his friend Glenn. Google supplied the year: 1979. John was 23 then, going on 24.

John’s middle years were unhappily fuelled by alcohol. I saw little of him, with him being abroad for a few years – in Jersey, on kibbutz in Israel, in Holland, and for a year or two he lived with Angela in Australia. She tells me that they returned in 1984. By then, I was pregnant with my second child. Our lives had grown apart, and then I found it hard to be around him, when he was drinking so much. Sometimes, when I visited my childhood home, John was there, where he had returned to live after his travelling days were over. Other times, he was not. One time, I travelled to see him, knowing that he had been going through a bad patch. When I arrived, he had decided instead to go shopping for some new clothes. I felt let down, angry. Another time, he failed to turn up, having promised to take my children swimming so as to give me a break on Mothers’ Day. I ended up in the pool with my kids and my nephew, full of resentment.

John and I didn’t see one another for a few years; we reunited after John got sober. I think of John’s last twenty years as his third act. He was a different man without the booze: loving and kind, though plagued with lifelong anxiety, which he managed by working hard, keeping busy outside of work, and walking his beloved dog Rupert for hours and hours on Epsom Common. Although past retirement age, John continued working – to pay for Rupert’s vet bills, he said, but also because he wouldn’t have known what to do if he were to stop working. Rupert died last summer, John six months after him, taking some stories with him, untold.

I think I’ll be piecing together John’s stories for some years. I almost wish for a re-run of his wake, on an annual basis, so as to gather new stories. A life is made up of stories, and I don’t know half of John’s.

 

Going back to Middle Park

When my first child was born, we were living in a privately rented ‘flat’; in fact a set of rooms, with a shared, unheated bathroom down a flight of stairs. It wasn’t ideal with a new baby, having to leave the pram in the downstairs hallway, bathing her in the living room, with water brought in from the kitchen.

Artists at work in our council flat

When she was three months old, Greenwich Council awarded us a flat on the Middle Park Estate in Eltham. Yes, a proper flat! Self-contained, and though it was upstairs (only one flat below us, none above) it had its own garden. Several other people had rejected the property. It was due for renovation, but if we were prepared to stay while a new kitchen, bathroom and replacement windows were installed, it was ours.

My daughter and I holed up in a bedroom while the work went on. She wasn’t crawling yet, so having a kettle at floor level to keep me and the workmen going during the day was manageable. The worst day was when the windows were replaced, the chill and the dust hard to cope with between the removal of old frames and the installation of new. We took many walks round the leafy estate, discovered the café at the local shopping centre and the community centre that became our home from home along with the Adult Education Institute. There were creches so I could go to classes, plus parent and toddler activities. The estate was alive with children; the green in front of our flat was a space where children could play together, watched over by their parents from the windows of their flats and houses.

By the time my second daughter was three years old, we had outgrown the property. The soundproofing between flats was poor, and the woman downstairs, who had initially been friendly, spent much of the day banging on her ceiling with a broom handle. A birthday party at home turned into a cacophony of children’s laughter and broom handle percussion.

Some of the houses and flats on the estate started to sport new front doors and mock-leaded windows. It was the late 80s, and the Right to Buy your council house had been brought in. We didn’t want to go that route, and saved for a deposit on a house in the Medway Towns, London prices being unaffordable.  The day we handed back our keys, our estate officer said that no one else was doing this – moving from council housing to a private buy. Most were buying from the council, and selling on after a year or two.

Thirty-four years after leaving that flat, I went to have a look at it from the road, with my second husband and my granddaughter. It seemed too weird to knock and say that I used to live there. The flat itself has different windows, and there is a high fence and gate to the garden. The green in front of the flats and houses is still there, though some of it has been lost to parking spaces, and newish trees are dotted on it, where it was just grass before. When we were driving through the estate, I pointed out where my friends had lived, and remembered the time when my older daughter (aged four) decided to push my younger daughter home from the Community Centre because I was spending too long talking to someone. I was quickly alerted by Mr Curly, a chap from the Pensioners’ Group, who spotted them, already halfway home, and came running to find me.

The strange thing about the estate in 2022 is the lack of children. It was half-term, but there were none playing on the green in front of my old flat. In any case, the trees would hamper a game of football or catch. Is this because children don’t play out anymore, or just that the now owner-occupied residences are more mixed, more singles or child-free couples, not so many families?

I don’t know how long the flat remained a council property, but I do know that it sold for £300,000 a year ago.

It’s easy to be nostalgic for a time when there was community and children played outside the home, when a neighbour would alert you to a runaway child. What I am truly nostalgic for, though, is a time when you could rent an affordable property from the council. If we had been that young family today, living in rented rooms, where would we have ended up?

 

Learning (to be) Irish

It began with a poem I read, headed with an epigraph saying that there are only eighteen letters in the Irish alphabet. As a second-generation Irish woman, how had I reached the age of sixty-two without knowing this? Some Irish was spoken at home by my parents, the odd word or phrase, but apart from knowing that bainne is milk, I questioned none of it. ‘Oscail an doras,’ my dad would say. I have only recently learned that this means ‘Open the door’. There are other phrases that I recall phonetically, but have no idea how they are spelt, so their meaning remains hidden for now.

I started learning Gaeilge on Duolingo about three months ago.  Duolingo offers no grammar, only words and phrases that you learn by trial and error, so I supplemented my learning with a book, Learning Irish by Micheal O’Siadhail. I have tried translating the phrases at the end of the first chapter of the book three times, and have got no more than half of them right. Irish is a tough language to master. There are no words for yes and no, rather the verb in the question is repeated in the answer, in the affirmative or negative form. There is lenition to come to terms with – an aspect of Irish grammar that adds an h to the beginning of some words that come after certain other words, and change the pronunciation. There is eclipsis, too. I could try to explain, but as the experts sometimes do so by stating ‘see sentences in this chapter’, I am not sure that I could. 

Maria at the Cliffs of Moher in the 1990s

What I am coming to realise is that the Irish speak English in a way that’s influenced by Gaeilge. An Irish friend uses the phrase ‘Giving out’ to mean what I would call ‘Going into one’, or more precisely telling off, scolding, or complaining. This is a direct translation, so ‘Tá sí ag tabhairt amach’ means ‘She is giving out’.

I am sure that Irish turns of phrase have influenced me as a speaker and a writer, in spite of my years of denying I was Irish. I wrote about this in my first self-published pamphlet of prose and poetry, Learning to be English, and it was the subject of my first professional writing gig, as a columnist for BBC Radio 4’s Home Truths. This outlined how I went from being one of many Irish children at my Catholic primary school in Surrey, to being one of a few at grammar school. This was the time of IRA bombings on mainland Britain, and as we lived just a few miles from Guildford, the pub bombings by the IRA in 1974 were all too close. In fact, many years later, my brother told me that he usually drank in one of the pubs that was bombed when he was on day release at Guildford Technical College. The only reason he wasn’t in the pub that day and at that time was that he had flu. What I remember is my Physics teacher saying to me, in front of the class, ‘I see your lot have been at it again.’ I told no one at home what she had said, just silently decided that it was safer in that school to pretend that I wasn’t Irish, and become an English girl. Hence the title of my pamphlet, and of the piece that was broadcast on Home Truths: Learning to be English.

In common with many second-generation Irish people, I feel I have a dual identity, not quite one thing or the other. Neither fully English, nor fully Irish. Since I began to reclaim my Irish identity, in my thirties, I have been learning to be Irish, reversing the process of learning to be English that I went through in my teens. Like learning Gaeilge, it’s something that I may never master, that I shall carry on learning throughout my life.

My collection of short stories about Irish women living in England and their daughters is available here: As Long as It Takes.

The Photo Challenge

Robin Halls’ photo from the Precinct zine issue

To borrow some words from Lennon, McCartney and David Byrne, the road from writing to publication can be long and winding, or the road to nowhere. Once a poem or story has been submitted to a publisher, there is the wait … sometimes months, and sometimes you hear nothing at all, leaving you wondering whether it’s OK to follow up with an email, or if you are now free to submit elsewhere. The admin that follows the creativity can be tiring and disheartening – researching suitable publications, keeping track of submissions, dealing with rejections.

I have been spared this for the past ten months, as I have been collaborating with a photographer, Robin Halls, who has been producing a photo zine for every month this year. Each month he sends me photos on a different theme, and I have just two weeks to respond to one or more photos in words. Every month, when I first scroll through, I think ‘I have nothing.’ Yet every month I come up with something. An idea breaks through days later. I often don’t write at that point; I hold it in my head, take it for a walk, then get a draft down and rework it several times over the following week. My default writing process is to take a lot longer than this, maybe months. I often leave work for a year, feeling it hasn’t got any worth, then have a breakthrough after finding the draft and seeing something fresh I could do with it. There isn’t the time with the zine, no time to fuss.

I usually take a quick first look at a new batch of photos, and it’s always the one that first captures my attention that will spark the first poem. For the last issue, it was a photo of dusty slotted spoon found in a lost drawer (or should that be a drawer of lost things) found during a kitchen refit. The most unlikely items can be the most inspiring, such as a photo of a blank noticeboard at Berengrave Nature Reserve. I have mined memories triggered by the photos, as well as responded directly to the images in front of me. There is no selecting and rejecting of my work; Robin has been happy with everything I send him, so the only selection is at my end. I always have more drafted poems or prose pieces than I send him, and I don’t send work I am not happy with. The road to publication in the zine is short and straight, a far more pleasurable and less stressful journey than the usual submission process.

I have no idea of the circulation of the zine, only that it’s free and handed out locally to anyone who would like a copy, plus a few go out by post. I shall miss it when Robin finishes the project at the end of the year.

I made a decision some time ago not to search commissions or participation in events, to trust that they would come to me, and they have. Most recently, I was invited to write a poem for the Dickens 150 celebrations in Medway, and to be a guest writer at the Irish Writers in London Summer School, as well as take part in the zine project. I have two invitations to read my work in the offing, one where I hope to read some poems from the zine with Robin Halls’ images projected. I wonder what will come next, what 2022 will bring.

In the meantime, I await news of more traditional submissions, and must do some research on a story that needs to find a home. And I await November’s batch of photos from Robin. I shall have nothing, at first, then something will break through, something from the most unlikely image.

Robin’s photos can be seen on Instagram @robin.halls

Don’t mention Tattenham Corner

My first paid gig as a writer was for BBC Radio 4, as a columnist on Home Truths. This was a programme filled with listeners’ stories, and I sent them a piece that I thought they might feature. It was about the loss of half my Led Zeppelin vinyl collection, when my marriage broke up.

Maria, as she appeared on the Home Truths webpage

The programme producer and I worked to edit the piece to fit their five-minute slot. She cut the first page and a half. On re-reading, I could see that she was right, and I agreed to this. Then there were other suggestions: I would need to cut a reference to the lyric of a Led Zeppelin song. Not everyone was a Led Zeppelin fan, and they wouldn’t get the reference. OK, fair enough. Each editing suggestion was explained, and I agreed to every one, even though the loss of my clever reference to the lyrics of ‘Tangerine’ was a bit of a blow.

Not every editing experience has been so positive. A couple of times, I have held on to the integrity of a piece at the expense of publication.

A couple of years ago, I was invited to submit to an anthology. I sent a story, which the three editors liked, but they said that this alone would not get me a place in the book. They also needed an essay. They gave me a fairly tight deadline to produce this, and a word-count of four to six thousand. I was about to go away, but didn’t want to miss the chance of publication, so I worked on the essay on a Eurostar journey, en route to Bruges, and worked further when I got home. I sent a 6000 word piece, but the editors came back to me wanting it cut by 1500 words. They made suggestions of what they wanted more of, and what they wanted less of. I sighed deeply. It was coming up to Christmas, and life was busy. I felt uneasy about some of the editing suggestions, but came up with a second draft. Days before Christmas, I was sent a version of my essay that the three editors had worked on themselves. I said that I couldn’t look at it until January, and I am glad I didn’t, as it would have ruined the festive season. When I finally read the editors’ cut, the 4500 words I had sent them had been slashed to 1500. A lot of it no longer made sense. Editing by committee does not work. I said I could not agree with their edit, and explained why. I said if they had wanted 1500 words, I would have written 1500 words, but they had asked for 4-6000 words, then 4500 words. Plus it was not acceptable to hack a writer’s work about in the way that they had. The essay was not published, though the story I had sent them found a place in their publication. This was all I had wanted, to have the story published, not to be spending my precious time dancing to the tune of the three editors, who frankly didn’t know what the flip they wanted.

It was a bad experience, which grates to this day. Normally, I am happy to receive a copy of a publication in which I have work, but when the above-mentioned book arrived, I didn’t give it room on the shelf above the desk where I write. Moreover, when I saw events to promote this book advertised on social media, I realised that I had not received an invitation to any of them. I was the one that was seen as awkward, bloody-minded, for holding on to my integrity as a writer.

Today should have seen the online publication of a new story. I would have been sharing it on social media and emailing people with the link. But that will not be happening. I had uneasy feelings about the publisher’s requirements when they accepted my story. There was a heck of a lot of admin attached, a form to fill in, a contract to look at, all of which took time away from my writing. They said that they would be editing for house style, and would send any changes for me to approve. The story is set in the 1970s, with the protagonist working in the kitchens of The Grandstand at Epsom Racecourse. When the edit came to me, they wanted me to remove any specific mention of Epsom, or any reference that might suggest that the story referred to the Epsom racecourse. So ‘the horses hurtling round Tattenham Corner’ should be changed to ‘the horses hurtling round the nearby corner.’ The reasoning behind this? The story referred to poor hygiene in the kitchens at Epsom Racecourse, and could be seen as ‘defamatory’. The price of publication was to make the racecourse and town where it is set ‘generic’, so as not to offend. I would not pay that price.

I suppose the moral of the story, for me, is to trust my instincts. I felt uneasy early on in the process of editing with ‘The Three’ as I have come to call the editors of the anthology, but I did everything they asked, until what they asked was unacceptable. I felt uneasy with the requirements of the publisher of the new story, too, and that instinct turned out to be right.

I now have a story that is still looking for a publisher; but I can also hold onto my integrity as a writer.