Archives for category: Memory

Another gem of a Christmas present was a subscription to The New Yorker. The first issue arrived last week, and there is so much of interest that several days later I am still reading it, and this week’s issue is due tomorrow…

For now, I want to mention an article by James Wood on Becoming Them: Our parents, our selves (

Woods reminisces, movingly, of Sundays when growing up, mostly the rituals and the boredom, but also memories of classical music, which his father was passionate about, but perhaps his children suffered from composer overload at an early age…

However, years later Woods discovered himself a passion for classical music, which persists in his forties. Perhaps this, just like the gesticulations, the little phrases that creep in as we age, not to mention the physical reminders, are part of the ‘plagiarism of inheritance.’

Seeing my parents in myself traumatised me around 10 years ago. Now, I am much more accepting of it. When I first noticed it, they were both alive. Within recent years, both died in relatively quick succession.

Woods suggests that we ‘mourn them [our parents] only haplessly, accidentally, by surviving them.’ A friend of Wood’s challenges this view and believes that the real point is that we become our parents, taking on their gestures and habits once they have died.

A preservation of past generations, but not as in ‘they live on in our memories’, more in terms of those before us continuing within us in an unavoidable physical (and social) sense. Utterly rational when you consider science and DNA, not to mind ‘nuture’, but…

Thus, you potentially mourn your parents by becoming them. This feels more than a little weird to me (but may also merely reflect my own mourning processes, or lack of).

But Woods moves onto another interesting point. if you can mourn your parents by becoming then, then surely you can also mourn them before they die. This I get. As I child, I (shamefully and secretly) wished that my parents died together in a car accident. The thought that one would be left alone, forever grieving and sad for the other, felt unbearable to me.

As I grew up, and left, I dwelt less on the fact that my parents would inevitably die. Old age arrived, and with it a world for them that became increasingly smaller, and exclusive. In latter years, I never seemed to find a way into this terrain.

Woods challenges Larkin’s line about life being first a thing of boredom, then later replaced by fear, suggesting that fear comes first.

I am not convinced. Boredom seems to me the prerogative of children, and, from what I have witnessed, fear, if and when it appears, and this is of course by no means universal, can escalate as both time and worlds shrink.


I had been meaning to read this book for some time, and only just got round to it this week. Timely, as a BBC documentary on the author’s life will be screened over the Christmas period.

Jansson was already famous for her Moonintroll cartoon strips and children’s books before The Summer Book appeared in 1972.

The narrative focuses on the relationship between 6 year old Sophia and her grandmother, who live on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland. The child’s father is also there, but is very much a silent presence in the background. To some extent the book was a response to the death of Janssen’s beloved mother in 1971, and is based on ‘real’ people from the author’s life, her own mother represented by the grandmother, and Sophia the author’s niece. The location also reflects Jansson’s personal history, with the setting based on a house that she and her brother built on a remote island off Finland in 1947.

Although the (short) book predominantly follows the companions as they spend time together, exploring, talking, swimming and foraging, there are also other threads running through the narrative, particularly the grandmother’s musings on ageing and death. Deceptively straightforward sounding chapters such as ‘The Morning Swim’, ‘Moonlight’ and ‘The Magic Forest’ contain much more than is apparent at first glance. In the latter chapter, for example, the forest itself becomes a metaphor for living and dying:

‘This forest was called “the magic forest”. It had shaped itself with slow and laborious care, and the balance between survival and extinction was so delicate that even the smallest change was unthinkable.” (p.27)

The notion of death is introduced early, when Sophia asks her grandmother directly, with an endearing frankness and openness that only the very young can engender:

‘When are you going to die?’ (p.22)

Shortly afterwards, we learn that Sophia’s mother has died:

‘Sophia woke and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.’ (p.25)

The book is about imagination, in both the old and in the young, and it is also about wisdom that similarly transcends generations. What is particularly impressive, is Jansson’s ability to portray a dual perspective, the simultaneously believable voices of both a child and an elderly woman.

It is thus not only 6 year old Sophia who bubbles with imagination, but her grandmother also displays impressive imaginative ingenuity. When Sophia’s friend Berenice comes to stay, and is bored and tiresome, the grandmother suggests that she draws something:

‘”Draw a picture,” she said.

“I don’t know anything to draw,” the child said.

“Draw something awful,” Grandmother said, for she was really tired now. “Draw the awfullest thing you can think of, and take as much time as you possibly can.”‘ (p.45)

Death features again in Sophia’s questions about heaven, and in the grandmother’s internal reflections on the euphemisms for death:

‘It was too bad that you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn’t have time.’ (p.135)

The grandmother struggles with the process of ageing, as she becomes aware that her memory for recent events is slipping (p.56), and how much she hates the chamberpot under her bed, a ‘symbol of helplessness’ (p.170). At times, she seems weighed down by sadness, and by an almost palpable sense of loss:

‘A very long time ago, Grandmother had wanted to tell about all the things they did, but no one had bothered to ask. And now she had lost the urge.’ (p.90).

She also feels that she cannot describe things anymore, the words have somehow been lost to her, and so, it will all die with her death:

‘And unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it’s lost.’ (p.90)

But, just as she is there for Sophia, listening and reassuring during her many tantrums, so too is the little girl there for her grandmother. She attends to the older woman’s outburst:

‘But now I have the feeling everything’s gliding away from me, and I don’t remember, and I don’t care, and yet now is right when I need it!’ (p.93)

And so, on a night when she was unable to sleep due to ‘thinking about sad things, the grandmother shared her anxieties with the attentive child, thereafter sleeping soundly…

The relationship between the older and the younger companion is very moving. Even when they quarrel, it is with love:

‘One evening, Sophia wrote a letter and stuck it under the door. It said, “I hate you. With warm personal wishes, Sophia.”‘

The prose is just delightful, for example the tree trunks ‘formed a tangled mass of stubborn resignation’ (p.27), and when the pair quarrelled, they ‘quarrelled the wrong way.’ (p.111).

The Summer Book has never been out of print in Scandinavia. I am not surprised. It is a truly magical work, which can tell us much about humanness, but perhaps especially about relationships, and how being there for the other can enhance, and even make sense of, the whole business of being.


Hearing about the imminent arrival of a new meningitis vaccine, I thought immediately of one of the best books I have ever read.

I bought Michael Rosen’s Sad Book (Michael Rosen & Quentin Blake, London: Walker Books, 2004) a few years ago, mainly as a way of exploring the meaning and expression (and alrightness) of sadness with my daughter.

Re-reading it now, I am again struck by its wonderfulness, by Rosen’s ability to convey sadness so meaningfully in few words, and which is so imaginatively enhanced by Blake’s drawings.

The book arose from Rosen’s grief following the sudden death of his 18 year old son Eddie from meningitis in 1999. Primarily about his sadness over the loss of Eddie, it also includes the loss of his mother, as well as loss in general as part of all our lives.

Rosen challenges pre-conceptions. The very first image is that of a grinning Rosen. Below the picture he writes:

‘This is me being sad.’

‘…pretending I’m being happy.

I’m doing that because I think people won’t

like me if I look sad.’

On page 3 we are introduced to Eddie:

‘What makes me most sad is when I think

about my son Eddie. He died.’

We see images of Eddie as a child, playing and happy, and then a blank panel, where Eddie should be:

‘…he’s not there any more.’

Although a hugely personal book, there is much here that is generalisable:

Sad is ‘anywhere’, ‘any time’, ‘anyone’:

‘It comes along and finds you.’

And much that is positive:

‘Every night I try to do one thing I can be proud of.’

‘I’m sad, not bad.’

‘Everyday I do one thing that means

I have a good time.’

Rosen also remembers the good times, and shows the power of memory to make loss bearable, and the act of remembering even potentially joyful.

An absolute gem of a book, on a topic that is corporate and universal and touches all our lives.


I have written previously about Keith Vaughan, and the theme of Art and Melancholy (June 20, 2012), having then seen an exhibiton of his work at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester.

Today, I visited the Osborne Samuel Gallery in London (, where a generous exhibition of his work, more than 80 pieces, some of which have not been seen in public for many years, again pays tribute to the artist’s centenary.

I was struck by many things, which is unsurprising given that, although known for his Bathers series particularly, Vaughan’s works are wonderfully varied, especially in terms of theme and mood.

I will mention a few of the works on display. The Raft II (Variation on a Theme by Gericault) I had not seen before, and was immediately struck by its intensity and intimacy. Inevitably, I attach the term ‘melancholy’ to much of Vaughan’s work, and for me, this mood is almost tangible from his canvas.

Also melancholic are the portraits of lone figures, as in Seated Nude, as well as those pieces that suggest both a togetherness and a simultaneous apartness, for example Pear Tree Bathers and The Wall at Ashford Gifford III.

Most of the portraits appear anonymous to the observer, in the sense that the bodies are headless (Green Landscape with Figures) or facial features are left either deliberately blank (Two Figures), or vaguely generic (The Start of a New Day).

I was utterly moved by the tenderness of Lie You Sleeping HeadMy Love and Lovers, and equally moved by the despair of Methods of Destruction III (Spring), Voyage a Cythere II, and my own most memorable of Vaughan’s works, Man in Cave.


I originally read this memoir (London: Harper Perennial, 2003) a few years ago, and re-read it last week having watched snippets of the recent BBC4 dramatisation (I did not particularly like the bits of the TV adaptation that I saw, mainly as my memory of the book was quite different, a memory I wanted to hang on to).

I loved the book when I first read it, and enjoyed it even more the second time round.

The format is seductive. Almost all chapters have a food heading, for example ‘Lemon Drops’, ‘Sherbet Fountain, ‘Bread-and-Butter Pudding, ‘Fried Eggs’. But one soon realises that the subtext is not that of the comforting aspect of food. Rather, the narrative focuses on childhood memories, which are indeed food-related, but are not particularly happy rememberings, often the opposite, and are rarely suffused with a Proustian-like nostalgia.

Slater’s childhood, or how he chooses to delineate it in this memoir, was one punctuated by food and by mealtimes, over which clouds of silence, secrets, loneliness, and confusion hover in an adult world.

At the outset we are introduced to the author’s mother, and she features prominently in the first half of the book. In the chapter ‘Toast’, Slater speaks fondly of her:

‘It’s impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you.’ (p.1)

We share Slater’s sense of exclusion, and his increasing unease as he senses that something is not right in their world:

‘Nobody tells me anything. They talk in whispers over my head…’ (p.45).

The foreboding persists, and culminates in the premature death of his mother. I was surprised how little we learn of how this affected Slater emotionally, but then this is a book where feelings are not expressed directly, but circuitously. One does get some sense of his distress, albeit obliquely:

‘When your mum dies you notice little things more, like your senses are all cranked up a notch’ (p.114)

In the second half of the book, Slater’s relationship with his father, which was never straightforward, comes to the fore:

‘For all his soft shirts and cuddles and trifles I was absolutely terrified of him.’

Much centres on mealtime battles, on food, and time spent (unhappily) at the table:

‘Every time my dad feeds me he goes quiet, thoughtful, distant even.’ (p.89)

When his father loses the battle over porridge, Slater comments:

‘My father’s disappointment in his youngest son is so obvious you could put it on a plate and eat it.’ (p.89)

The tension created by silence, by the unsaid, is almost palpably sad. Since ‘my mother had gone’:

‘Every meal was seasoned with guilt. His. Mine.’ (p.110)

Slater’s mother is replaced by Joan, who speaks about him in the third person in his presence, and expresses herself almost exclusively through homemaking, cleaning, baking and cooking. A domestic goddess of sorts, who Slater never warmed to, or even really appeared to like, he admits to admiring her lemon meringue pie:

‘Joan’s lemon meringue pie was one of the most glorious things I had ever put in my mouth…’ (p.154)

and also acknowledges another Joan, hidden behind the making and the baking:

‘She is aware, I know, that none of my dad’s friends like her. It suddenly occurs to me that she is probably as lonely as I am.’ (p.185)

For the relationship between father and son, communication takes place through food, occasionally exhibiting a kindness that cannot be otherwise expressed. When Slater’s mother dies, for example, his father places two marshmallows on his bedside table. This nightly routine continued for two years.

On the other hand, he also tried to control who his son was, or might be, through food:

‘He always winced when I asked for fairy drops. ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have some Brazil nut toffees?’ he said, trying desperately to make a man of me.’ (p.117)

I have thought much about this book, both when I first read it, and since my re-read. Food is so central to our lives, essential, yet also used as a tool, to hide behind, to disguise what can otherwise be too painful to express. The physicality of food concretises emotions, and has the potential to further confuse issues:

‘Without a word he stabs his fork into a slice of ham and slaps it on my plate. A hot wave of hate goes through my body. Hate ham, hate him.’ (p.33)

It seems as if the power of food goes beyond what it is. Perhaps it is a useful tool, at times. Not all can be expressed with words, and we do need other vehicles to channel our feelings and to facilitate how we connect. Yet we also abuse it, and give it a status that can distract us from the real business of who we are and what we truly need.

Slater’s childhood experiences clearly have not destroyed his relationship with food. His current TV series testifies to someone who truly loves food, and who also treats it kindly.


Our relationship with death is influenced by many things, but culture and religion seem to predominate.

Yesterday while listening to BBC Radio4, I caught the end of Kate Adie’s programme ‘A Poisonous Cocktail’, which features reports from various correspondents around the world. The tail end I caught contained a report from Will Grant in Mexico.

Grant was recently in Mexico, during Halloween, a time which specifically highlights the relationship that Mexican people have with death, and with the dead. They mourn the loss of those who have died, but they also choose to celebrate their lives, with a national annual two day festival, which coincides with our Halloween.

The festival combines All Souls Day, All Saints Day and the indigenous rituals of the Day of the Dead, thus rooted both in a religious and a cultural heritage.

On day 1, altars and specific artefacts that evoke the memory of loved ones, to ‘help them on their way’, are on display throughout the country.

On day 2, the celebrations move to cemeteries, where candles are lit, and partying begins, literally dancing on the tombs of the dead, their way of saying goodbye.

Thus, in Mexico death is an integral part of the lives of the living. Children are aware from an early age that death is inevitable, and loss is simultaneously mourned and celebrated. The spirits and souls of those who have died are sent off into the unknown openly, with an embrace, and with love.


Lasting just over an hour, this three man play by Colin Teevan leaves much to consider. I am still considering, and although I am not altogether sure that I grasped all the various meanings and layers, I gained enough to make it a thought-provoking experience.

The three men – Young Man (Anthony Delaney),  Man (Owen O’Neill) and Old Man (Gary Lilburn) – are together on stage throughout, digging, and talking, and telling stories, the secrets of their lives gradually exposed and shared as the shovels do their work:

‘Let the shaft glide through your hand – ‘

The play feels rooted in an Ireland of a certain time (The ‘Kingdom of Ireland’ ceased as such in 1801), when young men headed off, ‘making something of yourself”:

‘I take the road eastwards towards the sea,

And England.’

England here equates with London, Kilburn and the Galtee More in Cricklewood specifically, and perhaps predictably.

‘Pints are drunk that night,

And the talk is mighty.’

Also unsurprisingly, the Ireland left behind, we learn as the stories unfold, is one rife with incest, rape and murder. It is also the land of tinkers, of shrines, and, somewhat ironically, Our Lady of Succour…

The Old Man teases us with a riddle at the outset:

‘My mother is my father’s child,

And my mother’s son my father,

If I believe this is no lie,

Tell me stranger who am I?’

The correct answer is ‘a good Christian’…

Violence, blows, suicide, self-inflicted blindness…tragedy suffuses the narrative, with more than a hint of a Greek tragedy prevailing.

In the end, there is no sense of redemption, no sense that truth makes a positive difference. An ambivalence towards the very notion of stories appears in the opening scene, as the talking begins:

‘Go on believing, if it helps,

Telling yourself stories,

If it helps put down the day.’

Leaving Ireland has solved little, the past in the end remains inescapable:

‘I look around at them,

Their battered boots and breeches, worn out braces,

I look into their hungry, cowed faces;

These are not the pride of Hackney, Haringey or Hull,

But the lost sons of Kerry, Cork and Donegal.’

The Old Man’s comment that:

‘One road’s the same as another, when you’re digging it.’

made me think of Seamus Heaney’s poem, Digging (Death of a Naturalist, 1969). Here, Heaney initially describes the tradition of digging in his father’s and grandfather’s time, before concluding:

‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

the squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.’

We dig, in our own individual and unique ways, to get at a truth, which feels intuitively worthwhile and valid. What we unearth, about ourselves and others, may not however be what we expected or hoped to find.


I have always been drawn to empty buildings, particularly ruins, spaces that were once complete, populated, and now stand and fall, ghost-like and desolate.

In Cork this weekend, I chanced upon an intriguing exhibition at the Crawford Art Gallery. It contains a single piece, an 8 minute film by Martin Healy, called Last Man.

Filmed in the now de-comissioned Cork Airport Terminal, the piece depicts the movements of a solitary janitor as he maintains the empty building. Initially, it feels as if we are watching a lone worker as he prepares the terminal for the busyness of tomorrow. But tomorrow never materialises, the building remains in a state of emptiness, a place of non-happening, that is ultimately and irreparably abandoned.

As I left Cork airport today, from the new inhabited and alive terminal, I glanced at its cast aside and melancholic predecessor. Yet disused buildings are not necessarily empty in the absolute sense. Memories remain, and the ruins continue to live as unique repositories for melancholy, and for the artistic imagination.


I am a great fan of the Bloodaxe poetry collections edited by Neil Astley, Staying Alive and Being Alive. Between them lies such a wealth of words and thoughts that it feels as if I can dip into them and find something that resonates with whatever mood or experience I am living. Being Human is a companion collection that I have not read, but this did not stop me from attending a performance of selected poems from the anthology at Kings Place this week.

Three performers dramatised the varied works, varied both in terms of content and also the diverse corners of the world the pieces originated from and have been translated for the collection.

The performers are talented and impressive actors, who with an innate skill and ease allowed the poetry to come alive, and to seduce.

Of more than 30 poems, which covered most life events from the banal to the sublime, I enjoyed the entirety, yet inevitably I have favourites.

Philip Larkin’s poignant The Mower is one:

‘The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,

‘Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.’

I love the essence of this poem, how the banality of mowing the lawn transmutes into something that resonates beyond the event. But only if you allow it to.

I was introduced to many poems and poets during the performance that I was less aware of, for example Doris Kareva, and her poem Shape of Time (translated from Estonian by Tiina Aleman):

‘You aren’t better than anyone.
You aren’t worse than anyone.
You have been given the world.
See what there is to see.’
The performance encompassed most life events, from birth (Upon Seeing an Ultrasound Photo of an Unborn Child, by Thomas Lux), to the departure of children from the parental home (To a Daughter Leaving Home by Linda Paston), to ageing (Getting Older by Elaine Feinstein) and death (Antidote to the Fear of Death by Rebecca Elson).
One of my favourites was Table, which proved to be a centre piece, as the text recurred throughout the performance. It is a multi-layed piece that epitomises the power of poetry to say little, and much…
From Table, by Edip Cansever, translated from Turkish by Julia Clare and Richard Tillinghurst:
‘A man filled with the gladness of living
Put his keys on the table,
Put flowers in a copper bowl there.’

‘On the table the man put
Things that happened in his mind.
What he wanted to do in life,
He put that there.’

‘He was next to the window next to the sky;
He reached out and placed on the table endlessness.’

‘He placed there his sleep and his wakefulness;
His hunger and his fullness he placed there.
Now that’s what I call a table!
It didn’t complain at all about the load.
It wobbled once or twice, then stood firm.
The man kept piling things on.’

Being Human, edited by Neil Astley, Bloodaxe, 2012.


One of 14 Irish films at the festival, Pat Collins’ piece is mesmerising, and also very difficult to classify. Primarily a documentarist, Collins’ latest film does not fit into the documentary genre. But it also lies beyond the world of fiction, with little in the way of plot, or ‘traditional’ narrative.

The film follows Eoghan, resident in Berlin but originally from a small island, Tory, of northwestern Ireland. Eoghan is seeking silence, and we join him on his quest to capture an experience that excludes man-made or man-related sounds. Inevitably, the endeavour fails, or is perhaps re-directed, as Eoghan moves closer to Tory, which he last visited 15 years previously. In the end, he re-visits the derelict home of his growing up, which is poignantly empty of sound.

As Collins said in the Q&A after the screening, the film is more about sound than about silence. As his journey progresses, Eoghan engages more with others, speaking in his native Irish, and all the time, subconsciously or otherwise, edging closer to ‘home’.

It is tempting, and fraught, to speculate on the meaning behind Silence, and to analyse what it may be trying to achieve. I loved this film. During the screening, and since, I have considered both the concept of home (Brian Dillon’s book In the Dark Room: A Journey in Memory came to mind) and its impossibility, a nowhere and an everywhere, and that of silence. Silence means many things, beyond an absence of sound, which can be welcome, but also deeply threatening, and a profound signifier of loss.