Monthly Archives: March 2008

I want life in every word to the extent that it’s absurd

All about my father


When I think of how to begin describing my father, I think of the things he and I have in common: we are both Londoners (my mum is not) and we share a deep affinity, a love for the place that sometimes people can find a little hard to understand. I think that, like me, he feels reassured by the noise and the restlessness, the impersonal, unpretentious, inconstant bustle of those charter’d streets; it’s a feeling of belonging, I suppose, but more than that: calm, affirmation. It makes you feel human.

The other place I instantly associate with my dad, and have inherited his love for, is the sea. I think of him whenever I’m there at the edge of the land, at the wide horizon; I remember him in vast empty beaches in wind or snow or any weather, always happy and always swimming. His neatly-shaven head slices the water into regular lengths, bobbing and dipping further and further out among the boisterous waves, and reassuringly back again. You’re probably thinking that deserted beaches and populous North London are disparate places to like; I thought so too, at first, but in another way they’re not at all. They’re both just expansive, massive and full of fractals and microcosms – the people of the city can be very much like the pebbles and shells by the sea. You don’t see them as individual units until, or unless, you get up close.

When I was little, my dad had an allotment, and I had my own corner where I grew radishes and flowers; carrots from tops slowly germinated in jam-jar lids on the kitchen windowsill. He was always growing something, and he taught me how to rake and till the soil and to dig and fertilise and sow, poking tiny seeds protectively down into their damp dark beds and gently covering them over again. I have happy memories of weekend afternoons spent there, painstakingly weeding, studying minibeasts or just messing around with my brother while Dad worked on his vegetable patch. He would urinate cheerfully into the compost heap at the end of the allotment, explaining that it was good for the plants; perhaps this helped to create the impression I have of him as suffused with a general, quiet, essential vitality. Even his waste helped things grow. I mention that he taught me everything I know about horticulture; I mean that he taught me everything. Maths, Hebrew, history, geography, politics, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, religious studies, critical thinking… I owe him more than I can ever say for inculcating in me his love of learning, his ability to be fascinated; his capacity for awe. He teaches me still.

He is an excellent correspondent: wryly witty, affectionate but never sappy, gentle, interested, sharp. A letter, or more frequently a card, from my father is something to treasure and re-read, something to save for after all the boring post and open over tea and toast, or even to take to uni or work with me to be opened only when I need cheering up, if it’s going to be a long day. I guess some of the first letters I’d have received from him were while he was working in Newcastle, staying in a horrible, cold little flat on his own during the week and driving down each weekend, before we got a house sorted out there and all moved up together. I hated that time; I don’t even remember how long it went on for, can’t have been more than a month or two, but it was dark – it was winter, ostensibly moving into spring. It was snowing in April, when we got there. I couldn’t stand, still can’t, the thought of him alone in that place; his letters were brilliant and warm but of course I couldn’t help feeling sad while I was reading them, snuggled in my woolen coat down by an old iron radiator in the corner of a room that wouldn’t be my school library for much longer. The carpet was dark green, corrugated or lined like corduroy but bristly tough, the fibres tiny tight-coiled plasticky things. I remember I was reading A Clockwork Orange at the same time. It’ll sound melodramatic if I say my experiences during this period provided me with object lessons about love and pain, their inevitability, and the spaces between them or lack thereof.

The other thing about my dad, the thing you’d notice right away if you were to meet him, is his friendliness; his good nature and good faith. He is affable, equable, but most of all instantly likeable – both interesting and kind, I think people want to be friends with him and that is a lovely, and unusual, thing. Sometimes people say that I’m approachable or friendly or memorable and when this happens I like to quietly thank my dad, because I think although we are dissimilar in many ways, that must be something he’s blessed me with somehow, just because it shines out of him, not glaringly but softly, a light seen through gauze.

It’s actually something I admire about both my parents, the way they’re so welcoming; their generosity of spirit, their capacity for friendship and their easy grace. When I go home there’s always someone new, either there in my living room or just around in their lives – an old lady my dad gives lifts to and helps out; a guy they do shape note singing with, so they invited him to my sister’s bat mitzvah; an Israeli student who’s staying here for a while and wouldn’t have anyone else to celebrate Seder Night with; a guy who’s thinking of converting to Judaism, only in the end he becomes a priest instead; my mum’s going for dinner with a woman from her old work. I love that about them, it makes me feel proud and hopeful too. When I was fourteen my dad and I went to Poland, he assembled a motley Jew crew somehow and we went there and travelled to sites of particular historical importance, and some places that were just interesting or fun as well. We met all sorts of people; my dad befriended one guy, Wojtek, so much that a while later his son Filip came over and stayed with us in London as a kind of holiday, I guess, if you can call it a holiday when you sleep on our living room floor and our cat comes in and wakes you up by licking your face.

Anyway, I digress; I just meant to say, that’s the kind of thing I value about my parents and the household they made for us, the places I grew up in and the experiences that I had. While I reckon they’re both, mum and dad, far from ‘mainstream’ or ‘conventional’ by any measure, they’re also far from insular or even proud; they’re in touch with their surroundings and the rest of humanity, more than I am really although I feel better when I try. Quietly extraordinary.