Tag Archives: family

Because the tide is high, and it’s rising still, and I don’t want to see it at my windowsill.

Really didn’t want this to be true.

Despite everything I’d heard first-hand from my brother*, who is one of the most kind, intelligent and brilliant people in the world, despite everything I’d seen and read and spent hours and hours worrying and arguing and weeping about last week, lacking sleep, lacking rest, lacking the ability to smile, I had just about managed to get myself to think that the person who told him that the pigs had pretty much killed an innocent man must have been somehow mistaken; just about managed to shake off the memories of Jean-Charles de Menezes and Blair Peach and make myself begin to suspect I could believe that it couldn’t be true, that it had all been so confused and unclear that we would never know what really happened and that it must have just been a tragedy and nobody was to blame. I didn’t want this to be true.

Look. Watch. Remember. And act.

Be the change you want to see in the world.

* Here, he explains part of what happened to him and his friends:

Someone arrives with a thick tarpaulin banner of the kind you can use to block truncheon blows (I think it’s the “C(A)PIT(A)LISM KILLS” one, but mostly see it from behind, so it’s impossible to be sure) and we assemble behind it and start pushing forward. By this point, we’ve already been pepper-sprayed, but I’m wearing sunglasses and have my mouth covered so I’m fine. As the two lines meet, our banner gets shoved back, and someone falls over. More people fall over. I fall over. Other people fall on me. The light gets completely blocked out.
Eventually, I manage to get back to my feet. I’m OK, but a cop’s smashed M over the head with a baton. If you remember my previous email where I mentioned a comrade being known for his extreme, saintly generosity and niceness, that’s him. A flashback: In one of those absurdly over-the-top juxtapositions that’re only meant to happen in crude agitprop and not in real life, the night before (when he was out of the room, obv) we’d been discussing how nice he is and how it’s difficult to describe how nice he is, because there are lots of people who can be described as “nice”, and most of them will sometimes put other people’s needs ahead of their own, and sometimes not, but with M it’s not even something that’s ever in doubt, he just seems to do it automatically, so anyone who spends much time with him ends up taking advantage, not intentionally or anything, just because it’s impossible to avoid doing so with someone who’s so consistently altruistic.
And now he has blood pouring down his face as a result of being hit over the head while he lay on the floor.

– my brother, 21, April 5 2009

Raise your glass to change and chance.

All about my mother

here comes the sun

In the middle of every Shabbat service, just before the shema, we read:
Blessed are you God who forms light yet creates darkness, who makes peace yet creates all.

‘The mother is God in the eyes of a child’? Perhaps it’s something like that. She is my creator, after all, and for some nine months (during some of which, it seems, I could have been conscious) she was my world; she is the only constant, the thing that I have known the longest. But with my mother, more than most, I think the dichotomy is relevant and tangible – she brings love, laughter and light into our home, but also anger, pain, dissatisfaction, sadness. She has three living children, three of us who survived infancy, and two who did not. This ratio is about right, I feel: she has always been, and will always be, more light than darkness, more happy than sad. But it’s a close-run thing sometimes; I don’t think I’ll ever be able to think of her without her past, like a cloud, an ache – to see her as my mother without the ghosts.

She always puts flowers in my bedroom when I visit home, and she is always making something: she knits, sews, crochets, lately she spins wool from tops and dyes it; she bakes and she writes. And she has children, of course. She understands fibres and food. Everything is soft and structured, everything is many-coloured, patchworked and warm. Because she always has something unfinished in her hands, and because my parents’ house is so full of her gloriously handmade things, she’s sort of soft around the edges – you can’t really say where she ends and what she made begins.

The scents that remind me most of her are paper and old leather, warm and worn. A battered jacket that she used to wear, I think it must have once been like a biker jacket but time had creased and cracked it until it was soft and supple as chamois. In first year I bought one of my own from Armstrong’s – a subconscious memento? – but it’s different, so thick and solid it’s like a shell. In my mind’s eye my mum’s jacket hangs over the back of an old-fashioned, oiled wood chair in the hazy sunlight of childhood; dust motes dance above it in the yellowish beams that slip through faded curtains, heavy cotton, hand-dyed in yellow, red, orange. Sparkling fronds that we made together from glass beads and sweet wrappers, acetate and foil crinkling and clinking together when the wind blows. The association with paper is obvious, it’s from her many books – literature, poetry and plays, classics, Latin, recipe books and newspaper clippings, paperback novels bordering on pulp fiction, graphic novels, magazines, notebooks, sketches and doodles, diaries, plans – but also from the typesetting job she had when I was little; the clean and slightly chemical smell of her office, the laminators and inks and unknowable machines. She used to bring home little books and folders of paper samples, for me to draw on; neat little spectrums of pastels and brights, assorted weights and finishes, watermarks… how I treasured them! I must have kept some of them, my favourite ones, for seven or eight years. There’s something else: the clean smell of bread dough, not baking, although she is excellent at that; the baking scent itself reminds me of something more vague, a general feeling of welcome and wellbeing, I guess it does that for everybody. This is a scent of ingredients: flour, almonds, cinnamon, yeast. And finally something dark and dry, like dead air in a small dusty wooden box; cigars, unsmoked; the feeling in the back of the throat when you eat good, bitter dark chocolate.

The poems I associate with my mother – Mignon by J. W. von Goethe (her favourite, I think), The Song of Wandering Angus by W. B. Yeats (I remember her reciting it many times to me as a small child; I was entranced and haunted by the image of ‘a fire in my head’; the last stanza’s ‘till time and times are done’. I had only been alive for five or six years, and I suppose self-absorbedly thought that that was all the time in the world – when could this ‘time and times are done’ possibly be? Was this my first glimpse of the idea of infinity… celestial apple-plucking without end?) and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost – all have in common a longing to be somewhere else, somewhere far from the mundane and the colourless quotidian; a restlessness, an insatiable existential itch that I think perhaps I’ve inherited from her and her poems, I feel it sometimes in my own skin. Is it the same as Thanatos, the lust for death? Of course that’s what people say about about Frost’s poem and you could definitely make a case for it in the others too. But I think it’s not quite that simple. Intertwined with the bittersweet wish – not even a wish, nothing so conscious and active… more a gravitation, a pull as of magnetism, something inevitable and slow – to die, there is an inescapable love of life too: not merely an aesthetic appreciation of the intense beauty experienced in our own finite little lives, but a fiery thing, a fightback. In a sense, those poems all seem to me to contain (somewhere beneath the surface) a manifesto for loving: a resume of ‘why I’m not dead yet’, if you will.

If my dad is suffused with a springtime feeling of wholesomeness, freshness and youth, then my mother (in the nicest possible way) is autumnal, elder but not old – she dresses in autumn colours, and quietly she exudes the quality of those days of warm, rich colours and their crisp cold new air that hurts your lungs if you breathe deeply; of the ripeness of red fruit and of bright burning-looking leaves, but tinged with the beautiful spikes and whorls of first frost. A beauty that is inseparable from the knowledge that it’s fleeting; a warmth and joie de vivre that go hand in hand – perhaps closer – with the first-hand experience of random death. She is always somewhat tired, but wholly alive. She will always have miles to go before she sleeps.

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.

These could be the good old days.

The day of the red feathers

We were walking down to the shops one early evening at the start of May. We were on the street two down from ours, a quiet, broad street where there’s a school and some flats and a closed-down shop and a beautiful old building that used to be a church, when we saw the red feathers.

There were many, many of them everywhere – they’d been blown all along the pavements, sticking in the bushes and trees and weeds and cracks, in the ivy and in the gutter, bright, scarlet feathers between about 3 and 10cm long. They were the same kind you get in feather boas – it was as though someone had got one (or even two, the number of feathers there still were, maybe two had had a fight) and ripped it to shreds, floating, bright red, fluffy carnage in the middle of the street. That was something I noticed, there didn’t seem to be more on one side or at one end of the street; they were so spread out that you couldn’t tell where they’d started from, there didn’t seem to be an epicentre. Like rain.

I kept seeing the red feathers, fewer and farther between, whenever I was walking around our area for the next few weeks, it felt like whenever I’d look down I’d see one. The winds took them and scattered them, and the sun and rain bleached them – I think they must have been white and had been dyed to be so bright in the first place, and gradually they become more pink and pale, fading like bruises, until you wouldn’t realise they were the same ones unless you’d seen them all that day. The stems or stalks in the middle, the harder parts, the spines of the feathers, they stayed redder for longer but mostly they got broken.

It’s been three weeks now, or thereabouts, and I still see one or two around the place. The only ones left now are caught up in something, mostly wrapped around weeds or tangled into fences. I saw one today, straggly and faint, sadly clinging to a little clump of alyssum that was growing at the bottom of a doorstep. That made me realise that I hadn’t thought about alyssum in a long, long time; I remember a big carpet of it around the edges of flowerbeds and pots in the garden of my maternal grandparents, who, I realised when reading something Sarah had written yesterday, I don’t speak or write to enough. I have a lot of good memories of being a child in their garden; I told my grandmother this – I bought her a card with a botanical illustration of a passion flower on it because it reminded me of her and there – and, my mother told me, made her cry, but in a good way.

Alyssum, then – it’s simple and understated and I used to like the smallness of it and the scent, but mostly the name, I think. They called it sweet alyssum, or maybe that was the variety, and made a thing of how it sounded like ‘sweet Alice’. Perhaps that was what I thought it was or should be called, how I’d have spelled it if I didn’t know: alice-um. But I was always good at reading, and I always used to like reading seed packets and catalogues, so on the other hand perhaps I knew how to spell it before I knew what it was. That’s how I can spell all the flowers: helianthus, delphinium, hydrangea, even fuchsia, which I remember was one of the hardest but one I liked a lot so I had to learn. Mr Fothergill’s seed packets and Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies; between the two of them my horticultural literacy was assured.

Those long sunny days that I remember in their garden being small, the school holidays, I would be with my brother and sometimes my cousins. Or on weekends in London, in the magnificent garden of my dad’s great-grandmother, a warm and tiny woman. She died when I was thirteen and she was ninety-seven. Her garden was tidy, almost formal, but if you knew where to look, which of course we did, it was bursting with life and more importantly fruit; apples, plums, gooseberries, redcurrants, and most wonderfully a mulberry tree. Me and my brother and my other cousins this time, my London Jewish ones. We’d stuff ourselves with mulberries, plump, dark and intense, and she’d warn us that we’d get tummy aches but mostly we just got sticky purple juice everywhere. It was before I ever had a sister; a sister with a flower name or otherwise. I wonder if there was a time when I would think about flowers, or leaves, and not feel even just a tiny bit sad. A time before loss, I suppose. I wonder if anybody does, or can.

At times like these I think it’s strange how symbolism doesn’t work on things outside of your head; it’s strange the difference in accountability between the imaginary and the real. If I’d dreamed all this, the story of the red feathers and the spring alyssum, you’d say that everything meant something; perhaps the feathers were some metaphor for… K, or time, and the red was because of my phobia that I’d been thinking and worrying about, and the fading was because of me worrying about being trapped in my job, and so on and so forth. Everything would have its place, everything its reason. But I didn’t dream it, it just happened one day in the street, and so it doesn’t have all that neat translation or explanation, it doesn’t have to be reasonable or reasoned with.

I didn’t mean this to be sad.