Tag Archives: text portrait

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.

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

All about my father

dad

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.

You could either be successful or be us with our winning smiles

One from my notebook: Bryn.

in the kitchen

BRYN

is a boy who could be any age between about 17 and 28. He is pale with pretty jade-green eyes and a dreadhawk which is dun at the roots and then dyed to a subtle, denim blue tending toward slate; I want to say it matches his eyes, but his eyes are really quite different, greener; I think what I mean is it matches somebody’s eyes. It does match his hoody, well-worn, soft like a faded photograph. He has a piercing on the right-hand side of his lip and wears a little ring in it which perhaps lends the impression of a half-smile even when he is not half-smiling (which he is quite often), and he has a slightly unusual face with a prominent nose and mild chin, a little as though when somebody made him, they started by pinching a little pinch of the Bryn-clay and pulled it forward to make a nose, then added everything else around it as an afterthought.

He reminds me of my brother immediately I see him, which is in the kitchen on the first day extolling the virtues of drinking cups of hot water to avoid caffeine. Someone shouts “Bryn, you’re taking this vegan thing too far!” and so I assume he’s straight edge, but then later it turns out he isn’t at all. I say “drinking hot water, eh? It’s really good for you, isn’t it?” (having not regained my Lahndan ‘innit’, definitely not at this stage, I don’t think I did at all really, or maybe self-parodyingly a bit.) and Bryn says “nah it’s not good for you, it just tastes really nice! Nicer than cold water. You should try it”. And this exchange sums up something of what little I’ve gathered about the nature of Bryn: he is unconventionally affable, he is serious but never earnest, or he is light-hearted but never free-wheeling. Something like that. Also he seems, unusually, to be absolutely as happy and comfortable chatting in a group of people or sitting in silence alone somewhere with his thoughts and the sky and the faraway sea in his eyes. If you find him doing the latter, and talk to him, he responds as though he’d just been waiting for you to come along (and ask him what he got up to last night, or whatever – “folk rave!” he might enthusiastically say), rather than as though you’re interrupting. He is quietly confident and never brash; his style is demonstrated when I shyly ask if I can take his photograph and he keenly agrees, smiles, but then doesn’t quite meet the camera’s gaze. It is quite delightful really.

On the last day, when we are in a terrible rush due to leaving the site an hour later than we’d planned (I blame F), we stagger, loaded with bags, past Bryn on our way out. I drop some of mine to hug him and kiss him on the cheek, though because a light rain is falling again, he has his hood up and it gets in the way and so the kiss lands far over toward his lips, perhaps touching them at one side, and I’m a bit embarrassed. Again, that feeling that I want to say something meaningful, or I want to tell him something but I don’t know what. I think I say “it was really good to meet you”, and then he says something about flickr and I say “I will!”

Promises

We go to Francis’ and Mattia’s farewell drink, planning to drop in on our way to A’s, so we’re unfashionably on time and only the two celebrants are there when we arrive – they’re sitting outside on this slightly chilly, bright evening and looking even younger without their aprons or their shirts and ties, their uniforms. We get our drinks and go and sit inside in the section they’ve reserved; I remark that the barman looks as if he’s in a band, not realising that Francis knows him, and ‘he is’, he agrees, wide-eyed, ‘…they’re rubbish’. He’s obviously younger than me as well, which makes me feel funny.

Francis phones our mutual friend P, gets me to talk to him to convince him to come along, but he’s not co-operating, and when F realises that P and I have just got into one of our interminable chats (apparently he’s got a great story for me about a swing) instead he snatches the phone back: ‘Stop stealing my minutes!’ We agree that P’s action – or lack of – is lame, but really I wish he were there because I feel so unselfconscious when I talk to him; it’s just familiarity, I guess, he’s part of my comfort zone. Soon we’re joined by Lewis, who was such a sweetheart and who I haven’t seen since he left, maybe six months ago; and some more friends of Francis’, a girl and a boy who are laden down with instruments, they have been out busking. She greets him as Frangipane, which makes me smile because it reminds me of my and P’s (but mostly my) many silly nicknames for him – Mad Frankie Lister, Francesco, General Franco, Frankenstein, Bacon, Teenage Kicks, Assissi. Obviously, he’s just an inherently nicknamable lad. We all talk about this and that – work, people we know or used to, summer, Italy, Portnoy’s Complaint (I’ve bought a copy for Francis, wrapped it in bright tissue paper and curly, lustrous scarlet ribbon which I find myself looking at, bunched up on the table in a little spray, when I’m too shy for eye contact) – with a slightly polite, slightly restrained enthusiasm, as befits the group. We all laugh when Lewis and F, like a tag team, tell us a funny story about a woman asking for squid in the deli where L works now; the laughter is uproarious, mostly because it’s a funny story and they tell it well, partly because laughing is free and easy and come-as-you-please, it’s a release, or a relief, or probably both.

f
Eventually the conversation will turn to music and the many instruments of the two (are they a couple, or just friends? I can’t tell) who arrived with Lewis, the two who I forget the names of almost as soon as I’m told. She’s the wind section, plays a mouth organ and a penny whistle; she can do guitar too though, and something else, flute perhaps? but she doesn’t have one on her. He can play guitar too, and most excitingly, sitar; he takes it from its case to show it to us, quiet, careful, not so much proud as reverent. He’s slim, this boy, and he gives the impression of slightness and delicacy, though he must be taller than me in my boots and I’m sure he’s not actually unusual in proportions or dimensions at all. Perhaps it’s his facial features that are delicate, softly sculpted; his hair is wavy and overgrown, his gaze is shyly averted and his lashes long. There’s something coltish about him, something not awkward, but not quite yet grown into his skin, a looseness of limb, maybe, and something hushed, it’s as though the unkempt fringe is there to shade or veil him from the world, or it from the intensity of him.

He’s eloquent when he plays, he’s at his best then; when his eyes are fixed on his own fingers and his face is relaxed and peaceful. The sitar is a remarkable object, the body, he tells us, fashioned from half a pumpkin or gourd and the neck incredibly, disproportionately long and covered in little tuning knobs all the way up; it looks as though there are more strings, many many of them, at the bottom and then some of them are shorter and the ends wind round these little turnable keys halfway up and further, by the time you get to the actual head of the thing there are only four or six left.

We go outside where it’s quiet to listen to him play. He sits down on the corner, on the little bit of wall at the bottom of the railings and he touches, tickles the sitar and these amazing sounds come out and ripple around us, caressing us, and spill raucous into the broad New Town street and the deepening blue air. It’s so beautiful that I want to laugh. The music strokes everything, touches everything like light does and stains it with beauty; there’s a full moon and the sky’s getting inky now and the clouds are scudding by fast and it makes me feel small to look up at them; the world is spinning around and untiringly around and the big bright moon is spinning around it and the whole thing is spinning around the hidden vital sun and here we all are, on the street corner, listening to this boy and his sitar. He’ll do requests. Someone says ‘paint it black’ and he can’t remember how it goes, so someone, the girl I think, sings ‘do do do do-do do do do-do do-do doo’ and he does it, plays the intro and then some improvised little curls and some of the middle in a way we’ve never heard and this time I think we do laugh a little, not an amused laugh but a delighted one, as though we’re surprised, like when you see a magic trick. Music is like magic, sometimes, for me; I don’t know how it’s done and I don’t really want to, I like the way it’s beyond my experience and perhaps I just want to think it comes from somewhere else, somewhere outside the quotidian and what humans do, that it’s… real.

This boy had been a bit down on himself, before, inside; not in a dramatic or attention-seeking way, not in a compliment-fishing way but genuinely, slightly embarrassed because he’d finished (or left?) sixth-form and hadn’t got a job yet and had been looking for a month. He’d talked about coming to work at V&C and I tried to warn him, and of course he knew all that from Francis, but said to e-mail me if he really wanted to, but we might not get it because of the spam filter being broken so he should come in, I guess. He was casual about it and he didn’t get upset, but I knew how he felt, I remembered it; he laughingly said something about just being a bum, and sleeping too much, and having to busk for his supper before too long.

Then when we were outside, in the fresh air, a cold little wind blew and I wrapped my dark red coat around myself and stuck my hands in my pockets, but I wanted to hug him, I wanted to say ‘don’t be mad, a month is just a month, you’re so young and you’ve got forever to work for other people and feel compressed, opressed and tired of taking their shit; a day is just a day but for you it’s a chance, a chance to do this and make this music and make people happy, make them peaceful, make every bad thing melt away, even just for a few minutes while they listen to you. You’ve got something so awesome here, so special, and you make everyone richer, and you just do it and look so natural and perfect and you’re just a child; you’ve practically seduced a woman five years your senior here, if you wanted to, do you realise?, and fuck, if I could have done that when I was eighteen – well, let’s just say I’d be proud. And you’re not proud, I can tell, not cocky at all and I guess that’s one of the things that’s great about you, and I’m just so happy to be here now tonight with the sky so blue and the air so crisp and the music so perfect I want to stop time for this moment, not with my camera like I always do, but just want to catch it with my hands and scrunch it and roll it, fold it up into a little mass that feels like clouds and smells like springtime, and I’d lock it up to keep it clean and fresh in a tiny blue box with a silver key with a heart for a handle, and I’d take it out again and stretch it over my hands and my face, soft like silk and light like feathers, when I felt cynical and tired, and I’d look at it sometimes before I went to sleep so that I’d dream good dreams, and maybe I’d look at it again before I die.’

But I didn’t, I said ‘Nice to meet you, good luck, maybe see you again some time’ and then we were off.

On the way up the street we saw Monika but I didn’t recognise her at first, I was glad that someone else was going to see them, for every reason.