This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll try to make sense of bits of life. In the past, I often tried to do that politically, as a socialist. I remain a socialist, and I’ll happily discuss with anyone why they should be a socialist too; but here, mostly, I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything.
I’ve called this first post in the series: ‘Our minds sometimes stutter’ because I had to begin it again and again. Once I’d written a few words, I’d think: is that really what I want to say? Is that how I want to begin? I’d also thought of other titles, like: ‘A beginning that was always there’ and ‘Always beginning’. So, perhaps it’s time give in to my own mind-stuttering and begin again.
This is the first in a series of posts where I admit: I’ll never make complete sense of life, but I’ll always try.
In the last year and a half, three people important to me died. Bob Thomson, my father-in-law, was 81 years old; Alice Duke, my mum, was 78; and Andy Armstrong, a friend and comrade, was 52.
How is anyone supposed to make sense of friends and family dying? Of course, there are answers in words; but – how can words mend huge holes in our lives? Certainly, words can sometimes help to slowly heal the hurt we feel. And – words can help us to remember people. That’s good, because then we can sometimes put death in it’s place. For a while, death cannot take away all that we knew of a person. When we remember someone who has died, we take back pieces of life from death. If we always remember people, death is diminished.
Several years ago, my mum gave me her PhD thesis. I have it in front of me now. It’s dated 1992, so she would have been 52 years old when she finished it. After a lifetime of bringing up four children, sometimes working as a cleaner and at other times as an auxiliary nurse. Battling demons from a hard childhood. Playing the piano. And then being a mature student, as my dad was too, and eventually writing her thesis called: ‘Conflict and Resolution in the Poetry of Thomas Hardy’. I took one look at the title and placed the thick block of paper on the bottom shelf of a bookcase. And I forgot about it.
After I came back to Dundee on the day of my mum’s funeral in Edinburgh, which was in a small or a vast crematorium – I’m not sure which, I went to the bookshelf and lifted out the heavy thesis. I skimmed the pages. I was suddenly shocked. Many of the ideas echoed ideas I’d thought about and tried to write about for years. Like this one, on page 47:
It would appear that language is required in order that sight of a world external to the self might be mutually understood in society. But there is an aspect of language which is always hidden from others, that of the silent inner voice which, while appearing to make sense of our external view, at the same time offers us our own personal vision that at times may go beyond logical analysis.
I’ve always had a fascination about language and how we learn about the world outside of us, all the time listening to our internal voice, which sometimes stutters. I do not remember ever discussing this with my mum. In her thesis, she goes on to quote neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks who wrote marvellously about our brains and their creative power and the tricks they play on us. Reading my mum quoting Sacks made me smile, and I took down books by Sacks from a bookshelf. These are books I’ve read, but I looked at them again – as if for the first time. I’ve also begun to read the poetry of Thomas Hardy.
My friend Andrew Armstrong also loved to read. He was always asking if I’d read some book he’d come across – about Malcolm X, or James Connolly, or Muhammed Ali.
Andy died when he was only 52. He was a tremendous fighter, marching in a thousand campaigns against fascists, racism, cutbacks, and all kinds of injustice. Although seriously ill for a number of years, he had to battle the Department of Work & Pensions to get the benefits he was entitled to. He won. Once, years earlier, he marched with dozens of protesters the length of Britain against the poll tax. He helped to win that war too, which toppled a hated Prime Minister: Margaret Thatcher.
If I’d tried to say to Andy – how I often don’t know what to write or how to say it, he might have just raised one eyebrow. It would mean: That’s not a real problem, is it? It wasn’t done maliciously: there was a great deal of humour in Andy’s eyebrows.
Andy’s funeral was funny too: he designed it that way. The music playing was: I did it my way, the Sex Pistols version. And Tam Samson made everyone laugh by reminding us what a funny, sometimes exasperating man Andy was. And – what a good man he was.
And another thing I just remembered: Andy conquered a bad stutter.
He was also always asking how my book on spies was coming along: a book I’ve been writing since 2010. I never finished it in time for him to read. I wish I had.
Bob Thomson, my father-in-law, was also someone always asking me: “How’s the book getting on?” I always gave the same, vague answer: “Fine. It’s coming along fine.” And it was, and is, but I could never think of much more to say about it than that. (I can write about it at great length. Don’t ask me to: you’ll fall asleep by the end.) So, then he’d ask me about the job I did which the paid the bills: my job as a Welfare Rights Officer. Although, I always thought of this as an easier thing to talk about (helping people with money problems, sometimes keeping a man or woman alive), my answers were not quite practical enough. “So, what exactly do you do?” And then I’d stutter about forms and rules which were always changing and food parcels, and he would look at me and nod, and then ask the same question the next time we met.
When he and I were sitting together at one of the many family get-togethers which Isobel or her mum or her sister organised, it was much easier to talk about things with him because we shared the same love for family and we found the people around us endlessly fascinating and often very funny.
A few days ago, Isobel was using a tablet which belonged to her dad, and we found an old video. It must have been from when he first got the tablet as they were trying to work out how to use it. He covers the lens with his finger and is told not to. Then, the camera is looking up at two puzzled and amused faces, and Isobel says: “Is that it?”. Her dad chuckles and replies: “I’ve no idea. I haven’t got a clue.” And they both laugh and other people in the room laugh too. And at the instant he smiles, I think: that’s how I remember him. Laughing, working out some puzzle, and surrounded by his family.
Whenever I try to make sense of things that are very hard to make sense of, like people dying, or socks that go missing, I find my mind stuttering and that annoys me. So, I might go for a walk and think about it all later. Or I go to work, or read, or relax. Or, write something else. For months, I’ve tried to write something like this, but it was hard to conquer that particular stutter. So, I had to go for a lot of walks, and work and read a lot and write other things, and relax – sometimes. I got there eventually.
I can’t promise that my mind-stutter won’t come back, and maybe this series of posts will take longer than I’d like it to. But maybe, just maybe, by remembering people and watching the lives of other people unfold, I’ll find something else to write about soon and I’ll be able to write it. Without too much stuttering.