Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Undiscovered Countries

"Woman Lying on a Bench"  Carl Larsson

Having been felled by a nasty bronchial cough for the last week or so, I have been thinking about the no-man’s-land that separates the sick from the well. I am fortunate because I have every expectation and hope of being healthy again in a few more days, but others with more serious conditions face the prospect of never crossing back over to that chasm to the land of the heedless well. Conscious of this and of my own good fortune, I try not to mind the symptoms that sap my energy and cause me to lose valuable time. I try to see it as an experience that is as legitimate and valuable a state of being as any other and, as such, just as worthy a subject to be written about.
In her 1926 essay, On Being Ill, Virginia Woolf marveled that illness had not become a popular theme in literature.  

“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light...it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia; lyrics to toothache. But no; ... literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear."
But it is true that illness does produce “undiscovered countries” in our feverish dreams and in our long strange bedridden hours where the world goes on without us. Even as our body lies fallow and weak, our subconscious is a riot of fertility, a tangled rainforest of images and ideas for us to use when we finally get enough strength back to sit at our desks. It is a writer’s great consolation for these lost days marooned on the island of the ill.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

More Precious than Rubies

Ian Malcolm Mackintosh, 1927-2008

It’s been 5 years today since my father died. Though he was born in the 1920s, a time so distant that it seems almost prehistoric, his childhood is as vivid to me as my own. This is because both he and his mother – my grandmother Alice – were born storytellers, and I was lucky enough to be regaled with those stories as long as they both lived.  
My paternal grandparents, Roy and Alice Mackintosh, married very young - he was 19 and she 18 (they look like mere children in their wedding picture below) – but it was seven years before their longed-for firstborn, my dad Ian, came along. He was born in a little terraced house in Nottingham but the family moved three times before he was 10, eventually settling in the suburb of Sherwood three years before the Second World War.

Roy and Alice's wedding day, October 16, 1920

Roy was a lively, affectionate man, but he was somewhat feckless and highly strung, and found it a struggle to keep the various jobs he had over the years. On the other hand, Alice, while a happy-go-lucky young woman, had a streak of toughness and self-preservation that served herself and her children well but also took no prisoners. The family lived very much what we would call paycheck to paycheck, and that paycheck wasn’t always forthcoming. Roy tried his hand at various business ventures, but in 1934 he had a nervous breakdown. So Alice began working - first as a demonstrator of vacuum cleaners and washing machines at The Nottingham Electricity Showrooms and later as a life insurance inspector - and never stopped (even when she had her second son Allan in 1936) till she retired three decades later. But by then, the war had broken Roy and Alice apart as it did to so many families as couples tasted unfamiliar freedoms. 
But over the years, I heard many stories of the time before that happened, stories that my grandmother and my father almost always told as comic tales, even when the underlying subject matter wasn’t so funny. That was how they both coped with their pains and sorrows – by turning them into anecdotes offered for the amusement of others.

And amuse they did. I never tired of hearing my grandmother tell of not being able to find toddler Ian after putting him to bed up in the attic of his Uncle Jack’s house and eventually discovering him fast asleep underneath the bed. Or running with her sons to the public shelter during an air raid wearing saucepans on their heads because they couldn’t find their tin helmets. And seeing a packet of biscuits being drawn up past the dining room window on a string as the boys tried to gather provisions for a sneaky midnight feast.

Then there were my dad’s own memories – of his father building him a model farm and hutches for his rabbits. And taking him all round the Midlands countryside on his motorbike with young Ian strapped on the back in a makeshift child’s chair. Of making paper boats with his Uncle Jack, flushing them down the toilet and then rushing out to the cesspit in the garden see the boats emerge. And, when polishing the buttons of his father’s RAF uniform, finding a letter in the pocket from another woman and deciding not to tell his mother.

All of this family lore is a huge gift to a writer. Some of these stories will end up in Albion’s Millennium because they are far too good – and real – to go to waste. The ability to craft and pace a story clearly runs in my family, and if I’ve been lucky enough to have inherited even a hint of it, it will have been a gift more precious than rubies.