Clearing out a drawer the other day, my Mum came across a small box containing a pair of cufflinks and shirt pins and a piece of paper inscribed ‘these were my Bruce’s studs – with love from Aileen’.
Aileen or Auntie Aileen as we knew her was my Grandfather’s sister, my Dad’s aunt. My Grandfather Cecil William Farrar Laurie and his sister Marie Aileen Lorna Laurie had been born in Barbados where the family once owned a sugar plantation.
The Bruce in the inscription was Bruce Hamilton, he and Aileen had married in 1933 and it’s possible my dad, born in 1939, had been named for Bruce. He also received Farrar for his middle name, as I did later, a surname from Aileen’s branch of the family descended from Colonel Thomas Austin, another Barbados plantation owner, albeit it a much earlier one having been born there in 1728. This branch of the family included Austin Farrar who had been taught to write by Enid Blyton but was better known for inventing the ‘pulpit’, a guard rail that fits around the bow of a sailing yacht as a safety handhold and also for designing anti-torpedo nets during the Second World War. These two inventions have been credited with saving innumerable lives at sea.
Bruce and his younger brother Patrick Hamilton were both authors, Patrick being the more critically acclaimed author with one of his plays, Gaslight, turned into the 1944 film starring Ingrid Bergman. ‘Gaslighting’ has entered the colloquial English language as the term commonly used for a form of physiological manipulation as experienced by the Bergman character in the film. Bruce’s most renowned works were the cricket based novel ‘Pro: An English Tragedy’, a poignant portrayal of the life of an English County cricketer around the time of the First World War. Patrick died in 1964 and Bruce in 1974, shortly after completing his brother’s biography ‘The Light Went Out: The Life of Patrick Hamilton’.
Aileen, an artist in her own right, was an infrequent visitor in the 1970’s to the quiet Northamptonshire village where her brother and his large extended family lived. I don’t remember much of these times as I was quite young, but I do remember she always seemed to be drawing. She would often make pencil sketches of the children and I’m sure many members of the family have these tucked away in old family photo albums.
My last memory of Aileen was from when I was perhaps 14 or 15, which would have been around 1986 when my Mum and Dad and I travelled to Brighton to visit her. Aileen died in 1987, my Dad in 2015 and now thirty years after first being given, these small mementos of both Bruce’s lives have come out into the open again.
It happened so suddenly. I don’t remember exactly when it was as it was all so sudden yet it seems it has always been that way, a creeping yet speeding glacial movement. It seemed such an amazing feature, from the first time I configured my WAP settings on my clamshell phone and downloaded the headers of my work emails on the tube in Edgeware through to ‘always on’ Internet and beyond into emails alerting me 24×7 to their constant presence. And now there is GDPR, a constant stream of emails and alerts informing me I have to act now to stay in the loop, to stay connected, a barrage of emails telling my immediate response is required in order to keep up the barrage of emails. How the non-urgent carved themselves a niche in my psyche and it all happened so fast I hadn’t realised it was happening at all, I was so happy to be needed, to be wanted, to be alerted immediately that there was something or someone that needed my attention.
Well now I am finding that attention is in short supply, that multi-tasking has been tested and found wanting, that screens and bleeps and alerts drain creativity and imagination faster than scrolling though endless posts of ‘notice me’ posts on those social media soapboxes.
Today I have taken back control, I have implemented by own uni-lateral E-Mexit. I have turned off all the sounds, the alerts, the banners and all I have left are the badges. From now it’s like 1997 on my phone, I will check my emails at my convenience, when I have cleared a space in my mind to review and deal with whatever has arrived in the intervening minutes, hours or days without being distracted from whatever was that task in hand – like perhaps writing this blog, distraction-free, bleep-free, bing, ping and bong-free.
So if you have just emailed me expecting an immediate response all I can do is apologise for your unsolicited expectation. I, for one, have taken back control – maybe you should too?
You know, I think, in that moment, all it would have taken is for someone to put their arm around me and say to me
“You must be so frightened and hurting real bad”.
And at that point I think I might have broken down and cried. In all my brokenness to feel so abjectly unsafe and withdrawn over something so trivial.
And perhaps the lesson for me is that my safe place needs to be found inside me rather than attaching it to people or places that can never give me the safe place, the grounding, I need.
I can not control the world or ask it to keep me safe.
The pub in the afternoon. The Talbot in Ledbury to be exact, an odd crowd; the old retirees drinking their afternoon away arguing politics with a middle-aged newcomer. It’s just a parallel conversation though, not one is listening to the other, just passing opinions and judgements. A younger couple, not a couple but meeting up to catch up and celebrate some new job promotion. Eager and excited, not drinking in the afternoon but a handy meet up point. The landlord, loud and brash, friendly but closed. Reminds me of my dad, you’ll never get anything real from him, not unless he wants to let you in. Which he won’t, he’s too cautious and too wily for that. I’m on my second beer, a slight, small beer buzz has started and I’m in the danger zone. Nearly at the end of the second daytime beer and caution goes to the wind. Why not have another? Dinner can wait. Go on, have one more. I’m in the danger zone.
Time to sup up and head home, there’s packing to be done for the weekend away and lino printing to be done, my new art and craft masterpiece to finish off. And I feel alive and amazing and at once lonely and afraid. Another night alone.
Looking to kill some time I weighed up the options of liquid in then liquid out or liquid out then liquid in. The most pressing decision of my day so far. Liquid out won the day and I headed for the toilets. As I approached I saw they had wheeled medical screens up outside like something out of a Carry On film. I was half expecting Barbara Windsor to throw her bra over the top and cackle, but instead all I saw was a foot. A man’s trainer, size 10 or 11 maybe, wasn’t quite blocked by the screen. A man. A man down. Outside the toilets, in the Orange Zone of New Street Station. I paused in thought. Someone’s father, someone’s brother, someone’s son. Lying on the floor, behind a screen, outside the toilets in New Street Station. And I took a moment of silent reflection and a small prayer to who knows who. The tannoy blared loudly. Overhead powerline problems in the Coventry area, delays and replacement bus services, the alternative rail route via Moor Street Station were not going to be an inconvenience here today for this unknown man. And I pray that he is ok.
A quick-fire piece of writing for the Visual Verse monthly prompt:
The sky is mottled with a dusky brume of smoke hanging guiltily over the church, clinging to the shingles trying to disguise itself and the deed it has done. The pitchfork. The blood. The screaming. He used the pitchfork to prod and to push and to skewer them onto the flames. Doing great works for the glory of God. He has no doubt what he did was right. His face taught, his mouth set, his lips tight. ‘This is what we have to do to protect our children,’ he shouted as he rallied the other faithful around the pyre that morning. She, however, has doubt now. Doubt in this man who could do these things, that could drive others to do those things. This man, her husband. The vacancy behind her eyes doesn’t leave, each new week, each new pyre, each new death haunts her. Although nothing would ever compare to the hurt of those three sharp pitchfork tangs as in one final push he hefted her onto the pyre that late summer morning.