After my mother’s death last summer, I found myself curating her old photographs. I discovered these, some of the earliest images of me, tucked away in an old album. I’m at most three years old and I’m in the back yard of the tenement in Barnes Street, Barrhead, where I was born. The dog was called, unimaginatively and politically incorrectly, Blackie. A Lab cross, he belonged to my adopted Aunt Elsie and Uncle Jim, who lived in the ground floor flat beneath us. Aunt Elsie was Welsh and therefore exotic; Uncle Jim had emphysema, I think from working in flour mills, and he talked with me about the stars and about how I wanted to be an astronaut. Blackie and I, by all accounts, adored each other.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to a book launch in Glasgow for Matt Haig’s treatise on depression, ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’. It’s a terrific little book, easy to dip into for information and insights and moments of recognition; I especially like the ‘conversations across time’ he writes, between his past self and his present self. The panel discussion and Q&A afterwards – chaired by Richard Holloway, who is one of those people who never seems to age or has always looked old, whichever you like – was enlightening and informative, though if, as one audience member suggests, mental illness can be cured by opening our hearts to God, I’d just like to ask why God invented the fucking thing in the first place. What shines out from Haig’s talk is the power of artistic self-expression, of simply putting one’s experiences and feelings into images or music or words.
And I’m a writer (supposedly), so – big deep breath – here goes.
Cliché though it is, I have my own black dog. I remember the day he introduced himself, as my girlfriend and I strolled down a sunny street towards her house where her mum was going to serve up Cremola Foam and Iced Gems, and she chattered about something inconsequential. Completely out of the blue, a heavy cloud blew into my brain, a feeling of utter helplessness and powerlessness and of wanting everything to stop. I turned to her and angrily clamped my hand over her mouth and shouted at her to shut up, then jumped back like a scalded cat, immediately ashamed yet still knocked for six by that overwhelming blackness. She forgave me, bless her wee literal cotton socks, but, sadly, it’s the most vivid recollection I have of our friendship.
I was five years old, and I’ve been aware of my black dog scuttling at my heels ever since. Most of the time he’s quiet and obedient, but sometimes he’s snarling and vicious. He’s my pet and he’s my monster. And I know where he comes from.
My mother was an ordinary, heroic, wonderful, complex woman, and there were times when her black dog held her by the throat. I remember at four crying myself to sleep because she had been bereft for days, and threatened my father with leaving us; he came through to hold me and tell me she was just unwell, she wasn’t going anywhere, she loved us too much. Later, there were times I would come home from school and she would be almost paralysed in her chair, a pot of water on the floor beside an old newspaper piled with peelings, a knife in her right hand, a half peeled potato in her left, as if her dog had struck in the middle of a sentence. ‘What’s the matter, Mum?’ I would ask; ‘I could just go and jump in the river,’ she would answer.
Or the argument with my elder brother over a bill to repair his car; in the heat of the moment, he threw out some petty comment about her wasting money on a new standard lamp (every good home had a standard lamp in the early 70s). She collapsed, unable to stand, utterly inconsolable. I have a recollection of my father putting her to bed for the rest of the day, and of being ushered in to her bedroom, the curtains closed, just to reassure me she was still alive. Trembling, chalk faced, she managed a wan smile and a weak hug. My poor brother, I thought at the time. And my poor mother, because I absolutely know it for what it is; an utterly commonplace occurrence which, because of the condition, becomes monumental, the last brick in the wall to crumble before the blackness comes rushing through.
Black dogs are sneaky bastards. Mine has different ways of biting me. There was the long, slow gnarl at the bone in my late teens, when I found myself crippled by clinical depression for the best part of nine months. I spent whole evenings curled up in a ball in the corner of my bedroom, my stomach cramping viciously either from anguish or the fifty fags a day I was smoking. My wee sister tore her hair out asking me what the matter was; my friends put up with me going out to pubs with them and saying not one single word all night; my university career just about ended, limping over the finishing line with a 2nd lower after effectively dropping out as I slowly, by chance, floated back to the surface of the living.
Sometimes it can be the occasional nip and nibble, the short bursts in my thirties when the air became overcast, the sudden impression that I was looking at the world through water or glass, everything muffled, indistinct. My voice would drop to almost a whisper and I would be incapable of making eye contact with my partner or her children. At first they thought they were to blame somehow, but whatever it was that had triggered me – a misperceived slight, a look out of place, a comment about a bloody standard lamp – would, at any other time, be so utterly mundane, I couldn’t possibly explain. Those episodes lasted sometimes as little as a long weekend, but I’m sure my family stopped blaming themselves and eventually came to the justifiable conclusion that I was a dick. At the end of our relationship, as I dismantled it at the worst possible time imaginable (her mother had recently died), she held my hand and said ‘I think you have demons in your head’. ‘Occasionally,’ I replied, and out of a lost love and home and family came the curse of a fucking book title.
But it can also do the full on Rottweiler, going for the jugular, bringing along a couple of Pit-bull packmates called Anxiety and Stress for the fun of the kill. Like the first half of last year. Weeks of panic attacks in supermarkets (at those times, I am allergic to Asda), months of intermittent insomnia, catastrophic and obsessional thoughts about my mother’s illness and my own health and failing friendships and too much work, and a final, insane night bouncing off the walls of my home in near hysteria while contemplating serious, serious self-harm because of – oh, serendipity – a car repair bill. ‘Three in the morning,’ writes Haig, ‘is never the time to try and sort out your life.’
A few days ago, a young man I know threw himself in front of a train. At the last moment, he must have changed his mind, and he tried to jump out of the way. He was hit and is now horribly maimed. It’s reminded me of discussions with people I know about the violence young men can inflict on themselves and of the supposed cowardice and selfishness of suicide; I understand where those opinions come from, but I also know that, with the black dog breathing in your ear, your brain allows you no other option than the desperate urge to just get the fuck out. My heart goes out to him: I think it makes as much sense to say that it’s cowardly and selfish to die of cancer.
I was attacked by a big black dog, a couple of days before my mum’s funeral. Really. Actually. I went for a walk over the Greenock Cut, seven easy miles and space to get my head together, to think about her eulogy. As I approached a cattle grid, I passed an old man wearing a pith helmet who held a huge Alsatian. Just as I came level, wondering who the hell wears a pith helmet these days, the dog went for me, managing to take one bite out of my upper leg before I stepped onto the grid so it couldn’t follow. The old man was distraught and claimed he was taking the dog to be put down and this was its last walk, which made me feel not one bit better. We parted, me telling him in language as ripe as I could think of to keep his mutt under control. Hours later, the wound was still pumping blood, and I knew the bruising would make my leg look like raw liver for weeks. I went to the hospital, thinking I might need a stitch. ‘No, it’ll be okay,’ said the doctor, bandaging it up, ‘but another inch or so and he’d have got your femoral artery.’
Black dogs go for the sweet spot, it seems.
And I still have the tiniest of scars on my inner thigh, and that’s what I don’t get about the discussion; panel members talk about ‘coming out’ of it, of being switched on and of loving life and of being artistically productive just after (or even just before) an attack.
So where’s the scar tissue? That’s what I feel most of all: that the scar tissue prevents me doing my job, because it throws my focus all over the place and sometimes I can’t be bloody bothered or can’t bloody get it; that the scar tissue prevents me ever writing anything substantial or important or good again, because it leaves my head like a playground full of litter blowing in the wind, and the prospect of anything longer than a paragraph has me in a cold sweat of self-doubt; that the scar tissue prevents me ever loving again, or ever being loved, or ever giving a shit about it one way or the other, because sometimes it’s so tiring to negotiate my way into and out of yet another disappointment.
But, you know, Haig is right. There are plenty of reasons to live. Things are good. I’m fitter, healthier, more active than ever. I’m yomping up hills (excellent), going to the gym (not so much fun), climbing up walls (literally, not psychologically, at a climbing centre), even dabbling with learning the Aussie crawl (must remember to breathe…). I’m getting out, meeting people; hell, I even managed a little bit of romance recently, for one whole month. I’m engaging in self-help and group activities that I suppose could be called ‘therapy’. Most of the time – and this is the advantage I have over many others – I’m well; I am, apparently, ‘high functioning.’ And, on the recommendation of Matt Haig and the panel, I’m writing this.
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for some time, and I’ve been wrestling with this particular piece since last July. My condition – illness, disorder, whatever the hell it is – has already provided fuel for much of my writing; I couldn’t have written ‘Occasional Demons’ if I hadn’t had experience of some pretty grubby, fearful alleyways. I’d also been asked to contribute something to a mental health blog that specialises in inspirational, hopeful stories, and passed an earlier version of this to them. ‘It’s a bit in your face, a bit dark,’ they said; well, if they were looking for compromise, they came to the wrong guy. Read my book. And neither did it fit in with the ‘cry for help’ tales they sometimes used; fuck that, it’s my dog, I don’t need help. If it’s going to obey someone, it’d better be me.
I’ve also been approached to get more involved in mental health groups, as a group facilitator or writing tutor, and it’s something I’d really like to do. So – this is up on my own blog, in my own name, and I have no idea what it will do. I think my fingers are crossed that no-one reads this any longer, and so I won’t get funny looks and a wide berth from people at the university or in the street or in the pub. I don’t know what damage it will do to me, or what benefits it might bring, if any. As soon as I hit the ‘post’ button, I know I’ll regret it.
But it’s what writers do.
And it’s all part of the programme, of getting to know my dog so that I can train him. He’s in his basket in the corner right now (I’m too soft to kennel a dog outside), though he did growl at me a bit this week. Much more alert, I recognised what he was up to, chastised him roundly and fed him a biscuit by going to the gym for two hours. It worked a treat.
But I’m not ready to embrace him yet. I’m a little bit scared, a little bit tentative.
And a whole lot angry at him, it has to be said.
My mum was, in many ways, such an ordinary woman. She liked old-fashioned, middle of the road music like Ronnie Carroll and Frank Ifield and Frankie Vaughn, and she used to torture us with Sunday afternoon records or BBC films of Mario Lanza. Even though she was a young mum when she had me, she wasn’t keen on the excesses of the 60s; I remember her watching Top of the Pops on the tiny black and white telly we had and sticking her nose in the air and saying ‘that Mick Jagger: I can smell him from here.’
With hindsight, she could be a terrible cook – she boiled vegetables for three hours and fried lamb chops until all that was left was a postage stamp of charcoal left on the bone – but could make the world’s best pea and ham soup and mince and tatties and you haven’t lived till you’ve tried her bread and jam pudding. Her drop scones were so good, Kim the dog used to burn his mouth catching them when she flipped his share straight from the pan, and it seemed an injustice to us that there was only one Pancake Day a year.
She was a shark at card games like cribbage and funny rummy, and she taught us all to play, and we’d have card schools all evening that were much more educational than maths homework. Then there were the evenings when we’d buy rolls from the roll boy who came round, and we’d toast them on the open fire and butter them, and drink Alpine lemonade the lorry had brought round while we watched ‘Father Dear Father’ or ‘On the Buses’ or ‘The Champions’. What happened to the Alpine lorry and boys who sold rolls off the backs of their bogies?
She always went overboard at Christmas, with the biggest trees and the most parcels and pillowcases of presents at the bottom of the bed, great games like Mousetrap or The Magnetic Driving Test, or toys like robots with TV screens in the chest or Major Matt Mason the bendy toy astronaut – all of those memories gone to the rubbish bin or given to the charity shop decades ago – and always a tangerine wrapped in silver paper.
She loved animals, from Glen the knicker-eating collie to Sherry, my rescue puppy who was a bit more ambitious and ate the sofa; she eventually got it right with her favourite, a little Beagle called Picot who only ever ate his own body weight in dog food. I remember being really anxious about persuading her of my absolute need for a rabbit, and rehearsing all 101 reasons why I had to have one: ‘Can I have a rabbit, mum?’ I asked. ‘Of course’ she said. I think I was disappointed I wasn’t going to get to practice my persuasive skills on her. We had a procession of cats, all of whom seemed to have names beginning with M (Macavity, Morgan, Mina), the best of the lot being Miffy, who grew up with me and hung around for 16 years. Then my wee sister Christine started keeping horses, and my mum found a new purpose and pastime in helping her mucking out and grooming, all that fresh air and exercise. And she loved children. One of the favourite events at the nursing home was the visits from her great grand-daughter Amelie, and there’s a photograph of my mum taken with all her grandchildren and great grandchildren at my niece Karen’s wedding a couple of summers ago; she looks the proudest woman in the world.
But my mum was also a hugely complex woman. She had a fierce will – I inherited her bloody good finger wag, which made teaching the perfect job for me – and for some reason you felt she couldn’t be crossed. I only remember being really cheeky to my mum once. I was 19. I was drunk. I felt brave because I was three miles away and on the other end of the phone.
I also inherited the black dog that visited her at times, when the pressure of looking after five children basically on her own got overwhelming for her. And she was an incredibly secretive woman; in the last few weeks, I discovered just how secretive when I found out I was an unexpected surprise for my brothers and sisters. My parents hadn’t told them about me, and my brothers Peter and Martin were sent off to a Cubs event and my sister Jennifer was told to go and collect them off the train, and they all arrived back at the house to find me there. Of course, that meant none of the preparation had been done, so I slept in an orange box for the first few months of my life.
Why would you not tell your children they were about to have a wee brother or sister?
I think all that complexity, all that secrecy, came in part from my mum’s background, which she rarely spoke to me about. Bits and pieces I’ve gathered over the years amount to a story of heart-breaking difficulty. Her father is unidentified on her birth certificate, and the family scandal is that my grandmother was working in service, and the lord of the manor took a fancy to her then sacked her as soon as she became pregnant, paying her about 1s/6d a week hush money to look after the baby. My mother spoke about grinding poverty, she and her mother moving from one itinerant service job to the next, never staying in the same house longer than a few months for the first ten years of her life. Her mother married and then died, and so my mother was sent to her grandmother, a fierce wee woman in the days when you didn’t spare the rod, and a succession of step relatives and foster homes. Few of these people had the time or the inclination to give her the love and attention she needed; my mum spoke about being punished by having to stand in the corner of the room facing the walls for hours on end, being refused permission even to go to the toilet. When she got her first job at 14, she turned up in her school uniform because those were the only clothes she owned.
And after the war she met my father, and then it really gets interesting. My dad too was an ordinary man. From him, I inherited a good head of hair but a distinctly dodgy hairline. He did the football pools, watched wrestling on World of Sport (he hated Mick McManus) and got tipsy on whisky at New Year. I asked him about my granddad in Poland, and all he would ever say was that he worked hard for his family. When I visited my Polish relatives for the first time three years ago, I asked them about my grandfather and all my uncles, and they always said just one thing; they worked hard for their families. And that’s what my dad did. It was in his DNA.
But what a complex character he was too. Born ethnic German, he only became Polish after the First World War, and when Germany invaded in 1939, my dad found himself in the German army and sent off to fight on the Eastern Front where he won a medal for bravery and got wounded. Then he was sent to the Western Front where he was captured by Americans and washed up in Aberdeen and, at the end of the war, found he unable to return home. Overnight, my dad changed from being an enemy prisoner of war who had actively fought against this country to being an immigrant asylum seeker looking to work and to make a life here. Can you imagine the Daily Mail headlines these days?
And this was the difficult man my mum devoted herself to, at the age of what? 19? 20? And it was a real devotion, because my dad’s complexity didn’t end there. Already 35 when they met, he was married in Poland and had two children, one by his Polish wife and one by – wait for it – his sister in law. Yes, my dad was a one man subplot for EastEnders. It was just as well the communists wouldn’t let him back in the country; his family over there wanted a wee word with him too. But that’s what war does; it dislocates people from their loved ones and throws them across the world, and they wash up in the unlikeliest of places and meet the unlikeliest of people and have the unlikeliest of new lives.
So two people who couldn’t marry – they didn’t finally tie the knot until the mid-1970s and, of course, never told me – built a life together. Think of the bravery of them both, but particularly of my mum. She had no experience of what a family was really like, had never been brought up with that stability around her, had no role models and no extended family to turn to, and there she was with five children to a man who worked away from home most of the time who wasn’t her husband and therefore had a lot less reason to stick around than most, and who had secrets up to his eyeballs that at any minute could come back to haunt them. The only thing she had to rely on was his pathological commitment to working hard for his family.
What a life of insecurity, living on the edge. And with that fierce will of hers, that drive, that desire to make the family she never experienced as a child, she got there. She always stuck by us; despite occasional turbulence, she was there for us, we could depend on her in times of need. I think she put a roof over all of our heads when we needed it; I certainly know that in my twenties, when I was making some catastrophically bad decisions in my personal life, I could always turn up at the wee semi-detached they worked so hard for and of which they were so proud and find a safe haven. I’d arrive at half past three in the morning with nowhere to stay, and my dad would answer the door and make me a cup of tea, and in the morning mum would pop her head round the door of the spare bedroom and ask what I wanted for breakfast; no judgment, no inquisition, just dedication to the cause of their children.
We’re not perfect – good grief are we not perfect – but we’ve never intentionally hurt people for our own ends, we’ve always stayed on the right side of the law (though my right foot gets me into a lot of bother with the traffic police) and we’ve always contributed to society in our own ways. In the last few years, we’ve fractured – what family doesn’t? – and it hurt her and she blamed herself for it, not realising that she’d raised five strong-minded, wilful, capable characters who simply reflect her. That was her legacy to us.
And that’s why I don’t mind sharing all that secret family stuff now; because I think it shows my mum to be a real hero. She looked at all those hurdles, those insecurities, those secrets, those troubles, and one by one she worked her way around them and made the successful family she craved. For me, her quiet, ordinary achievements in life in the face of all of that, are extraordinary. They certainly put all my selfish ‘look at me, amn’t I so clever’ achievements in perspective; I have done nothing compared to my mum.
It’s never a good time to become an orphan. If it happens early in your life, you miss out on all that could and should have happened, all that potential. But later in life, you have less time to get used to the idea that your existence has fundamentally changed, that the air around you has altered forever. And then there’s the realisation that time’s up, and you’ve spent 50-something years missing all those opportunities to be a better son.
Extract from eulogy for Margaret Soltysek for family and friends who couldn’t be there.
Today would have been my father’s 99th birthday.
It’s been a particularly momentous time for us both; it took ninety-eight-and-a-half years for his Scottish son to arrive in his home town, to visit the street where he was born, to look at the school and the church he went to, to stand at his parents’ graveside, to get a sense of what family means.
And for his Scottish son to finally get a measure of what he was like as a man.
Big year. Big, big year.
This is probably the most evocative photograph I have of myself and my father: the memories of that trip to London are still somehow pin sharp to me. So I thought I’d reproduce here a very short piece I contributed to a British Council anthology, “Identity Papers”, published in 2001 to celebrate the cultural diversity of “Britishness”. I hope you like it.
“If you see a German soldier…”
On my mantleshelf, a black-and-white photograph shows a jerkin-clad boy, squatting down, hands cupped, outstretched, feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square. I am beaming: I have never been so close to wildlife before. My little sister stands behind me spearing the ground with her umbrella – was it pink? – and stares at the camera like some stern-faced little goddess. My father is on his knees beside her, her hand in his. He shines at her, a fifty-year old man already, proud of something so tiny and perfect. Huge in the background looms a great black lion: we are obviously oblivious to it.
It was 1964. I remember the sweaty journey from Glasgow to Euston: the dusty fabric of the cramped first class carriage with its tiny ledge by the window; the old couple who sucked humbugs and tutted at noisy children; the joy of moving to second class where my mother found a huge table on which we could spread our crayons and colouring books. We visited my father in his lodgings, and my mother scolded him because all he’d organised to eat was Polish bread and liver sausage and cabanos (my sister and I thought it a feast), and I fell asleep watching Gregory Peck win a sea battle in a Hornblower movie and felt at the centre of his Empire because the next day we were going to see Buckingham Palace. And I never thought my father wasn’t part of that.
My childhood brought “Dad’s Army” and “Hogan’s Heroes”, or “Colditz” and “Manhunt”, in which resourceful heroes outwitted crop-haired villains who wore handsome black uniforms. I went to the cinema every Saturday with my friends and watched “The Longest Day”, “The Great Escape”, “The Battle of the Bulge”, and when we emerged from the gloom we were true British heroes, dancing and singing down the street:
“Holy Mary I am dying
Just one word before I go
If you see a German soldier
Shove a bayonet up his
Hoooo-lll-y Mary I am dying…”
My dad won the Iron Cross. I was fourteen when two suited detectives – perhaps Special Branch, how would I know? – came to the house to interview him and left smiling, shaking his hand. He spoke of his unit, pinned down by two Russian tanks, his comrades killed one by one each night they came marauding, and of how his flame-thrower stopped them. And he spoke of the frostbite and the wounds he received, and hinted at the terrible things he’d seen and done which made him whimper when he fell asleep in his fireside chair. I loved him for telling me.
Being British sloughed off me like snakeskin after that, and I knew why my dreams took place in sleety landscapes of sleek black cobbles and high tenements where there lurked an atmosphere of War having started or having ended, either being much the same. All the Churchillianisms I had grown up with signified nothing, made not one bit of difference.
We are what our fathers make us.
from “Identitiy Papers”, The British Council, 2001, isbn 086355489X
My cousins have been honest and considerate. I’ve heard a great deal about the war, about poverty, about hardship. It’s etched on some of their faces, which is probably why they are more inclined to smile; every opportunity, as it were. It’s not that simple, of course; Stefania, for one, is ambivalent about the fall of Communism. To her, people were looked after then, in a sufficient though minimalist way. Now, the disadvantaged and the poor and the elderly seem to be left to fend for themselves. As ever, the price of freedom is miserable inequality.
They are also honest about my father. He was a much more complex man than I realised. I suppose all fathers – and mothers – are.
There’s no mileage to be gained in going over old transgressions, not least because there are some still alive who have suffered because of them. And how he behaved would hardly merit a minor storyline in a soap opera nowadays (“PolskaSoap”?). Enough to say that he was as capable as any young man of being ruled by his heart and his hormones rather than his head. As a result, three families were directly affected, hurt. Been there myself. Too often.
In the normal scheme of things, it would all have blown over. It would have been handled, as ever, by the women. Perhaps the whole messy business between my father and his family might have resurrected itself only occasionally, merely as hot-tempered, drunken recriminations at weddings and funerals.
But the War wouldn’t have that. It picked people up and dumped them thousands of miles away, on the other side of national and ideological divides, lost them from sight only to regurgitate them to find their personal landscapes had changed beyond recognition. It separated families, and when those families were going through dysfunctional times anyway, the process of healing never had a chance.
In Wroclaw, there is an unremarkable, iron bridge that connects the cathedral island of Ostrów Tumski to the rest of the city. A tradition has developed recently of lovers coming to the bridge, their names painted or engraved on padlocks which are locked around the bridge’s structure. Then, I presume, they cast the key into the River Odra, and their love affair is permanently commemorated. Padlocks are locked to padlocks, thousands of them: enterprising show-offs have taken to climbing to a higher and higher proof. It’s a lovely thought. I imagine the bridge groaning under the excess weight, eventually giving in and tumbling into the water, the first ever demolished by Love not War.
In the middle of my trip, I get an e-mail from a recent ex-girlfriend. I’d had a nice enough time with an accomplished, pretty, charismatic young woman, the experience marred only by an inability to find time for those shared experiences that build real intimacy and, perhaps, a little thoughtlessness about feelings as we came to the mutual decision it wasn’t going anywhere. So, something positive, but something I need to put in the past if I’m going to get things done.
We’re all guilty of it. We sit in a life with a door open, waiting for that someone who might have been something to walk back through it. They never do, of course, and all that happens is we get a draught on the back of the neck. Or, worse yet, someone else sneaks in and burgles our hearts.
It was just an e-mail passing on some professional information, with a “hope you don’t mind” message because I’d said that I didn’t think it was appropriate to keep in touch. No problem. I thank her for the details, hope all is going well for her. But it feels as if someone has rattled the letterbox of that door I’ve locked up so carefully, and it’s difficult to resist scurrying up to the spy hole to see what’s going on on the other side.
My father closed a lot of doors back in Poland, apparently. Trouble was, as he got older, they had a tendency to fly open of their own accord. In the late 90s, as his mental incapacity began to take grip and glaucoma was robbing him of his eyesight, my partner and I had a family get together at our home. She stepped out to top up teas and cakes; in his wonky way, he followed her out. She told me he’d grabbed her amorously in the kitchen, said it was so good to see her again after all these years. And then he started telephoning, he’d be round soon he said, don’t tell Raymond. God knows who she reminded him of, or what he was reliving, or how he managed to conflate it with a current timeline that included me. Cardiovascular dementia is a bastard, it seems.
I went to see him about it, hating myself for feeling a twinge of righteous indignation. Upstairs, early evening, he was in bed, like a wee Buddha dressed in Paisley pattern pyjamas. Yes, he said, my partner did remind him of someone. No, he understood now, he said, as I patiently explained that he was confused, and it was okay to be confused, but he should talk it over with me if he felt like this again. As I went out, he called me back. “I’m sorry,” he said.
A few years later, that relationship was gone, sabotaged largely by my own head versus heart versus hormones conflict. Our beautiful house was sold, I was living alone. In the November after it had all been reduced to rubble, I visited my father in the nursing home. He lay on his side, nothing left but a pair of old bellows sucking in air and a pacemaker that kept his heart going. I held his hand, those frost-bitten knuckles like walnuts that scared me as a child now shrivelled and tiny. I spoke about nothing. After half an hour, I told him I had to go to the shops, get some stuff in for tea. I guess he died around the time I was in the pasta aisle. As I left the supermarket, I was aware of a fundamental change in the air, and wasn’t surprised by the phone call an hour later.
My ex-partner was probably the only woman who loved me strongly enough to have been any use to me on this trip; perhaps one other, if things had been different. But they are both out of my life now. So I’m proudly self-sufficient, a happily independent traveller. I gave up looking for “my other half” ages ago; I am no less 100% a person for being single, thank you very much, and have no need of someone to “complete me”, no matter how joyous it can be to be in a relationship.
But on my last night in Wroclaw, I stand in the Rynek in the perfect light; the colours of the façades soften in the warm air. It’s peaceful and beautiful, but thoughts are thundering through my head like the bedlam of a coal mine. This trip has given me so much to do – revision to my novel, short stories that are throwing themselves at me – and only this laptop and the whole world wide web to work it out with, and there’s a nagging feeling which is no longer quite all the way at the back of my head that is uncomfortably like loneliness.
I hope all those couples on the Tumski bridge are still together. If my dad and I are anything to go by, I doubt it, unfortunately.
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Creative Scotland. This trip was funded in part by their 2010 bursary award in order to undertake research for my novel.
Most of my family have connections with mining, sometimes spanning many generations; as I mentioned, my cousin Stefan, the son of a miner, has seen his son and his grandson go down the pits too. It’s a closed shop, a tight-knit band of fellow workers who relied on each other for their lives. My immediate family worked more in the metals business – my grandfather was a blacksmith who found more remunerative work in the iron foundries and zinc smelting plants. The photograph on the left gives some impression of the mutual dependence workers felt; they look like a Wild West gang, the James brothers in Silesia.
I do the tourist version of course, at the Guido mine in Zabze, with Milsoz, Przemek and Boezanna. The boys have never been down a pit before, and they are excited by the prospect; me too. There are glimpses of the hell that it must have been, in particular full size models of the horses which were kept in total darkness and trussed up to be lowered blindfolded down 800 feet deep shafts; that’ll appear in a story, believe me, and, knowing me, it won’t have a happy ending. Funny that we often feel most for the dumb animals.
The guide – who speaks Silesian, a linguistic complication of the region I didn’t know about – gives demonstrations of some of the latest machines working in the lower seams. Even the air extractor is cacophonous. With the drills and scourers and chewers that look like monsters from a steam punk comic, and with the rattle of coal trucks relentlessly ferrying the black stuff around, and with the heat and dust and the exhaustion of exertion… how do you capture that with words on paper?
The workers were organised on a military basis, with well-defined ranks and promotion structures. Privates, the face workers, wore black feathers in their caps; red indicated those experienced enough to handle explosives, for example. Medals were awarded for bravery, for long service, for promotion. No wonder these men slipped so easily into the role of disciplined cannon fodder during the many wars that have been fought here.
My father worked away from home most of his life; he officially retired at 65, but worked on at whatever he could find, from highly skilled welder early on until, in his mid-seventies, he was a building yard minder. Anything, basically, that kept him in the company of working men. I think, now, I understand why.
My father was born in Lipiny, a typical Silesian industrial town. Eugen and Danuta take me there; sooty red brick tenements sit cheek-by-jowl with steel works and chemical plants, and over there, Eugen tells me, just at the top of the street, there was a pit head.
Now, it’s dying. The factories are closing one by one, the mines have gone and the area is riven by generational unemployment, alcohol dependency and abject poverty. They are ashamed to bring me here, says Iwona; they needn’t be, it’s a story that could have come straight from the east end of Glasgow, only with heroin as the drug of choice. No-one – least of all the EU which is building roads and rail tracks and infrastructure all over the area – has bothered to invest in this place and its people for so, so long.
Danuta is Lipiny born and bred; in fact, she was born in the same house as my father, the building itself now demolished but marked by that green tree you see on the left of the picture. I look down the empty space, into the remaining three sides of a rectangle that was the backyard where my father played, and where he tended the hens or pigs which were kept in little outhouses.
We wander for a while; she shows me number 91, where she lived in a one-room and kitchen with her family, then the two-room they went up in the world to. In those days, I can imagine a vibrant community of people in the street, including my uncle Alfons, who apparently went from door to door singing operatic arias for a few coins when the unemployment bit hard in the 1930s; he was so accomplished, the local radio station had him and Hubert on to do a show. The residents would have cared, would have had something to care about; now, everywhere is decay and stink. Yet, still, fresh-faced children play in the streets, just like my father would have done with his brothers. The German school he attended – built in 1906, it must have been state-of-the-art when he went there – is now used for some other mysterious commercial purpose, though, as is Danuta’s.
Not enough children to go round, it seems, not enough to make a difference. It reminds me of my time at Linwood High School, a community built to service and then torn apart by the closure of the local Rootes car plant. When it was built, the school held over 1200 kids; when I was there, the roll was under 500.
Churches, though, seem to do well enough in times of hardship. We visit the family Church, the one my father scrubbed up on Sundays for – and who knows how many other days Augustyna made him go. Perhaps he carried his good shoes there and back, so as not to wear them out, ready to pass them on to his next brother when he outgrew them.
And there was always another brother. Between 1905 and 1924, Augustyna had 13 pregnancies. Ten of them survived; Georg, Marta, Alfons, Helena, Reinhold (my father), Wilhelm, Elfryda, Viktor, Karol, Hubert. Almost constantly pregnant from the age of 16 to 35, she must have been exhausted. But she had a family to look after.
I lay a little posy on my grandparents’ grave (they were joined by Alfons in 1982) and Danuta and I light candles. Neither of us are religious, and I am not known for my sentimentality, but standing there is undeniably significant. Without all the religious guff, I really can’t say why, other than it’s a type of coming home.
I think one of the perhaps too rare moments in my life when I rose to the occasion was the eulogy for my brother-in-law, Donald Cringean, my sister Jennifer’s husband. A handsome, physical lad who had boxed and was a black belt in karate, he was cut down by Multiple Sclerosis in his twenties, and it fucked him up for the best part of the next twenty years until he died obscenely young. I was asked to say a few words at what was a humanist ceremony in all but name. I spoke very personally about him, about my trips with him, about fishing and pool playing and all sorts of nonsense. I like to think I did him proud.
Being Catholic, a priest was press-ganged into service for my father’s funeral years later. Dressed up like a Spanish galleon, he never knew my father, never even met him. “I think he was a man who worked hard for his family,” he coos soothingly in his stereotypical Irish brogue and turns to my mother for a nod of agreement; suitably validated, he continues with platitudes that I don’t hear and certainly can’t remember. I could have said more; bloody hell, our cat could have.
I remember my father talking about his death only once, when he said, “just don’t burn me”. He changed his mind in the nursing home, apparently, and he was cremated. His ashes were scattered in the Garden of Remembrance at Paisley Crematorium, a place he had never been to, I imagine. My mother and others in the family still go there, lay some flowers on the spot where the jar was tipped empty.
I went once, one Christmas I think. I am shown the spot. A patch of dirt, and next to it another patch of dirt where the ashes of a young person must have been strewn, because plastic toys and other junk intrude on my father’s space. It means nothing to me, and not because I am an atheist and a rationalist who knows that when you die, nothing is left to watch from “up there”; it means nothing to me, I think, because it would have meant nothing to my father.
And I am here in Lipiny, where he was born, at his parents’ graveside. Of course it would have been just an empty gesture to bring a little bit of the dust that was him home, but it’s a gesture I would happily have made if I’d known ten years ago I would make this trip.
The cast list (so far!).
Danuta, my lovely cousin. She reminds me of my wee sister, Christine; similar hair, similar dimples. She has put her all into my visit, organised the trips here and there, the cousins round for tea, the meals and stories and jokes. She is a wonderful cook; a fantastic beetroot soup, a piquant goulash, stuffed peppers and beef, and cakes. Oh goodness, the cakes. I think I am in heaven when I taste her cherry cake (cherries from her own garden; she has green fingers), and then her walnut and apple cake (walnuts from her own garden…) takes me to an even higher plane. These would make her a wealthy woman in a Glasgow tea room. There’s just one problem. They tell me that Silesian food is unhealthy. I disagree – there’s absolutely nothing on the plate that has ever seen the inside of a factory – but it is certainly rich. Over the last few months, I’ve been working hard at the gym, feeling and looking better for it; I now think the process has gone into reverse, and I’ll have to redouble my efforts back home…
Eugeniusz, her husband, a gentle, cultured, cuddly bear. He is a man of action, building not only his own house but half the street too, multi-layered, ingenious buildings that are light and spacious. He’s a former climbing instructor, a mountaineer who, even in the Communist days, was such an ambassador for his country that he was granted visas to the highest places in Peru and Nepal. He has lived with death and danger, always accompanied by Danuta; he was once offered a considerable sum of money for her by a warlord. Wisely, he refused. Utterly generous, he gives me a print on rice paper he brought all the way back from Nepal decades ago; I will frame it, display it, treasure it.
Milosz, their son, is a handsome, gentle, wise young man who gets affectionate when he’s had a few. He is charming and interesting and, in his excitement at the thought of going down a coal mine for the first time, still a wee boy. He’s married to Iwona – the perfect princess Iwona – who is pert and pretty and completely charming too. Even as she teases me mercilessly (she can’t help repeating every dzien dobry or dobranoc I attempt, giggling because “it just sounds so strange”), she is infinitely patient in her translations for me. She has all the zizz of a lightning bolt. For most of my visit, she is my rock. They are both fantastic company. I invite them to Scotland; next weekend would not be too soon.
They have another son, Przemek, a passionate intellectual who lectures in IT at the local university. He is a born teacher, his gestures and tone and expressions filled with a zest for life that must have his students walking across hot coals to get to his lectures. His girlfriend, the elegant, shy and lovely Borzana, shares his love of climbing and dogs (they are experienced, expert trainers); I have a notion that I’ll take them to some sheep dog trials when they visit. When I tell Eugen that I think his sons are excellent young men, he almost bursts with pride of them, and grins and thumps his heart.
Stefania, Danuta’s mother, is a little bird of a woman, 84 years old with a razor-sharp memory. It is a huge honour to meet her as she is the last of my father’s generation, and knew all the characters in his complicated family. She is lovely, full of smiles and hugs when she accepts you; there is a deep strength in her, though. She was my uncle Hubert’s first wife, and brought up three children under difficult circumstances; she’s the type of woman you want on your side. She has a naughtiness about her, too; she laughs delightedly when we discover that the Polish word for “fart” sounds like “bonk”, and I explain what it means in English and why I think it is appropriately onomatopoeic.
My cousins Teresa, Irena, Ingrid and Stefan are all in the mix too. Teresa is a kind and jolly woman; she invites us to her house and presents us with a cake topped with fruit and jelly that looks as if it belongs in a jeweller’s shop window. Irena and Ingrid tell me about their families, and show me photographs of their weddings in which they look like film stars. Ingrid, especially, deserves thanks, since her side of the family is most closely linked to my father’s story; it must have been difficult for her to meet me. Teresa’s brother Stefan in a spry 76-year old who looks about 60. He traces his branch of the tree for me. A miner, with a miner for a son and a grandson, he gives me a little plaque made from coal that commemorates his service in the mine. It is a treasured possession, and I’m honoured once more.
I met Halina, Eugen’s sister, her husband Dariusz and their very cool son Artur in 2006 when I visited Siegen. Halina, an interior designer, shares her brother’s grin and wicked sense of humour, and she gives me a beautiful little landscape painted by a local artist; I have just the spot for it in my house. Daruisz is a mechanic; his yard is packed with lovely old Wartburgs that look like Volvo Amazons, and Polski Fiat rally cars that Jeremy Clarkson would scoff at but look fantastic. He shows me the pride of his collection, his father’s 1966 Mercedes 230 sedan, with less than 50,000 kilometres on the clock and in absolutely pristine original condition. It is gorgeous, an unusual cobalt blue decorated with acres of chrome. He lets me sit in it: I almost pee myself with boyish excitement, but I am too afraid of ruining the seats. The family shares that open-spirit and warmth that comes from having enquiring minds and a lust for travel; Dariusz has just worked on several cars taking part in an annual classic rally to raise money for charity in which his elder son is participating; he’s just been to Loch Ness on the tour.
When I go back to my hotel at night, my dreams are busy busy busy. I am surrounded by hundreds of people, and I have lots of things to do. I wake up tired by the effort of my unconscious mind filtering and sorting all the information I am swimming in. Not surprising, I suppose. But these are lovely people, with a lot to say to me, and I’m having a great deal of fun listening to them.
Wroclaw may be the one of the most beautiful European cities I’ve ever visited. Yes, Paris has more to see, Istanbul is more exotic, Venice is fascinating enough to have to exist in an alternate universe where people are born with gills. I’ll go back to any of them any time. But I really like this place. It is lovely and peaceful and architecturally amazing.
But it is all about facades. Big Baroque and Rococo facades. The buildings look so old, so distinguished, like aging gentlemen who take to wearing pastel shades of trouser, perhaps daring the occasional salmon pink blazer, perhaps adopting a penchant for collar length grey hair clipped beneath an expensive panama hat. All facades.
Sixty years go, little of this existed, bombed level as it was by Soviet artillery. It has been rebuilt, “sympathetically” restored, as if a plastic surgeon’s job is to make a face look exactly as old as it should be.
I’ve come here not in search of my father, but perhaps to catch a tiny glimpse of him. It’s impossible, of course. He would not recognise it at all, this vibrant, indolent city. Even the people have changed: Germans out, Poles in. It was somewhere different then, eighty years ago. It has been rebuilt with a different heart. Then, crowds perhaps gathered for political rallies, to hear the Nazi faithful, I imagine; now, the central square – as breathtaking as any I have seen – fills to watch a T-mobile festival of US cinema, the crowds watching Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” (a Brit-film, of course), on a screen that Goebbels would have killed for. It is a heart of bars and restaurants – Greek! Spanish! Sushi! – and music clubs and impossibly pretty brunettes. What is it about head-turning Polish brunettes? Is it the broad cheekbones that suit those perfect blue eyes, those fantastic teeth?
My father would be too old for this city; I am too old for this city.
It is all so unfathomable too. I cannot get my Scottish tongue around the twisting words; “Hi” is pronounced “cheshch”, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how to pronounce a word that consists of 86% consonants. It’s a Countdown nightmare. So I smile apologetically and settle for an English “Hi” that is in turn stolen from the Yanks, so why shouldn’t they have our films? It elicits a long-suffering smile.
I’m sorry. I’d say sorry in Polish, if I could pronounce “pshe pra-shem”. But I can’t.
I have a trip planned to Poland to meet relatives I have never met, and I confess to being more than a little terrified. It will be wonderful, I know – my last visit to Siegen in 2006, when I met several of my cousins, was a totally unexpected emotional whirl fuelled by Chinese food and 90 proof vodka – but intimidating too. I have never had an extended family, never knew any uncles or aunts other than an occasional meeting with some of my mother’s relatives from London, never played with cousins, never had a generational narrative that gave me a context for who I am. Now, in my fifties, I’m going to be immersed in it, even if only for a little while.
My cousin Danuta, who has promised to look after me with traditional Silesian cooking, sent me photographs of my grandfather Christian and my grandmother Augustyna. I look at them and they seem so distant – as of course they are, separated from me by 150 years, two world wars and a whole continent. I don’t know what I see in their faces, other than the sternness of an existence that was unbelievably harder than the cosy feather bed I’ve known. They will be key characters in the early part of the novel I am writing, but I can’t connect, can only invent and manipulate and imagine them. I only know my grandfather was a worker, a strict man who nevertheless never beat his children, despite it being fashionable; of Augustyna, I know even less. I look at their faces and see almost nothing of me in them.
They are my blood, but I actually have no idea what that means. Even though I have four siblings, we’ve never been particularly close, largely because of age differences; my father always worked away from home, and my mother had a full-time job keeping house on her own for we five. I suppose we were a pretty atomised and rootless group of individuals, so I was always unable to relate to the big families my friends had, their running jokes and feuds and sentimentalities. I have no idea if I envied them – I don’t think I was emotionally aware enough at the time – but I certainly do now. Removed from all that, I might as well have spent my childhood years locked in a sensory deprivation tank.
I am so looking forward to making some sort of connection with what I never had, but I can’t help wondering if I’ll find I’m emotionally ill-equipped for it all. Of course, it’ll be lovely; I’ll hear so much about them, and they will give me so much. I hope I’ll be able to give something back in return.
I’ll take a deep breath, put on my kilt, I think, and just join in the party.
Sad news from my cousin, Eugen, that my uncle and my father’s last remaining brother died on Sunday.
I met Hubert a few times, most memorably in 2006 when I visited him in Siegen. What was so obvious about him was his generosity. His table was laden with goodies to eat and drink, and he piled gifts on me that he wouldn’t let me refuse: I came back with a video camera for the family, and my friend Marisa, who came with me to act as interpreter, left with a DVD player under her arm. That was what he was like, said Eugen, there’s no point saying no.
He was also a bit of a rogue. We spoke to him about his early life, and he told fascinating stories of the bizarre shortages that hit the Polish economy during the periods of hyperinflation in the 1920s. He risked being thrown in prison or worse just to smuggle cutlery across the border, his pockets lined with rags to prevent the knives and forks jingling together. He spoke about my grandfather, and, just like my dad, could find little to say about him that didn’t centre around his work ethic, his ability to provide for his family. As for the war, he was as reluctant as any old solider to talk about the worst of it, but he gave us enough sense of the cold that froze men to their rifles and the battles in which brother found himself shooting at brother.
There were uncomfortable moments too; talking about horrifying times is so difficult for those who witnessed them – took part in them – first hand. Of course, he had some views about politics and race that belonged to another, less forgiving age; but he was a survivor and a provider, and I suspect that was good enough for him. And I learned more from him about my father than anyone in my family has ever told me.
I hope to visit my remaining cousins in Poland soon. Hubert’s death will be a huge loss to Eugen and Christine – two lovely cousins I met wholly unexpectedly for the first time on that 2006 visit – as well as their sister, Danuta, who lives in Katowice.
For me, it’s another part of my father slipping into oblivion.