Mum died. The Wheel turns.

Last Monday, my sister rang me at work.

“Mum’s in hospital. They think she’ll be going home by the end of the week so you should think about popping up to see her soon after.”

We both knew what she meant. 

“Are you sure I shouldn’t come up now?”

We discussed it for a minute or two and agreed that it would be potentially upsetting if I materialised in Mum’s hospital room like a harbinger of imminently expected death. I vaguely made plans to show up early in the New Year, possibly with the family in tow. My sister went back to our mother’s bedside. She’s been her carer for some years. I’ve been semi-detached from the family for as long as I can remember. Religion, life-style choices, freedom of speech – it’s complicated. My sister and I get on, my father and I were reconciled before he died but I’ve never really liked my mother for a long time. In return, she’s gradually erased me from the family history as her memory erodes, needing more and more prompting to bring me into focus.

Did I mention I was adopted?

The next day, my sister rang again.

“You might want to think about coming up tomorrow.”

I dropped everything, dashed up to Euston and got a train North. My sister lives in an industrial northern town dominated by Unilever’s chemical works and ringed by new-build estates. She lives on one with her husband and, until now, our mother. 

We sat by her bed together for a couple of hours. She was asleep. My sister was convinced she knew I’d come. I wasn’t. Every now and then, my sister would get up and wipe the stringy white strands of dried fluid that had gathered on my mother’s mouth and under her tongue. The nurses came in and turned her once. Their kindness was an almost physical presence. My sister’s kindness felt more like ownership.

We only ever seem to have meaningful conversations at the bedside of dying parents. 

“I only ever really got to know the real mum in the last few years, you know. Dad was a bully.”

I knew that.

“I never saw that. I know she was much more intelligent than he was.”

“But no-one was allowed to have a different opinion from him. That was was always your problem. But that’s just how it was. You did what you had to do for yourself.”

My sister’s fond of that line. I got up and left home. She didn’t. Eventually, she acquired a kind of ownership of our parents.

I got the train back down. The next morning, my sister rang and told me that mum had died overnight. We’d joked at her bedside about the closing window for a funeral before Christmas but the family Catholic Mafia closed ranks and made calls and the service happened yesterday, on the 23rd.

The service took place in slow motion. We followed the hearse out to the grave (her husband’s, opened up to to accommodate her) and the deacon went through the last rituals. Like everyone else, I dropped a clod of the sandy northern soil on the coffin. I noticed the railway sleepers lining the grave all the way down to hold the space open.

After the requiem, there was a “hot pot” lunch. I’d been dreading it.

Then something surprising happened. Half a dozen relatives – aunts, cousins, an uncle – I hadn’t spoken to in thirty to forty years approached me one after another. They wanted to talk. They wanted to know what I’d been doing. So I told them and asked what they’d been up to. It was astonishing – they’d been through entire careers, tragedies, raised families, lived lives of which I’d seen or heard nothing.

No-one mentioned my mother. Everyone seemed relieved and happy for me in an odd sort of way, and happy to see me. And I found I was happy to see them. I gave and received contact details and found I was genuinely intending to see people.

My sister dropped me at the station, having determinedly raced to get me to a particular train. Typically, it turned out to be the slow one so, as soon as she’d driven off, I wandered briefly into the town’s “Cultural Quarter” and found a vegan coffee shop covered in bright new age paintings and with didgeridoos hung on the walls. There was vegan chocolate cheese cake (surprising tasty) and alpaca hand warmers for sale. I had a coffee and heard about the owners’ plans for their new business (“We had our first vegan footballer in here yesterday! We should be able to get that in the papers.”) then caught the non-stop train south.

I woke up this morning feeling lighter and happier than I had in ages. Somehow, somewhere, the Wheel had turned, decisively. 

The Wheel, from the Druid Craft Tarot

The Wheel, from the Druid Craft Tarot. Click for source.


Character Hauntology

I’m a character driven sort of writer. I like to plot, I like to plan, I love to build worlds but the thing that gets me to the finish line is the sense of duty I have to my characters.

It feels like that, a literal duty of care. Like every writer, I have a small stack of unfinished novels and the characters in those abandoned wrecks of stories haunt me. They want to be told. They want to have their say the way their lucky brothers and sisters in my finished manuscripts got to have theirs.

Pirandello wrote an entire play about this – Six Characters In Search Of An Author - about the nightmare an author faces when half-a-dozen untold stories come round to visit. Another Italian writer, Italo Calvino, wrote a novel called The Non-Existent Knight about a suit of armour that sustains its non-existent self through pure willpower. My characters, the ones that stick around, aren’t dissimilar. They force themselves into being and pester me. They lurk at the back of my mind prodding me to tell them into being. It’s a kind of channeling but the spirits being summoned aren’t all-powerful gods and spooks; my spirits are ordinary men, women and children who stumble into extraordinary situations. They’re individuals struggling in the morass of whatever invented history I’ve plunged them into. And I can’t help them – they have to fend for themselves.

I always start with a character, a person, set down in a situation. It goes from there. The end is up to them. I just have to keep writing until it feels true. That’s what I’m chasing – something ‘true’. 

The truth is something you have to be told. You can’t, if you follow me, make it up.

Currently, I’m pushing and poking at the beginning of a second novel in a series (optimistic, given that I haven’t sold the first one and have a previous novel to deconstruct into a more coherent trilogy if I ever manage to clone myself). All I know is that someone is on a beach and they’ve made a choice. The choice has consequences which the character will have to muddle through as best he or she can, generating more consequences and more choices…It’ll be complicated but simultaneously very simple. The character will always need to decide – do I want to be this person or that person? And the choices will need to tell the truth or, at any rate a truth. 

And that’s how I write a novel, bar the swearing and coffee.

Ulpia, 8 years and 11 months

I’m reading Guy De La Bedoyere’s “Gods With Thunderbolts: Religion In Roman Britain” (2002). It’s a clear-eyed, rigorously unspeculative text but it’s hard not to “humanise” some of the items from the archaeological record it examines.

Ulpia, whose ashes were buried at York 1800 or so years ago, was clearly loved by her parents. “8 years and 11 months” – each one of those years counted. Her other name “Felicissima”, means “Most Happy”. I wonder how many hopes and dreams were wrapped around this child.

We do our ancestors quite a mis-justice when we assume that they cared for their children less than we do. And, looking at the levels of abuse and mistreatment of children in the “modern” world, we flatter ourselves if we think we’re any better.


Ofra Haza, Yemenite Songs and Little Elf

Little Elf has a thing for an Ofra Haza album I found in a British Heart Foundation shop. Partly it’s the music, which she loves to dance to (I say ‘dance’ but I seem to do most of the work), and partly it’s the album cover which is understandably fascinating for any Disney Princess obsessed six year old.

Yesterday evening, everyone was back late from Cubs and Woodcraft Folk and I agreed she could sit up and listen to one song (“Oh, alright. Two.”) before going to bed.

Yemenite Songs is a curious beast. Ofra Haza was a Yemenite Jew and the album was promoted as a return to her roots. But the production is a sometimes harsh mix of early nineties digital beats and metallic clatter cut through with traditional string instruments and PCM synths. But Haza’s astonishing voice is at the centre of it, soaring, shimmering, weaving and winding…It’s a gorgeous, passionate set of performances, full of energy, tragedy and hope. I’m not surprised little elf picks it down from the record shelves so often.

This evening, she started asking some of her favourite questions.

“What country is she from?”

“Israel. She’s a Yemenite Jew.”

“Is she still alive?”

“No. She died quite young. It was very tragic.”

“How old was she when she died?”

“Forty two.”

Little elf contemplates this for a moment and snuggles a bit closer to me.

“So she was younger than you?”


“What did she die of?”

Ah. Complicated and yet not complicated at all. She died of complications brought on by her being infected with HIV*. How to explain AIDS to a six year old? Carefully?

“She was in hospital after a miscarriage…”

“What’s a miscarriage?”

“Well…Sometimes a mother loses her baby at a very early stage…I’m not really explaining this very well…”

Thankfully, little elf changes tack.

“Can I see pictures of her?”

So we get out my iPhone and look at pictures of wonderful, lovely, inspiring Ofra Haza then watch some film on YouTube of her performing at the Montreaux festival in 1990.

“She’s very beautiful,” little elf says.

“Yes,” I say. “She was.”

*There’s a good piece by Peter Paphides about this.

My son, the Mythographer

Little elf: Why is it raining?
Dudelet: Because…Daddy, who was the goddess of love?
Me: Aphrodite.
Dudelet: Afro-thingy lost her lip gloss and burst into floods of tears. She’s the only one of the gods who gets upset about that sort of thing.
Little elf: But what does that have to do with rain?


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