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29 Mar

I’ve always had this fear of dropping out of existence, of going into the void. It’s a fear I share with many other human beings but which we manage to keep secret most of the time. It’s called the fear of death. We don’t like to talk about it or even think of it, but it pops into one’s mind more and more as one gets older. What’s so bad about death? It’s an escape from all the problems and stresses of life. You could see it as everlasting freedom from worry and pain. But it also represents oblivion, a state where you are not conscious of your own existence. It’s when you cease to be. Once your body has perished your only chance of living on is in the minds of others who are still alive. Photos, belongings, writings, songs, and places that represent your shared experiences with them, can all trigger memories. Like a genie from a bottle, a departed person can be conjured back into existence , even if only for a few moments.
It’s strange therefore that some people are so careless with their memories of others. It is often a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” To forget is to put someone out of one’s mind, to cease to think of him or her. What concerns me is that this forgetting does not only take place after someone has died. We move house or move jobs and suddenly whole hosts of people who were our neighbours, colleagues or even “friends”, drop out of our lives because the regular point of contact is not there anymore. We may make an effort to keep in touch for a while but unless a person is an especially close friend, one we have bonded with, the connection will slowly wither away on the vine if not nourished by regular contact. How many times have you swapped addresses and email details with people who you have met and got on with on holiday, only to never see or have anything to do with them again. People get sucked back into their everyday lives, and if you are not part of that daily world, the danger is that you will be eventually forgotten.
I know I cannot be friends with everyone I meet and like. If my life is an island, there is only room for so many on the shore. Constantly trying to add people will end up with others being forced back into the sea. Time and energy constraints ensure that one will usually end up with a practical, manageable number of friends and acquaintances. (I’m talking about real friends in the flesh, not virtual “friends” on Facebook and other social media.) However, this does not stop me from feeling sad when a connection is dropped and abandoned. I know it sounds dramatic, but to me it is a kind of death. Being pushed out of another’s life is a big step towards being forgotten altogether. It’s sort of being consigned to oblivion. I have always been sensitive about rejection. I’ve been too sensitive, in fact, for my own good. Two or three times in my life I have been “dumped” by women I loved and who I thought loved me. It went from “I love you” and “I’ll always be there for you” to ” I don’t love you anymore” and “I never want to see you again!” It was hard to bear at the time. It was a kind of death. In that woman’s mind I would largely cease to exist. On one of those occasions, after being dropped by a lover, I wrote melodramatically in my diary, that “I felt like a discarded toy left in the corner of the playroom.” One can go from loving and caring about someone intensely, to not even knowing whether that same person is dead or alive. I have found this difficult to cope with but have had to accept this as a hard, realistic part of life. It’s what some people glibly describe as “moving on”, as if people are like places passed through on a long journey.
But death and time are the major reasons why most people are forgotten. They say that within two generations of passing away, in most cases, nobody will remember you. It’s as if your whole life has just been swallowed up into a vacuum and lost in time. At the moment (2014) the British nation is making a special effort to remember those who perished in the First World War. The last combatants from the UK have now all passed into history. I remember the very last British “Fighting Tommy”, Harry Patch, finally dying in 2009, aged 111. He was feted because of that war and because he was the final survivor. He had a high profile funeral covered by TV and press. However, what about the millions of other service men and women on all sides who died before him? They lie in well tended but largely forgotten graves or their bodies were never found because they were blown to bits. I recently wandered around a deserted graveyard in mid Northumberland ( Chevington cemetery near Acklington) which contains neat rows of gravestones of airmen who perished in accidents or in combat in the skies over North-East England during the Second World War. All of them were in their twenties. They came from: England, New Zealand, Poland and Australia. In another section were about 6 rows of German graves, again all desperately young men. It was a very poignant experience wandering amongst them, trying to imagine their lives and how they ended. I wonder how many of their present day relatives have their photos displayed on the mantelpiece or their belongings kept safe in a special place? They are now at least 4 generations back. Are they still actively remembered or have they disappeared into the mists of time? My friend Colin, who took me there, has a great interest in military history especially that of the RAF. He read to me from a book which described all the fatal air-crashes in Northumberland during the Battle of Britain. Spitfires accidently clipping each other while on a training flight and plunging into a field. Bombers returning from a mission in thick fog and crashing into a wood, or, in one case, demolishing a church. It was sad to be at the place where these tragedies occurred and to see the grave-stones of those concerned. But I couldn’t help wondering how many times, if any, these graves have been visited by those who knew or knew of them. Colin’s book was entitled “Almost Forgotten”. I think, except for a few history buffs and war researchers, we can safely omit the first word from that title.
Coincidentally, the Sunday Times of the previous weekend featured an article headlined : “Lying Cold and Alone.” The writer talked about a huge graveyard on the edge of Berlin- the Neur Garnisionsfriedhof cemetery ( Hope I got that spelling right.). It contained the graves of 7,200 young German soldiers who died in the First World War. The grave- stones were clean, and the grass around them was neatly mown. However the whole place was deserted and not a single flower was laid on any of the ranks of monuments. When the writer mentioned the name of the war cemetery to his Berliner friends, they had never even heard of it! It seems that the First World War is Germany’s forgotten war. Not much is being done to commemorate its centenary compared to the many events being planned in Britain and France. The main reason, apart from the sheer passage of time, is because the horrors subsequently perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis in the Second World War have all but obliterated memories of the earlier conflict. Whatever the reason, the result is the same — all these people are now all but forgotten.
Shocking though it may seem, some people deliberately sabotage the memorabilia of their departed relatives. I recently saw a documentary ( “Hidden Histories — photographs” on BBC 4) which featured a dustman in Sussex who had accumulated a large collection of: photos, letters, medals and other personal documents from soldiers in the 1914-18 war that had simply been thrown away into the trash by the younger generations of their families. He had started his collection in the days before black bin bags so that when he emptied a bin he could clearly see its contents. Shocked by what he saw, he took one box of personal effects back to the house, thinking that the people had thrown its contents out in error. But when they opened the door they were irritated and clearly indicated to him that they wanted rid of the stuff. Maybe I am being over sentimental but I am shocked that precious mementoes of someone’s life can be deliberately consigned to the dust-bin. There again, I have heard several stories of recently deceased people’s belongings being sorted into three piles — stuff to be kept, stuff for the charity shop and stuff for the skip! Although I know one cannot keep everything just for the sake of it and it is important not to live in too much clutter, I still shudder at the thought of my relatives possibly binning my belonging after I’m gone, as if they’re wiping me out of existence. I know I’m being impractical. We cannot expect our surviving relatives to live like Miss Havershams in Great Expectations.
When I was in Vietnam I visited historical houses that contained shrines to the departed. This is because of the religion of ancestor worship. The dead are respected, honoured and remembered on a regular basis. I think this is a lovely tradition. It’s much preferable to throwing their belongings ( and memories of them) into the bin. In a previous blog I have mentioned about writing to leave a sort of legacy. I don’t think that famous politicians like Churchill, Thatcher or Blair should have a monopoly over this sort of thing. The recently departed and much loved ( or hated) Tony Benn has his entertaining and insightful diaries to perpetuate his memory. I write a diary too as well as producing this blog. I have also written my memoirs for what they’re worth!. It’s all ultra-egotistical I know. However I feel compelled to do it because I dread the thought of being forgotten and passing into oblivion. It’s a futile fight against the inevitable. I know I’ll lose. In a TV drama I have just watched ( “In Treatment” ) a character, who had just attended a funeral, commented “In the end there is only silence.” That sounds terrifying but it could also be thought of wonderfully peaceful! The point is that neither emotion is relevant because consciousness for the departed person has stopped. It comforts and consoles me to think there could be an alternative to the frightening finality of the above statement. It would run something like: “In the end there is only memory.” It cheers me to think that I might live on in the minds of others, at least for a while. ( Maybe a couple of generations if I’m lucky.)


Writing About Writing.

28 Nov

  I try to write. I am not a famous author. I am merely an obscure blogger. I have never earned a penny from my written efforts. It’s just a need that grows inside me. The longer I go without putting pen to paper, the greater the need.

  An artist friend once explained to me that she didn’t produce pictures so she could sell them and earn a living. She didn’t create works of art just for her own amusement. She produced a piece because she had a need to express herself, and art was her chosen form of expression. It was as if something was living inside her that she felt compelled to share. In a way, creating a picture was like giving birth.

  I imagine there’s a little bit of that in my urge to write. I don’t claim to be a great wordsmith, but I still want to write things down and express myself through writing. I feel better if I can take whatever thoughts and feelings are swirling around inside me and bring them on to the outside, transposed on to a peice of paper. ( or a computer screen.)

  At the moment I cannot think of anything I want to write about. It’s been like this for days, but I still feel the urge to write. It makes me strangely restless, as if something is missing from my life. ( Actually I feel much the same if I haven’t got a book to read.) Everyday I hope the inspiration will come in order to dispel my restlessness.

  One problem is that I want whatever I write to be half decent, at least in my own eyes. This is not a consideration that holds up many people who indulge themselves on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter. Such sites produce veritable mountains of trivia, in my view. Thanks to the Internet we seem to live in an increasingly narcissistic society where countless thousands sound-off on everything from the Middle East crisis to whose going to triumph in X Factor. We also find out: what they’ve had for breakfast, how many drinks they had last night and what their plans are for the day. The main aim is not often to write something that is amusing or thought-provoking, but to be a self-publicist. There’s plenty of quantity on social media but not enough quality, in my opinion. I hold up my hands and admit that I indulge in some of this too. It’s like the online equivalent of being at a party and trying to impress the people one encounters. I must try to curb my egotism.

  In the end though, publishing soundbites is not enough for me, so that’s why I turned to blogging. My daughter Catherine, another writer, first suggested this to me. I need a longer, more flexible format in which to express my ideas and opinions. It’s as if I’ve put myself back into school and have instructed myself to write an essay. So I have to think about: spelling, punctuation and paragraphs, which is not a priority for texters, tweeters or status updaters. Blogging is still a bit self-obsessed I know, because it involves putting your thoughts and feelings out there into the world and expecting that others will be engaged. However, I believe that it’s a good, healthy thing to do because it allows me to: gather my thoughts, develop my arguments and hopefully engage others in a dialogue. I enjoy it. That’s why I have been so out-of-sorts recently — I could not think of anything stimulating to blog about. You might say that I have been suffering from a case of bloggers-block! Then I came up with the idea of writing about writing. As I see the words cascading on to the page, I get a good feeling. The restlessness and feeling of dissatisfaction have dissipated.

  It’s funny but I don’t always know what I’m going to write about when I sit down in front of the paper. I remember doing a creative writing experiment while visiting a friend in a remote corner of western Ireland. She gave herself, my then partner and I, 3 sheets of A4 each. We then descended into silence. The rule was that we weren’t allowed to speak until we had filled our pages with writing. At first it was difficult. We sat there staring at our empty sheets. But then the words came, at first in a trickle and then in a steady flow. We wrote about: travel, nature, friendship, ourselves, hopes and fears, the silence, the view from the farmhouse window, encounters with strangers, the elements. Afterwards we tried to create rather pretentious poetry by combining random snippets from each of our scribblings. That didn’t really work although it led to more than a few laughs once the wine began to flow. What the exercise did do however was to release thoughts and emotions that were previously locked up inside us. They were now out in the open ready to be shared. It was like a magic trick. We started with empty sheets of paper but ended up with a stimulating and entertaining discussion.

  As well as writing a blog I keep a diary. I’ve done it for much of my life, on and off. I make daily entries outlining what I do, how I feel about things and major events in the news. Sometimes it seems like a pointless task, largely recording mundane, everyday happenings. But , slowly and gradually, a picture of my life emerges out of the detail. If I stopped writing it I’m sure I would quickly feel restless and a little lost. Why I do it is not always clear to me. At times it feels like an unnecessary millstone around my neck. However, as I get older and more forgetful, I realize why diary writing is so useful. Half the time, I have trouble remembering what I did last week, never mind last month or last year. If I didn’t write down what occurs in my life and then just forget about it, then it would be as if it never happened. That in turn would make it seem as if I never existed. This would be especially true after I die. If one quickly forgets one’s own life, how quickly will one slip off other people’s radar once one has gone? I don’t like the idea of disappearing into a void even though I know that this is inevitable in the end. So by writing a blog and a diary, I suppose I am trying to create a sort of “legacy” for myself. I want to be remembered. It’s all very egotistical I know, but if I don’t do it, then I don’t think anyone else would bother. I am not a “celebrity”. No ghost writer is going to come along and write my biography for me. I feel that it’s up to me.

  A close relative sadly died at a premature age earlier this year. She wrote a blog about her illness and life which ended up being read and appreciated by thousands of people. She lives on in our memories, through photographs and film, but particularly through her blog. Writing was important to her. It was her great skill as she was a journalist by profession. It helped her to negotiate those difficult final months. It also helps her to live on.

  I am not a professional writer and I am not writing under dramatic or tragic circumstances. My stuff is more about everyday events and about what type of person I am. Much of it may be mundane to others but I find it a very theraputic thing to do. Writing helps me to feel whole. To misquote Descartes: ” I write, therefore I am.” One day fairly soon, I won’t be here anymore, but my blogs, memoirs and diaries will hopefully live on, at least until someone consigns them to the bin. I imagine a future family historian finding my writings, and as he/she reads them I will spring to life again. Hopefully my writing will help me to become more than a name and a date on a family tree, or a faded photograph in a forgotten album.

  Maybe I flatter myself too much. That’s the nature of personal writing. It tends to be self-centred. However, putting pen to paper gives meaning to my life, plugs the hole in my faulty memory and possibly will help me to live on into future generations. I admit it’s all a bit of an ego trip. Tony Blair’s not the only one who’s concerned about his legacy! At the very least, writing this piece has helped me pass a couple of thoughtful hours. It has enabled me to use my time in a constructive and meaningful way. Afterall, just a short time ago, I was sitting staring at a blank piece of paper!