Here is the final part of Paul Sutherland’s My Dad’s Ways of Speaking: Wood and Metal, which we have featured on The Write Life this week.
My granddad’s wood, my father’s steel, both moulded my consciousness and conscience of what it is to be a human being and live, work and have pleasure. They each employed fire – one to heat the gluey seal to fuse chair legs or keep the braid in place before the tacking; the other, my dad, carried a blow-torch or lamp, used to melt the solder around joints in steel, iron or copper pipes or bend the pipe so it fitted through an awkward opening under a basin or to feed a shower unit. They both provided their language skills to match their craftsman and tradesman know-how. Granddad worked alone when I knew him. Dad worked within a union structure and believed he had to strengthen the weakest link as much as he could through camaraderie and brotherhood. A contradiction to so much else was his sympathy for fellow workers or remembered buddies, soldiers in arms from the war. Later, though he worked alone, a freelance pipe-fitting genius of sorts who could correct any architect’s failed blueprints, it was this coterie that turned up at his funeral and honoured his passing. But none of these who addressed me as a chief mourner had dad’s manner of speaking. Again I realised that his style of oral telling and bending of diction and imagery was individualistic. As I said, his feelings for his partner tradesman, union men, was an exception of his – ‘don’t make a fuss just get on with the job’. He could make a fuss when confronted by injustice – either his or his work-gang’s. If locked-out during a strike, he never returned to that boss.
There was one point where the thicket of slang and maxims became a fire-wall of resistance where he might have entered and identified with someone else’s disadvantages, sorrows, estrangements, bereavements. He would insert such proverbs as, ‘they’ve been sent to try you’ meaning hardships or disappointments; but equally could exclaim ‘oh, my shattered nerves’. A stoical stance and an appeal to the emotions often coincided among truisms. But both deflected the pain of someone else, either pain was not his or the ache had to be resisted because it was a matter and manner of fate, God’s will. Neither of these positions addressed the sufferer. When the complaint was addressed he might pronounce ‘don’t get any catnip-ions’. This invented word implied the nervousness of cats and their desire to hide from trouble. But the negative command acknowledged the existence of the sufferer at the same time diminishing the person’s right to feel ‘hard done by’ ordering the person to restrain his angst and keep within socially accepted bounds. ‘Don’t act’ like an animal which can’t control itself, but the witticism conveyed a temper of humour and creativity that redressed to some extent its dismissal of another human’s anguish. Don’t make a bad situation worse by your franticness, your cat-like-ness, be resolute, not intoxicated. The herb catnip has the property of causing sometimes euphoria in cats. Commonly the suffix ‘ion’ he added to increase the effect. In dad’s usage the term implied that one has been swept away in grief overwhelmed by nerves; the idea of extreme joy reversed to imply fatal dislocation. In this arena of empathy my dad offered – as I never saw on another occasion – a mimicry of the sombre music of a violinist. With mysterious attention he would hold an invisible instrument straining with his other hand an unseen bow back and forth across make-believe strings. His chin and neck clutched the imaginary violin. With this stance he would enact a virtuoso performance imitating rhythms of a mournful waltz, but play-acting. This caricaturing didn’t conveyed feelings for the woe-filled soul, it warned off him or her not to expect empathy.
I can remember incidents like this in the kitchen when one of us teenagers wished to unload some discontent. Whether he intended it or not, he gave the impression over and over that he couldn’t relate or feel for your distress. From his perspective perhaps past suffering of a fatherless childhood, soon out to work, then into a world war, made it impossible to accept that anyone else might have ached or had grievances like him. In his eyes we children were privileged far beyond his up-bringing and his subsequent young and ‘vanished’ adulthood.
Later, when I worked as an orderly in an Intensive Care Unit, he proclaimed that this was a job he could never do. The declaration mixed self-understanding and slight disappointment in that authoritative self. His affective inclination was to become angry. Sometimes there seemed no option between a comic idiom and serious rage as if a repertoire of responses had somehow been omitted. Maybe they had to be erased for dad to survive; if he touched on them he would have the ‘screaming abdabs’. A term he also employed but not usually on himself. Once I recall seeing my father in abject distress, panic in weakness. I with my vast teenage insensitivities began to praise all things German whilst dad was just finishing his supper. Suddenly he flung himself off his chair and on his knees cringed under the kitchen table. His attitude and work with metal made bending a monumental task. He hated Germans, the enemy. I experienced him with the whole family in the car, go crazy when a Volkswagen passed him on an expressway. He gunned his car, chased the German made vehicle down the road for miles inches from its bumper until my mum was at the point of the ‘screaming abdabs’ in earnest. Also the passengers in the Volkswagen looked back in disbelief and fright. Eventually a German family moved in next door to home. The male head of the household and dad helped each other like good neighbours on many occasions and became friends. The engaging considerate sociable dad conquered the bigoted terrified. With his blow-torch of being a fair-minded responsible person he curved another of his steel pipes.
When he came to name the cottage among the northern lakes he called it ‘The Lazy S Range’ highlighting his obsession with or love of Westerns and that the strong upright S was now reaching retirement. The ‘S’ for Mrs S was becoming the relaxed easy-going S almost on its back on the wooden sign he nailed to a post. A ‘S’ past the strenuous time of earning a living for his family and him, now he could repose. The grim struggle was over. He had raised his off-springs, fed and sustained them, keeping his marriage and love intact. He had achieved much. I was again mystified by the adjective lazy. A term I could never associate with my father. He used the word lazy in an intriguing manner to express his philosophy about work when he claimed after you had dropped something or missed a vital item or unnecessarily struggled. ‘Don’t take a lazy man’s load.’ A lazy man wasn’t someone who carried little, it was a person who tried to haul or take on too much at once and caused mistakes, instead of a worker who took his time, consulted and asked for help who carried what he could carry without breaking his back who accomplished his goal in the end. Haste makes waste is the proverbial saying that relates to dad’s understanding about enterprise.
In his eighties, he began to ask why he was being allowed to live so long and why when he strung the dates of our birthdays together, including his and mum’s, why he had won a small fortune through the lottery. But sometimes he shared with me his opinion that he’d had this good luck because he was an ordinary man who had been responsible, who had achieved nothing special but a good life who had ‘paid his dues to this world’. I with my high mountain-climbing aspirations was a little scornful of his viewpoint. But to dad the hero was not someone who aspires to greatness, in business, art or politics or religion. The hero for him was the sensible down-to-earth fella or jack whose ambition was nothing but to care for his family to provide, to be an unflinching provider. On what he dubbed ‘misery’ tours he celebrated the valleys not the mountains’ sublime heights.
I think my grandfather felt the disappointment – he had aspired to be a poet, his heroes from the poems were those who achieved fame through great acts of courage or tragedy. He would never find in colonial Canada what he’d left behind in imperial England, that romantic vision of the lost old world would haunt him. He would never become the poet he dreamed of, he had to work too hard and his Victorian education was out of touch with modernity. Once I came into his workshop to share some poems by W B Yeats that had excited me. In his saw-dusted apron with giant pockets surrounded by his beautiful wooden chairs and chests, when I recited, he began to weep and say, ‘I wanted to be a poet.’ Perhaps his pained words resolved in my heart an uncompromising desire to become that. Whatever the outcome, the resolve remains.
For my dad, his disappointment was that he had no heir; neither my brother nor I had sons to carry on the name of S as he saw it. At intervals, when we were at peace with each other, at the cottage, him nursing the stove, he’d explain about the valleys, his love of them, how they were shaped by human endeavour. My imagination was ignited and I saw the inch by inch green changes that human action achieves, the woods cleared, the steel plough cutting brown furrows for the crops, the healthy calves and colts grazing un-worried by predators; the cradle of neighbourliness, houses and homes, recurring patterns of humble civilisation and cultivation – not the big change of revolution but what could be realised through a life of day to day conscientious commitment. I could see beyond the rocky glaze of mountain peaks and believe that that high-up emptiness could be enriched and cultivated. But to where does the adventurer mountain-climber return, where does the flaring path lead but to a homely valley?
My grandfather’s woodwork, his chisel firmly held, carving of rosewood, mahogany, walnut and oak, drew my mind towards visions of classical beauty, his recitations towards a poetry that appeared eternal. My father’s metal-work, soldering, threading his pipes with its fine metal shavings, his iron joints and alloy nuts and bolts led my mind towards physical power and endurance. My father in his prime, with his shock of red hair, was a ‘don’t mess with me character.’ Yet his vocabulary of sayings and saws, invectives and questions, his figures of speech all felt short-lived, easily broken and almost desperate. Perhaps the language that seems to resonate with eternity is no more important than language that is disappearing.
Paul Sutherland, Canadian-British poet/writer, in UK, since 1973, has fifteen collections, editing seven others. He’s founding editor of Dream Catcher an international journal in its 39th issue. He runs creative writing workshops and widely performs his poetry; leads seminars; mentors; runs Writers Retreats and collaborates with musicians, visual artists and calligraphers; lectures on e.g. Sufi poets and English Literature. He appears in anthologies and journals. Spires and Minarets was published by Sunk Island Publishing and Journeying from Valley Press 2012 (ww.valleypressuk.com). He reverted to a Sufi Muslim 2004; two books have followed, Poems on the Life of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) 2014, A Sufi Novice in Shaykh Efendi’s Realm, (first pub. In Romania in a bilingual book 2014; re-printed in UK 2015) describing his adventures in North Cyprus. He’s won literary awards; a poem of his helped promote Olympics 2012. He has won grants and participated in many projects. He turned freelance 2004. A New and Selected Poems, was re-launched from Valley Press 2017: 384 pages of 45 years of his writing a ‘unique …an unflinching and forensic exploration of a life through language.’ The book was listed by PBS for winter 2017 and selected as a choice for The Morning Stars’ books of 2017. The University of Lincoln archives his poetry, prose and criticism. A collection of PS’s love poems, called Amoretti, was published by Dempsey and Windle in 2018. This year his poetry sequence of miniatures Red Streamers was published as a bilingual edition of English and Romanian by PIM in Romania. New works are planned for 2020.