My Dad’s Ways of Speaking: Wood and Metal (Part I)

Over the next five days, we will be publishing Paul Sutherland’s ‘My Dad’s Ways of Speaking: Wood and Metal’, in which Paul reflects on the contrasting influences of his father and grandfather. He comments, “The problem for me is that I have for years recognised and honoured my granddad’s inspiration. But, due in part because of the conflicts between my dad and me, I have only recently accepted the stranger influence of my father’s colloquialisms.”

In most scenarios my English immigrant granddad with his poetic recitations pushed me towards being a writer. In his cabinet maker’s workshop while he shellacked the underside of an armchair he quoted lengths of 19th century narrative verse such as Horatius at the Bridge by Lord Macaulay, or another of the Lays of Ancient Rome or the Lady of Shallot by Lord Tennyson and Sir Walter Scott with his Medieval romances in an aura of tainted holiness.

From another reading of why I’m a writer the influence of  my blood father can’t be discounted. With limited education he spun words never suggesting they had a source. Among robust pipes and heavy weight wrenches of his plumbing trade he offered strange turns of phrase. He spoke a smithy of the common tongue and frontier Canadiana.

My granddad’s wood, my dad’s metal. Fleeing my grandfather’s memorising of the famous I plunged into dad’s web of colloquialisms, close to the absurd. If poetry’s heightened rationality and craft was important then his anarchic lingo of clichés and whimsy must also be valued. From my youth  I have admitted the grandfatherly influence; it has taken me until middle age plus before I could stomach how much I devoured my dad’s vernacular diet.

No occasion in my childhood household passed without a comment from dad’s range of language. My younger brother has informed that some of dad’s phrases caused him stress. My father often spoke in the negative, such as ‘don’t act like you were hatched on a fence post in the sun’. Despite not being a locution Matthew Arnold would’ve used as a sign of Culture, it does possess its maniacal charm. For my brother and other siblings – who were told to be quiet – don’t speak till you’ve been spoken to – the jingle implied a lack of paternal love. I kept imagining the prospects of being among those hatched in the sun on a fence post and wondered how I would fit in the nest. The phrase revealed how dad was an outdoors person brought up on farms and in fields where he’d watched the miracle of bird eggs breaking open in the sun.

My granddad beyond his well-tended ornate garden was an inside person who looked back to an idyllic England that he’d left behind when he sailed for the stubborn new world. Dad was new-world bred and inheritor of God’s country – the way he addressed his home territory, Canada.  He also meant his boyhood ‘stomping ground’ – a description that hints at earlier First Nation inheritors. He felt blessed by an up-bringing devoid of fatherly influence in his mother’s boarding house where she washed, dried and ironed with many people’s laundry. Perhaps it was in those un-private halls that he picked up his collection of dialectal slogans. If I left the door open another phrase popped – ‘were you born in a barn?’ At least in this case you were ‘born’ not hatched but were outside in an agricultural environment in which leaving a tall wooden door open could have consequences. Dad was trying to save the heat. He knew the cost of keeping our home interior warm. But his interrogative tone was meant to convey a degree of humour and escape for the victim. This flow of words lacked the creative sparkle of being hatched in the sun. Such one-liners were trademarks signatures of my dad’s whole history and reference points. Every time he spoke one he was recalling his past. In each interrogation he told me about himself, about who he was – who may have felt like he was born in a barn in his mother’s heavily communal household – separated from his closest sibling by twelve years.

But I didn’t get this inference when a boy. I got the insult and touch of humour, the feeling that it was wrong to talk on doorsteps to friends or to any one that the business of running the house must go on quickly with little breezy interference. Maybe an origin of ‘shooting the breeze’ I was frequently puzzled what the link was between ‘gapping open’ and a barn. And from the rear seat in dad’s car staring out on the rural landscape of Southern Ontario I spied many barns that appeared not open but closed, their tall double doors bolted. With shiny silos and high timber roofs; in their splendid isolation these barns were like citadels of the farming community – of the indigenous settler families or’ Family Compact’ that had cultivated and shaped the contours of the land after the First Nations. The families later were designated as UEL, United Empire Loyalists that is they were loyal to the crown during the American War of Independence. My father was regarded as a UEL, a descendent of those first settlers.

Perhaps the phrases sub-text was don’t be careless it could be expensive. The choice of address was wanting in affection and no doubt to my brother the constant rhetorical enquiring seemed unkind. One didn’t like to be compared with creatures of the barn, outside and likely to be slaughtered at some point, for sure not cuddly pets. Suddenly you didn’t belong to home but to a stable-stall hay-straw and manure world. Maybe dad found it too hard to be an affectionate paternal figure when lacking the influence of a dad. Through his phraseology he made a strong division between the adult world he knew well and childhood’s domain that had passed him by. In his early life there was little room for fun. He’d seen the over-worked reddened hands of his mother who was thrust into widowhood because too many doors were left ajar, unclosed, like is own father’s death from an unheroic disease and the vanishing of his wealth of horses almost in the same stroke. My father’s father was rich provider until he lost  all his race and performance horses in a train fire. As a grown man my Dad had, as every poet should, his loveable verbal concoctions – such as ‘o don’t be like that – Mrs. S’

Mrs. S. was the emotional appeal to his wife his love and our mother. Whether it was familiar truncation I don’t know but I never heard my granddad call his wife, Mrs R. Mrs. S short for Mrs Sutherland, but what was it short-hand for? It strikes me now as a sweet use of language to convey in an instant affection and relationship – you’re my wife but/and I love you. Sutherland always a mouth-full meant you were near the end of most line ups at school for example. So even to my juvenile mind shortening the clumsy sutherland to ‘S’ was interesting and practical. And when he came in from work at the tail end of preparation for dinner he’d slide up behind mum and let his rough fingers explore her legs up from the knees under her apron and skirt. Such adventurism was met with a subtle snub which won the playful retort – ‘o don’t be like that – Mrs S’. As a grown man I wonder how many times my mum melted away at that coy syntax of desire. I was never called, ‘Mr N’ nor my brother ‘Mr D’ nor my sister Miss B, or Miss R. But my older sister stayed at home long enough to win the nickname – Ruthie. But Mrs S seemed to carry so much passionate approval as if that ‘S’ sign symbolised how her body would be submissive to his advances, the straight line becoming a curvy S. I wondered if my mum blushed at its implications and had made it clear – don’t ever call me that in public. Crazily her altered first name Lorry seemed straight laced, contained and proper, compared to that sensuous supposedly formal Mrs S. With that way of speaking ownership and panicky desire flew from my dad’s mouth.

I can’t remember any such set of words that communicated to us, us siblings, that our dad loved us to bits. He did, but we had to find it between the lines and by non-verbal indicators. The positive language was the preserve of his wife and we had to endure his negative speech
or were told to be silent. Don’t speak till you’re spoken to.

   What a back-hander that was. You weren’t going to be spoken to, so if I use food as a metaphor for words you, we were going to starve. Sometimes we looked to be starving around the dinner table, not from the absence of food but from the lack of dialogue which suggested deficient interest. We were compartmented on a fence post or in our barn. And when out visiting we were warned prior to entry that we were not to act like ‘we’ve never fed you’. As a slap-happy boy with dirt behind my ears, if I could get away with it, this emphasis on ‘don’t’ seemed indigestible. And we, our foursome of brothers and sisters invaded the dear relatives indoors with every intention of eating them ‘out of house and home’. Or ‘what do ya think this is – old home week!’ Another of dad’s questions condemning our indulgence. Old Home Week was a unique seven days or so when past members of a town returned to their first town to ‘their old home’ like a family reunion; a feast and entertainment were provided. It wasn’t heaped cuisine we wanted but nourishment of words, being addressed, before ‘spoken to’ being in ‘dialogue’ with an adult who demonstrated interest in your well-being or extra-school activities. My dad didn’t inspire a feeling he had a qualitative concern for my welfare which he did have, but managed to hide with evasive manoeuvres convincing me of the opposite. He knew how to keep children in their place but how to show he loved his off-springs, perhaps that was missing.

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 ( 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.

Read My Dad’s Ways of Speaking: Wood and Metal (Part 2) here

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