At the start of March I travelled to Mexico to teach again in Guadalajara. On the way I was re-reading Gulliver’s Travels.
I was much affected by his description of a sudden storm at sea, and the singular details of how the sailors dealt with weathering it. The intensity and the language in one short paragraph left me breathless. Here’s a little extract:
“We reefed the foresail and set him, we hauled aft the fore-sheet; the helm was hard a weather. The ship wore bravely. We belayed the foredown-haul; but the sail was split, and we hauled down the yard, and got the sail into the ship, and unbound all the things clear of it. It was a very fierce storm; the sea broke strange and dangerous.”
At the time, this detailed account of the urgent and many actions taken to mitigate the disaster of a sudden savage tempest echoed my own desperate attempts at dealing with the tumult of my feelings.
As some of you know, my son Louis died unexpectedly, suddenly, at the end of January. I was pitched into the churning ocean of grief. The turmoil has subsided a bit, replaced by sudden tsunamis of sadness, anger and great regret; when they come I can only give in, let them wash over me and carry me where they will. Luckily I have the life-raft of family, friends and my work to cling to.
Louis was a person with much charisma, charm, cleverness and humour, but heartbreakingly he also housed an army of destructive devils who seemed ready at any moment to undermine and overwhelm his better nature – to turn good to bad, trust to suspicion, positive to negative, truth to lies. For the last few years he and I did not, could not, safely meet. But ‘Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds’ and I always believed we would come to heal the breach between us one day. Very sadly with this profound loss, that chance has gone.
When we came to go through his possessions I found two pieces of cloth which he had kept with him throughout his many moves and changes, and despite our severe and severing differences and difficulties: a Tibetan window curtain that we’d bought together in Lhasa when he was ten, and a piece of old silk Kente cloth that we’d found in Kumasi a few years later. I am so moved by this – I know they’re only pieces of cloth, but cloth is the stuff of my life, and it seems those threads still wove us together despite all.
In the family tradition, and with Juana’s help, I painted his coffin (cardboard) with bright colours, references to his Ghanaian heritage (he was our adopted son), and with these lines from William Blake:
‘Joy and Woe are woven fine, Clothing for the Soul Divine’.
Of the many people who came to his funeral – thanks in part to social media – only a tiny handful had managed to keep up with him in these last very troubled years. We shared love, sadness and memories, some of them difficult. His dad Alastair, Juana and I put together a simple sequence of pictures, music and words for him – we chose to have neither celebrant nor commentary. Sophie wrote and read her poem ‘An Elegy for Louis’, the youngest of his three wonderful sons read The Cherokee Story and his half-sister read Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’. The Remembrance Programme is available to read and listen to here .
After so much uncertainty, disturbance and tragedy, the happy and secure future of my three brave and lovely grandsons (now 10,12 and 17) is my, our, main concern.
For myself, I have of course lost momentum during these last few months, but I am very thankful that the familiar, welcome and provoking habit of enquiry remains more or less undaunted: I can, and do, still reach inside myself and haul out the dear old spirit of invention lurking there. What a blessing to find solace in a doodle, delight in a painted line, life in a pattern.
And now – back to the future: my next blog will be following on soon…
With thanks to Juana and her three sons, Alastair Campbell, Vanessa Morton and Sophie Herxheimer
from Sophie’s little hand-painted book – one made for his family, one for me.