Sunday, 6 November 2011

On going back

Ryde Pier - a pleasant arrival, even on a wet Autumn evening

It occurs to me that haven't fully explained the reason for the recurring Isle of Wight topics here. Now that JSBlog has moved to being entirely a personal weblog, I'll fill in the background. It's one about "going back" - re-forging links that were broken in the past.

My parents are both from the Isle of Wight, but divorced when I was a baby: an outcome highly explicable in hindsight by my father having just returned from Korea, having been in the Battle of Imjin River and two years in a Chinese prison camp (see To The Last Round). The divorce was acrimonious, resulting in a family divide for decades, and my father demonised; I was brought up on the mainland in Gosport. Nevertheless, my mother and grandmother visited their side of the family, and visits to the Island are among my best childhood memories.

This all changed when my mother remarried (I was 9 or so). I think my late stepfather was insecure about my mother's previous history, as we virtually never visited the Island and main holidays were always to his family in Fife. For a while I kept my birth surname, Coombes, but then (by procedures I forget) it was changed to Girvan: technically I think I had the choice not to, but it's pretty difficult for a child not to give in to pressure to do something that all the family are presenting as the most reasonable thing to do. When I was in my teens and free to go where I wanted, I visited the Island a few times to walk and do geology, and I became aware of the basics of my father's life through a bequest that listed some of my half-siblings. After university, however, I moved to the Midlands to work, and the South just got consigned to the past.

Cut to much later.  When I married Clare in 1988 - we lived in Birmingham then - she suggested that we send a note to my father telling him the news, and we got a friendly letter back, leading to years of contact on a swapping Christmas cards basis. But three years ago I had a call from one of my half-sisters, Sim, inviting us to a family reunion. The thought was terrifying: I'm sure it was on both sides. What if we didn't like each other? There was a huge risk of mutual culture shock: I was the only one of the immediate family to have been to university, and a prestigious one at that; most of my father's side of the family hadn't left the Isle of Wight.

Anyhow, we went, and found my father to be an amiable man at the heart of a huge extended family that he has put in great efforts to help through the occasional drama that all families have. I don't see any trace of the troubled man who came back from Korea. It's fair to say we don't have a lot in common interest-wise, but Dad is very easy to like, and shared genetics (and consequently appearance) and a shared background have proved to be a far more powerful connection than I'd ever imagined. I've acquired an excellent father and extended family, and I know our meeting has provided 'closure' for Dad too (I had never really thought what a gap it must have been in his life, not knowing his first-born son). "Roots" are a bit of a cliché, but for the first time in my life I feel that I have them, and that they're in the Isle of Wight, not in Gosport where I was brought up.

Nor was it a one-off meeting. We've kept in contact, and visit several times a year, generally walking in the day (the southern IoW coastline is extremely like that of the better-known Jurassic Coast) and visiting family in the evening. Every visit I meet new relatives; I was especially pleased to find that my great aunt (who I used to visit as a child) was still alive, and still in the same house, only five minutes' walk from the hotel where we stay. It may sound silly to those for whom this is perfectly normal, but it's a delight to be in a town where you might (as happened this time) run into your sister and aunt at the bus station.

I've discussed with Felix Grant the pros and cons of "going back". The most pessimistic view is that you shouldn't try, as expressed in Stravinsky's Histoire du soldat (The Soldier's Tale) whose protagonist is granted good fortune by a deal with the devil - subject to the condition that he never return to his home town.

Il ne faut pas vouloir ajouter
A ce qu'on a ce qu'on avait,
On ne peut pas être à la fois
Qui on est et qui on était

Il faut savoir choisir;
On n'a pas le droit de tout avoir:
C'est défendu.

Un bonheur est tout le bonheur;
Deux, c'est comme s'ils n'existaient plus.

You must not seek to add
To what you have, what you once had;
You have no right to share
What you are with what you were.

No one can have it all,
That is forbidden.
You must learn to choose between.

One happy thing is every happy thing:
Two, is as if they had never been.

But I think this is unnecessarily pessimistic. As long as you have no illusions about what going back will do for you (if you're not happy, it won't miraculously make you happy) and aren't overly fixated on things being exactly as you remember them, it can work. And I can offer my own experience as an example of that. Quite apart from the family connections, re-experiencing the Island's landscape gives me a continuing buzz, from the moment of stepping off the boat; its coasts and downs produce a deep feeling of familiarity, I can only assume from early childhood not consciously remembered. I'm delighted also to be able to share it with Clare, who likes it too (she has called parts of it "magical"). In fact it's better than childhood: you can be on your own itinerary, not subject to someone else's; and every sight, informed by greater breadth of knowledge and experience than a child has, provides a flood of connections, both on an informational and emotional level. This is going back at its best; sometimes, you can share what you are with what you were.

- Ray

No comments:

Post a Comment