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SRB Diary: On Becoming An Orphan – Scottish Review of Books
by Ronald Frame

SRB Diary: On Becoming An Orphan

March 6, 2015 | by Ronald Frame

I broke a china cup in the kitchen this morning.

A plain tea cup, an old-fashioned salmon-pink in colour, too undistinguished to be confused with repro-retro. It had been part of a wedding present to my parents, a workaday tea-service. One of three pieces left, the cup had survived 64 years … until this morning.

For the past couple of decades it had been used to measure out porridge oats in the morning, and then it would be filled with cold water for the stirring pot. That was its sole raison d’etre.

I picked up the several pieces. The surfaces inside and out were hardly marked otherwise.

I wanted to weep over the cup. Perhaps I did.

It’s been a bad time. 

My mother died three weeks ago.

The cup was another, very small link to the past.

The loss wouldn’t have troubled my mother, who never fussed about damage done to inanimate objects. Once done it was done. ‘Nothing matters’ she would reassure me, even as various chronic medical conditions started to take their toll. (Before that, positive thinking had allowed her to get better quickly of any illness, because that could be cured.)

On fifth or sixth thoughts, I’m removing the next few paragraphs.

I had attempted to describe the protracted dying process.

But my mother shared my own opinion, that some people cannot resist telling too much.


Parents don’t ask to have a writer child. I was very fortunate: I received every support from mine, I was given complete carte blanche about what I wanted to do after university. Exposing myself in print is one thing (that’s my choice), but it’s a fundamental decency that you respect another’s right to privacy, especially concerning the final passage of days when that person is most defenceless.

Behind me you can bet there’s a queue of family-memoir writers, too often exacting petty revenge or assuaging pent-up guilt on the page. In John Bayley’s wake a sub-industry has come into being: the dementia chronicle, author as sainted martyr, who as they poetically muse will only leave their harried readers – coping alone on the domestic front-line – feeling more inadequate than ever.

I had shared a house with both my parents. (I see evidence of my mother’s good taste everywhere my eye rests.)

 I loved them: but I also liked them, very much, as people. I believed that I understood my mother, and that she understood me as perhaps no one else did. All three of us were amused by the same things.

 After these three weeks, do people suppose I’m now ‘getting over it’? (The Jewish faith has an admirable custom: those visiting the bereaved during the first week don’t initiate a verbal exchange, they take their cue from their hosts – if nothing is offered, then nothing is said.) I’m aware that some acquaintances who lost their second parent thirty or forty years ago have never ‘got over it’.

 I’ll get used to the fact that I’m no longer off to the nursing home every day. Somehow I’ll adjust to having each stretch of 24 hours wholly to myself. There’s the potential now to up sticks and go settle anywhere I want, or wherever I feel I can afford to settle.

 At the moment I do feel terribly battered. An old friend wonders if I mightn’t have post-traumatic stress to some degree. Another good friend, a GP in Ireland, has advised, ‘Allow yourself five years’.

Back on the mental loop.

I’m very conscious that both my parents live on in me. I can’t simply, as some seem to be expecting, turn myself inside–out or do a reinvention job.

Something very curious happened. My father also died early on a Sunday morning. My mother took her last breath at virtually the very same minute. Given the thousands of minutes in a week, what were the chances of that?

* * *

During those final weeks I didn’t come back from the nursing home to read improving literature and listen to string quartets. I put on CDs of Julio (in Spanish) or Dalida (in French), 80s funk or Richard Addinsell film music, a motley selection. Ozu and Westerns were a godsend four years ago, when my father was dying. This time I sat down to immerse myself in the peerless films of directors Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges, masters of the chic sophisticated comedy which was Hollywood at its best – plus a few favourites like Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning or Picnic on the Grass, which I can watch again and again. Those three directors, like Ozu, have great respect and affection for their characters, which is what helps to define them as humanists – and their art as timeless.  

* * *

This laptop is stuffed with novels I’ve written over the years and put away until I had a chance – the leisure, I was going to say – to bring them up on to the screen and re-read them. Some are half-forgotten, which doesn’t necessarily signify that they’re worse than the others.

My most recently published novel had been gathering cyber-dust for fifteen years.

I’ve jut finished reading a couple, from the last three years. They feature the same two lead characters.

They’re decidedly light fare. Long romps, or capers, set in the Edwardian age. They have nothing to say about the state of our current world, they have no political or social ‘agenda’. They’re intended as entertainment, pure and simple (well, the plots aren’t so simple, they’re chaotic, in the Sturges way).

Comedy is more difficult to pull off than ‘serious’ matter. I came across the son of an Italian composer who had written upbeat scores for light-hearted films, saying that ‘comedy goes against nature’. Human existence isn’t naturally humorous, I suppose he was meaning – that isn’t its bias – and so, wilfully, one has to seek it out, wrest it from the dense unyielding mass of matter-of-factness which life so easily becomes.

Perhaps comedy, or an airy mix of comedy/romance/fairy tale, is a bold blow against the sort of things I’ve been witnessing of late?

Cynicism and scorn are for the young. The years show you what a rotten deal so many have ended up with, even if that’s kept largely under wraps, and you learn compassion. (You also learn not to waste your time on those prepared to give too little back to you, but that is another harsh lesson in this process of adult education.)

Comedy asserts the absurdity of existence, yes, but the trick is somehow not to deprive life – and death – of grace. Comedy can also be infused with melancholia, and we all know the stories of its depressive practitioners. The best directors and actors of comic drama take it really very seriously.

Even in the mid-1980s I was writing in like vein – a novel called Sandmouth People, telling the saga of events in an English resort town one St George’s Day thirty years before, which someone (laughing at this and that) by coincidence mentioned to me in the aisles of ASDA a few days ago. I can scarcely recall the writing of it but I know I must have done it between visits, or hobblings, to an osteopath – one of the first things that went with a literary career, so-called, was my back – and on the Mozart Model (he composed some of his most uplifting – gayest, might one say – music when his life was plumbing the depths), I reverse-imaged my real state of affairs (a lot of pain, inability to sit for long, rolling out of bed in the morning, drawn features in the mirror) and retreated on mysteriously supple ankles, attempting the lightest touch I could, to the refuge of an imaginary town peopled by my invented characters who, except for one, faced down Fate (‘Catch me if you can!’).

 Because writing comedy can seem like an unreasonable ambition, the sense of achievement at having managed anything is all the greater.

* * *

It will be no joke clearing this house of fifty years’ worth of accumulated THINGS.

I’ll need to enquire about storage costs.

Meanwhile what to do with the bound copies of Look and Learn in the loft (sniffing them for dampness), or the child’s rusted tricycle circa 1958 in the garage (never let go of), or the garden tools and stacked plant pots in the outhouse (my patience for gardening has evaporated, well and truly), or the pile of not-worn-enough-to-be-thrown-out towels under the stairs (no, OUT with them! – not unless they should be kept for an emergency, for instance if the kitchen floods before I leave)?

All the hundreds of books out of the several thousand squirreled away which I’ll never open again. (Or might I need to, conceivably, for purposes of ‘research’? Just a very few of them: but which few?)

It’s much too much, in every sense.

And yet – and yet I obstinately persist with the notion that I could make do with the contents of a single suitcase. Ideally I’m occupying a hotel room (a small room, high up in the building, under the roof), above the cloudline somewhere.

Back to GO. My Life Part Two.

* * *

Something I’ve just remembered.

 I’m a great fan of Georges Simenon, the Belgian who was once the best-selling fiction author in the world. I’ve dramatised thirteen of his non-Maigret ‘psychological’ novels for BBC Radio 4.

His relationship with his mother, unlike mine, contained a lot of tension. As a writer he seemed to need her approval ahead of anyone else’s, and this approval – if it came – was hard won. He would have been closer to her if he could, but – Instead he was left forever justifying himself to her.

Henriette had a good innings. Finally, at 91, she died. One year later Simenon had stopped writing fiction. No further novels appeared. He would change tack, embarking on a monumental autobiography, his recollections and philosophy, which was to occupy several large tomes.

It was as if the taut novels had been a kind of battleground, where he tested his own will against that of his aloof but opinionated mother. Some of his fictional mothers are sympathetic, others are overbearing: they tend to be complicated, and secretive, and one senses they’ve got good reason to keep that far past hidden from view. Simenon could create, superbly well, a fictional terrain – consisting of many dozens of novels, scores of them – but that was pitted against a shadow world, Henriette’s which he must have realised she wasn’t ever going to allow him to breach.

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