My father was an interesting, clever, inventive and intelligent man. He combined physical activity and ruggedness with an inquiring mind that was reminescent of the heroic statues of the Greek philosophers of the ancient world, indeed I think he would have rather liked that image. In his later years he simplified his material life, possessions, financial affairs and so on, even his diet, to an almost austere degree in order to free himself from what he had for a long time regarded as irritating distractions from researching, reflecting, thinking and writing. He wrote a number of essays and papers, mostly unpublished as far as I am aware, and one book, printed in a limited run at his own expense, on a wide range of subjects that he saw as part of a greater whole of which the book was intended to be the synthesis. The theme that emerged for him during that twenty to thirty year period was the evolution of the brain and enquiry into the mechanism of consciousness, material for another post perhaps.
When I used to visit him in his simple bedsit in a harbour town in the north east of England – he loved the sea all his life – most of his conversations were on this topic that, really, filled his mind. Other people he knew found him interesting and inspiring company, rich in experience from a life that included active service in World War 2, bomb and mine disposal in the aftermath (for which he was awarded an MBE), a varied career after the Royal Navy that took him to many places.
I thought about all this as I lay awake this morning, it’s a short mid-term holiday just now, of how our experience of the people who are our parents is very different from that of the friends and acquaintances that they have, the sorts of people with whom one has brief conversations after a funeral, illuminating or shocking or unexpected, as if of a different person to the one we knew.
It is a matter of proximity, like stars. Far off, they light up our night skies to varying degrees, the further away, the less of their light and nature we see; only that which reaches us over the distances of space through the filters of dust clouds and the gravitational lenses of other stars in between. In orbit within their solar systems we experience the colour and intensity of their light, their helpful and harmful radiation, the solar flares and storms, the impact and influence of other bodies drawn into their gravitational field, their creative and destructive energies.
So with our parents, like two stars in, for a while at least, close binary orbit around which we emerge from celestial dust into being and find more or less stable paths. Being so close, we cannot see them as more distant observers do, we see both more and, perhaps in some ways, less. We may come to imagine that all stars and systems are like ours, unable to see the light of the rest of the cosmos clearly for the glare of our own nearest stars, at least unless we move away into a more distant and perhaps quieter path around our parent stars and look outwards with clearer and more open minds, like the great telescopes with which we are beginning to find new and surprising world systems.
So I remember my father from a more distant orbit now, his memory an afterglow. My mother’s star shines with a different light, less dazzling, more stable, warmer, nourishing with a gentler radiance that she perhaps does not realise.
Among the many things I learnt from my father was a fascination with the stars, a love of the night skies. I’m glad of that, it’s a beautiful and amazing view.