Monday 1 July 2019
Left Field: CHAPTER 30 - A Place to Go When You Sleep
‘There is no longer any life pulsing under his skin; it has been forced out already to the very edges of his body, and death is working its way through him, moving outwards from the centre. It is already in his eyes ... it’s still him, but it isn’t really him anymore; his image has faded, become blurred, like a photographic plate that has had too many copies made from it. Even his voice sounds like ashes.’
Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
My father doesn’t recognise me when I visit. Sometimes he stares at me, trying to work out who I am and what is going on. A week before his 101st birthday I arrive and he looks at me, his face a question mark.
I bend over to kiss his head and ask, ‘How are you?’
‘Maturing nicely,’ he says. ‘Your artefact can go on the front door. When will it be finished?’
‘I need you to deal with the third man and the others.’ He looks at me. ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about, nor do you. We’ve encouraged toe rags to conceal things. They are people of doom, but the good will make more effort.’
He skewers me with an intense stare. ‘What is it that holds society together? This hub of ours is not a congealed mass. It’s a pact which we may not like and may want to change. But it is what it is. I’d like you to get all this into a hundred pages. You will do it well. I’ll give you every encouragement.’ He pulls the sheet higher and frowns. ‘You’ll need a good director. He or she will emerge. So far you’ve said sensible things. We don’t need prototypes.’
He is quiet for a long time. ‘I’m boring you. I needn’t mention any names. You know them. They don’t need a title.’
A nurse puts her head around the door and asks cheerfully, ‘How are you, Ian?’
His hearing and eyesight is poor. He strains to see who she is.
She disappears and another nurse enters with a mug. ‘Hello, Dr Ian. A cup of tea?’
Puzzled, he shakes his head in my direction as she puts it on his tray. She leaves the room and he says, ‘Now you see them, now you don’t. I’m glad I’m at the arse end of life. My family have had enough of me and so have I.’ I bend over to kiss him goodbye. ‘What day is it?’
‘Good, one more out of the way. The Good Lord is waiting for them. But they don’t know if he’s there, or if he’s where he’s supposed to be.’
My visits to my father remind me that my early years have impressed themselves onto my life. Those Belsen photos in my father’s desk are still there. They might have been thrown away, but they are there in my mind. Even the childhood house in Bromley which has long since been torn down.
I have a recurring dream which has repeated itself for decades. They all take place in that house on Westmoreland Road. The people and events are from the present or not so distant past. I may dream about Anne, about Ben and Jonny, Renata’s parents, the house on Krk, about Mostar and Sarajevo, but it is all taking place in, or around, that house. Stranger still, whatever the subject of the dream, my parents are always there.
I have no idea what Freud would have made of this, but it reminds me of those cartoon films where a small house sits alone on top of a small planet. The planet is the house and the house is the planet.
I think the house is my filing system, the place which no longer exists, but where I go to try to make sense of my life. Where I try and make sense of everything. Where I pick up the pieces and reassemble them, give them new meaning, or fail to give them meaning at all.
My father can no longer make sense of his life, although I cannot be sure of that because he may still have a place to go to when he sleeps. But he is no longer in control of his life. I sit beside him and wonder if I am, or ever was, in control of mine.
Watching him at the end of his life has made me want to make sense of my own before I, too, become a prisoner of old age. There are so many things I want to ask my father, but there will be no further questions for him; he is already leaving us.
I arrive to see him staring at the window. ‘Let go aft,’ he says.
I haven’t heard that nautical order from him since we sailed together in his dinghy.
Who are you talking to, Dad?’
Without looking away from the window he answers, ‘Paul and Nancy. You know them.’
‘Listen, you two. I’m not always wise, but on this occasion I am. Let’s get going.’ He turns his head towards me. ‘I am very fond of them, but they are obstinate.’
‘Where are you?’ I ask.
‘At sea and we must keep moving. If we don’t, we’ll be becalmed.’ He raises his voice. ‘You two would do well to listen to me. If you don’t, I’ll leave you here and sail on my own.’
Then he laughs, as though sharing a joke with his shipmates. He turns back to me. ‘Thanks for coming, but next time bring soap, rough towels, fresh water and lots of food.’
‘Don’t ask silly questions. I’m in the Atlantic.’ He pauses. ‘No, maybe it’s the North Sea, but I need supplies.’
I bend down to kiss his head. He smiles and shrugs his skeletal shoulders. I think he knows which sea he is crossing.
My father died on October 15th, 2013, aged 101 and 5 months.1 One month later, my sisters and I scattered his ashes with those of my mother. Not on the Gower, but at the mill on the river Stour at Sturminster Newton, near Shaftesbury.
1 The Times, October 24th, 2013: ‘As editor of The Lancet from 1965 to 1976, Ian Douglas-Wilson joined a long series of radical editors which went all the way back to Thomas Wakley who worked with the social reformer William Cobbett in the 1820s. Douglas-Wilson’s predecessor, Sir Theodore Fox, was a pacifist ambulance driver in the First World War, and The Lancet’s current editor, Richard Horton, has not hesitated to speak out against government “reforms” to the NHS and the last government’s war policies. After taking part in the D-Day landings, Douglas-Wilson found himself treating shell-shocked troops. He committed his experiences to paper, and his article on what was to become known as post-traumatic stress disorder was published in the British Medical Journal. He was one of the first Allied medics to enter Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Later, he would tell his family that he felt guilty because the first British troops to arrive fed the famished prisoners high-calorie rations and many died because they were unused to food. He kept photos from Belsen in the bottom drawer of his desk. His study doubled as his children’s nursery, and they used to open his desk and look in horror at the skeletal bodies of inmates. After the war he was interviewed for a job at the BMJ, but was advised by its then editor, Hugh Clegg (Nick Clegg’s grandfather), that he was too radical for their publication and that he should apply for a job at The Lancet. He stayed there for 30 years, the last 11 as editor. Douglas-Wilson was a modest man. When interviewed on BBC, he would insist they didn’t mention his name but refer to him as “Lancet editor”. This modesty didn’t restrict his outspokenness. When Lord Moran, president of the Royal College of Physicians and physician to Winston Churchill, published the former Prime Minister’s personal health details, he felt the lash of Douglas-Wilson’s tongue. He was a vociferous opponent of routine peer review, believing that it cowed original research. Under his editorship, potential contributors received a quick response which gave them time to search out alternative publications if articles were refused. Douglas-Wilson was an early advocate of receiving osteopathy into the medical “family” and after his retirement was delighted when acupuncture was accepted into the NHS. In 1964 Douglas-Wilson travelled across Africa and came back to write Health Prospects in Africa. This was one of the first post-colonial observations into illness and healthcare provision on that continent. His radical approach to medical journalism was reflected in his personal life. Returning from Germany in 1945, he and his wife Betty invited German PoWs to spend Christmas with them and their children. The Douglas-Wilsons sent money to refugees and, in 1956, offered a home to two students who had fled from Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution. There were always interesting people visiting the Douglas-Wilson home in Bromley, Kent. His Danish friend, Karl Henrick Køster, arrived each Christmas, looking a bit like Santa with his two-metre frame and Viking beard. This was the man who had helped Jews escape to Sweden and who, after his death, was the subject of the Disney film Miracle at Midnight. Douglas-Wilson’s closest friend was Thomas Dormandy, a chemical pathologist and leader writer for The Lancet. Dormandy covered a range of topics from medical ethics to Chekhov and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Dormandy was himself a painter and author. Until his death, he would regularly turn up at Douglas-Wilson’s care home to read him instalments of his latest book. Douglas-Wilson’s wife Betty died on Millennium Eve, aged 91, and he spent the next 13 years on his own until he had to enter a care home. His sense of humour lasted to the end. In the final months of his life, he suffered from dementia and his son remembers a ramble on one visit which involved setting sail across the North Sea. Douglas-Wilson concluded with, “I don’t know what I am talking about, nor do you.” As an editor, he was a stickler for proper use of language. Here he followed George Orwell, all of whose works were on his bookshelf. “Good writing is like a window pane,” wrote Orwell, and Douglas-Wilson followed his advice. He treasured examples of deficient punctuation, such as “Let’s eat granny”, or unintended ambiguity such as the Daily Express headline at the time of the El Alamein campaign in 1942: “British Push Bottles Up Germans”. Orwell wasn’t on his shelves just for the clarity of his prose. Douglas-Wilson liked him for his no- nonsense honesty. “Do remember,” wrote Orwell, “that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for.” Douglas-Wilson lived by these words, honest to his family and friends and never afraid to stand up for the sick, the displaced and difficult causes. He was an early supporter of CND and took his teenage son on one of the first Aldermaston marches. Unloved by a cold mother, Douglas-Wilson had difficulty releasing his emotions. At home, he spent all his time at his desk, poring over next week’s editorial and covering the floor with rolls of copy text, children banished to their bedrooms or the garden. He retired early to nurse his sick wife and his capacity to love and be loved increased. With a growing family, he ended his long life giving and receiving empathy and compassion. When his son cleared his desk after his death, the Belsen photos were no longer there. Nor was the family tree that a cousin had meticulously prepared, suggesting that Douglas-Wilson wanted to walk through life unencumbered with his own history. He leaves two daughters and a son. (Dr Ian Douglas-Wilson, physician and editor of The Lancet, 1964–76, was born on May 12, 1912. He died on October 15, 2013, aged 101).’