I wrote the original in 2002, and it was published in Goldsmith University Centre for Urban and Community Research Newsletter, Street Signs. Spring 2003 Volume 1, Issue 5. This is a revised version.
AT REST (Revised July 2013)
Inscribed on a park bench in London’s Highbury Fields: Kathleen Hoy 1903-1994. Much loved Mother. Well done. So very western and Protestant in its reduction of familial love to the accomplishment of a task, a quantifiable achievement modifying an abstract emotion. This is the industrial revolution at its most basic. Mother, her job now ended, is given this tight little send off, its curt periods cutting off any excess; the emotional equivalent of a gold watch and hand shake. Good job. Good bye. Yet such terseness is affecting; this inscription burned into the wood of a simple park bench, one of many on the perimeter of the park, one bench out of many, one mother out of a nation of, one assumes, much missed mums. It works.
Out for a run, I stop at the bench, the marker of the end of my once-around morning sprint, resting a leg on a low rung to stretch tight hamstrings. And think of my own mother. One of the triumphs of this kind of sentimental gesture is that it causes the viewer to reflect on his own life, his own mum, whether specifically accurate or not. Like any good sentiment, it sweeps away the cluttering “no” of doubt and allows for the more generous “yes”; yes, my mother has indeed done a good job with us, her children. Had she not, would this particular son be here, in London, on an extended holiday, easing a middle-aging body into another day of discovery, distraction, and occasional triumph? It was my parents, after all, who equipped me with the skills, the building blocks of personality and position, which led me here to this lovely place. And could it be their wonder at the world, a paying attention to attention, that would cause me to notice this small thing, this modest mention in a city of monuments? Well done.
But this well-being is mitigated by another marker, on an adjoining bench: “Damian Farr 11.6.68 –4.5.94 WITH LOVE.” A man ten years my junior, yet dead. Died of what, this Damian? Why would a young man in his mid twenties die in the early nineties? Could he have died of the thing that I escaped, the virus I began running from, metaphorically, in the early eighties; that virus delivered, as so much is, through the act of love itself? There is no such reference on the marker, but it is a marker of my own identity, my own life, that I make assumptions, wild guesses that are not so wild, that I glean information from its very lack. Stick to the facts. Damian died the same year as Kathleen, yet died a young man, while she achieved the full span of old age. Did he too have children to leave a marker for him? Doubtful. So this memorial is left by whom, with what relation to the deceased? Would the same society which instinctively approves of Kathleen’s long life and motherhood cast the same beneficent eye on Damian? Who am I to assume they would not? Why am I gathering evidence? This is not a crime, but an accumulation of notices, announcements of demise, of disappearance, brief fanfares to which I feel compelled to add notes. I am attempting to leave something of my own in this place I am temporarily residing in, applying the standards of my home, as a child in the motherland of empire, past tense. I have come to one of my ancestral lands to stand musing in front of memorial plaques about imaginary lives. And I have an agenda.
As do others; culture, even in memoriam, does not rest. Many months later, having once again the privilege to return to London, to Highbury Fields, to my morning run around the perimeter, I find Kathleen Hoy’s memorial itself marked. An additional inscription, graffitied onto the parallel lines of her park bench, barks: “DEAN, CHARLENE, NEVILLE+COLLIN WOZ ERE 2000 AN ONWORDS!!!” My initial grief at such a defacement molds injury into irony; these are the living, the young (I assume) asserting the sloppy ecstasy of their lives, spewing onto whatever surface the proof they are indeed alive, the brood of a no-longer imperial power who (I assume once again) know none of Kathleen’s struggles, the context of her times, the meaning implicit in “well done.” Or perhaps not. Perhaps they are her grandchildren, or their peers, unable to fathom this disappearance, this clipped emotion, and so must mark its occurrence; as a dog, when lifting its leg after sniffing out the past presence of another, both salutes and erases.
And what of Damian? He is, as of yet, undisturbed. Would Dean, Charlene, Neville+Collin have left something more specific to his memory? Did they purposely avoid him, choosing Kathleen instead? For Damian, would they have reconsidered the brag of their “2000 An Onwords!!!” leaving out, at the very least, a few exclamations? Yet perhaps their mark is not so different from my own written attempt; we mark-up each other’s lives, and deaths, reconstituting them into our own. And we live, as they declared, on words. I run on.
But something runs after me. My initial jog around Highbury Fields, with the discovery of Kathleen’s plaque, occurred in 2000. My memory of this event, published in the in-house publication of Goldsmiths University two years later, gets around, finding its way to the mother of Damian Farr. In 2005, I receive an enquiry from her, written from West Sussex:
“Dear Jeff McMahon – I am Damian’s mother. I read the whole essay and of course am now intrigued to know who Kathleen is who has the bench near Damian’s and also how you came to be there? I lived at Highbury Corner for 30 years and Damian met his death there, outside the pub on the corner. It was the worst night of my life but I retain a very strong sense of Damian’s presence and a kind of joy and gratitude for the person he was and for having had him for 25 years. My brother produced a book of Damian’s photographs with a short life history and excerpts from his letters. It was for private publication but I do have a copy that you would be most welcome to have and I think Damian would be well chuffed to know that someone of your professional standing and media involvement had expressed an interest. Perhaps you could let me know the address to send it to. Thank you for what you wrote. Greetings Kate Glazier (nee Burgess, formerly Farr)”
From this book of his photos and commentary, I learn about Damian’s life as a much traveled photographer, and the facts of his death. Celebrating the Arsenal’s European Cup victory in Copenhagen, he “fell under the wheels of a passing lorry suffering massive injuries below the waist,” and never regained consciousness. The lorry driver was exonerated, with the coroner’s verdict being “death by misadventure.”
Five years after the note from Damian’s mother, my own mother is dead. Unlike Kathleen Hoy, she did not make it into her nineties, but at age eighty-five had indeed lived a full life, diminished by a stroke that six months later struck again, sudden as a wayward lorry, jolting her permanently into an unconsciousness from which she, like Damian, never returned. But we, her family, were prepared for this, as I assume Kathleen’s children were, and as Damian’s mother could not be.
We live on, consciousness handed-off like the baton in a relay race, or flung sharply with no warning. Well done? With love? Onwords.
© 2002-2013 Jeff McMahon