MeekingsSam Meekings, MSc, MA (Oxon), BAA Mist that Rises from the SeaPhD in Creative Writing, Lancaster UniversityJanuary 20161
MeekingsContents3Declaration4Abstract6A Mist that Rises from the Sea215How A Personal History is Constructed: An Annotated Index of the Past215 A. Aberdeen Bestiary226 B. Beginnings233 C. Chronophobia237 H. Happiness244 M. Memoir254 P. Place266 S. Skeletons273 Bibliography2
Meekings3DeclarationI hereby declare that this creative project and thesis are both my own work, and havenot been submitted in substantially the same form for the award of a higher degreeelsewhere.Sam MeekingsJanuary 2016
Meekings4Sam Meekings, MSc, MA (Oxon), BAA Mist that Rises from the SeaPhD in Creative Writing, Lancaster UniversityJanuary 2016AbstractIn my research through practice I am writing a creative memoir about memory andloss. It focuses on the life and death of my brother, and is set over a single month afterhis funeral. Each of the twenty-four chapters, mirroring the 24 years of my brother’slife, explore a particular theme that sheds light on our relationship. I draw on my ownchildhood as well as local myths, texts, stories, history, beliefs and traditions to showhow identity and experience are complicated by context and surroundings. My aim isto use both the form and content of the work to create a working demonstration of thetheory that the past is never lost, that it does not disappear and that, whatever wemight forget, something always remains.I am focusing upon the following research questions: How can the process and perspective of the grieving mind, suspended betweenpast and future, be represented in a narrative? How much is a person’s identity contained within the history of the places theylived in and the objects they treasured? How can biography be brought to life using the tools and techniquescharacteristic of literary fiction? What responsibilities do we have in bringing the dead back to life in writing?My original contribution to knowledge is to create new insights on how wecome to measure or understand a life, as well as to explore the process of how the
Meekings5grieving mind comes to terms with the death of someone close. In addition to mycreative project, I have created an annotated index that explores the theory andpractice behind the creation of a personal history within a literary text.
Meekings6A Mist that Rises from the Sea1. Goblin WoodsAlmost directly behind my parents’ house lie the Goblin Woods – so called becausewhere the light manages to pick a way through the interlinking weave of branches thatmake up the dense canopy shadows are thrown that resemble the twisted forms ofimps, spirits and demons. The stretch of woods at the back of the garden is tangledand uninviting, and so it is almost always via the footpath further up the road that Ienter, despite the thickset spray of nettles that have grown up across the path as if todisguise its purpose. The nettles cleave together and stings spread across my ankles asI attempt to make my way further in. I am reminded of my brother at about three yearsof age, listening with an earnest face to our mum’s instructions to use the crayons wehad been given on the paper placed in front of us and then, as soon as her back wasturned, scribbling great looping swirls of green and orange across the pale wallpaperand skirting board. It is as though the nettles too know they shouldn’t, but cannotresist.Yet despite their best efforts, there is no mistaking the fact that the stingcaused by the nettles is only a slight itch and not the throbbing, burning pain it hadseemed when I was a child, a pain so insistent that it invariably sent my brother and Isearching frantically for dock leaves to rub against the reddening patches of irritatedskin. The sky too is different. It is not the usual sweep of cloud-blown blue that canoften be seen towards the start of July, but is instead a subdued and mottled grey, justas the day might seem if seen through the gauze-like haze of cataracts.
Meekings7I am taking this more overgrown route because I need to retrace the steps wehave taken a hundred times before. I will make the same journey we used to taketogether, though as always I am torn between the desire to lay claim to the past, andthe thought that it all lies just beyond my reach. For memory warps everything, just asrain warps timber. I have met people who have endured wars or long stretches inprison only to find that in later years something of them yearns for those times, nomatter how terrible their experiences – what was once fear is transformed into aheightened sense of vitality; unbearable confinement becomes intimate camaraderie.Memory repaints the past, again and again, until the present is pale and colourless.I push on regardless. The further the path follows the slope down towards themuddy track at the bottom the closer the trees huddle together. Save for the sound,somewhere in the distance, of deer crunching leaves beneath their tread, the wholewoods are so silent that it is hard to imagine that the trees have ever heard anythinglouder than a whisper. When we were children even my brother would stop runningand shouting, if only for the briefest of respites, as soon as the darkness of the woodsenveloped us; and we would often be careful to speak to each other in voices lowenough to ensure that we were not overheard by the goblins lurking behind thebeeches.In the folktales families told to one another many hundreds of years ago,forests are, almost without exception, presented as places of gloom and danger. InHansel and Gretel, the narrative is set in motion by the abandonment of two childrenin a forest. Of their parents we learn little, save that they are said to be starving.Indeed, of the world beyond the forest, almost nothing is said. Nevertheless, thebeginning of the tale, if not the further discovery of a gingerbread house, is rooted inhistorical truth. You see, the decades of Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolts, the never-
Meekings8ending battles between the House of Valois and the Plantagenets, all brought withthem years of famine and desperation and, when it was no longer possible for familiesto support their children, forests made for ideal places in which to desert them. Eventhe smallest of forests can induce disorientation and make it impossible for a child tofind his or her way back home.The Goblin Woods are home to rabbits, deer and voles; and any number ofwarblers, pheasants, wood pigeons or finches might be glimpsed among the low-slungbranches. The beeches are occasionally joined by ash or yew and, in the emptystretches between them, bluebells, wood anemone, twayblade, butcher’s broom anddog’s mercury have made their home. These open glades, strewn like bald patchesacross the bristling hide of the woods, mark where trees were felled by the great stormof 1987, England’s worst since 1703. This earlier tempest, popularly regarded as thescourge of a wrathful and unappeasable deity, was a hurricane that crushed shipstogether upon the sea, peeled up the leaden roof of Westminster Abbey as though itwere a mere sheath of parchment, and reputedly even sent the Queen herself hurryingto the cellar to hide from the wailing winds. The storm of my childhood, however,killed few, and is remembered more for the lack of warning from the trustedweathermen on TV than for any of its effects. These included the laying waste ofclose to fifteen million trees.I can just about remember that night in mid-October, though the only detail tostick in my mind is the way the windowpanes shook, as though there was someoneoutside frantically banging to be let in. I was then a few weeks from my sixth birthdayand my brother, sleeping on the top bunk and snoring lightly above my head, wouldhave been about three and three quarters. I believe he did not wake even once, thoughthis was not strange, for he had the ability to fall into a deep and untroubled sleep
Meekings9seemingly at will, no matter where we were or how much uproar and pandemoniummight surround us. I lay still in my bunk for what seemed like a week, trying tosummon up the bravery to go to the window to see what was there. I would havewoken him, but at the time I felt as though the wild wind was calling to me alone,though I could not understand from its garbled and frantic tongue whether its intentionwas benign or malicious, and so I waited out the storm from the safety of my bed.From that night on I became convinced that wind, water, rain and hail each have alanguage of their own, and that they speak it most clearly only once night has come.I follow the path round a huddle of trees. The way the woods muffle sound andrepel all but the thinnest arrows of daylight make it possible to believe they areinhabited only by ghosts. As a child I would mistake the word ‘corpse’ for ‘copse’,and for a long time it seemed to me that even the smallest woods and coppices hadsome special connection with the dead. As if to prove this, when I was in my earlyteens, somewhere in the woods that litter the low ridges of the South Downs not farfrom us a young man was found hanging from one of the trees. A family friend hadbeen out walking his dog when, following the track around a sharp bend, he caughtsight of a blue jacket somewhere above him. A blue jacket, and mud-caked trainers –he had seen both, or so I overheard him tell my parents. Though I knew neither thedead boy nor his family, the event confirmed my sense that forests welcome death justas lakes welcome swimmers or the sky welcomes clouds.Since for me the young man had no name, no face which I could link to thestory, for a time he was the image of Death – that shadowy figure of myth and legendwhose features, rendered indistinguishable by the relentless work of time, have fadedto a blank mask. I cannot remember hearing any other information about the boy,neither any reason for his actions nor account of his possible motives; but looking
Meekings10back now it seems that with such a death there is never an explanation that willsuffice. Our imaginings only reach so far before they return to us. For some time afterthe suicide, our walks in the woods became more tentative, as I imagined everyshadow flung from every outstretched branch might be a body upon a rope, and everysudden flapping of birds that the dog sent scattering into the sky might be somethingless certainly defined taking flight.These thoughts play through my head as I walk further into the woods, andsoon I am completely lost. The path is forever corkscrewing back upon itself,returning me time and again to the same few trees. I am suddenly aware of the frailsunlight falling between the coil and braid of the entwined branches. Shadowsmultiply, I increase my pace, and discern movement ahead of me. Several times Imistake the call and flutter of birds for familiar voices. I turn at a fork in the path andbegin to make my way down a slope that I trust will lead me to the slim valley at theheart of the Goblin Woods. I no longer trust my senses, but am still startled by thesound of footsteps out of synch with the echo of my own and, for a second, I catch aglimpse of my brother, his face a trick of the light roaming over the bark of a twistedbeech.Less than half an hour into the walk, and before I have even found a way toreach the track at the foot of the slope, I find myself unable to continue. The mulchthat lines the woodland floor is made not of the familiar mixture of twigs, dead wood,leaves, moss, trampled flowers and other debris stewing down to feed the tangle ofroots beneath the ground, but is instead the compressed refuse of the past and witheach step I take I sink a little deeper. I must turn back. I swing fast on my heels, sofast I almost lose my balance in the mud. I start back up the track for home.
Meekings11Within a wood, time ceases to function as it should. The density of the canopycreates a sense of almost continual twilight, and it is possible not only to mistakeminutes for hours but to believe that the trees exert such strong influence over theirterrain that within their bounds we are forced to experience time as they, the trees,experience it. Their languorous rhythm is felt throughout the forest while days, weeks,years race on outside its borders. And light too is different here, behaving as oddly asit does when passing through glass or liquid. Even on the darkest of days, on emergingfrom the woods, my eyes take several moments to readjust to the unbroken expanse ofsky, and the relative sparseness of the world without makes everything, for a moment,utterly strange. As I walk back along the footpath, the world ahead – the empty roadleading home, the stretches of overgrown grass, the sagging telephone wires spun outbetween poles – reminds me of those apocalyptic films which begin with long shots ofabandoned skyscrapers, deserted houses, silent streets. The day after the end of theworld.Ahead is the house I have not lived in for years. I am back in a village on theoutskirts of a city. It is our village, and the city where my mum is a teacher and mydad a social worker. But no one has gone in to work this week. I now draw close tothe front door. I should not be here.I wait for something that will explain everything. Nothing comes. There is noritual to guide me, and little to weigh against my grief.Things, though, would have been different in the past – in, say, ancient Rome.At the time of death the head of a Roman household would kneel over the sickbed andattempt to breathe in the last breath of his dying relative, to store something of theirlife within his own. A procession would then have carried the body to the outskirts ofthe city, and some of the deceased’s family would have worn masks representing their
Meekings12ancestors, whose illustrious and eternal company the dead would now be joining.Former slaves, now bequeathed their freedom at their master’s death, would havewailed