On the wall of the box bedroom that I euphemistically call my ‘office’ when it’s really a dumping ground for old books, there’s a photo. I’m guessing it was taken c. 1988 by my mother. It simply shows the blazing Edwardian fireplace of our first home together as a new family, in Essex Gardens in Gateshead. In front of the fire my Dad lies on his stomach, clad head to toe in denim and cowboy boots on his feet. I must be about one going on two and I’m sitting on him as if he’s a boat or a horse, with me is our cat Jasper. He’s there for the heat, Dad too – he’s always had snake blood, but I’m there I think because must have known it was the right, safe place to be.
How does this picture make me feel about my father? Well, I certainly love the man even if as I’ve grown our affection has been much more verbal than physical, and even then it’s hardly an effusive expression of love. Stage four cancer on his part brought us closer together for sure, but we’re still so awkward around each other. On a core level we certainly love each other. In many ways I’m very similar to my father and totally different as well. But one thing I know we share is some sort of innate, deeply personal and individual ethical compass. I once wrote a poem haunted by a memory of my grandfather. He was a policeman, a job about which I have profound reservations, but he gave his whole life to it and to read his meticulous, cursive notebooks (all 100 of them) is to see a man who really cared about what he did. He was in the police all his life and only latterly, in the last few years of his working life was he made a detective and he hated it. He said all it involved was sitting around in pubs all day (doesn’t sound too bad to me). He was never really promoted because, although brilliant, he wasn’t a company man and he loathed the freemasons, which was kind of sine qua non. He told me once that I clearly had the gift that passed down the male line of the McCaffery family. Pressing him, he wouldn’t tell me what it was:
Up to my knees in goose-shit,
I try to remember anything
you said to me years ago.
You were no miser of wisdom
but all I can remember are these words:
It’s something we do well.
I know you meant the men
in our family, but the details
of our gift have gone with you.
On days like these, I settle for knowing
I have it. Others, I count myself lucky
I don’t know what it is.
I think I know now – it’s following something in an utterly uncompromising manner and against the grain. It might sound selfish, but it really boils down to standing up for something you believe in, and with the McCafferys, the cause is always a beleaguered and unfashionable one.
Take me and my poetry – why would someone continue to professionally and financially handicap themselves in order to do something they love, even if society is against it, even if your contemporaries are hardly supportive – why don’t you do something that pays lots of money. The answer is simple: I haven’t the will-power and threshold for bullshit that you do, but I have an inexhaustible desire to do what I want to do, even if I don’t do it well. And the poetry world is based on demonstrable accomplishments, so if you’re like me – 33 years old and no prizes to show for it – then you must be in the wrong game, yes? No, hell no.
Dad began as a careerist. He fell into a really well paid job as a surveyor for the Opencast, then they promoted him to a site manager. The job, he recalls, was pretty laid-back and relaxed but then he got made redundant as coal mining was slowly dissolved in this country. He then trained as a lawyer – he spent three years and graduated top of his class. He came home from his graduation and told my mother that he’d never be a lawyer as long as he lived, it was an awful, morally bankrupt profession. So he went back to university, got a degree in urban planning and got involved in conserving old buildings. It’s something he’s utterly passionate about, but like his job at the Opencast, it’s something in direct opposition to the prevailing winds of taste. Nobody cares about really, truly conserving old buildings now unless they’re castles. Councils are so under-staffed and under-funded that greedy property developers know that they can rip out the old windows and features of a listed building, put in tawdry plastic shit and even if someone complains, it’ll never get taken to court. Not even a tree protection order works, because tree surgeons can be bought – all it takes is insisting the beautiful tree has some disease and must come down. The architectural fabric of this country is being ripped up just so the venal neo-Thatcherite greed-heads can get ahead and it sickens me, it really sickens him. Already in Amble, near where I live, the council have green lit a scheme to demolish a historically important building which currently serves a local function to build ‘eco townhouses’ which will sell to investors and rich people as holiday lets or holiday homes. This is the sort of shit they don’t prepare you for in school, how blood-thirstily avaricious people are that nothing seems to matter other than filthy lucre.
We’re like Ben Knox from Local Hero – the beachcomber who won’t sell his bay to the oil barons for all the tea in china, or grains in his hand. It might be a patrician position to adopt, but it’s one without money or glory and it takes its toll. It’s worth it though.