Saturday, 30 June 2012

Who is that? (Come on baby, the laugh’s on me...)

You sit around getting older. There’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me…

It was my birthday last week. To celebrate I danced to Horrible Histories songs in the lounge and played Springsteen too loud for my own good. The quote above is, of course, Springsteen. It is from Dancing In The Dark which is less anthemic than some of his most famous songs, but remains perhaps his best known in running onto the dance floor terms, and was one of his most commercially successful hits. I love The Boss at the best of times but in the last few weeks this line, that song, with all its self-denial and impetus and charge and regret and love has been following me about in my depression.

Things have been hazy. That’s why I used the picture above, but also the one below.

I know it is rubbish and blurred; no filters or special instagram tricks can save it. My husband laughs at me for loving it so much, but perhaps the combination of the shuddery fuzz and those staring, staring, staring eyes is what makes me want to blow it up 8 foot square and stick it on our living room wall.

The reason I appreciate the stare and smile (mirthful? judging? anticipating? happy? confused? bossy? hungry? I don’t know) is this:

Sometimes I stare at my second child and I just have no idea who the fuck he is

I would say what the fuck he is, though that is too similar to my view of Moshi Monsters. His brother I understand so much more. I may not have the big cat/predator love or quite such an incessant interest in the minutiae of Birthday parties, but we share our over sensitivities, bellowing laughs, disinterest in wearing clothes, our big emotional rollercoaster view of the world. I can predict Spider-boy’s unpredictable mood swings. With his brother? I’ve no idea. And I find this is especially the case right now.

The blog’s been quiet because I’ve been overwhelmed. Suffocated by an inability to do much but hope (when not at work or involved in direct childcare) and sit around thinking sad thoughts. I’ve been praying too. Yup. Praying. Praying maudlin and morbid prayers to the ether (as I’m an atheist), but as fervently as when I did believe in God. I’ve been whispering under my breath, crossing my fingers, being sentimental and superstitious.

I know I’ve probably been no fun as I've been driven only by this groundswell distraction: but I’ve not known any other way to act when all I want is newborn (and some other babies I know) to stay well. To reach the mythical milestones. For newborn it is one month, two months, three (COME ON THREE), without a hospital admission or decline or giving us a fright. He’s made two months since he was last in a ward overnight. I’ve decided maybe that’s enough. Even if I can't halt the fear, I can ease it and try to move on from the headachey pressure to think about little else.

My chest aches from nervously smoking cigarettes (not near him or in the house or anything, obviously, but as I pound the streets of Soho after work). But I can’t keep everything on hold and stop talking and thinking and writing forever. A part of me believes that if I write anything good about him I’ll get mine (and a by product of that will be him unfairly getting his to punish me). But a part of me also secretly believes that by worrying strongly enough, being a worrier warrior mum, I will keep him alive. I can’t shake this thought, I just can’t. But I can’t sustain the fear either.

Three things dragged me out of it:
  1. Turning 35. Middle aged according to the stats I learned in primary school. MIDDLE AGED and still moping, for God’s sake
  2. Going to a rock concert, to which I travelled without children, and where I got drunk, and sunkissed and backstage, and shouted the words to Springsteen songs with my mum, my dad and my baby sisters
  3. And, thirdly, (vain, moi?) taking a photograph of myself at the top of this page with a mobile phone. The photo is hilarious as it is one in which I look about 15. I look nothing like myself, of course, I know this. But something in the fluidity of time behind the image, knowing myself and having no idea who I was, being me from now and some other world of DMs and drinking snakebite, shook me like the shaky hands blurred my baby in the second photo.
The thing is, my son has changed. He’s really changed. And so much, all whilst I’ve been too scared to think about the present. In just two months and he’s put on some much weight he’s back on the 51st centile line. ‘His’ line in the red book weight charts, the one he was born on. And this is after dropping off the grid completely on just the 1st of May. Those were sorry days. He looks so different now. He has pulled off that trick whereby we now see how awful he looked before with new eyes unclouded by our desire for it not to be that ill.

But now he’s fat(ter). He’s also tanned. Regardless of my attempts with sun-block he’s like his grandfather, not me, and goes for gold in even the patchiest Summer. Best of all he catches me off guard by not catching his breath. He needs his inhaler, sure, but I haven’t had to sleep on the floor in his room with my clothes on and a mobile phone for what seems like forever.

I find as fog of panic lifts a little I see my son afresh, and he is so strange to me it is like giving birth all over again. I’m thunderstruck. Bewildered I heard myself go straight to the horse’s mouth this week. I stared into my toddler’s darling little mullet framed face as he clutched an Iggle Piggle toy while dancing round the lounge singing the theme to Gigglebiz and I said, not unkindly, but with feeling:


He stared straight back into my face and shouted: "Mummeeeeeeeeeeee".

Then screamed with laughter.

He’s always been good at jokes, but I’m impressed with the devil in his eyes today. Like all toddler he would repeat the same joke for hours if I had the stamina, but he’s working on timing by the third repeat of this one. 19 months old and his eyes flame bright with anticipation. I ask again and he defers the inevitable, teases me with the possibility that he will change the game, perhaps say his own name for the first time. He starts snorting through his nose with anticipation, stifling a hoot of mirth and half laughs half shouts: "Daddeeeee". But only the once.

The Boss knows the truth, and so does newborn. Wallowing and fear is no good, if I can’t do anything else the joke’s on me.

In Memoriam - Part I

I'm interested, if not an expert, on how we use photography and social media and how it influences our lives and in my case both my experience of (and presentation to the world) of my parenting. Above is a picture I took a few months ago. I kept it on my phone despite feeling very strange and conflicted about how and why it existed and whether I should ever show anyone. I must state, clearly, and right now, that it is the foot of a baby, mine, who is very much alive and happy today. It is bloodied because he had some tests, for which the results were pretty good. I should also perhaps offer a warning that some of the reflections below are partly about death.

When the photo had been on my phone a little while I met a blogger called Violet, just briefly, at a conference called Cybher. I feel I should give a warning here that her work is not, as she puts it, everyone's cup of tea and many may dislike even the premise of her blogging. I was very touched by her presentation and her blog.

She has an amazing site if highly sensitive site in which she compiles post mortem photography, pictures of the dead, especially, but not exclusively, from the early days of photography at the end of the 19th century.

She says she envies the Victorians and their pragmatic approach to death, and her site seems to pay a tribute both to those whose images feature and to another time and experience. Many of the photographs, given the time, are of children. Both because child mortality was so high, but also because photography was so new and expensive that some images seep out a secondary sadness.

Beyond their thundering blow of bereavement, they suggest that perhaps this photograph was the only one parents could afford of their child. The only one they had. And one taken once their child slept forever. A world away from the cacophony of everyday snapping we take for granted. Often the children and adults are dressed up – if you’ve seen the haunting film ghost story The Others you’ll have seen a riff on these sorts of images.

I was struck by both her simple interest in compiling, restoring, displaying and responding to these pictures and by the notion which becomes apparent in the comments or with any research - that these photos are a commodity which hold so much interest. People collect them.

The site, The Skull Illusion ( is interesting partly because it offers a prurient insight into a great taboo, the ultimate window into others' lives: the thrill of their trauma, the sense of their importance and the simultaneous shock that all that was them is mushed in a fadedness into 'history'. But also because both the blog itself and the fact that it exists poses so many questions.

Do the dead have no privacy? Perhaps not, once their living loved ones have also passed on. Or perhaps they should have? Or is that in and of itself a denial in all of us? An unwillingness to address what is behind the curtain (for all of us)?

Conversely, is it not a honourable thing to display and cherish these pictures, home them and love them somehow, allow more to see their strange beauty? This beauty in itself is intense. It is partly the starkness of the images (like most things which move intensely they are both banal and deeply shocking) but also the love and reverence with which they are taken, and their sense of posterity and simultaneous hope and defeat.

Mostly, ghoulishly, it is fascinating. Is the site's power as obvious as the thrill for readers of daring ourselves to stare at something we don’t want to see, or shouldn’t? The ultimate keyhole peeping without the fear of a pencil poked through it into our eye? Or is the threat of some nasty surprise for spying part of the appeal – do we have the balls to stare down death and will he jump out of us like a ghost girl in a Japanese movie?

The site’s author told me the most looked at photograph she has is one which has been widely printed the world over – a picture of Kurt Cobain. It isn’t gory, it isn’t detailed, it is of a door partly open with his foot and arm visible. If I remember correctly some detritus of life, a coffee cup for example, visible to the moment snatching paparrazo. Just a foot in a shoe, it could be a rockstar asleep, a teen languishing listening to headphones, but it isn’t. It is the dead limb of a man who has taken his own life in violence.

When people die we understandably struggle with the transition to the world without. There’s a beautiful eulogy written by a rocker to a friend, Terry, who toured and worked with him for years. It says:

They say you can’t take it with you
But I think that they’re wrong
All I know is I woke up this morning and something big had gone*

It most accurately distils every feeling and experience of grief I have ever had. The emptiness, the weirdness, the normalness, the everydayness, the bloody infernal ‘they’ telling us all what we should think and how we should react in good times and in shit ones.

I have never taken a photograph of a dead person. But I can understand the urge, not least as I am still a child in the face of death, coping with it mainly by simply pretending it doesn’t happen, and failing that pretending it doesn’t happen whenever I don’t have to address other people grieving and needing my support and sympathy, or sympathising with me in my grief when I have experienced it. Behind closed doors I pretend we’re all immortal.

I’m struck by the idea of Kurt Cobain’s foot (I saw the image when it was printed immediately after he died, I can’t look again, it would be too close to home). And curious about the many people finding it through google. Are they pleased or disappointed there’s no blood? I’ve seen dead bodies online and in films, I know the sensation of craning your neck, tilting your head to check if there is more to the picture, any grisly detail left unseen at first glance.

I'm mainly struck by the foot though, because of pale feet I too have seen. Once when my son really was very sick I found myself photographing him. I was appalled by the vagabond version of himself he was. Panting, stretched and strangled by wires, ribs pulling out of his chest, eyelids see-through, throat hoarse with trying, lying in a monstrous high raised infant hospital bed. It was the most frightened I have ever been as an adult, and all I wanted to do was take photographs. Endless snaps on my phone of his face, his feet, his nose, a profile and lips and teeth. Even though the very act was so intrusive on him, and unfair - he is beautiful when sick, but like all of us perhaps deserves the best of him, and his prettiest, to be on show.

I didn’t think at the time about why I was doing it, though I felt embarrassed later, ashamed even that people would think I had done something trivial at his time of need. I thought ‘they’ would think I had abdicated the proper mum's role of 'worrier warrior' merely to live up to the incessant over-sharing of the social media networking age.

Perhaps there was a touch of that (I wonder if I believed the situation was real more or less before I updated people online about his progress?) Mainly though I was torn between wanting to show people the images of him really sick, or edit them like holiday snaps and only show the ones where he looked beautiful or not upsetting, if occasionally covered in wires.

Now time has passed I think I know why I did it: because I felt like if I kept recording it I would keep hold of the moment/my son/my autonomy/my authorship of my life and hold the image of him somewhere somehow in time. And the moment wouldn’t end. And he would stay alive.

Violet, the author of The Skull Illustion cites becoming a parent as one of the reasons she developed her morbid curiosity. A desire to woman up to the big D in an attempt to cope with the horror that parenting brings, a clear and present sense of all the time danger of something going wrong with time and a child being lost. I think that is what I was doing too, and thankfully with a child who is now recovered, fat and well.

* from Terry's Song, by Bruce Springsteen

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The elephant in the room

Father's Day is here. And the season of summer birthdays. When thinking about the former I realise someone is often missing from my blog, which talks a lot about sons and mothers, husbands and brothers, sisters and friends. I think this can often be the way with the big things in your life.

Big things are great. Take cats. Spider-boy prefers jaguars, but the entire family is pretty keen on lions and tigers. Even the soggy tigers, majestically walking on water whilst sodden at the Isle of Wight Zoo a couple of weeks ago. And especially the black-maned lion Lucifer at London Zoo, which Spider-boy has adopted and which we also visited last month.

But despite our animal adventures Spider-boy feels hard done boy. He is, he declares with some considerable criticism of my parenting intended, the only boy in his whole school who has never seen an elephant. The only one. London Zoo no longer has them. And he's quite sure we have never taken him to Africa. (Or India. Or Whipsnade. These being the holy trinity of elephant-spotting).

He is impressed by elephants, as they are both vegetarian giants, but also fierce fighters (elephants, according to Steve on Deadly 60, are deadly). Especially the bulls with their huge tusks and clattering might. And though I am more sceptical than he of the apparent percentage of his class who have answered his question in the affirmative and claimed to have been on a safari, I understand the longing. Such magnificent beasts.

'I think you have seen an elephant!' I reassure thinking of a trip to a wildlife park when he was at the end of nappies, 'but it was a long time ago, when we went on holiday'.

His eyes narrow.

'How long ago?' he demands. 'Before or after we were all monkeys?'

I shouldn't be surprised at this. I think he has a good understanding of history, and his personal past. He can wax lyrical at length on his nostalgic views of nursery, can look at the big kids' room with a wistful sigh and declare his recent contemporaries as now 'cute' and 'the little boys'. But if being a mother has taught me anything it is to recognize the craziness of the world as we perceive it, and the strangeness of so much of the stuff that we adults feel is entirely logical, as revealed by little eyes.

Back in the bedroom he is sorting through some animal fact cards. This is something he does endlessly, though today I can see there is some frustration. I assume this is related to the elephants. 'I'm sure we can see an elephant one day soon' I soothe.

Nope. His mind has skipped on. He's cross now because he thinks elephants must be the oldest animals, (apart from blue whales) and something he's seen in his nature book has annoyed him - news that a giant tortoise can live for over a century.

I probe and am reminded to always listen carefully and to watch my assumptions that he's always following what I say. For today I find out this: my son (4, 106 cm) is convinced that age and height are directly related. There is little I can do to dissuade the conviction about this correlation. He offers he and his brother as proof, and then me and my husband. When questioned further he reveals the landscape of his imaginative understanding of the world, which is simultaneously charming and devastating.

His paternal grandmother, nanny, for example, who has told him she is shrinking with age, must be getting younger. He ponders whether she'll ever get to be five again or just stick where she is ('about seven? I'll definitely be older than her soon').

And looking around at grown ups in the street he reveals he is vexed by the complicated question of which age it would be best to stop at? Should he stop growing at 25? 35? 40? Which would be the better age to remain until he dies.

I note that many people have been similarly preoccupied with the retention of youth but then offer his great grandmother as living proof of 91 and just how old a person can get. This is greeted with a laugh. I think he's deriding the elderly, or girls, but he isn't. He just thinks it is hilarious I can misread the world.

'Who is the oldest person you know then?' I ask.

'You know him! Don't you remember? GRANDAD!' he snorts.

My father, six foot four plus hair, born 1956, not often in this blog.

'You remember your Daddy!' And now I will, always, noting he must be 'the oldest man that has ever been alive'.