Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Year's Dying, 2012 by Julia Jones

In memoriam HMS Bounty, Claudene Christian, Robin Walbridge, Dave Harris, Dick Cronin, Cassandra Jardine, Tom Carter, Richard Morris, Patricia Moran

HMS Bounty, caught by Hurricane Sandy
My family and the Mayan calender tell me that the world is going to end at this winter's solstice so perhaps it's time to say some farewells.

The ship was HMS Bounty, built in Nova Scotia in 1960 for the film starring Marlon Brando. I wish I could describe the thrill it was in the summer of 2011 when I received a message from Doug Faunt, a deckhand on the Bounty, telling me that he was reading The Salt-Stained Book, volume one of the Strong Winds trilogy

I met Doug later when he took some time away from the Bounty and visited Peter Duck. He was one of the first people to convince me that it was worth publishing the Strong Winds trilogy in electronic format so the stories would pack easily into a sailor's kitbag. Thank you for that advice, Doug.

Doug and I kept in touch through Facebook and I watched in horror as the Bounty was caught in the truly strong winds and mountainous seas of Hurricane Sandy on October 29th 2012 and sank off the coast of North Carolina. Paper copies of The Salt-Stained Book and A Ravelled Flag went down with her. Doug was among the crew members who were winched to safety by the US coastguard but Claudene Christian (a descendant of the 1787 mutiny leader Fletcher Christian) and the ship's captain, Robin Walbridge, both died – cold, lonely deaths.

I never met Dave Harris, a Strong Winds reader who died in hospital from New Zealand on October 14th. Dave had suffered from myotonic dystrophy for many years and, when cancer was additionally discovered, took the stoic view that a death sentence wasn't so much worse than a life sentence. Again my relationship with Dave was only through Facebook and a mutual friend. It made me stop quite still and close my eyes when I was told that Dave was reading and re-reading the SWT after his cancer diagnosis and just two weeks before his death. Thank you Dave. That was a profound and lovely gift.

Strong Winds reader Dick Cronin was 87 when he died on October 31st. Dick wasn't of the Facebook generation: he left letters. From February this year, when he discovered The Salt-Stained Book, until late September when he finished Ghosting Home he wrote every few weeks, up-dating me with his reading progress and his response to each book and describing the events in his life - such as his Ransome-reading boyhood and his time in the RNVR - that were somehow connected with the stories.

That sounds more orderly than it was. Dick wrote in a fountain pen which sometimes fell to bits, letters were stopped and restarted and arrived sometimes two and three in an envelope, his eyesight was failing … visibly. Then there was nothing in October and in the first week of November a letter arrived from his widow, Anne. Dick had died peacefully at home, well cared-for and suffering discomfort rather than pain. Anne suggested that I might like to raise a glass to his memory.

Actually I shed a few tears and took the dog for a long walk. I owed Dick those the tears. When he first wrote to me he said that the SSB had made him soak his handkerchief and his face as well. The ground was soft under my feet and the autumn air smelled of fungus and warm, damp leaves. I realized that in every one of the SWT volumes there is the death and memorial of an octogenarian. What did I think I was doing including such a pattern of death in a set of stories for children?

There is a moment in the first volume when Donny, the thirteen year old hero, realizes that he is holding a drowned man's book.
Donny shut Sailing with a snap'Will all this happen to me?', he wondered. Gregory Palmer – Captain John – had died. His book seemed stained with blood, not salt. Dry, white blood.”

There's a moment in everyone's life when we realize that Death Happens. Then we usually forget and carry on. Until the next time.
Okay. Captain Palmer was dead. And that was very sad.
But most old books must have belonged to people who were dead. All those classics of Granny's – Hiawatha, Treasure Island, Peter Pan – all the kids who'd read them when they first came out: they'd all be dead by now.
Granny was dead as well.”

The children in the Strong Winds trilogy need to make sense of the past – it's a common literary theme. But as I walked and thought about Dick Cronin and the other, even older, readers who have told me that they like the books, I began to wonder whether I hadn't unconsciously included such a sequence of deaths and memorials as a way of saying goodbye to a generation?

Captain Palmer, Greg Palmer, a fictional character in the SWT, was a real person, a former owner of Peter Duck. I often think of him when I'm on board: a yacht, like Donny's salt-stained book, is such a tangible link.

I'm not going to make the obvious point that electronic books and internet communication won't help us to commune with our dead in the same tangible way. Facebook confers a discomforting immortality of its own. Every few weeks it suggests that I ask Cassandra Jardine to 'like' my pages. But Cassandra died in May 2012. She was my age, mother of five children, a brilliant journalist who always used her skills for good purposes – such as attempting to destigmatise the lung cancer of which she died. "What a waste that Cassandra Jardine should have died!" was many people's immediate reaction. But, as she said herself, “There is no logic – only biology.”

I feel gratitude towards Cassandra for coming on board Peter Duck in the summer of 2011 and writing about The Salt-Stained Book. I feel gratitude of different kind towards Tom Carter, who also died in May this year. Tom was the unacknowledged son of journalist Nancy Spain and Margery Allingham's husband, Pip Youngman Carter. For much of his life he had suffered from learning disability and and periods of mental illness. When I was reissuing my biography of Margery Allingham in 2009 I needed to ask Tom's permission to write about the uncomfortable facts of his birth. I needed him to tell me about them from his point of view; I needed to know how he felt.

Tom suffered from high functioning autism. He was tremendously, obsessively intellectual but analysis of feelings and relationships did not come easily to him. I feel honoured that we became friends. My partner Francis feels the same. We could always tell when one of us was talking to Tom on the phone. He had an abrupt, strongly-focussed style of conversation. The last call he made was to express gruff sympathy with Francis on the loss of his books in a fire. “And how are you Tom?” “Not too well.”

Tom Carter's cardboard coffin
Tom Carter's funeral was in the skittle alley of his favourite pub. Our dear friend Richard Morris, who we miss every single day, asked his family to give a party for him when he died. Richard did not read the Strong Winds trilogy as he lay in hospital buffeted by the result of test after test that brought the end of his life rushing closer at shocking speed. He chose George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman series.

“Being diagnosed with inoperable cancer is like walking out of the garden of Eden” said Cassandra Jardine. As we sat in Richard's garden that August night in the home that he and Victoria had built, among the roses and the people that he loved, it was more poignant than all the black drapes and and the dust and ashes of the chilliest marble mausoleum.

Part of Dick Cronin's response to the SWT was to re-read Hiawatha. My godmother, Patricia Moran, gave me my copy when I was a child. She died on October 21st aged 92 and yes, I will always treasure that book. Of course I know it's not the object that matters, it's the words. The message of Hiawatha, which Donny tries to learn, is that the living mustn't burden the dead with the weight of our grief. We have to let go.
But it's hard. Very hard indeed.

All my heart is buried with you
All my thoughts go onward with you
Come not back again to labour
Come not back again to suffer
Where the Famine and the Fever
Wear the heart and waste the body
Soon my task will be completed
Soon your footsteps I shall follow
To the Islands of the Blessed
To the Kingdom of Ponemah
To the Land of the Hereafter


7 comments:

claudia myatt said...

A thoughtful post, Julia - humbling to think that books (and boats!) endure but the people who create them, and read them, are just passing through.

Social media is too youthful itself to cope easily with mortality - I find it strangely surreal to have several facebook 'friends' who are no longer with us.

Sheridan Winn said...

A very moving piece, Julia. Thank you.

Susan Price said...

Truly beautiful, and thoughtful, Julia. Thankyou.

Jan Needle said...

that's lovely, julia. thanks

Lydia Bennet said...

beautiful, Julia. Books help us to deal with death, from childhood upwards, so I think it's important to write about it even for children as you have. My current poetry collection is largely about dying, pathology, the science of death, based on personal experience, (also sex and dating!) and while not for children, many who have bought it or heard my performances or seen my poetry installation running in exhibitions have sent moving messages about how it helped them too to cope with personal bereavement. I'm a big fan of Ransome's books myself. I'm glad you are continuing his traditions and wonderful inventions.

Áine said...

Thank you for this post, Julia. John Logan brought it to my attention. I had read about the HMS Bounty's sinking, but the coverage here did not mention the Fletcher Christian connection. And of course coverage here would never mention the "cold, lonely" nature of those deaths. We have grown blasé and "scientific" (to use Lydia's term) about deaths in my country.
"buffeted by the result of test after test that brought the end of his life rushing closer" - I am not sure if you are saying that the tests themselves accelerated his death, but I am sure they did. Here we insist that the medical "experts" interfere with dying and turn it into one procedure after another. Somehow the living can then focus on the minutiae of test results instead of the fact that death is the great equalizer. I digress. Maybe the sea is the great equalizer - or then again maybe a book is. The drowning man read it, and after him a 13-year-old boy, and after him all the dying whom you mentioned read it, and now, because of your post, I may read it too.

Áine said...

"I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over." from Sea Fever by John Masefield