Eulogy for Phyllis

Phyllis was my grandmother. She was an important part of my life for almost 38 years.

When I was little the family and friends would spend Sunday afternoons at the Leadmill Club, where my grandfather, Fred would play the trumpet in his jazz band. The smell of beer and the sound of live music still sometimes brings me back to those Sunday afternoons, where Phyllis would sit, tapping her foot and enjoying a cigar.

She looked after me whenever was needed when I was a child. She got on well with my paternal grandmother Vera. The two of them took care of me together one week when Mum and Dad went away to Paris. They had  a lot in common. Two happy Geordie women, with a lifetime of child care between them. I was in good hands.

When my little brother Tommy was born in 1985, Phyllis took care of me while Mum and Dad where at the hospital. Tommy was a few weeks premature and weighed just 5 pounds 4 ounces. Phyllis took me to the hospital to meet him for the first time. He was tiny, wrapped in silver foil like a baked potato.

I got into trouble at school once when I was a teenager and got taken home by one of the teachers. Phyllis was waiting for me on the doorstep as Mum was at work. I was upset, and the teacher wasn’t very nice to me. Phyllis just smiled and chuckled. “Oh well,” she said, “Better put the kettle on.”

She was nice like that, she never judged. I don’t remember a stern word or a telling off. She was always jolly and friendly.

Our fridge was often well stocked with stews and casseroles she’d make at home and bring over. Our freezer with fish from the fishmongers. Always making sure we were well fed.

I was amazed by how unfazed she seemed by her age. “How old are you now?” she’d ask me, “My goodness, how old does that make me?” Always with a laugh.

I was the first of her seven grandchildren. But I wasn’t the first grandchild she cared for. For eleven years she was grandmother to my older half brother and sister, Andrew and Leigh and my adopted brother, Mark. She was kind and caring to them too, and they all have fond memories of her. 

As a grandmother she excelled. And she did what all good grandmothers should do, she made us all feel equal, each one loved no more than the other, because she loved us all to the fullest, and she was proud of us.

I think we can all learn from Phyllis. How to treat people with honesty, generosity,  with care and not to judge. How to grow old with grace and resilience. She went through life with her head held high. I’m extremely proud and very lucky to have been her grandson.

Phyllis Henderson 1923 – 2016

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David Bowie – a Tribute From a Non-Fan

I might as well fess up straight away. I never really liked David Bowie’s music. Maybe I didn’t hear the right stuff at the right time. Or perhaps I was put off by those dodgy duets in the 80’s. Unlike most of my favourite music, no one I love or respect ever told me what to listen to. But whatever the reason, what I have heard has just never really done it for me.

Regardless of that, I’ve always respected him as an artist.

Monday’s news that he’d passed away was shocking. Like many, I kind of assumed that he’d always be there. He had a youthfulness about him that transcended age. A strong spirit that glowed from within him. Even I could see that.

I couldn’t help but notice on social media how many people, how many close friends and family seemed affected by this particular passing. Almost everyone had something to say.

Maybe that’s why, when I sat on the overground train heading through London that evening, I did something I never do and picked up a folded copy of a free newspaper. There was a picture of Bowie on the front and an obituary inside. It occurred to me that I knew little to nothing of the man. So I showed him some respect and I read.

It wasn’t long before a chord struck in me. I read about his youth, his childhood and school days. Of how he failed his 11 Plus exams. And how he left school with just one O-Level in art. And there it was. Here was a man who could take a knockdown at a young age and keep rising. My mother failed her 11 Plus. It effected her for years. She left school not long after, not to return until she had to in her forties. I myself left school with no qualifications. I had to go to art college, it was my only choice to remain in education. I couldn’t draw. But I could hardly write either. Having to go to art college when I couldn’t draw because I was semi-literate is an irony that has rarely escaped me. I look back and laugh, but it was a struggle.

Reading about Bowie made me think of how important art is. The challenge I had at art college was a technical one. But I learned a lot. I don’t think I realised it at the time but that struggle taught me so much. It taught me to observe. To take in detail. But it also taught me to express myself and not be afraid of the consequences. It opened my eyes up to the world of art, to artists I’d love, to Kandinsky, Matisse, Mondrian and Van Gogh. Some of whom struggled for one reason or another, mentally, emotionally or politically. Yet they found a life in creativity. They found a life in art.

So I sat on the train and I read of David Bowie’s failings in early life. His knockbacks. And then I read on to what he achieved in spite of that. It conjured a feeling of inspiration and respect that I rarely feel when it comes to celebrities. To superstars. To artists in the modern world. He took that knock and just kept on rising. He showed what self belief, despite the best attempts at the system to knock it out of you, can achieve. What self expression and nonconformity can bring to life. To what belief in yourself, your individuality and your uniqueness can do if you harness your mind in the right medium. He showed a character and a spirit that could be stopped by nothing and went on to become an icon for individuality. A hero.

For that he will always have my respect.

The Three Times

He first stayed at Treyarnon Bay in 1993, the August of his fifteenth birthday. He’d been before, on day trips while camping further inland, but never stayed so close. Just a short walk to the narrow sandy beach and the grass covered headland. It was the right time to escape from the city which had never felt so ugly. A lad was killed in Endcliffe Park just a few months before. A young life taken by a boy with a knife.

The ocean was cleansing in its vastness. He’d sit on the grassy headland and stare, the perfect line of the horizon dulling his senses and tranquilising his thoughts. He’d watch the waves rush in at high tide, sucking the water from the rocky inlets like a vacuum, before crashing into the rocks and firing white water cascading into the air with a whoosh and wetting his face with sea spray. He’d body-board when the surf was right, spending hours at a time in the ocean.

His skin tasted of salt.

At night he and the other teenagers would head into the dunes to make fires and drink foul cider. On his birthday he drank a half bottle of whiskey and woke up on the beach, wet, sandy and paralytic.

He came back for his twenty-sixth, the first time in five years. A break from the depressing monotony of a low wage job.

He’d sit and stare at the ocean again, watching the sun disappear between dragon’s teeth rocks as the sky turned to lava. Night lit up so bright next to the ocean, stars, constellations, satellites moving across the sky with purpose. August Perseids burned in colourful incandescence as they crashed into the atmosphere, the Milky Way a cloudy band of uncountable stars above. Everything is moving, he thought, everything is changing.

The friendships forged there had more meaning than those found elsewhere. They could last a lifetime. That year he made connections that changed everything. A different way of living showed itself. Conversations and meetings that would shape him. People he’d love, who’d love him.

He’d swim in the ocean on calmer days.

His skin tasted of salt.

This summer I’ll be back, the tenth in a row and the seventh full season, June or July right through to September. Not just a holiday any more but a home, a way of life. I’ll work for myself in the village, outside in the sun or wind or rain.

With old friends I’ll sit around camp-fires. Those I’ve shared everything with. Lived, travelled and loved with.

The ocean will be there as always, tranquillity in one hand, ferocity in the other. It’ll be my playground. I’ll float and dive and explore the hidden world beneath its surface. I’ll feed myself from its pantry of muscles, mackerel and pollock. It will anchor me in my thoughts as I sit and stare, content with my journey through the adventure of life. It’ll hold me in awe with its power and its vastness.

My skin will taste of salt.

About Loss, a Photograph, Friendship and Food

A roll of film can be a time capsule of moments and forgotten memories. Precious, pointless, beautiful or ugly. Most of them would pass by unnoticed, forgotten in time like fleeting thoughts. Like so many memories, some pictures may not reveal their true depth of meaning until enough time has passed.

Photography lets you look at the world with different eyes. When I’m wandering around without a camera I find myself framing things in my mind’s eye. Looking at the space between objects and buildings, observing the world in more detail. Looking closer for beauty or interest in a way I wouldn’t have before. Lines in a freshly harvested field, dappled light cast between the leaves of a tree, the wrinkles of an old person’s face. Light takes on new meaning, colour becomes more true, lines and shapes give a simple scene more depth.

Autumn used to feel melancholic, that sense of going back to school while leaves wither and fall. An air of decay that brought a shudder to my bones at the prospect of the coming darkness of winter. Now it’s about the colours and vibrance that contrast the seasons, as leaves turn to orange, brown and red. It’s turned from a season to loathe to a season to love. Where as winter is no longer about long nights and short days but about long shadows cast by the low winter sun. Stark blue skies and the crisp beauty of a morning frost. The simple minimalism of a snow filled scene.

A couple of years ago my brother gave me an old Canon film camera for Christmas. It was heavy, solid to the touch and the clunk of the mechanism had a satisfying sound. The first roll I took was all but ruined by light leaks. I took it apart and replaced the light seals. I bought a roll of film and took it out in London one weekend to fire off some test shots. But having just moved to the big city at the time I was broke, so when I finished the roll I took it out of the camera, put it in a drawer until I could afford to develop it and forgot about it.

Six months later I discovered the roll again and got it developed. It’d been so long since I’d used it and I’d never seen or even thought about the shots I’d taken. Not since those split seconds that’d I’d looked through the view finder and opened the shutter. I picked up the CD and the contact sheet at the shop, prints seemed unnecessary. Looking over the sheet I remembered what I’d taken. A street entertainer in Covent Garden, the Millennium Footbridge and St. Paul’s, some shots of the Thames. They looked great, clear and crisp with a depth I’d not found with digital. But the last shot I couldn’t quite make out. It was different from the others, dark, taken in low light. I had to wait until I got home to load them onto the computer and have good look.

It was a plate on a table, some chicken bones and bits of left over food. I realised what it was as the memory came back into focus. It was a finished plate of food that my friend Jim Disney had cooked for me the last time I’d seen him on the boat he lived on with his girlfriend, Sarah, at Poplar Dock. I could make him out in the background, his trademark flannel shirt and tiny hands blurred in the background as he did the dishes. I’d taken it as a quick test to see how the camera operated in low light, a throwaway shot, not remarkable at all. Under any other circumstances I’d have deleted it.

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The meal was chicken roasted in the oven in a baking dish with onions, tomatoes, herbs and chorizo. I remember Jim enthusing about the chorizo as we bought the ingredients in the shop earlier that day. He’d wished he could buy the oil that comes from it when it cooks by the bottle to add to sauces and marinades. I’d recently started eating meat after eight years without, so it was the first time that Jim had cooked me any. We used to live together in Leicester five or six years ago. Jim was superb cook. He’d make a big roast dinner every Sunday for the four of us who lived at Fosse Road South. He’d bumble around in the kitchen all day in his dressing gown, looking like a mini hairy Jesus with his beard and long curly locks. I’d get a ten minute warning so that I could come and cook some veggie sausages to eat with the veg. He’d knock on my bedroom door, “Joseph, time to cook your not sausages,” he’d say. He’d wait by the cooker with his ear to the pan, a hilarious grin on his big moon face. Then he’d nod in time to the clunk-clunk sound of the frozen meat free bangers hitting the surface of the pan.

He’d mock me, it was his way. But he cared. He once announced with glee that he’d put fat from the roast in the Yorkshire pudding mix. His face dropped as the words tumbled out and he realised what he’d done. “I feel guilty now,” he said before rushing around the kitchen to make a fresh set of meat free Yorkshires.

When I stayed with him in London on the way back from Peru two years ago he cooked veggie burgers in my honour. And it was an honour. He was religious about eating meat. When we lived together I’d have to wait for him to go out to cook a veggie meal for the house or he’d start getting jittery. I’d tried cooking veggie burgers myself countless times. I never got it right. The consistency was always wrong, either too sloppy or crumbly. Jim nailed it first time.

That night I took the photograph, he saw me to the gate of the marina. We had a hug and said goodbye. “You’ll have to come round for a roast next time, Joe,” he said.

A month or so later I was supposed to go over for a Sunday roast. I sent him a text that morning but he didn’t reply. When I called him his phone was off. Then I got the call. He’d had a heart attack that morning. He died a few days later.

The day he left us I met my friends, Jo, Steve, Zak and Danielle on the South Bank of the Thames. Some of us had finished or been excused from work early and converged to share our grief. We’d all stayed with Jim at Jo’s house on Fosse Road South at some point or another. Jo and Steve for many years. I arrived first and sat on a bench under the shade of a tree. It was a hot sunny day in May, the South Bank was packed. People milled around enjoying the weather, tourists, couples, buskers, a group of French school children on a trip. They stood around laughing and smiling, sitting on the grass drinking beer, eating picnics. I looked at the sunlight shining through the leaves of the tree. The smiling faces of the people around. The lines on the face of the old man sat on the next bench. None of it seemed real, like the world had just changed in some profound way. Everything seemed meaningless. I had a sudden surge of anger. Jim was just forty-years-old. How unfair and cruel it was that he wouldn’t be able to sit, like I did, and observe the world on a sunny day. Or feel the sun on his back and the light breeze on his face. Nothing made sense anymore.

The others arrived and we hugged, cried and told stories of Jim. We laughed at the memories. His wild adventures and hilarious turn of phrase, his belligerence, vulgarity and self deprecation. It felt like a family in that house, and Jim was like my little big brother. He could make me laugh from the belly up, with just a look from his cheeky face and pale blue eyes. His humour made me feel like a child. He was handsome, cool, hilarious. A comedian and a rockstar. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was a little in awe of him.

In the following weeks the grief came out on social media. Photos of Jim appearing from everywhere. Stories shared. He never used it himself. A self confessed technophobe who never really got the “interweb”. I couldn’t find a photograph of the two of us. I looked through other peoples Facebook albums but nothing there either. I was heartbroken to realise that one didn’t exist. I realised there’s a lot of my good friends I don’t have photos with. I see people taking photos together when I’m walking around London or eating my lunch by Thames. Tourists with selfie-sticks, couples and friends. They seem to get judged and called narcissistic. I don’t get it myself. What’s wrong with taking photos with your friends? You never know when one might be gone.

As the months passed by I found myself cooking big meals for people a lot more. I’ve always liked making curries or pasta dishes. I never liked cooking roasts or baking things. I’d always preferred to experiment with spices and create sauces. The timings and exactness of cooking a roast dinner or following a recipe would stress me out. But I soon found myself taking any opportunity to roast some meat, prepare some vegetables and cook for a group of people. I’d invite friends to my flat in South London or to my Mum’s house in Sheffield whenever I was back home and had an oven to play with. I was there for a while last September and invited people over each Sunday for a big dinner. I had a family gathering one day and slow roasted a pork shoulder for seven hours. The crackling was crisp and when I cut the string around it the meat fell apart perfectly.

Then I found that roll of film. As I looked at that photograph, the finished plate of food with Jim’s figure in the background, It dawned on me that without thinking about it I’d been honouring him in the kitchen. A method of cooking that used to stress me out had become a thing of joy. Mastering the timing to perfectly roast a joint, or to pan fry a steak to the exact second for tender perfection. It’s not the task that’s the joy but the final product. Not the food, but the satisfaction of the recipients. The simple pleasure of cooking something wonderful for the people that you love.

Now whenever I’m cooking something special. Roasting meat, preparing potatoes or frying good steaks in a red hot pan, my eyes on the second counter determined to get it right. I always think of Jim Disney, with his beard and long curly locks. Bumbling around the kitchen in his dressing gown, looking like a mini hairy Jesus.

I used to play in a band / love and loss

Another great tribute to my dear friend Jim Disney. Download the music and give a bit to charity.

peter wyeth

I used to be in a band. Last month the drummer of that band, a Mr James Disney, died. He was only 40. Together we enjoyed those special moments of intensity that come from playing music you only understand if you’re in a band playing music. We did a record which everyone who was involved with still feels very proud of to this day. As a tribute to him, we’ve made the record available to download for free on Bandcamp with the wish that the £5 you’d normally pay you give to charity instead.

Enjoy.

The Jim Disney_NEW

The Jim Disney.
Jim ‘Jimothy’ Disney.
Jim ‘Binman-come-Wino’ Disney.
Jim ‘If I was related to Walt Disney, do you think I’d be sitting in your shithole of a studio’ Disney.
Jim ‘ We’d pissed off the top of the Holiday Inn car park as a sign of youthful defiance’ Disney.

Sweaty hugs in the back…

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