Tuesday, 19 November 2013

I sat at my father's grave and knit

November is for remembrance; I decided to visit my father’s grave. In my poppy-red jumper, with my bereavement-grey shawl to knit on the way, I set out. The train trundled fast through the Ligurian hills, close-crowding like the flanks of an affectionate, green poodle, and on inland into austere Piemonte, where the hills keep an aloof distance and flat fields spread out between them. I knit nupps to nix my nerves. 

From the broad boulevards of central Turin to the coniferous curves of the mountain road, the taxi driver alternated between local history and compliments.
‘At one point of course there were a lot of witches around here– they used to have black masses in that square outside the Gran Madre. How come you’re not married? You’re so sunny! It’s too cold in Scotland, maybe Scottish men have cold souls. Find yourself a nice Italian man. Do you know the population of Turin has dropped from 1.3 million in the Fiat golden years to…’
Half-remembered houses clinging to the hillside hurtled past. We asked for directions, took a steep street under an old brick arch – there was the nectarine-yellow church where the funeral was – and up, up in the mist at the very top of the hill, there was the graveyard. He wished me luck and undercharged me.

It must have been – Jesus, ten years? Maybe more? Since I’d been. We moved to Scotland, and my grandfather left the North for a lonely corn on the toe of the Italian boot: our trips to the peninsula became games of connect-the-dots between Edinburgh and a constellation of Southern airports. I had forgotten the hill-cool of Piemonte. I had forgotten a lot. Nevertheless, my feet carried me to exactly the right spot in the graveyard.

There can be a kind of competitiveness to these cities of the dead. ‘Oh, you’ve got a little plant pot there, have you, hmm?' 

'Well, I’ve got a manicured shrubbery.’

‘Oh yeah? I’ll see your shrubbery, and raise you an enormous alabaster mansion, where me and my descendants will recline in style for all eternity.’ 

I find it all a bit tomb much. Still, nothing had quite prepared me for the sorry state my father’s grave was in. Some unknown hand had pity-littered it with fake flowers, now faded, and a small evergreen, now a nevergreen. 

The desultory, dateless stone, only ever meant to be temporary, stayed in place during wranglings about whether and whither to move him, and at some point gave up, fell backwards and cracked into three pieces. The very ground seemed tired and saggy. 

I didn’t think it would matter to me – the cemetery wasn’t a place I associated with him, after all, with him alive that is. Anyone who has ever seen a dead body will attest to how weirdly little they retain of the person-that-was: whatever your views on the afterlife are, something has definitely departed. Besides, it had been a long time – way past ‘recently bereaved’, past even ‘delayed reaction’ and into, I don’t know, ‘wistful smiles and fond remembrance’. After seventeen years surely the clawing wildcat of fresh grief should be tamed to a tabby that can be trusted not to spray sadness all over the furniture. Standing at that poor, abandoned grave, though, I must admit I lost my shit. 

I thought of all the mountains of stuff I would like to talk to him about. As I took photos of the place, I wished I could ask his advice about proper cameras, about f-stops, shutter speeds, light metres, tripods – and in return share my largely useless knowledge of Hipstamatic. I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the U.S.A.’, an album he had on heavy rotation in his car, and thought of all the cool new music I bet he would have liked. I thought of how funny he was, and all the jokes we could have shared. I thought of all the places I’d been, people I’d met, and things I’d learned since I was ten that he knew nothing about and never would. 

Then, partly because I needed a repetitive, mechanical thing to do to get myself together, and partly out of an urge to show him one of these things I had learned, like child-me might once proudly have shown him a gold star earned at school, I took out my knitting. I unfurled the tangled shawl-creature, smoothing out the charts on the marble top of a neighbouring tomb. And there, at my father’s grave I sat, wept, knit, until the rain came down and it was time to go.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Beatnik Beats

[With apologies to Jack Kerouac and other Beat types]
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked apart from some damn fine knitwear.

In the bar I told Dean, ‘Hell, man, I know very well you didn’t come to me only to want to become a knitter, and after all what do I really know about it except that you’ve got to stick to it with the energy of a benny addict, and that circular needles are probably easier on the wrists.’

I left behind a big half-finished shawl, folded back my comfortable home sheets for the last time early one morning, and left. I was on the road again, this time with a big, red cabled sweater to keep me company in planes, rattling trains, and pick-up trucks as I moved from place to place. Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, Estonian lace knitting, everything; somewhere along the line the purl would be handed to me.

I finished Beatnik in Santa Margherita, a little town by the sea way out west. Late at night, I dunked it in the kitchen sink, and hung it on the radiator, as there was no other way a great, thick thing like that was ever going to dry otherwise. The radiator branded a ridge across the neckband where I wedged it in place. I took some awkward selfies on a day too warm to wear it.

I dug the sweater. It's the kind of sweater that, even though you’re on the road alone and far from home with only five Euros and three stitch-markers in your pocket, will wrap itself around you, and make you warm: wool-warm and red-happy.

This chart is a set-up!

You… you gotta believe me, honey. I wouldn’t do a thing like this – I told ya, I’m outta the knitting game: I promised you I wouldn’t touch a filthy needle again, and I meant it.

This is a fix! I never even heard of this Elizabeth Freeman broad, I swear to God. Ae – Aeo – Aeolian, what is she testing out all the vowels on her keyboard – I can’t even pronounce that. I tell you, sweetheart, some knithead’s set me up! It's a set-up! This is a… [repeats as police car drives away]
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