Sunday, 28 September 2008

"The Toilets in Venice" (Jonathan Taylor)

Since both Simon and Rachel have posted some creative work to start the ball rolling, here is something from me. It's extracts from my memoir, Take Me Home, which were published in The Guardian Family a year ago. See:

It's mainly about holidays in Europe (and the U.K.) which we went on as we grew up, and how memories of these places were gradually "infected" with illness:


There is a moment, some time in distant 1981, when, standing near the desk of a Saturday morning group called "The Explorers" for talented, chess-playing children such as my elder brother and their tag-along siblings such as myself, there is a moment when my dad, at this point still working, still raven-haired, still capable of smiling, forgot my baby sister's name, like a paper shred gusted away, and with a laugh, and somewhere deep inside a vertiginous panic, had to grab my sleeve and ask me what it was.

The memory may mean nothing except in retrospect, but I still feel the tug on my shirt as he lunged towards me. "My mind just went blankety blank," he said. Was this the first inkling, my family wonders now - was this the first one-way street his mind mistakenly turned up?

But there are many other possible first inklings. A disease such as Parkinson's is so gradual, so much a continuum of greyness, one can properly remember only the most recent state - which now is death. All I can provide are fragments of memories, a list of vanishing points and partial origins.

In 1981, we went on a holiday to Spain. Above and beyond the usual early 80s mix-up with overbooked hotels and building sites; above and beyond having to endure a two-day coach tour with four children and (on the return leg) a life-size plastic donkey; above and beyond all this, the story my father returned to most often over Sunday lunch involved losing his younger daughter.

We were on the beach. Helen was only three, and had trundled off while my father's back and mind were turned. For a moment, he'd forgotten she was meant to be with him - and when he remembered again, she wasn't. I can still see the helpless panic on his face as it appeared above my sand castle. After an hour of horrors and trampled sand castles, my sister finally turned up round the corner of a hotel, swinging a spade and laughing at "silly Daddy with silly lined face". The memory of that face reminds me of a face from the same year, when my father forgot Helen's name at our Explorers club. It's possible that neither memory, neither face means anything. Or perhaps the face on both occasions was already losing its elasticity, becoming petrified in the anxiety mask of Parkinson's. And, at the same time, perhaps his youngest child's image, name, whereabouts were already being touched by the dementia associated with Parkinson's - a dementia that would gradually black us out, one by one.

On holiday, my father used to chip away at Manx coves and Spanish beaches for ammonites and trilobites. He'd show us them proudly and tell us facts about them. I was more interested in Spanish girls and plastic donkeys.
The problem was, as time went by, he was fighting not only an ignorant son but also an ignorant disease, neither of which had any respect for fossil facts.

As early as 1983, for instance, he realised a lifelong ambition to visit Venice for a day. But I sulked all day because I wanted to be back at our resort. And my father moaned all day because of Venice's lack of public conveniences. The Rialto bridge, the Bridge of Sighs, St Mark's: all were stop-off points on the way to the lavatory.

Post-Venice, the toilet visit gradually came to occupy centre-stage when away from home. Trips out became structured around the peremptory demands of the toilet visit. It started when Dad and I used to catch the bus to go shopping in Newcastle-under-Lyme. I'd say to him, "I'll see you in a couple of hours, 2.45pm by the gents on such-and-such a street," and wander off. As the years went by, I'd have to wait longer and longer outside the gents. I'd walk round town again, and find him on a bench, clutching a plastic bag and scrunching it up with very heavy breath. Or he'd come as we'd planned at 2.45pm, and announce his need for the toilets, as we were next to them. Five minutes later, he'd re-emerge - but by the time we reached the bus station, he'd announce the need to go again. This time, he'd not come back. I'd hang around at the top of the stairs, pacing backwards and forwards, wondering if anyone was looking at me in a suspicious manner. Eventually, I'd huff and puff and walk down the stairs and into the gents.

"Dad!" I'd shout from outside the cubicles. "Dad! Are you in there?" A whimper would answer me from one of the cubicles. I'd push open the door, and find my father crashed on the unmopped floor with his trousers round his ankles. I'd try to pull him up, followed by his trousers. Meanwhile, the men standing at the wall opposite would turn their heads to stare.

Sometimes he pushed me away as I tried to zip up his fly, shouting, "Get away from me. You, you're 'funny', you are. I don't want you touching me."

So we went to Venice, Barcelona, Salzburg, Paris, the Italian lakes, the Dolomites, Spain, Denmark, the Austrian Tyrol. And we saw toilets. Care, I suppose, is a kind of progressive myopia: toilets in the foreground become more focused than the mountains behind. Care is obsession with details - especially toilet details - at the expense of anything more grand. On holidays and days out, the details breed. Details are a bit like the Tribbles on Star Trek: a race of fluffy pets that breed exponentially. They seem innocuous, but soon there are millions of them all over the Enterprise, uncontrollable, unherdable. We went boldly where we'd never been before, but the tiniest of details started to get in the way. Given the encroachment of bladder problems, bowel problems, pill schedules, paranoia, immobility and so on, small inconveniences such as missing coaches or late flights bred like Tribbles.

In your own home, you have some control. You can police the Tribbles into some kind of order. When I used to look after my father, my mother would leave Post-it notes all over the house of dos and don'ts: how to heat up the spaghetti, which pack of pads to use for the inside of his Y-fronts, and so on. She even arranged the pills into empty egg boxes for me.

So if I dwell on details and toilets and egg boxes, perhaps that's because anyone who's been even the most part-time of carers knows the overwhelming vastness of the apparently insignificant. In Awakenings, Oliver Sacks claims that Parkinsonism is all about a loss of a sense of scale, or - to put it another way - the development of new and bizarre kinds of scale. But this spreads to the carer as well, as details that are minute to others blow up into uncontrollable aliens.

Two of the worst species of Tribble in this respect were called paranoia and paramnesia. Paranoia is easy to ignore when everyone conspires to recognise it as such. Away from home, however, people weren't in on the conspiracy, and took my father's horror stories seriously.

Austria, 1993. We're sitting outside a hotel ordering Tyrolean beer and fish and chips from a waitress in a frilly apron. My father is on the bench next to me, his hand tremorous, his head darting from side to side, his eyes paranoid-wide. I'm not taking any notice because the waitress has long eyelashes, and I'm wondering how to chat her up. My father notices my lack of notice because he suddenly makes a grab at the waitress's dress. He shouts at her: "Take me back. They've kidnapped me. Take me home. I want to go home. Home. Home." He repeats this in English and German: "Heim. Heim. They've kidnapped me. Him. I don't know who he is. But he's in charge. They've taken me away."

The waitress looks down at him and his hold on her apron, and all I can think is, damn, that's blown that one. Goodbye, eyelashes. I prise his hand away from her bottom, and try to laugh it off. I can't explain to her what's happening, because she doesn't have enough English and I don't have any German. When she brings the fish and chips, she plonks it down on the table at arm's length.

An afternoon a week later, and we're sitting in the backyard of my parents' house in Stoke, sipping remnants of the Tyrolean beer. My mother brings out soup to go with it. He grabs her arm. "Take me home. He's kidnapped me. I want to go home. Take me home!" "Shut up, Dad," I say. From the kitchen, I can hear my younger sister, Helen, singing Take Me Home, Country Roads.

Many years later, I find that my father's Take Me Home, Country Roads paranoia has a technical name. Reduplicative paramnesia is a syndrome in which it becomes difficult to recognise your surroundings, to the point where you believe that a familiar place such as your home has been duplicated - sometimes over and over. Everywhere is home, but nowhere is the real home. There are only copies, fakes.

My father's paramnesia and paranoia got worse. In 1995, on a boat trip around the Italian lakes, his eyes almost pop out with paranoiac paramnesia: "Where are you taking me? Why have you kidnapped me? What ransom do you want? And what do those peacocks want? What have you done with my son?"

"I am your son."

"No you're not. I can see right through you. You're a con. What have you done with ... with Jonathan?"

"Stop being silly. It's embarrassing," says my sister, whose teenage cool is being dented by his shouting.

I say: "Dad, shut up. Everyone's listening."

"Good! They'll all hear I've been kidnapped. Kidnapped!"


"Help, police! Les gendarmes, die Polizei, polizia, whatever-you-call-them! Get me away from these mad people! Help me!"

No one's even pretending to look out of the windows now.
I smile pacifyingly, tapping my head to reassure them: "He's ill, you know, can't move properly, doesn't know what he's saying, it's a shame, but what can you do?"

Nonetheless, the "he's-ill-you-know-what-a-shame" smile is undermined when we dock in Locarno, Switzerland - and my father springs to his feet, and is the first prancing along the gangplank. "Where now?" he asks breezily, "Ooh, look at those amazing clocks. Splendido, as they say!"

One of the most bewildering symptoms of Parkinson's is that those who have it switch so quickly from what are called "off" states to "on" states. Off states might consist of paralytic rigidity, uncontrollable tremors, even catalepsy; on states are the return to normality, control and fluidity of movement.

The on-off effect of my father's Parkinson's was often polarised on holidays. It's 1997 and we're in Austria, sitting in the hotel bar after dinner. My mother has gone up to her bedroom to get changed; my father is sitting across from us in his wheelchair, staring at the doilies; I'm talking with my younger sister. As usual, our conversation doesn't need my father, who's leaning ever-closer to the doilies. A waitress asks what drinks we'd like. She directs the question straight at my father. I start to speak for him, but he suddenly pulls himself up and talks ... in fluent German. Up till now, my father's linguistic skills have been a matter of family myth: "Oh, yes, he knew French and German fluently, Latin, and a lot of Russian, Italian, Spanish. He was trying to teach himself Chinese." But here I am, as an adult, confronted by the reality of myth.

Just as my sister and I have been making jokes with references he can't follow, now we listen uncomprehendingly to a conversation full of laughter, questions, answers, even - no, surely not - flirtations. He wriggles in the wheelchair and his face loses 10 years.

My mother appears, straightening her dress, smiling at us, asking us if he's behaved himself. And his face regains the 10 years, his wheelchair slouch returns, and he's once more absorbed by the doilies.

We didn't go on another big holiday again; there were too many Tribbles-in-waiting. "Perhaps we tried to do too much with him," my mother says.

By 2001, he couldn't walk at all, and we could only go to places suitable for wheels, not legs. We went for a drive along the west Cumbrian coast. Driving for miles, we finally came across a strange, isolated resort called Silloth. We got out and wheeled my father round a town of corrugated-iron holiday camps, peeling guest houses, market stalls where they sold second-hand pants and a beach of angry dogs. I bought a kite from one of the shops, but it didn't fly, despite a strong wind.
Someone swore at me for scraping her ankle with the wheelchair.

My father said: "Take me home." And, this time, we did.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Love Song to My Church

As you may see, I composed this poem some time ago; however, it came to mind as an elegy which could fit quite well into our theme of place. I look forward to reading/seeing/hearing what creations you all have to share with us. --Dr. Wifall

Love Song to My Church

(In Memoriam Eugene Levers)

The red bricks, blue glass,
Walls in need of paint—
The old folks who give many years
Hanging evergreen wreaths,
Filling the oil,
Lighting tall white candles—
Then pass into the light.

We are all looking for the One:

Here it is to the minor tones of Bach,
Words intoned with somber restraint, and
Acts of quiet kindness.

This vein is passing away,
But its grey apostles are reaching the shores
Of the land they seek;
One by one, they are stepping over,
While the world opens up
New paths to God.

December, 2004

Welcome from Dr Simon Perril

Dear writers,

welcome to Remembering Places. I'm Simon Perril, one of Jonathan's colleagues at DeMontfort University, England. We see this blog as a way of fostering transatlantic dialogue - and as a way of sharing what are potentially resources we might all draw upon in our creative work. Places are magnets for stories, myths, urban legends, memories: so let's build a memory bank of your experiences of different environments and locations. Your entries don't have to be polished pieces of writing; they can just as fruitfully be just telling us of a significant place you have experiences (especially if there is a story attached to it).

While you think on, let me take you for a walk around Leicester, England:

Concentration, Condoms ‘n’ Ketchup
A Leicester walk

A pleasant drag, a breeze
fans matted bird’s wing
in its tarmac frame.

On Gosling Street a carpet
of pigeon shit ‘n’ feathers.
Steel nests

help the buildings breathe
more easily. And we’re all stars
on CCTV.

The city eats its past
spits out the bones
and snorts like a bus.

We have moved
To Beautiful Body’s
Accident repair.

Welcome to the River Buildings
imitating dust motes on a puddle top
as geese honk like traffic.

On Western Boulevard
guy on a bench
with a fresh eye-scar

clutches a yellow ‘n’ green Holsten
sinks its pils,
self medicating

Yellohammer skuds
cold tea canal.
All moves

the dreams mobile
as a sandpit
in the back of a red ‘n’ chrome Mitsubishi.

Today’s an open ‘n’ shut
complete with vinegar pearls.

We’re at Bar Mo√ębius
twisted inside-out
cobalt glove on a racing green railing.

In the green shade
of Chantry House Garden
an outsize yellow pear

doubles as a grenade
tempering green thoughts
annihilating all that’s made.

Tomorrow’s a secret
a yellow pencil
tucked behind a builder’s ear.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Welcome from Dr. Wifall

Hello All!

This is Dr. Rachel Wifall, from Saint Peter's College in New Jersey. Our geographical "place" is in the state of New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan (the center of New York City). I want to welcome you to this site--a lovely, virtual playground place--which Dr. Taylor has created for our use, and to encourage you to post your creative work here. I hope we can all be constructive in our interaction and can create some international friendships along the way. I will post some of my own poetry soon, to get the ball rolling.

I can be reached at I look forward to working with you!

Wednesday, 24 September 2008


We all have places which are ‘dear’ to us, which are associated with certain memories or people:

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur. Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage ground, these orchard tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration.
(William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey,” 1798).

Following Wordsworth, here is the point of this blog: it's a place for you to remember places, to post memories, stories, descriptions, poems, folk-tales, family tales, photos, pictures, maps, films, music and so on about places which you know and love ... or hate ... or love and hate at the same time. Your posts can be as short, as long, as detailed, as cryptic, as you like. You can post well-formed poems and stories, or first thoughts and ideas which you would like help with. You can read and comment on each other's work, providing valuable feedback.

Think about tiny details of places which other people haven't noticed. Think about stories and folk-tales other people might not have heard. Think about places which seem 'boring' on the surface, but which you can re-enchant with your writing. Think about how places are memories, and memories are places. Think about strange perspectives on places, odd views. Think about how different histories mingle in the same place. Think about your own feelings towards a place. Think about your own memories. Think about cultural memories. Think about how places are connected across vast distances through memories and histories.

Talking of vast distances, the blog is shared between students in the U.K. and the U.S., so there should be lots of different and contrasting posts, stories and memories up here by the end of the year. There will be differences and similarities, points of contact and points of divergence, shared memories and resonant memories. Think about how your places connect and diverge.

Please respect each other's work both in your feedback and in your editing of the blog. Please remember that everything you post up here is open to the public.
Thanks, Jonathan Taylor
Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing,
De Montfort University,
Leicester, LE1 9BH,