An Epistolary Project

letters to a reader, unknown

Category: auto/biography

What freezings have I felt

My winter reading has led me back to poetry; re-reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets prompted¬† memories of their discovery while exploring the book stacks in Newcastle Central Library, a building I visited¬† religiously on my journey home from school. It was startlingly modern, almost brutalist in its concrete mass, but I always felt it to be my intellectual womb, a place where I discovered Elizabethan poetry, Dostoevsky, Sholokov, Chaucer. It has, sadly, been demolished.


How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness everywhere!
And yet this time removed was summer’s time;
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Like widow’d wombs after their lords’ decease:
Yet this abundant issue seemed to me
But hope of orphans, and unfathered fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute:
Or, if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer,
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.


Scattered thoughts on a sister dying:


Bulletins punctuate her decline,
foreshadowing funeral rites:
‘now distressed’,
‘losing the ability to swallow’,
‘a difficult night’.

Unable to visit
do I send flowers
a card
what to write
who will read
who will hear the cheery refrain
too late to reconnect?

Reflections and Shadows

This piece evolved over winter 2012/13 as my sister, Catherine, progressed through her final rounds of chemotherapy/radiotherapy/hospice care before her death, as winter ended, February 28th. She never quite made it through to spring and to her 53rd birthday. I offer no apology for my response, below, other than to say we usually say too little in too many words.

Reflections & Shadows

I write in the dusk of a bitter winter
as I recall our childhood years,
now, as we embrace our half century,
you at its beginning, me
reaching towards my 60th, a family record.

How do you embrace your sister’s
sharp struggle for life
as each faculty, ingrained with
experience and habit, deteriorates.
I wait, incapable of emotion,
drained by sadness and years
of silence.

We talk of small domestic incidents,
you narrate a litany of exotic pharmacopeia,
of doctors searching for a needle in a haystack,
nurses who reliably find the vein.

What dies with you?
Memories of awkward conversations,
of things we did not share.
You’re the sister I’m said to most resemble.
I do not hear myself, but our mother
in the cadence of your voice.

February 2013

Fruit cake, soup and packets of tea.

We all have other tales we tell, or not, about ourselves.

I have variously been: production line worker, agricultural labourer, Unemployed Centre dogsbody, housing department administrator, psychiatric nursing assistant, all encountered as I worked my way through the education system post-1960. University in the 1970s was a shock to my Northern working class sensibilities as I met, for the 1st time, the southern middle classes, along with the cosmopolitan elite with their sports cars & weekends in Paris & Milan.

My mother sent me weekly food parcels filled with fruit cakes, soup mix & packets of tea (Ringtons, of course), all essentials, in her eyes, for survival in the alien South; these weekly parcels from Newcastle caused much amusement amongst the college porters, as well as recognition. She couldn’t send me money so she did the only thing available to her: baked me cakes & made me soup, by proxy. My college roommates never understood my parcels & clearly saw my mother as a strange northern creature; they always giggled when I returned with my rather crumpled offerings from the pigeonholes. I felt both embarrassed & protective of these strange missives from home arriving in my new world of higher education. Yet, they provided the anchorage I needed, connecting me back to the realities of life in the North East, amidst the enervating oxygen of academic debate & reading. Not all was wonderful; I found my situation alien most of the time whilst also revelling in great freedom.

Some writers, discussing cultural & social capital have argued that social & cultural connections can both support & hinder people. I’ve sometimes felt my background hindered, but, on reflection, it has grounded me, bringing a much-needed sense of reality to my views & actions in the world. I remember having tea with one of my university tutors soon after I’d graduated & had begun teaching apprentices as a Further Education¬† lecturer on Tyneside: think Wilt with a Geordie accent. I was evangelical about culture & the masses. I told him tales of my adventures in my General Studies classes, how I’d managed to get a class interested in Dylan Thomas by reading Under Milk Wood, aloud. They competed to do the reading & listened in anticipation of the bits about sex; they greedily absorbed Richard Burton’s classic recording, abandoning their customary clock-watching (this was a classic 4pm General Studies slot). He commented that I must feel my work worthwhile compared to my other option, continuing through to Masters. I agreed then; now I wouldn’t see them as mutually exclusive.

What happened to chase me away from academic study when it was the one thing I’d always enjoyed? That is the subject of another post.

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