Thursday, December 23, 2010

Derek at Christmas

(If you're new to this blog, click here, here, here, here, here, here and here to understand the background to this post)

My mother has now been living with us for eight weeks and the cracks are starting to appear. When she was bed-ridden things were fine. All we had to do was bring up a tray of food three times a day and stop by for the odd chat. Most of the time, she slept.

But several weeks of rest and good food has restored my mother back to health and she likes to come downstairs and sit on the sofa.

All bloody day.

It would help if we were able to talk about different subjects, but her only topic of conversation seems to be other people's illnesses. When I tried talking about my ongoing efforts to learn French, my mother replied:

"Well Janet went on a course and became fluent, but then she was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, so I don't suppose she'll need it now."

If this is what it's like after eight weeks with someone whose only fault is to have a limited repertoire of topics of conversation, what must it have been like for Derek and Brenda, who spent years living with the infamous "Nanna"?

Today's extracts come from December 1984. Sadly, Nanna does not appear to have succumbed to the Christmas spirit:

A curious Saturday, with Nanna doing her incredibly lifelike impersonation of the devil in full spate. She accused Brenda and myself of being cunning; and accused Brenda of being corrupted by the evil of my family. And all because we did her the favour of clearing furniture out of her flat, so that a new tenant could move in next Monday. My thoughts are fearful concerning her and what she does to my wife.

I lay in bed awhile this morning and talked with Brenda, mentioning my concern that we seemed to have reached a plateau in our relationship with no discernible spiritual progress. She agreed with this and then mentioned that part of the problem was that she never really felt well, plus her waning energy, and more importantly, her mother's malign daily effect on her. Though we could think of few remedies, it was good to get some thoughts out into the open that we might at least draw closer by reason of speaking of hidden and frustrating things.

It is little wonder that Derek and Brenda's relationship has lost its sparkle, when most of their spare time is taken up with looking after a mentally handicapped son and an elderly mother. It is heartbreaking to read Derek's first diaries, from the 1950s, when he and Brenda were so full of hope and optimism.

Derek maintains his sanity by keeping his diary and cherishes the moments when he can sit in his "library" and gather his thoughts:

I am in my room , listening to popped-up classics, and tapping away at these so-familiar keys. I must have written many millions of words over the years. How many of them will remain? Few, I opine. And how much of a writing style do I really have? Does my personality shine through the sentences, or do they only convey dryness and boredom, that which is learned through the roteness of pedantic learning and is made up of cliche and circumlocution?

I try to be as precise and simple as I can in what I write, but rarely compose my thoughts into a pattern of rich density that will convey in interesting fullness that which I wish to convey. My fingers fly off too quickly as is evidenced by the large number of words in this journal that suffer a transposition of letters. But which is of more importance--the message or the medium?

Many of Derek's diary entries faithfully record the minutiae of his daily life:

Last night when I arrived home, I found things rather chaotic. Brenda was busy boiling the Christmas puddings, trying to make a cornbeef hash, and coping with several acres of washing. During the day, she met with men from the mini-auction rooms who strongly rejected Nana's refrigerator and gas stove; and she took delivery of our replacement bed from Owen Owen, the other that we had having sprung a spring and caused a nasty scratch on Brenda's leg.

Later we visted Alan and Dora Burchett. They were sitting quietly at home, peace palpatating from the walls.

Occasionally, there is also a little excitement:

When I got home last night, I found Brenda surrounded by mounds of drying washing, the dinner uncooked, and her mother sitting in the front room, her first venture down in quite a while. Brenda was not too happy. Her day had gone somewhat awry.

Nanna's venture down was to the purpose of making out a list of the things she wanted from the shops, and she expected Brenda to do the traipsing about that day. So Brenda ventured forth and arrived at Tesco's and lo! as she arrived, an Arab man, accompanied by a young woman, came out of the entrance. The Arab was immediately followed by another man who seized him with the words, "I am making a citizen's arrest; you stole an old lady's bag of shopping."

The Arab tried to shake him off, telling him not to be so stupid, the bag of shopping was his, he saw it just standing there. At this point, ladies came pouring out of the shop, shouting and gesticulating, all intent on grabbing the Arab. As usual on such occasions not a policeman was to be seen. The Arab shook off the erstwhile citizen and made off with the bag of shopping. At this point Brenda got stubborn, being unwilling that the man should get away just like that, so she followed the Arab along the High Street until she found a woman policeman, who promptly called for reinforcements.

But the magic of Derek's diaries is that after writing a mundane entry about his vegetables, or Brenda's headaches, he will suddenly come out with an extraodrinary paragraph like this:

I have a most powerful testimony of pre-existence. I know that I lived with Heavenly Parents, before I came here, in celestial mansions. They gave life and progress to that existence our Father organized, an intelligence that has always existed, but which was locked in the silence and vastness of dark space without the possibility of progress until His love and law gave me spiritual life. I do not know my spiritual age. I believe it to be several thousands of years and that I stood in His presence in the Grand Council of Kolob when the Plan of Salvation was presented to us.

Meanwhile, on Planet Earth, Derek celebrates his birthday:

Upon this murky, forsaken morning I became 52 years of age and hardly look a day over twenty-five! But I suppose a mirror can lie, so too much credence ought not to be placed upon what I see reflected in my mirror each morning!

But in spite of the presence of Nanna, a succession of mysterious illnesses and constant financial worries, Derek does not feel sorry for himself. Perhaps this is because he appears to have been a man who was loved; not only by his family, but also by Derek's friends, colleagues and members of the local church.

Derek's diaries contain letters from many different people and the one consistent thread running through all of them is a sense of great affection towards him. For all his absurdities - the Pooterish prose, the Hooked-on-Classics albums and the rabbits, bounding up and down the hallway - Derek's life was not a failure.

I bet Derek's funeral was packed to the rafters.


The Poet Laura-eate said...

Crikey, I wonder if the Jehovah's Witnesses would have excommunicated him for believing in existing in spiritual realms before his birth like that? I was shocked to read JW's don't even guarantee salvation if you follow them or countenance the celebration of birthdays and holidays. What IS their selling point?

You have hit the nail on the head about Derek's extraordinary passages amidst the mundane, though I love his quirky use of language throughout. I often think he was somewhat wasted on the dowdy Brenda, but then she had a lot of things weighing her down in turn, much though this made a convenient excuse to reject him as a man.

Nicer as she undoubtedly sounds, I think it's time to help your mother look for a flat before anyone in your family starts becoming dowdy and worn-down. ; -)

Steerforth said...

I don't know about the Jehova's Witnesses - Derek certainly didn't have much time for them and whenever they knocked on his door, he tried to convert them to the Mormon faith.

I'd love to know what the JW selling point is too. Perhaps it's the certainty that comes with any barking mad dogma.

As far as Derek's writing is concerned, I think it's heavily influenced by Mormon texts.

Mrs Steerforth is in no danger of becoming dowdy and worn-down, but I'm looking a bit feral at the moment.

My mum's very happy here which is great, but this is a very small house. I shall start looking for flats in January!

Martin said...

Oh, how I have missed Derek!

I saw my mother for the first time in seven weeks, today (long story). We spent about four hours together, but conversation was exhausted after about 20 minutes. We're such very different people.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

How embarrassing I got JW's mixed up with Mormons, though what Mormons believe re the spirit world is almost as strange - ie after you die you go to the spirit world for some further religious instruction and then get reunited with your physical body forever (providing you haven't gone to the other place)! Presumably not too worm-eaten or toasted??? It didn't say anything about a new body anyway, so maybe they're the ones who pay thousands of dollars to get their heads cryogenically frozen for reattachment to some fresh unsuspecting corpse at a later date.

Mark and Marianne Egan said...

How I missed Derek! Thank you for the post. You are right that his writing is heavily influenced by Mormon-speak. Thanks to you, Poet Laura-eate, for the good laughs I got from your frozen heads bit. I've not heard that one before. Snag one of those well-dressed young men on bicycles who are no doubt knocking on doors in your community right now. They'd like to hear your thoughts on LDS views of the afterlife.

Kim said...

Thanks so much for posting more Derek tales.

I do apologise if you've covered this in other posts, but I am curious to know if anyone who knew Derek has ever contacted you? He sounds like he was known to quite a lot of people in his time and I'd love to hear from people who may have known him

Steerforth said...

Kim - I have been contacted by someone who vaguely knows one of Derek's friends, but I have to admit I'm wary. How will people feel about me publishing his diaries?

Mark and Marianne - well-dressed young men on bicycles? I'm intrigued.

Martin - it's painful isn't it, when you realise that you have nothing to say to each other. She is such a contrast to my mother-in-law and step-mother-in-law, who still lead busy lives and are interested in the world around them.

Laura - here's a link you might like:

Mark and Marianne Egan said...

"Well-dressed young men on bicycles?" Mormon Missionaries, of course! 19 to 21 year old young men (and some young women)wearing white shirts and ties while riding bikes. As a Mormon, I sometimes mistakenly think we are regarded as mainstream folk. My greatgrandfather served a 2 year mission in Norfolk and Suffolk from 1880 to 1882. I have his journal from those years. It sometimes reads a little like Derek's.

Keep the Derek posts coming! They read like a tragic-comedy play. He is our "everyman".

sukipoet said...

I adore reading about Derek's life. Interesting he included letters from his friends in his diary. Now by publishing, do you mean here on line or will you try to publish his edited diaries??

I myself am going through boxes of my own diaries kept for many years and wondering whether to chuck them. I also have boxes of letter people have written to me.

Well, Derek felt good enough about his prose to keep everything. But he was lucky, you found him and are keeping him alive.

Anonymous said...

What an incredibly perceptive, thoughtful, and gentleman you are, Steerforth...

Peace & blessings to you and yours at Christmas and in the New Year.

Canadian Chickadee

Steerforth said...

Well thank you Canadian Chickadee (I'm blushing!), and a very Merry Christmas to you too. I hope that 2011 brings you health and happiness.

Suki - I don't have any plans to publish Derek's diaries. Perhaps a carefully edited version of the complete diaries of Derek, from the 1950s to the 1990s, would have made a good narrative, but over half of the diaries were thrown away and I'm not sure if what's left adds up to a book. When you take out the local church stuff which, with all due respect to the people involved, makes very dull reading, there isn't that much material left.

Sam Jordison said...

Reading about Derek really has been one of the great pleasures (and sources of pathos) of the past year.

I hope you're right about Derek's funeral. It's very pleasing to hear he had so many affectionate letters sent his way.

I really get the impression he'd be pleased to have found so many followers too.