Coemgen – the fair-begotten Kevin

Let me tell you about Kevin. He’s my meteor shower and my Northern Lights – one of those phenomenon you glimpse once in a lifetime – more if you’re lucky. He’s my nephew – Kevin Walke – and a quicksilver mate. I’ve explained where the name for this blog came from, but Kev is the one who put it into place, secured it and gave me the marvellous journey.

I worried about Kev for years. For some time he chose a quiet life for reasons of his own.  Then, in November 2011, as we arrived at our son Dom’s funeral,  there it was!  – Kevin’s face gazing at me from the crowd of people on the left hand side of the porch to the church. It was just so right.

He’s tall, with the darkest hair you can imagine and with smiling eyes. We met again in 2013 at the Walkefest family gathering in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park when he came to get to know people in his family. Today is his Mum’s birthday and a good time for me to say that her heart was full that day in the park.

I learned that Kev’s heart was waiting to be fixed with what looked like a gas mantle. (Our front room was lit with these when I was knee high to a caterpillar as a War Child). I’ve always noticed their combined fragility and strength – like the wings of a moth near a candle. Anyway, two annual family gatherings and several jolly Italian meals and drinks later, Kev is fixed. Now the long process of healing is holding him in its hand.

Through Kev I’ve got to see what a beautiful city Sheffield is, with its trees and hills, with its history and its presence. Kev makes me laugh. I have to be careful not to laugh at inappropriate moments with him. He’s a keen observer and would make a good birdwatcher.

It’s a few years since I first visited Glendalough and left my heart there. When I’m returned to ashes, I’d like some of them to go into the river there and Ria says she’ll do that for me. More about Ria later… Kev is the namesake of St. Kevin, whose feast day is June 3rd, known as Pattern Day in Ireland – a day for a feast of merrymaking, dancing and riotousness. That pretty much matches what my Kev would want from a feast day. He’s playful, anxious and loves people.

St. Kevin lived to 120 – from 498 to 618 would you believe that now! Kev likes figures too. From the age of 7 to 12, St. Kevin was taught by St. Petroc, the patron saint of Cornwall, who lived in Leinster at that time. I like that. Men of quiet wild places like Kev. he likes to get away from the city into the green when he can.

I’ve mentioned to Kev that he might like to visit Glendalough to feel its sacred stillness (even amidst crowds) and see where the saint lived as a hermit for seven years. His narrow cave above the upper lake was his bed. Later, in 1539, the monastery he founded and nurtured was destroyed by Henry VIII and the English.

You can take the mortar out of the monastery but you can’t take the blackbirds out of Glendalough.

St. Kevin and the Blackbird

And then there was St. Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
and Lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearm?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in Love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

Seamus Heaney

For Omran Daqneesh and the children of Syria

Sunday morning and the house is quiet, so I’ll write a bit for you my readers. You are the ghosts around me, the stardust of my myriad thoughts and I thank you.

I’m a War Child. Nowadays the media show images of little ones dying in war, bewildered in war, wounded in war, alone in war and crying in war. That’s how a War Child is presented to us. I’m looking back over my life in more detail than ever these days and I would definitely use those words to describe my childhood. The Second World War left its impact on a child who was trying to work out what was going on. It was like living in the set of a stage play that was yet to take shape in my mind.

In 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. In 1940, rationing was started in the U.K., fishing boats went out to support the evacuation of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain made its mark. In 1941, the Blitzkrieg was extended from Belgium, France and Holland to the U.K. and Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese. In 1942, huge numbers of prisoners were taken by the Japanese and the industrial-scale murders in Auschwitz and other concentration camps were started.

In 1943 I was born in a little market town called Bedford, England. In the same year the Germans surrendered at Stalingrad, Italy was invaded and the Japanese were being fought in Burma.

In 1944 came D-Day and Paris was liberated while the British bombed a monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy.
In 1945, Auschwitz horrors were revealed to the world, Hitler committed suicide in Berlin and the U.S.A. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Now that I realise the impact of this war on the events of my life, you’ll find me returning to them in my writing.

I’ve just been watching a short film by Channel 4 News about the last gardener in Aleppo. Hinnie (our daughter-gardener Inez) sent it to me because she understands me better than I care to know sometimes. After my tears and a second viewing, three things came to mind. The first is Omran Daqneesh, aged five, a beautiful boy in Syria the same age as my beautiful grandson Eric Cook Caka . The second is a memory of the grandfather and granddaughter, (she was maybe nine years old), who came into our garden last year and asked if they could take cuttings from some of the flowers. I wanted to tell them about Dom (our son-gardener who died in 2011), but language stopped me in my tracks and from the old man’s eyes, I could see the cuttings were doing the same thing – I wish I knew where they lived. The third thought was of Oscar Wilde’s short story, ‘The Selfish Giant’.

It was at school in Bedford that I first read this poem. The words that struck me then were “…a white light at the back of my mind to guide me”, and those words have always stayed with me. However,  now, as I read  the poem against the stage set of my life, I begin to comprehend why he wrote this poem at the height of the Second World War and what the Second World War was doing to Louis MacNeice.

This morning, as I write to you dear readers, they’ve dropped barrel bombs on the children and adults gathered at the funerals of children bombed in Syria earlier this week. “They” – are all of us. I keep reading that ‘the world is watching’. Too much watching and not enough doing. The stage is set for war to be stopped in the name of the 250,000 War Children dying, bewildered, wounded, alone and crying in the besieged towns and villages of Syria.

Prayer Before Birth

I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
club-footed ghoul come near me.

I am not yet born; console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me.

I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me,
my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
my life when they murder by means of my
hands, my death when they live me.

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
come near me.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze
my humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety, would
blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.

Louis MacNeice

Painting the town red on Mother’s Day

Mothering about on your Sunday for you
once a year, this year,
better even, I hope, than any old breakfast in bed,
I thank you dear La-la
dear Leigh Eileen La-la:

for spiralling fluidities
quick and silvery
of slippery slapped and wailing thought
in a rush of bubbles

and for thoughts continually drummed out loud
in howls and in vowels
in hoots and in heights
in weights and in measures
I thank you additionally

and for the power of listen
and for the power of watch
it is you I also have to thank

and for a dawning
an inkling of comprehension
of the lovelinesses of skies of Novembers

I thank you as well, long and down-deep heartfelt.

Dominic Mathews

better even, I hope, than any old breakfast in bed

As I’m going to write regularly, this morning I think you might like to know where the name of our blog comes from. Almost ten years ago, arriving  in Victoria Coach Station from a trip to the Isle of Wight with my friend Janet Born,  Dom was there to meet us.

The coach station was very busy and we were rushed to find Janet’s coach to Bedford and wave her on her way.  Then Dom and I turned and headed off to Highshore Road in Peckham for adventures together.

When he was about eight, Dom wrote a poem in school about his favourite colour. I still have it, written in the  clear and careful style of the eight year-old poet. He wrote that red “…is the brightest and best colour of all.”

We spent the next day, Sunday – Mother’s Day- together and Dom gave me this poem…he was forty now.

Inside the hangar

A new thought is floating about the high spaces of the hangar of my mind. I’ve been told my kidney cancer has come back to visit me. No doubt this thought will find itself a place to hang like a glistening cobweb or a pirate flag up there in the heights. In the meantime, I’m aware of it dancing and weaving as I get on with everyday living between hospital visits. I was thinking this morning of how the changes are not unlike being pregnant – except that the child is ahead of you somewhere, in the stardust that is everywhere, within and without.