So it goesPosted: June 13, 2020
When I was little, I sometimes wondered if my dad was The Doctor (not a doctor, but the Doctor, from Doctor Who). It didn’t seem entirely impossible. Like Tom Baker’s time lord, he seemed to know everything. He was quick-witted, playful, questioning, interested in big stories and grand schemes, not small talk and customary habits.
If he wasn’t The Doctor, perhaps he was some other kind of alien, making the best of it after being stranded on earth – a Vulcan, perhaps, like Mr Spock. Like Spock, he was fond of the humans who were his friends, but found them all, above all else, puzzling. People were a mystery to him, but he remained curious for his whole life, finding some resonant chime in the work of other misanthropic, melancholy, mystified men – Lewis Carroll, Samuel Beckett, Bob Dylan, Ivor Cutler, James Lovelock, Kurt Vonnegut.
He was particularly taken with Vonnegut’s creation, the Tralfamadorians – four-dimensional beings who are able to see all of time laid out before them, and therefore have no conception of the beginning, middle or end of a story. When they see a person who is dead, they simply observe that he is in a bad way at that time. All the other moments of his life remain current for them.
He was fascinated by nature, admired the mathematical properties of plants and championed insects and other unappreciated creatures. He hand-reared butterfly caterpillars each year, picking them nettles from the nearby woods; and we shared our living room with several generations of giant hawk moth caterpillars, who grew so big you could hear them eating. Later in his life, he kept bees on his allotment, as his father had done on the other side of the world, a lifetime before.
Every outing was an opportunity to observe and learn. If we passed people working in the street – telephone engineers, gas repair people or building surveyors – he would very often stop and ask them what they were doing and why, much to their bemusement. He couldn’t pass a skip without having a good look through for something that might come in useful. Throwing things away was a waste, and the house, garden and garage were full of things he had rescued from this unwarranted fate.
Among my favourite playthings, for example, were several huge magnets from the back of old televisions and a jar of ball bearings. Both these wonders were rescued from the local tip, possibly at the same time, as I associate them very closely in my mind. The house was crammed full of interesting things – puzzles, games, books, newspapers, giant cardboard tubes, typewriters, a small printing press. We lived with a broken photocopier at the bottom of the stairs for several years.
He was good with his hands – always making something. He made useful things like furniture, dinners, newsletters and compost bins, but most of the things he made were intricate, beautiful mathematical models – stars, baskets, knots. He made them out of cardboard, wood, string, paper, plastic. His calculations were scribbled on the backs of envelopes and edges of newspapers. He didn’t have a shed or work room – he worked in the living room, on the floor, leaving sharp knives, hammers or pins liberally scattered around. We didn’t mind – there wasn’t a clear floor or surface in any other part of the house in any case.
We made things together too. Tablet weaving on a loom suspended from the bookshelves in the living room was my introduction to textile arts. When home computers became available, we learned together about programming. We developed slick production techniques for spray-painted posters and banners.
He was an extraordinary man, always stubbornly himself, unable to adapt or fit in, outspoken and blunt, to the point of rudeness. Adults often found him bewildering, but with children he was enchanting, sparking new connections, teasing out ideas, delighting in their discoveries and offering them the kind of focused attention that most parents and teachers don’t have time to give. I am so grateful that he was a chaotic and creative presence for both my kids, throughout their childhoods.
It was an unusual way of living, always striving to understand and make a difference in the present, keeping hold of things for future use and re-use. There was very little time for reflection. But while staying in my childhood home for the last two weeks of my father’s life, I found I could always reach out my hand and touch the past. Objects I have known for decades were sitting in their familiar places, watching us arrive at the end of his story.
I was privileged to be in the room with my dad when he breathed his last breath, and so I know that he was not a time lord. There was no immediate regeneration. As we are humans, not Tralfamadorians, we are forced to live our lives in one direction only. I am immensely sad.
My dad once described the heap of things on our kitchen surfaces as being like a very thick, boiling liquid, slowly turning things up to the top. Each individual life is a brief coincidence of cells, bubbling to the top of the thin layer of inhabitable earth, air and water on the surface of our planet. I think the best we can do is to delight in the absurd fact of being here at all, and try to honour our fellowship with all other living beings.
In memoriam, Richard Ahrens (17/10/1933 – 10/6/2020)