Sunday, January 20, 2008


I think possibly one of the main formative influences on my life, although I never met him, was my maternal grandfather. He had separated from my grandmother years before I was born, and was subsequently ostracised by his family. I knew him only from the evocative stories my mother would sometimes tell about him. Apparently he dropped out of University, decided to work his way around the world on merchant ships, fetched up in Rio where he met and married my grandmother (working as a nanny, a young German refugee from the great post-WW1 depression), and then somehow blagged himself a job as the manager of a huge horse & cattle ranch in central Brazil.

Yes, my grandfather was a gaucho! And his leather over-trousers ('bombashers' they call them in those parts, apparently), gnarly with age, scoured and pitted from years of battling with thornbushes until they resembled Keith Richards's face, hung on the wall in our dining-room throughout my childhood, looking down on us as we ate, dominating my imagination at every meal. My mother and her sister were born in a town high in the Matto Grosso called Ara├žatuba - the name has always seemed exquisitely exotic to me, and I hanker to visit one day. Why on earth the family came back to England - on the eve of the War - I'll never understand.

So, growing up with dreams of riding the open range on a distant continent, it was never likely that I was going to settle down to a life of humdrum conformity in a bank or a law firm....

However, I do rather like the counter-balancing view of this Larkin poem - that maybe the impulse to travel, the rejection of a settled life, can be a little too smug and self-regarding... perhaps a conformity of a different kind? I don't think that is the case for me. I hope not. But I ask myself the question every year or two, just to try to reassure myself.

The imagery here reminds me of another powerful formative influence from my earliest childhood - the sea rat, a charismatic sailor-adventurer who briefly meets the heroes of The Wind In The Willows when they first set out on the road in their gypsy caravan (Toad's pre-motor car enthusiasm), and who tempts The Water Rat in particular to pursue such an exotic wandering life himself. I love that book to pieces, and try to re-read it every few years. There is a great tension in it between the allure of travel and the comfort of home. The 'Dulce Domum' chapter, where Mole finally returns home after his adventures, always used to make me cry - and probably still would! However, despite this sympathy with the affection for the familiarity of 'home', the call of 'the open road' always appealed to me more, both in reading the book as a child and in my life subsequently. Parents, beware - books can have a momentous impact on your children's development!

I sent this poem to all my friends back home when I left for China in 2002.

Poetry of Departures

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off.
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
Its specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order.
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I'd go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo'c'sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren't so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985)


homeinkabul said...

I would like to hear more about grandpa.

And the poem puts a different light on the 'homage to my room' that I was planning to post one of these days...

Froog said...

Well, I hope I haven't put you off, HiK. Larkin was a notorious old sourpuss - we shouldn't take him too much to heart!

There's not really very much more to tell about grandpa. He died when I was very young, and I never met him. My grandmother was very bitter over the breakup, so he was never mentioned in her presence, and my mother only spoke of him very occasionally. I often wish I had probed further - for example about why he brought the family back to England, circa 1938.

Mum did tell me quite a bit about their holidays (I suppose this would have been during the War, or just after). Grandpa was keen on camping; and also somewhat eccentrically enthusiastic about "living off the land" (perhaps it was necessary in wartime) - apparently he used to steal eggs and poach rabbits!

Anonymous said...

I agree with HiK.... Grandpa stories are sincerely requested. I know you think there's not much more to say... but, what memories of your mother's occassionaly references can't provide, perhaps memories of your childhood daydreaming whilst eating your porridge and staring up at those gauchos can provide.

Did Grandma never enter your mother's kitchen? Or your mom put those Gauchos up to discourage her from entering?

and your mom had a sister?

Anonymous said...

As a child i traveled a lot, but never of my own design. I enjoyed it, very very much.

but, i was determined to grow up into a local Hometown Gal, university - local, law school - local, respected serve the people job - local. I guess if i'd thought about it at the time, I would have assumed I'd continue to travel the world in 2 week segments on a yearly basis... but nothing more than that.

I always considered those who felt the need to run off to some other place to find themselves to be missing the point. You can find yourself anywhere.

I still think you can find yourself anywhere, home, or traveling... but the reality of my Wanderings as an Adult is as far from the planned Hometown Life as it could be.

If I could do it all over again, would I make different choices? Of course, I'm asking myself an unfair question since I made my choices based on the opportunities available at the time, not based on the ideal opportunities that my childhood dreaming imagined would be available at the time.

Thanks for the Larkin poem.... plenty food for thought.

Froog said...

I've never understood that "finding oneself" bunk!

Surely you travel in order to lose yourself?

The British Cowboy said...

I findamentally miss travelling. I was always envious, Froog, of your willingness to pack up and travel alone. I guess it is the perils of marrying too young. And now I have the ability to travel whereever I wish, I don't have the time.

Or the money for the foreseeable future, as I just bought a house.

Anonymous said...

Traveling is nice, and I imagine wandering is as well, though I haven't experienced it much. Most of my trips have been planned, with sets dates of departure and return. But there's something to be said for having a place to come home to (so way to go, British Cowboy!).

Nice post, especially the descriptions of your grandfather. A gaucho! How cool. And the pants, very cool.

I bet everyone has at least one interesting thing to say about their grandfathers, assuming they knew them or heard stories of them. Grandfathers are just like that. (That's not to say that everyone could write it quite like you did... Nicely done.)