Monday, 14 March 2016
I’ve said this before on this blog: I like to celebrate my birthday. Whether you are one, a hundred-and-one, or some less-significant age somewhere in between, there is something positive and enjoyable about celebrating life, if you are able. Understandably, the older you are, the less excited you are, and the fewer gifts you tend to get, but that’s okay too. This has led me to thinking about the word ‘gift.’
For some, the word ‘gifted’ means ‘talented.’ This perhaps has its derivation in the old word for a measure of money, which seems a long way from how most people view a talent: something which is natural, inert. We often talk about the ‘gift of music,’ which feels a bit unfair, since to be proficient in music (or any other art form) takes a lot of hard work, practice, and perseverance.
Here in Scotland, we use the word ‘gifted’ to mean, bequeathed or donated. The implication that it is better to give than to receive suggests that the giver does not expect to get anything back. And yet, if a piece of art is gifted to a gallery or public space, the chances are that the benefactor will get to see his or her bequest.
Perhaps a better definition of a gift is something given without expecting anything in return. In our something-for-nothing culture, this ideal must seem anathema. Reciprocity is built into our generosity, so that even donating anonymously gives us a sense of enormous well-being. But not everyone’s heart is devoted to this notion.
When I was a child, my grandmother used to send me a birthday card with a 50-pence piece fixed onto the inside with Sellotape®. Many of my friends used to get serious birthday money, and I can’t deny I was childishly envious. But in my adulthood, recalling this gift I realise it truly was the widow’s mite. She lived a simple, frugal life, and when she died, left a few pounds in her Post Office savings account to be divided among the children of her seven offspring. It didn’t go far!
But she also left a ‘precious’ heirloom: a massive Family Bible the size of a coffee-table. It was a solid, hard-cased, leather-bound monster of a book, with a huge brass clasp and, from Genesis to Revelation, printed in Welsh! We have, in my immediate family, been slow to acknowledge the Welsh side, favouring my father’s Scottish blood over my mother’s heritage.
Last year I tried to make amends by writing a poem for my mum, which I performed a few weeks ago at an open-mic that happened to fall on St David’s Day. Here it is:
You get yours from the Welsh, my mother said.
It was a meagre consolation to
a boy, self-conscious and embarrassed, who
attempted to disguise protruding ears
behind a mop of fine white silky hair.
They stuck out as an easy target for
the other kids to flick or tease. For years
I blamed the Welsh for my deformity.
In time, I learned my other Celtic trait
was based on my ability to talk.
My god, those cousins, uncles, aunts knew how
to hold a conversation lasting hours!
My uncle, Howard, loved a good debate,
and Grandma prattled on about her state
of health, while cousin Bill would reminisce
about the good old days of male voice choirs.
And then l found I had another link to this
strange land of valleys, music, mines and sheep:
I could sing. Except, my voice was deep.
At least my musicality allowed
me to acknowledge that I could achieve
a skill to make my ears feel justly proud.
So with my new-found vocal aptitude,
attending a family funeral of some
relation (was it dear old Uncle Tom?)
for the singing of the final hymn
(Cwm Rhonda, I imagine) I joined in
with my young baritone, stentorian.
And as we left the crematorium
my ears, so sensitive, pricked up to hear
a lilting accent marvel at ‘that voice.’
I waited for the compliment to come,
but no: I was denied of such a thrill.
The voice they meant was my old cousin, Bill.
He was a tenor: naturally his tone
would overpower my adolescent baritone.
For once, I held my tongue. And being young
I hoped that age, experience, and time
would give me opportunity to hone
my hearing and my voice as only mine
and not a garrulous extension of
a heritage I never knew as home.
And now my brother’s daughter is in Wales,
learning music like a mother tongue,
but not because it comes from national pride,
genetics, education, or the blood
of those who came before. If this were true,
our progeny would be assured. It hails
from something deep inside our heart or head
or gut – it makes no difference if our blood’s
from England, Scotland, Ireland or from Wales.
It isn’t what, it’s who we are. Yet so,
I wonder if my child would have Welsh ears.
I guess I’ll never know – or never hear.
Since nobody in our family speaks Welsh, the only part of this obsolete Bible that could be read was a few branches of a family tree, inscribed on the opening pages, at first in fine calligraphy, then in biro, hand-written by my grandmother. It was only when my mum and her surviving siblings were reading these inscriptions that they noticed an anomaly regarding the date of birth of the eldest brother, my Uncle Howard, and the marriage of my grandparents.
It seems he was conceived out of marriage. This would have been something of a scandal in a small Welsh Baptist community: no wonder they ended up re-locating to England, from the Valleys to the Downs. But – as my poem above suggests – they brought the WHOLE family with them, including their close-harmony singing.
Nowadays, if a child discovered he or she had been conceived out of wedlock, it would be of little concern – especially if its parents were married when they were born. But if he discovered, say, on turning 16, that the paternity of this pre-marital incident was questionable, he may want some answers.
Now, I’ve been banging on about this for some time, but the person who I was in a relationship with a year and nine months ago is soon to celebrate the first birthday of her child. She took something from me that wasn’t hers to take. It wasn’t a ‘gift: it was theft. She once gave me a ‘gift’ of a leather wallet, saying that, if I didn’t want it, I could give it to a charity shop or something. She also said that I would be foolish to read or look for meanings in things that were not there. But I am a poet, and will find a metaphor even if there is not one. So I wrote this poem.
long and hard
this weighted gift
sat on my shelf
symbol of a rift
a leathery musk
of what might
have perhaps been
as the bright sun
enlightened its fibres.
She called it cute
it was dispensable
‘Keep it if you want
or give it to charity’
she said indifferent.
If only I had seen
a present meant
for further future
One year on
I pick at the scars
where lies began
now truth unwinds
the past unfolds
as poppers snap
on empty contents
each intended for
photos, credit cards
of emails, texts
loyalty cards for
In the top folds
wads of bank-notes
that some call filth
while others revel in
the power of purchase.
Against this love
the Bible warns
yet Society nurtures.
To close the book
reveals yet more
evidence of love
or what was meant
by this past present?
Was this for coins,
loose change, trinkets
trust purloined while
in a pocket zipped,
a secret store
of love abused:
the condom that
she never used.
Finally a zone
left empty, void
of what my daft
imagination vied for
or believed or
dared to think as love.
It wasn’t intended
for money stolen
sold, or tendered
but a metaphor
as sick and empty
as a wallet forged
of unspoken gratitude
- a perverse token
for services rendered.
I’m stuck with it
this leather wallet.
If only it displayed
a little more than
fifty silver pieces
of a love betrayed.
Perhaps I’ll never know if I am right or wrong about this, but I have so many reasons to believe that the paternity of this child is in some doubt. So I will throw out this challenge to her and her cuckolded husband who seemed so aggrieved at my suggestion, that he reacted with revelatory anger against me.
If you’re reading this post: prove me wrong, and I will delete these poems. Meanwhile, I’m off to celebrate my birthday with real friends, who ask for nothing yet give so much in return.