Here is a short excerpt from my new memoir, PROMISED LANDS Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ’60s. It describes my life following my father’s death when I was seven years old. This is about some of the stuff he left behind:
He had a framed joke that proclaimed: “Everything I like is illegal, immoral or fattening.” In the hall closet, there were other things of his. I taught myself photography on his obsolete Rolleiflex and Kodak Six16 cameras, and made my first images on photo paper dated 1937 (then over twenty years old) on his old wooden contact printer. He kept an elaborate workshop in the basement of our home where he built and painted miniature railway stations and mountains for his electric trains, a display that was the envy of fathers and sons for miles around. He also built scale model steam ships. Alone now, I haunted the gloomy basement rooms, playing with the trains and building childish versions of the boats he had made. I remember angrily throwing half-finished model ships across the basement when I couldn’t match his efforts. There was an open cistern in the basement – we were dependent on rainwater for all but drinking – it added a swampy element to the already crypt-like atmosphere of the cellar. I stood on a box and floated my boats in the dark water. Sometimes a boat would sink down into the shadows, never to be seen again. Despite the loss, it was exciting when it happened. I imagined its lying on the bottom, listing to starboard, celestial choirs singing “Nearer My God To Thee”, as microscopic tubas, deck chairs and plates of canapes floated upwards towards the surface.
His American Flyer electric trains are packed away now in my attic. I want him to know I have saved them. For years I told myself that I’d restore them, and set them up in a blaze of glory. But they’re corroded and rusting now, engines frozen. In vain, I hook up the old transformer to a length of track, set my favourite Union Pacific steam engine in place and push the power lever. There is an ominous buzzing, the tender sparks and smokes, and the house lights shiver a warning that there’s no going home again … In the years following his death, I played with them by staging tragic crashes: a toy car would “stall” on the tracks, a crowd of tiny plastic people (and farm animals) would gather, more cars and police would arrive, but no one could budge that stuck auto. Then “The 4:15” would come hurtling through and wreak indescribable carnage with people screaming and animals bawling. Often the train would be derailed as well – a loud crash followed by silence – as a wisp of chemical steam engine smoke drifted over the scene in a ghostly benediction.
In 2013, my father will have been dead for sixty years. There is a child inside me who, against all reason, believes that his daddy’s absence isn’t permanent – I get flashes of the belief when I’m not thinking about it. I catch myself looking for him in my rear-view mirror, as though he might be hovering behind me in rush hour. But hope for his return is fading. Not long ago, I dreamed that he hadn’t died at all. “They” had weighted his coffin with a log, and he returned to England. My mother, who had planned to accompany him, decided to stay in Canada and take care of me. I went to England and tracked down a very old white-haired man named Clifford Williams who was living in a boarding house. There was suspense as I waited for him to come home, and I was attracted to his landlady. I awoke before he arrived.
For years, I believed that English people were the best and I told people that I had been born in England. I defended Chrysler’s crummy cars, and felt a special claim to feelings for the sea, money and nobility. American Flyer made the best trains, and when they went out of business, survived by the inferior Lionel (the brand that all other kids had), the event took its place alongside the Chrysler Corporation’s perpetually-dwindling fortunes, the sinking of the Titanic, the decline of the British Empire and the death of my father as signs of the incomprehensible and irretrievable degeneration of the world.