TO HONOUR THE PAST
A memoir in 2 volumes
Book One: Life Is A Fish
Book Two: Along The Briny Beach
"In the 1990’s my father fell ill.
"There is, unproven but self-evident, a deleterious gene that runs through the Prashker clan. Those who look like great-grandma Manja come out short and stubby and curly-haired and are generally jovial and genial types. Those who look like great-grandpa Yisruel are excessively tall, long and thin to the point of being prehensile, and suffer from severe clinical depression. Creativity runs along the gene, enthusiasm too, ideas and idealisms abound, and sufficient energy to chart them all the way from launch to wreckage.
"Then comes the manic phase, and if you can get them out of the pitch darkness of the bedroom in which they’re Bartleby’ed, you can reckon it a major triumph. My father was one of these. The soulless death of any party. Pursed lips and folded arms, ensconced in some shadowy corner of a room where he had no wish to be, amongst people he didn’t like, conducting social rituals he despised, refusing to speak at all, or if compelled then pronouncing the most cynical and misanthropic judgements upon that race of humanity which in truth he simply loved too much, and fell to hating out of sheer frustration that no one else had set the same high standards, no one else cared quite as deeply, no one else thought half so much nor dreamed so high, no one else had viewed from quite so near and yet so far away the endless summit of the unclimbable mountain, and dared to set out, determined to scale it, to ascend it, as he was determined to scale and ascend it - until, that is, the manic phase took over, and he closed the zipper on the darkness of his tent, and gave his body up to oxygen depletion and frost bite.
"Such was my father. A voice hidden in the solitary darkness of the freezing summits, screaming to nobody listening anyway, 'I’ve climbed precisely this high, and it isn’t worth it. Eternity is just eternity. When you’ve counted one infinite number, you’ve counted them all. I’m cold. I’m tired. I’ve searched for God and failed to find him. Life is a fish. The best a man can do is catch it, clean it, grill it. Don’t expect chips.' I know. Such also am I. The parallels between his story and mine are extraordinary - but then so are the similarities of physical appearance, mannerisms, voice, personality. As though his life as well as his genes had been cloned in me.
"My father had suffered all his life, but in the mid 1990’s, post-retirement and growing physically, not yet frail, but less fit in his seventies than he’d been before, the manic phase hit hard. Getting him out of bed of a morning became, for my mother, a Herculean task. Some days she failed, and gave up. Some days she succeeded, but he got no further than an armchair in the sitting room, where he remained, staring up, or down, inwards mostly, unable to start his own engine. He called it panic, and in a sense it was. Now that he was no longer earning, financial matters concerned him. I was alright - earning enough to live comfortably, and teachers can always get work. My sister Judy was another case. She and her soon-to-be-ex-husband were unhappy, had little money, few prospects, teenage daughters. All of his inner turmoil manifested itself in worry about them, and because it was worry he couldn’t evince, it turned to panic. Like soldiers in the trench for whom there appears to be no active egress, he took the only option left, the passive option. He froze. Dead still in a chair as if comatose, for hours on end. Physically trembling. At times in tears. It drove my mother to distraction.
"They put him on one drug after another, sent him from psychologist to psychiatrist to psychotherapist to psychoanalyst, but none of these priests of the new religion were of any use, because my father was an atheist. A rational humanist, that’s to say, who knew that what was happening in his brain was only what was happening throughout his body, and that it was a matter of chemistry, not mystical speculation. What we all knew was that the soldier in the trench had to be given a positive egress. Golf or bowls, teaching bridge to beginners, voluntary work for various local charities, household chores, chauffeuring his grandchildren, day trips - my mother tried everything. And everything worked, briefly, sometimes, usually in the afternoons. The next day began the same as the one before. The same resumed struggle, infuriating and frustrating, ultimately futile. It went on for years.
"As a young man, soldiering in Germany and then India at the end of Hitler’s War, he had dreamed of becoming a writer, though it never came to fruition. All my life I’d been pressing him for details of the family history, before there was no one left who could remember it. Now, his long mental illness and the need to keep him going brought the two together, and from several directions we worked on him, his family mostly, to write his book.
"'I can’t write. I’ve tried a thousand times. I don’t have the skill to do it.'
"'Then don’t write the book. Write the notes, and I’ll write the book. Just put down anything you can, in any order. Don’t worry about the spelling or the grammar or the style or anything else. Just give me the facts. I’ll do the rest.'
"He couldn’t do it. The act of sitting at a desk for hours on end was more than he could manage; the act of writing, of physically holding a pen and marking words on paper, even more so. Instead, I interviewed him, taping our conversations, bombarding him with questions, and wrote it up in the skeleton of a book I’d already decided to call 'To Honour The Past'. For a year and a half I nagged him relentlessly to speak into the tape recorder, notes, anything, never mind the literary merit. Eventually he responded. Sometimes late into the panic of the night. It helped ward off the fear of depressive suicide. When it looked like he was slacking, I sent him more and still more detailed queries to answer.
"'What kind of furniture did your Aunt Yeta have in her sitting-room?'
"'Did Jack who went to Australia speak Yiddish or only English?'
"Most of my requests were for more detail on people mentioned in the narrative - physical description, voice, anecdotes. Dad told the story, but without dialogue, without a sense of place, and mostly without the quintessential flavour of the people that he mentioned. As a writer, and as an English teacher, I found myself unable to accept a story that lacked such primary ingredients, the voices in particular.
"'At what point did you stop keeping strictly kosher?'
"'What was the name of that Welshman in your platoon in India who looked you up in London in the 1970s?'
"He racked his brain. It was already thoroughly tortured and tormented, but this form of racking stretched it and stretched it, until the clotted up channels disatrophied, and the chemicals the doctors had prescribed began at last to do their work. As the end of the millennium came nearer, so, apparently, did his recovery. Though it would prove to be ephemeral, and illusory.
"My father had any number of catch-phrases with which to drive the rest of us to despair. 'Don’t you find it strange?' was one of them, invariably applied to commonplace trivialities that nobody with any experience of life could ever find the remotest bit peculiar, let alone his full-fledged strange. The most used phrase was 'it seems incredible to me that', as in the opening of his version of his book:
"'It seems incredible to me that, having reached the ripe old age of seventy, there are still so many unanswered questions in my life, simply because I thoughtlessly forgot to ask the right people whilst they were still alive to give me the right answers.'
"That was my father. Everybody in the world, every day of their lives, thoughtlessly forgets to ask the most important questions, omits to do the most important deeds, to think the most important thoughts, to tell the most honest truths – it’s what makes us human. Nobody else finds it incredible. But my father found it incredible.
"'How, for example, did Uncle Max and Aunt Becky come to live in Sydenham, South London, and thence in Croydon, which became the seat of our family? Why did Jack, my grandfather, die in Australia, and why did my Uncle Alf eventually run away to South Africa? How did a Polish refugee, a stadtl-Jew like Uncle Max, come to meet and marry that sophisticated English Jewess Aunty Becky? How could anyone be so cruel as to send me, a nine-year-old grieving boy, away to boarding school so soon after my father died? It was surely bad enough to lose my father without losing my mother at the same time? These, and so many other questions, remain without answers - simply because we forgot to enquire.'
"Quite failing to recognise that, of course, the questions would have remained without answers, even if he had thought to enquire.
"Like every human being, my father’s story is at once banal and universal. As James Joyce observed, what matters is the depth of the living and the depth of the telling. The urgency of all writing stems from the need to render the universal personal and the personal universal. Too shallow, and the story remains banal. Go deep enough, dig out the archetypes and symbolisms, chart the atlas of the viscera, and it may become universal. That’s a grand claim, and I don’t know if I have achieved it - that verdict belongs to those who choose to read it.
"I published my father’s book, in the form in which we wrote it together, in 1998, a slim volume to which I originally gave the title 'The Secret Life of J.P.Morland' (his nom de plume when he was writing radio pieces as a young man in India), then 'Lord of the Fowl and the Brute' (allegedly a quote from Alexander Selkirk, the man on whom Defoe modelled Robinson Crusoe; actually by William Cowper; dad’s favourite quote, whoever wrote it), though it finished up as 'Life is a Fish, a memoir, by Jack Prashker'; his choice. And rightly, because it was his book, not mine. His life, not mine.
"My father lived on, depressed, panic-stricken, continuously unwell, until March 2012. In the wake of his funeral I went back to my notes for his book, and instead of the prescribed year of Jewish mourning, which entails thanking a God neither of us believed in for a judgement neither of us could accept, I chose instead to spend several hours a day in company with my father, turning his version of his life into my version of his life, rendering it personal. It was more time than I'd spent with him during the last twenty years of his actual life.
"And having written my version of his book, aware too that my own life was tending to be a repetition of his on so many levels, I decided to continue, and write the tale of my own apprenticeship as a writer, fulfilling the destiny he was unable to fulfill. The second book, "Along The Briny Beach", is that account."