"Grass Routes" - Prologue
It all started with a sepia photo, I guess.
Clearing out my parents’ house was the strangest process - rediscovering objects that were so familiar but which I’d completely forgotten. Lampshades, some Berol Venus pencils, a small rubber Dougal from the Magic Roundabout. I kept that one.
In each room lay the result of decades of accumulation, some of which spanned more than just their lifetime. My parents had lived through the war and rationing, and had a careful approach to disposal, for who knows what one might need someday?
In this melancholy routine of sifting through the remnants of their lives, haunted by reminiscence, and in between bouts of smiling and crying, I would stumble across symbols of the years I spent in their midst. It was surely the happiest of childhoods; beguiled by play in the gardens they so lovingly tended, enchanted by the houses we lived in, intrigued by the endless books on their shelves.
Here and there, fragments of memory would drift back to the surface, and I would wonder what it was like to be parents - my parents - back in the seventies & eighties, and how it might compare with my own experiences of late. I would let linger an occasional sadness that accompanied these thoughts of not really knowing my parents well enough, of the brutal haste with which life rushes by.
I knew them, of course, and we were, in a way, close as a result of the age gap between my brother and I, but the time had now passed when I might find out more about how they felt…what their hopes and dreams were…what lit them up. There were clues in the boxes of vinyl, and more in the paperwork they kept, but there arose a powerful feeling of it all being at best only a collection of vague signposts to their inner lives.
Dad neglected to wake up one morning, passing away quietly a few weeks shy of eighty, and Mum was now moving to a care home, in order to find a safer life than this old house with its near-vertical staircase could offer. Her own memory had been gently slipping away, and so in the boxing up of their lives lay my strongest chance to connect with the time we spent under the same few roofs, sharing the same air, the same fleeting moments.
I doubt they’d mind if I were to say that their photography was, at best, patchy, and on occasion, truly awful. The cameras in those days took real film, and opening a returned, developed set of photos from Boots was akin to unwrapping a surprise birthday present. But these were presents for which there was a not insignificant charge, and whose quality could not be assured either in the viability of the film - you’d occasionally open a collection of blanks, or find the images under-exposed or blurry - or in the artistic style of the photographer. Ours were often a mix of the two, with the odd gem interspersed.
In a familiar blue box in the dusty loft lay a full set of slides, and recollections of Christmas mornings four decades earlier surfaced even before the latches were released from their long-term, reliable tension. Dad would rig up a projector and talk us through various holiday snaps with seemingly limitless enthusiasm. For their generation, travel of any sort was noteworthy, and this art of photography was to them a sort of miracle, regardless of the presence or otherwise of any technical prowess. In recording these few dozen images of our life unfolding in seventies Broadstairs and beyond, my dear parents had found a way to keep alive this other world, one we’d passed through together.
Eventually the house was clear, and we’d taken what we wanted and bid a reluctant farewell to that which it no longer made sense to keep, and as the door clicked shut for the last time, it felt like a part of my life fell away in that instant. Ed and I had our memories, of course, and Mum probably a few of her own still rattling round in there, but, without many of the physical prompts as evidence, the inevitable deterioration of such subjective imprints would continue, until my own children would one day be left to tidy up after us, and perhaps wonder what we were all about.
Weeks passed, and then the local art framer called to say that the slides were now “on a memory stick”, and I smiled at the term, and wished that Mum and Dad had been able to download their own lives for future reference on such a convenient device. We looked through them one night, in respectful silence, and I wondered who certain people were and smiled at the buildings and sunsets that spoke to me from the autumn of the last century, like ghosts of a childhood I’d come to mourn.
Nostalgia seemed to be part of the fabric of my being, and as the electronic slideshow charged through these glimpses of my parents in the prime of their lives, and of us with buckets and spades in the endless sun of the seventy-six, it was hard not to let a longing for the simplicity of those years overwhelm me. Adulthood had been kind, too - a period of chaos at university, but I got through it, and found a path to tread - but there was always this lurking sense that a key theme of those childhood years - my joyful, limitless love of play - had drifted away.
The image that caught my eye was of a twelve year old me, with a mop of brown hair and some tassled spikes, chipping from the side of a green. The look on my face was of intense - no, total - concentration, and though the smirk that would characterise my teenage years - and infuriate my teachers - wasn’t yet evident, the glint in my eyes seemed to shine off the photo like some internal laser. And I knew, deep down, that I’d have been aware of but not cared about the camera, for there was a shot to be played and at that age, I’d have been looking to hole it.
And in that moment, the photo seemed to offer the narrowest of portals back towards a way of being that had long since been neglected. As a child, I’d been so completely immersed in all the various forms that “play” took - LEGO, then football, then golf, darts, snooker; whatever was nearest and easiest would be up next - that I never sampled the crippling self-analysis that would govern my terrified approach to that same, simple chip today.
I’d managed to discard, somewhere along the line, the ability to become engrossed in an activity, and now took part in golf and most other things with a sharp sense of detachment, perhaps even alienation. This game, which had once been a daily source of magic for me, was now a hassle, a self-indulgent pastime that I felt less and less inclined to expend energy on with every passing year. I’d fallen way out of love with golf, so the joy in these same blue eyes in the photo spooked me, and I knew something needed to change, logical or not.
I had to find a way back to that place, that feeling, that way of being. I didn’t know whether I still wanted to work in the game either, such was the distance between me and the boy in the photo, but it wasn’t just about golf, it was about trying to remember who I really was throughout the bliss of that childhood, and perhaps recall who I’d always meant to be beyond those halcyon days.
At the same time, there was a sense in which I recognised another itch that needed scratching - a long-harboured, secret desire to write - and that at this rate, I’d need to be careful to not carry that terrifying notion for another thirty years and into my grave with me. For in among the boxes of clutter in this dusty house by the sea were a few pages of handwritten notes which suggested this strange urge to put ink on paper went beyond just my own dreams; it formed part of my psychic inheritance.
In a worn leather satchel lay my paternal grandfather’s notes for, presumably, a fictional story, and I recognised his immaculate hand-writing from the poems he’d written for me each birthday, which suddenly made sense. I felt an overwhelming sadness that this proud and gentle man, who’d one day slipped quietly away from life in the front bedroom of our Cardiff house, was carried out to his grave with that story - that dream of his - no more than an unspent yearning, the only fading trace of it here, on yellowing foolscap.
Elsewhere, in between half-finished lists of Christmas gift ideas and ancient magazine recipes, I found some similar drafts in my mother’s hand, and tried to imagine her finding a rare few moments in the bustle of parenthood to actually pick up a pen and write. Suddenly, the old Olivetti typewriter - a turquoise Lettera 32 - made sense as a household object, though I never knew what it actually sounded like when those spindly arms caught the taught ribbon across the back. It wasn’t used; Mum’s stories will travel only with her, too.
So between a growing dissatisfaction at working in golf, this sense of having lost my passion not only for the game but for much of the rest of life, and this bewildering but persistent dream of one day “being a writer”, the tide had turned, and I knew I needed to change direction, for a while at least.
I handed in my resignation, and in the weeks and months that followed, there were frequent moments in which I would question my own sanity over this apparently sudden lurch from a position of security into the unknown, the abyss. Had I hit a midlife crisis, or was this just a course correction exercise? The pivotal moment when I followed my dreams, or the action of a deluded fool? But deep down I knew that this hadn’t been sudden at all, that it had been creeping up, and that the final few straws that implored me to look afresh at life were simply tipping points of an inevitable reckoning.
I resolved to write, daily, and to try and test some of that out in public, to see if people liked it. To see if it might become at least a small part of my life moving forward, rather than just the same suppressed longing of my ancestors. But alongside this I also committed to see if I could drag this wonderful, terrible, impossible game of golf back into the centre of my life. The boy in the photo lived and breathed sport, and golf in particular, and the greying man who now studied this image of his own ghost, a relic of a bygone age, had forgotten what it meant to be fully present in the world.
I would play more golf in this newly created spare time, and look for the joy I used to find in visiting new courses. I would seek to understand what this game means to the people who play it; where it fits in with the altogether more logical areas of their lives. And I would find out if golf might remain part of the second half - the back nine - of my life, or whether we’d reached the end of our journey together.
So, here it is, “Grass Routes”. A chance to take a breather, and work out what’s going on beneath the surface. A personal journey back towards that little boy in the sun - towards my grassroots, perhaps - and a tribute to the long-lost, secret writing urges of Mum and Grampy. A way to show my own children that perhaps they needn’t live in fear of self-expression, and a chance to tell them more about my inner life than I’d managed to glean from the deserted rooms of my parents.
So there it was. I had my very own Quixotic windmill to tilt at…and all of this came from an old square photograph.