I’m in Kew Gardens where there seems to be a temporary sculpture exhibition amongst the barberry shrubs, under full-leaved summer trees. I pick up a leaflet: Emily Young, sculptress, descended from the singing pirate, Admiral Sir George Young, and the widow of Captain Scott of the Antarctic, has made this Spangle Stone Fool Boy who looks at me with an idiot’s lack of reserve. I can make a relationship with this head. I know him, and he is easy with me.
My older son was difficult to read at breakfast, with a give-nothing shrug and so-so eyebrow. He’s no idiot. He learned refusal – it toughened him – during the Rejection, twenty five years ago. His mother left him, and rejection came down to her through her mother, who talked to blot out listening, and her father, a non-singing pirate who ransacked Borneo’s rainforest. And it came to them from who knows how much further back, way back…
sculpture park –
fossilised snail shells
polished to a warrior’s head
I’m a product of the long English tradition of stony childhood.
tourists pass –
gold flecked onyx streams
from the angel’s wound
I once read a Venetian traveller’s account of England he wrote in 1500. “The want of affection in the English is strongly manifested towards their children; for having kept them at home till they arrive at the age of seven or nine years at the utmost, they put them out, both males and females, to hard service in the houses of other people…” The astonished Venetian relates that the children, “never return, for the girls are settled by their patrons, and the boys make the best marriages they can, and, assisted by their patrons, not by their fathers, they strive diligently to make some fortune for themselves.” As my favourite cockney mystic put it, three centuries later:
The Angel that presided o’er my birth
Said, “Little creature, form’d of Joy and Mirth,
Go love without the help of any Thing on Earth.”
I took on history and reversed the culture. I loved my babies, changed nappies, sang them to sleep, and hugged them.
But you don’t buck the dread English family that easily. To love your children won’t be enough. No no no no. You also need to create a sweet understanding with the mother. Out of nothing, make joy, like a vaudeville conjurer pulling a spreading rosebush from his dusty sleeve. So the boys got rejected anyway. She abandoned her infants.
four thousand million years
of yellow quartzite deposits
roughly shape a woman
My younger son and I now understand one another, nevertheless, more or less. We swap guarded exchanges over the crossword, and coded commentary on football and cricket.
peering from thick foliage
a Pleistocene rock
with a gleaming eye
The shrewd Italian writes that, “Although their dispositions are somewhat licentious, I never have noticed anyone, either at court or amongst the lower orders, to be in love; whence one must necessarily conclude either that the English are the most discreet lovers in the world or that they are incapable of love.”
the black surface
of the marble girl
I don’t regret that I was never indiscreet. If you’re English, you should know, without all that. I feel admiration for ex-lovers and I delight in other women friends too, I do, really, and I will, unless, and until
marble man, still shrub –
in the heart of one of them
a squeaking wren
Note: Passages in quotation are from A Relation of the Island of England c.1500, published in The Portable Renaissance Reader ed. Ross and McLaughlin, Penguin.