I have made some progress on the resolution I described in my last post. My CD shelves are up, and looking good, if I say so myself. Most of the rubbish, particularly the accumulated paperwork of seven years of a paper-intensive job, has been jettisoned: shredded, burnt or dumped, depending upon its content’s sensitivity. The floor is visible, and the desks are useable. Compare the photo below to the ‘before’ image from my December post.
Okay, it’s far from perfect. The shelves above the printer are a task I just haven’t been able to face yet, but I can at least get to them now.
The whole process has been complicated by the fact that I can’t seem to avoid accumulating stuff. Over the past six months or so, we’ve been helping my mother clear my father’s office. He was a collector of bits that might come in useful, and his desk had such treasures as his school maths set and a tin full of rubber erasers. I will never use them, but I couldn’t see them thrown out. He cared for them; they held memories for him, and they are, thus, precious.
The value of some of the documents is clearer. He had his father’s certificate (indenture? decree?) of ordination, issued by the gloriously named Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1928 – 1942. He was the pontiff who pushed Edward VIII to abdicate. Encyclopedia Britannica calls him an “…influential and versatile Anglican Priest…”, which is suggestive of all sorts of dramatic and comedic possibilities, somehow; like the orange-covered Penguin novels I can’t resist collecting, by C.P. Snow, Anthony Powell and Angus Wilson, all fired up by change but mourning what is altered.
There’s also my father’s service book from his army years. I know that, in some ways, the army was the happiest experience of his life. He was a clerk in the Catering Corps for the final four years of his nine years of service, since the regiment he enlisted into, The Somerset Light Infantry, was disbanded in a reduction of the Army after Indian Independence. He was in Malaya, where he served alongside a Ghurka regiment, a fact he was proud of: he loved using the Ghurkali for “wait small time”, which I can only half remember (Nan sicket yam? Something like that) in irrelevant conversation all through my childhood.
He was also in Germany, Suez, and Cyprus, and his time in the military appears to have covered most of the mucky little brutalities that a wounded and diminished imperial power indulged in to stave off having to acknowledge the collapse of its potency.
And yet, he had fun. My mother’s lack of sentiment means that the photos of his army experience are lost; a terrible absence, for which, if I didn’t love her so much, I would be angry with her. I remember the pictures of smiling young men in ridiculous, baggy woollen uniforms, sun-drenched and exotic, that I used to pore over as a child, but they are gone now.
What does remain is the statement by an officer, summing him up. It’s an odd little text – a breathtakingly arrogant exercise if you think about it – but it gets me closer to my father than almost anything else I have salvaged. It’s entitled, Final Assessments of Conduct and Character (To be completed personally by the Commanding Officer). Unfortunately, the commanding officer’s signature is unclear, but he said this of my father:
Pte. Mason has been employed primarily as a clerk during his 9 yrs service. He is intelligent and possesses a very pleasant manner. He can be relied upon to think for himself. He is honest and trustworthy and a very likeable young man.
Noblesse oblige from a fairly petty functionary: a pat on the head for conforming to the demands of the hierarchy. Still, there is, in its concision, a recognisable portrait of my father, and I can imagine how much it would have meant to him, as he set out to establish himself in civilian life, and marry my mother; the reason he had left the army.
Other rescued items are more obviously precious. There are two watches, for instance. The one in the case is a Daniel Desbois, and has an inscription to R.G. Webber, Nov 1903. I assume this was the father of C.G. Webber who was my great Uncle Chris, my mother’s uncle. He was Dutch, and had a career in Royal Dutch Shell. My father told me that, if you traced his postings between and after the wars, you could create a timeline of revolutions, civil disturbances and assassinations. I am intrigued by him, and have always intended to look further into him. I did, apparently, meet him, as a baby, although I can’t remember this. My father would do an impression of him announcing me as “Ze crowned prince!”, or exclaiming, “Dammit, as a madder of fact!”
The other watch is even more evocative. It’s a less esteemed brand: A.W.W. co, of Waltham Massachusetts, but it works, which sets it apart from the Desbois. Also, the inscription is fuller and even more intriguing:
Tot Aandenken van zeine vrienden en bekenden ter Hossenplats Serang (Banten) 8th October 1914
An online translation algorithm makes of that:
To momento of your friends and colleagues in Hossenplats Serang, (Banten).
‘Hossenplats’ can, apparently, be translated as ‘head place’, or capital. Serang is an Indonesian city in the Banten Province and Indonesia was, formerly, The Dutch East Indies. I’m guessing that, in late 1914, for an enterprising young man making his way in the Shell Oil Company, opportunities for advancement were flourishing. The Netherlands was neutral in the war, and “…Due to its geographical significance and its international connections, the Netherlands became a hotbed of espionage…Dutch citizens were in demand as spies, as they could travel freely throughout Europe.” (Wikipedia: The Netherlands in World War 1)
There is a novel in this. If only I were a person of leisure.
We have a fairly famous horologist based in East Cowes, and I took the watches to him a couple of weeks ago. His workshop is like Dumbledore’s office. Devices whirr and pressure baths bubble and there are chimes and ticks and the heavy tock of a large, pendulum-driven wall clock.
Simon, the horologist, is a pleasant-mannered man in his early forties who enjoys receiving visitors. He works with his mentor, and they have a student who does a couple of days a week with them. They take on work from jewellers from all over the country, including Rolex dealers. The equipment needed to properly service a Rolex is expensive and the skills needed are a lifetime’s study. The atmosphere is collegiate.
Simon was mildly interested in the Desbois. The Daniel Desbois Company has existed for 290 years. The watch case is 18 carat and the workings are complete and uncorroded. He offered to do a service for a fixed fee of £250. I blanched, but I have put it on my ‘one day’ list of priorities.
The clutter of my father’s office yielded one other class of treasure. I knew he liked pens. He often spoke about the pleasure of writing with a good pen. He preferred round nibs to flat ones and he could make a cheque look like a work of art. He had neat handwriting and, despite his profession, it was not clerkly, but unornamented, small, and plain. I wish I had been a better correspondent, so that I had more examples of his hand.
He once told me that he had had a battle to write legibly when he was at school, because he was forced to write with his right hand. Schooling in those days had tried to enforce an ornamented penmanship, but he had settled upon the simplest handwriting possible, and it had served him well. Incidentally, by being forced to become ambidextrous, he earned a higher pay grade in the army, as he was able to fire a rifle, with reasonable accuracy, from either shoulder.
My sister is not interested in the pens, so I have taken them all. Only one seems to be in full working order, but I have tried them all and the results are below.
When I was last in Bury St Edmunds, I called into a wonderful shop in Risbygate St., called The Writing Desk. The proprietors, Anna and Martin, have hit on a lovely little business, selling pens, but also catering to enthusiasts of vintage pens, and supplying posh inks to calligraphy fetishists. It’s a beautifully fitted out shop, with a smart desk in the middle of the floor, where there are samples of exotic pens to try.
I bought a cheap but rather lovely German pen; a Lamy. It’s designed for school children, apparently, but is a comfortable shape and a nice weight. Unfortunately, I wasn’t clear about the nib I wanted, and wound up with an italic, which I didn’t like at all. However, the Lamy has a rather clever replaceable nib system: the writing surface slips tightly on to a block shape and can be removed with the use of a piece of sellotape and a bit of gentle force. I ordered a fine nib by post and the pen is now my favourite.
There is still a lot to do. I have bought a Raspberry Pi and a DAC HAT – an audio transcoder – and put together a music streamer, so I can access my music server without turning on my desktop computer. The plan is that I will be able to sit in my lazy chair under the window, reading, and control my music via my mobile phone.
I’ve hit some inevitable frustrations. I was almost confounded by the simple task of fitting together the Pi and its case, but have managed that now. I’ve done a little powerpoint showing how to do it, in case anyone else is as stupid as me. I’ve installed the music streaming software, which connects to the server without issue. However, I wanted to run it through the my father’s Bose, as the auxiliary stand on the Bose has a two red/white audio inputs. However, I cannot get the Bose to accept audio input: the auxiliary CD drives work, but not the external inputs.
I will struggle on. When I have worked it all out, I plan to put up another shelf over the desk, for the Bose and the Pi. Than, as I mentioned at the top of this post, I need to take a look at the shelves above the printer. My heart sinks.
Sorting out my room has become a task of curation: of my music, of my father’s treasures, and of the different functions to which I wish to apply this space. It has been a chore hanging over me, a frustrating struggle and a route into other times and places.
I will never be a tidy person, but I am forcing myself to learn practices of organisation, so that I can make my working space, at least, a space in which I can think and create, without feeling scattered by the disorder around me. One day, one day perhaps, I will begin to write, and just not stop, until something of completeness and of value has formed from the painful effort to find meaning in a chaotic life.