THE BOOK OF IAN

My father died on 30 January, 2016, two months short of his 90th birthday. In loving memory of him, I'm putting online a piece I wrote over twenty years ago, when Dad was a mere stripling of a 67-year-old. The chapter is from a book called
Chinese Illustrations of the Path to Immortality, a work which David Bowie once told me he wanted to publish. Well, that won't be happening now. The inspirations of our adolescence can't help but leave us to it in the end.

Dad's chapter begins with this image of the McLaren family house, which is about to go up for sale in March 2016. Nothing stays the same. All we can do is preserve a few moments in our memory...

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Dad and I have erected a scaffold so that we can work on the roof of the Beeches. But is it safe? Dad grabs one of the verticals and gives it an assessing shake, calls on his ten years’ experience as a full-time slater (1950 – 1960) and tells me that he’s not sure. So we lash on a couple of extra poles at a reassuringly supportive angle and agree that it’s safe. 28 June, 1994.

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I climb up the ladder which shakes a bit, step onto the planks, which sag slightly, and I notice that I am a fair distance from the ground. Not as far from it as when I stand at the skylight window of my rented room in South London, but in a completely different situation. I could fall.

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Looking up seems like a good idea. Row upon row of overlapping sheets of grey stone, fine-grained and fissile; row upon row of metamorphosed rock as opposed to the artificial fabric on top of the house in Forest Hill. This is a traditional slate roof. Dad didn’t slate this one but he’s slated many others in the town and throughout the district. I’ve suggested before that he could map the roofs he’s worked on. But that kind of pattern-making is more my thing that his.

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My eye passes from a row of slates to the garden’s stone wall and along its recently clipped hedge. Then a car emerges from the same row of slates and pauses at the end of the side road with its indicator flashing right. Perth Road is clear both ways but the car remains there blinking orange. Perhaps the driver has stalled the engine as I used to do last year when learning to drive on these very streets. Perhaps the driver needed to sort something out in his mind before proceeding further on his journey. Perhaps…

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“Duncan!” shouts a voice, startling me. I look down towards Mum standing like a rosebush in the middle of the lawn. “You’re supposed to be helping your father,” she tells me. This is true, so I dismount from the scaffold via the ladder, hand Mum the camera, climb up the ladder again and ask her to take a couple of shots of me helping Dad.

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I help Ian. He has been stripping slates from a patch of roof and he wants me to take slates from the plank and place them on the wall-head scaffold – out of the way. I do as requested and look to see how Mum’s getting on. With any luck she has taken a photo which shows me suspended in mid-air between my bedroom (on the right) and the library (on the left) where I have been sorting through old manuscripts, with special emphasis on
Archie van Gogh.

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I retrieve the camera from Mum who has work to do inside. Also at work within the house are joiners (Mum’s brother’s son’s employees) whose protruding nail indicates the centre of the area to be cleared of slates. Earlier Mum asked me to ensure the door of my room was kept closed. It’s shut, and so are various other doors, because neither Mum nor I want joiners walking through the rooms of the Archie van Gogh Museum.

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Ian has stripped off as many slates as he needs to. Trying not to be too awkward about it, I join him on the roof plank. I observe aloud that a slater’s bonnet is ideal for keeping the sun out of his eyes. Dad gently disabuses me of the notion that this is the headgear’s main function.

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He is telling me about the next stage of the operation but I’m not taking it in. An image has been planted in my mind that I need to follow through. Ian slating in the grey gloom of a winter’s day up the glen. Ian slating on into a drizzle that gradually becomes a downpour. Ian finally taking off his bonnet, squeezing the water from it into the guttering, and announcing to the early dusk and the unrelenting rain that – by Christ – he’d just about had enough for one day.

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Rain and sun. I admire Dad’s bonnet all the more now that I realise that it treats those two imposters both the same. Suddenly there is the most tremendous noise – an engine has started up at close quarters, shaking the very roof. I suspect that this is the next stage of the job judging by the equanimity in which Dad remains sitting there. Confirming that my services are no longer required, I go to ground.

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From across the street I can still hear the chainsaw or whatever it is that’s cutting the hole in the roof. Chainsaw comes to mind because there was one here not so long ago to cut down the main limbs of the copper beech. Now the only really tall tree in the garden is the poplar round the back, which Mum I know would like to get rid of.

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I find Mum in the garden worrying about the tall tree falling down on the house. “That old thing could come down any time,” she tells me. And she’s not talking about Dad. To distract her I remark that I’m surprised to see her there. Shouldn’t she be inside supervising the operation? Because, the fact is, the workmen have forced their way into my room and cut a hole in the ceiling directly above my pillow! But that’s no problem, I assure her. If it rains tonight I’ll simply go to bed wearing Dad’s bonnet. I ask if she thinks the van Gogh in my room will have been damaged yet. She tells me I had better check it out. So off I go.

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First I check on the van Gogh that Mum and Dad sleep under. I trust it gives them pleasant dreams. How could one dream of holes in ceilings with a field- scape like this hanging on the wall above you? On the other hand is that the ghost of a Lancaster bomber floating above the field? I hope neither of my parents read negative imagery into their picture. Next I go along to my own bedroom and take Artist on the Road to Tarascon off the wall. It’s become Mum’s favourite of the dozen or so van Gogh paintings that hang on the walls of her house. The original was destroyed in the Second World War. I spin it out onto the lawn in front of her. “See, it’s fine,” I say.

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It’s a self-portrait of Vincent going to work with easel and canvas. Mum has always thought of it as portraying my father going to work when she first knew him, complete with manual labouring accoutrements. I hold it out for her perusal. She seems satisfied with its ongoing magnificence.
“He’s wearing a straw hat,” she points out.
“Caps are better for keeping rain off. Wide-rimmers are better against the sun.”

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I return to the possibility of it raining tonight. I give notice that I’ll have to get out of bed in the wee small hours, walk to the bathroom with a heavy head, and wring out the bonnet into the sink. I demonstrate a proficient wringing action. Mum is amused by all this but not unreservedly so. Perhaps she thinks I am mocking certain values. But I’m not, am I? I don’t think so.

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A joiner climbs up the ladder with the new skylight window on his right shoulder. When he gets to the wall-head he realises he has miscalculated and that he can’t get onto the planks without help. Dad sensibly declines to handle the heavy object so the workman retraces his steps and the window is manipulated into place from inside the house. I am pleased that Ian has given top priority to his back for once in his life.

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Hardly top priority. By choosing to do this slating himself he has taken on back-bending and stretching work. At the moment he is sitting awkwardly on the roof leaning forward and using steel edges to dress a slate.

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The position of his hands and the blades reminds me of the oil painting that Ian made in the Sixties of a slater on a roof. That picture hangs on the ground floor of the Archie van Gogh Museum. Ian was never satisfied with the painting because he felt the figure to be stiff and unnatural. But why don’t I take a fresh look at it?

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My father has taken care over certain details (the cigarette, the foot-rule in trouser pocket, the slate knife) but has been careless with others – there are discrepancies between the sizes of slates, and the bricks in the chimney are two-dimensional. I note that the sky is grey and assume the cap is sodden. Elsewhere in the room hangs a pair of pictures. The top picture shows a ploughman at the end of a hard day’s work, painted by Millet. The bottom image is a copy made by van Gogh in 1889 while he was living in the St Remy mental asylum. There is more humility in van Gogh’s version...

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..More respect for the the workman’s fatigue, poverty, tools, appetite, braces, hat and the earth itself. Both the Millet and van Gogh’s copy were photographed from a book of mine, by Mum, and presented to Dad as a retirement gift. That was when Ian was 63, in 1990. Now he is 67 and back on a roof slating. There is no stopping a certain kind of workman.

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I remount the ladder and revel in details. The shadow of the slater on his tools. The maker’s name branded into the steel of the slater’s knife. Fragments of broken slate on the plank. A knot in the grain of the wood. Rust on the bracket holding the plank into place. Surely these are the reasons that Ian’s up here today rather than the difficulty of getting a local slater to turn up. And of course the sun - in lieu of rain - on Ian’s face.

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Dad must be getting hot because he’s thrown off his cap. Also his back must be playing him up because each time he dresses a slate he does so from a different position. He pulls the point of the slate knife out of the plank and impales it where he now wants it – ‘clunk’. Neatly he trims a slate to the size he wants it to be.

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He pushes the slate into position at the foot of the skylight, holds it there with a nail which he taps twice with the slate hammer, and removes his hand to a safe distance. Bang, bang, bang, then onto the next slate.

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How old was my grandfather when Ian first worked for him? When Dad was twenty, William would have been fifty. And my grandfather was still running a slating business in 1978 when my brother John took a summer job from him. Indeed I’m pretty sure that Grandad carried on the business into his eighties. I’ve been into all this before of course.

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I enter the house, enter the library, enter the cupboard recess and open the bottom drawer of the metal cabinet. I extract a manuscript of mine which pre-dates
Archie van Gogh and carry it out to the upstairs landing. The carpet is clean – Mum has hovered up the wood dust already – but I remain standing in the bright light. I find what I’m looking for without difficulty. I read:

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‘A man works high on a roof. Inside the building live his parents, wife and children. Night falls. The man feels he has done enough for one day. He gets down from the roof and goes inside. Next day and he is on top of the roof again, at peace with himself and at work. Day follows on from day. He gets older and his mother and father are taken out of the building and laid to rest in the graveyard. His sons and daughters try to make amends for this by playing in the fields. Day gives way to day, and one fine morning he struggles up the ladder followed by his newly married son. The two of them work together until…’

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‘ …the day he falls off. Falls have come and gone but this is to be the last one. He is taken inside to lie beside his good wife, her work done too, to be looked after by their daughter now grown.’

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‘The son, the new man, works on the roof. Inside dwell his dear parents, his wife and family. Sunset marks the end of the working day. He dismounts and goes inside for the company. Sunrise sees him on top of the roof once more, strong as a lion, proud of his position, and at work. The sun comes and goes. He gets older, and one sad day his mother and father are taken out and buried in the cemetery beside their ancestors. His sons and daughters play under a blue sky and he is happier again. The sun rises and falls, and the morning comes when he mounts wearily the ladder followed by his son grown tall. Man to man they carry on until…’

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‘….the day comes when he just can’t anymore. The rest of the family look after him for some reason. His gaze dwells on their smiling faces.’

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‘The third generation, the new man, works on the roof because nothing is too much trouble for the folk who live underneath. Winter comes. He has done enough for one year and goes inside to enjoy the welcome and the warmth. Spring is soon upon him and he climbs to the roof top, sure of his standing, master of his trade, inheritor of a tradition, and at work. Time passes. His mother and father die as a result, and he mourns their going. His offspring frolic through their youth, which comes as a consolation and is as it should be. Time passes, and one morning, as if by chance, his son and he mount the roof together. Side by side, they carry on until …’

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‘…out of the blue his son must work alone. Lying on his bed beside the love of his life, her good job well done, they are looked after by the son he recognises as being of themselves.’

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Better return to the here and now. Today Ireland are due to play Norway in the finals of the World Cup. The match is being televised and Mum has called out that kick-off is imminent. I hear Ian dismounting from the roof and visualise him descending the ladder and going into the living room. But there are two living rooms at the front of the house and it’s the other one that I enter when I descend the stairs.

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The game is on – I can hear the commentary from the other room. Dad will be sitting in sight of the screen but he may well be asleep for the first half given his strenuous efforts. Mum will be sitting there too, partly because my brother is attending the game in Boston. For the moment she has forgotten about the van Goghs that embellish the bigger lounge. The van Gogh on the far left is a full-size, exact copy of the loose copy that Van Gogh made of a painting by Daumier called
The Drinkers. I recall discussing this picture with my brother once whereby each of the drinkers was identified with a family member. John on the left, me on the right, Dad the distinguished elderly figure in the middle and Mum the barely noticeable child who is drinking milk. I’m not sure this was fair on the member of our family who does the bulk of the shopping, cooking, cleaning and dusting. In fact, to consider the painting afresh, I carry it upstairs to what has just become the prime spot in the Archie van Gogh Museum...

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Ah, yes, three generations of worker, plus what may well be a fourth generation in the making. What more can I say? Glorious! But the top slot in the AVG Museum must go to my favourite painting in the collection. I’ve always loved Wheat Field with Sheaves from the moment I saw it in Ronald Pickvance’s book, Van Gogh in Arles. Certainly I loved it throughout the copying process. Anyway, let me slot it into place...

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Those strong horizontals are redolent of stability and calm, as is the turquoise sky, but there is joy unconfined in the middle of the picture. Well, actually, the joy has been harvested for the delight of the viewer. The original picture is in a public gallery in Honolulu, capital of Hawaii, which seems appropriate given the happy-go-lucky ‘grass skirt’ motif. The copy seems perfectly situated here, under the skylight, at the core of the house that my parents live in. After all, wasn’t it here where, as a ten-year-old, I first came across reproductions of van Gogh paintings in educational journals such as
World of Wonder?

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Better get back to the present again, back to reality. Mum, the caretaker of the Archie van Gogh Museum, is exhorting the Irish to more effort in attack, mid-day sun or no mid-day sun. Dad, who lets light into the Museum and has done for as long as I can remember, is asking if I want coffee. “Yes please, Dad,” I shout while continuing to stare at
Wheat Field with Sheaves. “What’s the score?”

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The Old Foreigner from India came from the West at the time of the Martial Emperor of the Jin (3rd century A.D.) Men marvelled that he had come over 9000li (3000 miles). He gave birth to two tigers, stroked their heads and they lay down, quite still. One day he vanished with the Taoists in the ether.