Saturday, 1 August 2015


My paternal uncle Norman used to be a French teacher (hence the Gallic slant to this week's theme) and is a confirmed Francophile.

I've mentioned him before in these pages. He's the one suffering from rapidly advancing Alzheimer's dementia. He's 86 years old, a fact of which he was very proud until he could no longer remember his age. He never married and never had children (though the latter is not always necessarily a consequence of the former). He used to say his pupils were his children.

He wasn't a schoolmaster for all of his working life, however. He quit the profession in 1970, indignant at being expected to teach the subject he loved to 'mixed ability' classes. Instead, he opened an art gallery in the Midlands and spent the next twenty-one years exhibiting and selling beautiful objets d'art: paintings, lithographs, ceramics, sculpture, jewellery by modern British artists.

He has been retired for over two decades now and was living on his own in Leamington Spa. My brothers and I, as his next of kin (and with lasting power of attorney), have spent the last couple of years taking measures to extend his fiercely cherished independence for as long as possible, supplementing our contact with him by daily visits from a raft of ageUK helpers, daily hot meal deliveries and frequent (several times  a day and very repetitious) phone-calls.

Came the time, though, when even these measures weren't enough to keep him safe and reasonably well in his own home. He would forget to eat properly (vital for a diabetic), would forget to take his extensive array of medication, would go into town and forget how to get home. He was becoming frightened by his inability to manage and we agreed it was best to relocate him from leafy Leamington to be near one of his nephews. He is now happily settled in a residential care home close to me, where he is well looked after and can enjoy the beautiful grounds. He has almost forgotten where he used to live a mere four months ago, such are the ravages of the disease.

We are in the process of putting his home on the market and have been sorting through the accumulation of years, trying to decide what to bring up to Blackpool because it will be of use and support to him in his twilight and what to divest. By the way, Norman is convinced his twilight is going to be a short one, but I think he's physically fit and could be good for a few years yet, especially with our invigorating sea air.

His apartment is full of objects, paintings, old records (I came upon his copy of a record he'd bought us as kids for Christmas in 1960 - 'Je ne crois plus au Pere Noel' by Nina and Frederik! Thanks for the wising-up there, Norman), piles of receipts and manuals for devices he no longer has, boxes of photographs dating back to the 1920s, box files of share certificates for companies that he no longer has shares in and the companies don't even exist anymore, letters and Christmas cards brittle and yellow with age and...a packet of old passports, the earliest of which was issued by the Foreign Office in May 1948.

I showed the passports to him today in an attempt to unlock recollections from a past of which he can recall so very little now. He contracted his brow in a brave attempt to squeeze some compliance out of his renegade brain-cells, but the dates and the locations on the quaint old stamps and visas signify nothing to him anymore. His past truly is another country and his old passports proved no means of re-entry.

Old Passports
In a tatty Manila envelope
marked Old Passports,
a set of five of same,
substantial blue-card-covered beauties
each with the top-right corner clipped
denoting cancellation.

The earliest,
issue of those immediate post-war years,
promised passage
throughout the British Empire
and all the countries of Europe,
plus Algeria.

You went to France.

The entry and exit stamps and a visa
tell the tale...
five short visits between '48 and '54
plus a long stay (douze mois)
as an assistant at a school in Bourges.
Today, you remember nothing,
certainly not the homesickness
and early return
that became part of family folklore,
though never spoken of in your presence
of course.

The second to be issued
recognised a change
from Empire to Commonwealth
and added superpowers
USA and USSR to the scope.

You went to France.

You visited in '57 and '59 and '62
as a leader of school trips.
(Now that would have been a time
to take in Algeria newly freed,
but Nice is the closest you came.)
Today, you remember nothing
of those forays,
opening your pupils to the wonders
of a different world,
but you can still speak impeccable French.

The third was valid
for all parts of the Commonwealth
and for all Foreign Countries.

You went to France (and Switzerland).

Variously in '64 and '66 and '67,
you led school trips from Hertfordshire,
often for the skiing as I recall.
Today, you remember nothing
of those jaunts at all,
though ex-pupils still write
and tell you what a joy they were.
life-changing for some.

The fourth and fifth
have fewer stamps
as borders eased.
You may have gone to France,
they just don't tell;
and all those visits
to your holiday villa in Spain
are as blank in your passports
as they are in your brain.
Today, you remember nothing at all
of your Almerian escapades.
Perhaps that's just as well.

Today, your ability to pass freely
without let or hindrance
through the empire of your memories
is revoked;
you with your top-right corner clipped
denoting cancellation,
you remember

Thanks for reading. Have a good week, Steve ;-)


Sleeper said...

What a delightful and compassionate tale. thank you for sharing it.
Regards, Albert

Adele said...

Very moving tribute for someone who has led such a full life and now has no recollection.

We all need someone like you.

Where did I leave my glasses then?