Nov 7 2015
I spent a few days in hospital at the start of this month, undergoing some vascular surgery, and one evening while I was there, relaxing after visiting hours in a quiet, darkened ward with earphones in my ears as I listened to an audiobook, I realized that I was reliving one of my most pleasant childhood memories. A lot of water has flowed downstream since I was a boy, and all our lives have changed beyond belief, thanks to modern technology, but there I was, mere days ago, wearing earphones and remembering sensations from a time sixty years and six thousand miles away.
My wife had come to visit me that day wearing a poppy for the first time this year in honour of the fast-approaching Veterans’ Day, and that awareness nudged me into what I think of as my November frame of mind.
November, with its lengthening grey evenings, its encroaching, chilly nights and ever-increasing gloom has always been an introspective time for me because my father detested it. He was blinded on D-Day in 1944, and for him, November then became the harbinger of winter, dreaded because winter brought the snow. He used to say that when the snow came down it really blinded him, and I remember understanding what he meant by it.
Most of the time, with only the odd exception, the snow that falls in Scotland bears little resemblance to the Great Canadian Snows that blanket most of this country for months on end. Snow seldom remains on the ground for more than a day or two over there before turning to slush, but I remember how it altered my father’s life completely while it was in place, deadening the day-to-day sounds he depended upon for information.
My father lived through sound. He could recognize all of us, family, friends and neighbours, by our footsteps, and he measured his own progress by his walk and the feel of his blackthorn stick against the wall on his right, able to tell precisely where he was at any time, within blocks of our home, by the sound and textures of the surface under his feet. He counted paces and could judge distances to a nicety, all through simple concentration and listening to what was happening around him, even to the extent of gauging the speed and distance of an approaching vehicle on a quiet neighbourhood street.
When it snowed, though, he was lost. In his own words, he was totally blinded by snow, every one of his remaining, normally hyperactive senses muffled and impaired to the point of uselessness. He seldom left home at all in snowy weather, and that reluctance to go outside, be it in snow or heavy, sound-reducing rain, was responsible for most of the nights that I remember with the greatest pleasure, out of all my boyhood years. Dark, wintry nights, snow-hushed or filled with drumming, rainy noise, were made for my delight.
It took me many, many years to become aware just how greatly my own life has been shaped and influenced by my father’s blindness, but had he not been wounded as he was, I would not be the writer I am today.
As a war-blinded serviceman in Britain, through the St. Dunstan Institute for the War Blinded, my father had access to the Talking Book Library for the Blind, and he used it extensively. My mother kept a thick, regularly updated catalogue of available, recorded books, from which they would order and submit selections, and the books would be delivered by mail as they became available. When you consider that in those post-WWII years, all the greatest readers in Britain and the Commonwealth voluntarily dedicated their time and professional abilities to recording books—all kinds of books, not just the so-called Classics—for the enjoyment of war-blinded vets, that made a treasure house of the Talking Book catalogue, with names like John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Anthony Quayle, Sybil Thorndike and countless others there for your personal pleasure.
The books were recorded on huge, 16-inch Bakelite disks that revolved at 16.5 rpm, and shipped weekly in two-inch-deep boxes that held six records. One book might require as many as six boxes, and they were bound into bundles with strong, webbed straps. I distinctly remember the weekly thrill of peering eagerly at the attached labels to see what Fate had sent me this time.
And then, on long, dark winter evenings in my father’s “surgery” (he was a physiotherapist with a private practice,) we would sit in the flickering, fire-lit darkness and listen raptly to those fabulous voices reading wonderfully crafted stories for our personal pleasure, transporting us just as they would me again, here in British Columbia, Canada, on a dark night in November, 2015. Small wonder I became a storyteller.