Rachel & John
Northumberland Park, North Shields
Could you start by telling me about the original photograph?
My name's Rachel, the original photograph was taken, it must be about eleven, maybe eleven and a half years ago now. It was just after our first child, our son, had been born. I think it's probably the first outing that we made, with him being the first, it was a bit difficult, it took us a while to get used to all the things we had to do, we didn't get out very much for the first few days. I think he was probably about a week old and we decided to venture out with the pram, I remember feeling very self conscious pushing this pram, that it somehow didn't feel right. We just went to the local park and had a little wander around and came back home again and that was probably it for the day really!
So that's quite a significant day for you both as a couple then really?
Absolutely, yeah. I remember a lot from that time, I remember feeling, well, we kept saying how it was such a steep learning curve! Everything we were doing was new, everything was difficult but also really wonderful and exciting as well.
Was that something that you and John had always wanted, to have kids?
Yeah, we'd been living down on the south coast, John had been working in London and I worked in Brighton, then I got a job, which was a permanent job up in Newcastle, and so we moved up for that really. Me getting the permanent job made it possible for us to buy a house, start to settle down, all that kind of thing. We wanted a family, and having a family was very much part of that.
Could you tell me about the picture?
In the picture, the two of us are together, we've got our shiny new pram with us, I think John's holding the pram, pushing it and I'm standing next to him. We're just inside the entrance to the park.
"Sometimes when we were out with the children I'd get a little bit irritated that I'd be doing stuff with the children and he'd be off somewhere taking pictures and that's one of the things I look back on now and I'm so glad that he did that. While I don't have lots of pictures of him, what I do have is lots of pictures of his view of the world if you like. In some ways, that's actually quite important, almost as comforting to look at the pictures that he took, as it might be to look at pictures of him."
Do you know who took the photograph?
I think it was probably my mum. I think the fact that it was the first outing, the whole family went, my mum was taking pictures of us and felt that it was important. Maybe there was part of me that felt not ready for photos, but it's really important to capture those moments and it's nice to look back on now.
That's quite a mum thing to do really. My nan especially was very proactive with the camera, every moment needed to be captured! And so that park, is it a particularly special place for you?
I have mixed feelings about the park. It is special and it's somewhere that right from when we first moved here, we would go to visit. Then about 4 or 5 years ago they decided that they needed to 'do up' the park, it was getting a bit tired and so they closed it for a while and did a lot of work on it. There was a whole history to it, John and I were both historians and when we moved here got very interested in the local history and John got interested in the history behind the park. It was actually a works project, so people were employed, people who'd been ship building or in the mines, were employed to landscape the park. But it had got quite tired, so they had this project to re-do it and it was while this was happening that John became ill. The park was supposed to open again in September 2014, and then as often happens with these things, it was delayed and I think in the end it didn't open until 2015. John had mixed feelings about what they were doing to the park in the first place because they were cutting a lot of things back to how it would have been, but his argument was that when they created it, they weren't aiming to make it look like it did at the start, they wanted things to mature! So he wasn't happy about what they were doing and it upset me because had it opened in September, it would have been a place that he could have walked to as he was getting more ill and not able to go as far. That would have been somewhere he could have gone to. So I got quite cross, but it wasn't open, he couldn't go and when it finally opened it was quite difficult to go there the first time because I felt that he didn't get to see this. I feel like I've got over that now, I've been with the kids and had nice times, but there's still that sense of it, so it has mixed feelings for me I suppose.
That's interesting to have such a connection and narrative with what, for most people, would be a local park, but people do attach themselves to certain places, it's comforting, especially if it's five minutes walk away, just to get some head space. Obviously it was quite important to John who felt quite protective of it and ownership of it I suppose.
We're both trained as historians and for him it was always very important to get to know a place, get to know the history of a place and he was very good at doing that. It was very much how he put down roots. I think because this was the place that we moved to together, this was the first house that we bought together, that was really important, it was an important part of making our home here and bringing up our family here, so it was tied into all that as well.
Could you tell me about John, what was he like?
He was a wonderful person. He was a historian and very passionate about history, very interested in it, he worked mainly on the C17th, which is how we got to know each other. He had lots of other talents as well, he was a photographer, so one of the issues I have is that I don't have many pictures of him because he was always the one behind the camera! Sometimes when we were out with the children I'd get a little bit irritated that I'd be doing stuff with the children and he'd be off somewhere taking pictures and that's one of the things I look back on now and I'm so glad that he did that. While I don't have lots of pictures of him, what I do have is lots of pictures of his view of the world if you like. In some ways, that's actually quite important, almost as comforting to look at the pictures that he took, as it might be to look at pictures of him.
One of the other things he was very good at was cooking. He tended to do the cooking, it wasn't me who did the cooking. So again, in terms of remembering him, I often remember him in the kitchen and we often, as a family, remember him through meals that we have. So yeah, he was great.
"It's always felt important to me to have those connections back and I've thought about it in different ways. Where I am at the moment it feels like weaving him in, so that he's still part of our lives and I suppose it's really important because of the children. It's important because of them that I don't want him to be something they feel they can't talk about or something that's out of the way, I want them to feel that, although he can't be here and part of our lives, that the memories of him, the things that were important to him are woven into our lives now"
He does sound very special. It's hard for me to hear about the pictures as my dad started to take pictures when he was ill, particularly of where he grew up in Cornwall. Very simple, but that notion of seeing the world through their eyes is very special. So do you look through photographs a lot? Are they helpful in maintaining memories?
Yeah, I do. It's interesting to consider the things that are difficult to do and those that aren't difficult to do. Because photography was important to him, and one of the things he did was take lots of photographs in Northumberland and for a couple of years had them made into calendars at Christmas and we'd given them to family members. So when were thinking about the funeral, one of the things we decided was that we wanted some of his pictures on a digital photo frame. We had the calendars out as well. He was a very modest and unassuming person, so one of the things that struck me was that people who knew one aspect of him, didn't necessarily know other sides to him. Actually when people came to the funeral, some of them didn't realise that he took photos. What that meant was that in preparing for the funeral, I was already looking through, trying to find photos that I like, and I think doing that very early, although it was quite painful, it does get you into doing it and then you keep doing that, you feel prepared to do it, it's not difficult. If I'd not done it to begin with, I would have found it much harder.
You alluded to people not knowing everything about John and his modesty, what sort of things were those and why was it that he didn't share them?
He was a historian, so some people knew that he wrote a couple of books, some knew that side of him but not about the photographs as that was much more of a personal hobby. I suppose even more, and people talked about this, was that because we moved up here for my job, John gave up his job in London and he'd got a contract to write a book. He said it was alright, that he wouldn't look for work immediately, just get the book written, he had the contract and hadn't been able to do it because of working and commuting, so now was the opportunity to do it. So he worked on the book, he finished the book, but by the time he'd finished the book I was pregnant with Thomas and so then he said he'd stay at home and look after the baby, that was fine! So he was the one that would take the children to school, collect them and so there were people who saw him in the playground who would just know him as the children's dad and didn't know anything else of what he did.
He was very modest, he was quite quiet, so he wouldn't talk about all the things he did. If somebody asked he would tell them, but people don't necessarily ask because they don't expect those things.
So how did he take to being dad at home?
Absolutely no problem at all, he loved it. He liked being able to spend the time with them, he was very good with them. At the time I worried that, not particularly financially, but for him, was it better for him to get a job, was that going to be a problem? But looking back on it now, I'm so glad that they had that really concentrated time with him. I know that in some ways that Anna in particular feels like she doesn't remember all that much, but I think there are things that are there (in her memory) and if it had been a much more traditional arrangement leaving early in the morning and coming home late at night, I think they would have had much less experience of being with him than they did. So I look back and think I'm actually really glad that we did that, it was a good thing. I think for both of them, and for him as well, to have had that time with his children feels to me really important.
I can see that as the kids grow up, they hopefully have these strong memories but also a value on the time that their dad chose to be with them rather than in work. You mentioned earlier that you're writing a book that he started as well looking after the kids, so there's a continuation there in a way?
Well actually there's even more of a connection because the book that I'm working on has a very strong connection to John, in that, it's about a figure that I was interested anyway who I'd already worked on, but we'd talked about the possibility of writing something together. I try not to have regrets, but one of my regrets is that we never actually did a project together, as I think we would have done. But we had this idea, I'm very interested in the ideas of the past, the kind of ideas that people had in the past, the way they thought about politics and things like that. John was interested in that, but he was also very good at social, cultural and political networks, so the idea was that we would look at this figure, I'd look at the ideas and he'd focus on the networks within which he operated. He started doing some research on that, so when he was ill, obviously you talk about things, certain things for the future and he said there's this collection of notes that I've done, this is where it is, they're yours, you can do what you want with them, you make what you will of them. About 6 months after he died, I had some research time so I wasn't teaching and I decided I wanted to go through these notes and see what I could make of them. It was difficult to begin with because a lot of them were hand written, all his handwriting and there's something very powerful about somebody's handwriting. Also, his handwriting wasn't very good, so sometimes I found it difficult to read, he'd use acronyms and I couldn't work out what they were, so it was frustrating at times! But I quite quickly realised that there was lots of really interesting material there and so initially the idea was to produce an article and by the end of that period of research leave I realised that actually there was a book here, I could make more of this. So that's really what I've been working on ever since. It was really helpful, because I describe it sort of as a bridge, it gave me a bridge, it was almost as though there was some connection to him that then allowed me to go off in a new direction and I need that. I needed it to have some connection to him, it was really important.
In that sense, do you feel in some way you're maintaining his legacy somewhat by completing the work he started?
Yes, that's exactly how it feels. It's always felt important to me to have those connections back and I've thought about it in different ways. Where I am at the moment it feels like weaving him in, so that he's still part of our lives and I suppose it's really important because of the children. It's important because of them that I don't want him to be something they feel they can't talk about or something that's out of the way, I want them to feel that, although he can't be here and part of our lives, that the memories of him, the things that were important to him are woven into our lives now and that it sounds kind of silly, but there's a way in which that then he continues to live through that. That's really important to me, that we do that.
In what other ways are you able to do that?
The book is one of those things. There was also, much more tangibly, he had an article that he'd more or less written but he couldn't quite let go of and publish and I managed to get that published for him. So that felt, although it was published after he died, like an important thing that I was able to do for him.
In the little things, because he was very good at cooking, so continuing to cook some of the recipes that he introduced us to, that feels very important. We have very strong connections with his family, we're still very close to his sisters and to his parents, and again, seeing them feels really really important. Just having his things around, having some of his photos up on the walls, having things that were important to him, and very much choosing to have them out there, not just that we haven't put them away or tidied them up, but actually choosing, we want those to be around us, to have those things around us.
It may not be obvious to the reader that your and Anna's story are connected, but you're expressing the loss of the same person. You mentioned that one of that ways in which you're encouraging your kids, and Anna in particular, in the that fact that she's taken part in this project. Which, as an 8-year-old, is quite astounding for me, that she would feel able and confident to revisit a place, take some pictures, but mainly talk about her dad in that sense, so from my perspective, you're doing an incredible job in allowing the kids to keep the memory of their dad alive in a very healthy way. There's sadness there, but not in a deep heavy way, it's a way to remember him through meals and special days.
Yeah, talking about that connection with him, I'm taking my lead from the fact that that was very much how he was. So when he became ill, it was important to him that we were open and honest with the children and we didn't hide things away from them. Obviously they were young, you have to adapt what you're saying to suit them, but the idea was that when we got more information we gave them that. It very much came from him, so it feels like it's continuing what he would have wanted. Also, I found that it worked, that did seem to, well, make it easier sounds odd because in some ways I still think it's one of the worst possible things that can happen, but I think they appreciated the honesty. They appreciated the fact that things weren't being hidden from them, and so I've wanted to carry that on and to give them the space. It's very important for me to talk about him, to remember him, to be allowed to do that, and it feels as though it's important for them as well and to give them, in a way that suits them, the opportunity to do that and to talk about how they feel.
So is it something that they bring up with you?
Yes, so we'll often talk about him and that allows them to remember. We'll be having a meal or something and all of a sudden they'll remember something and they'll talk about it. I think they feel completely comfortable, there's no fear that 'mum is going to get upset' if something is said. I feel that's important. People react differently and different things are right for different people, but for us, that felt like the right thing to do.
That's a beautiful notion, because a lot of adults struggle to do that. Adults who've lost people will close things off and feel the need to talk about somebody who's not around anymore, as you've alluded to, just in the moment 'Oh, Dad would have loved this, he would have found this funny', and actually finding yourself in a room of people who might be your friends but wouldn't necessarily understand you saying that. Simply holding off from saying something because you're worried it'll sound silly, I feel it's really healthy to let those things out in order to celebrate those who aren't with us anymore and have the relationships and environment around you that means you can express those things. As heartbreaking as it is that the kids haven't got their dad around, the fact that they can openly talk about him and remember him is as positive as you can get I imagine. I can't put myself in their situation though.
I suppose in some ways I wish that in society we talked more, and that's something that I've learnt. I've had experiences, lots of people will avoid mentioning him because they think it's going to make me upset. There are one or two people who have, who've come and said to me, 'Oh, I was thinking about John the other day and I was just thinking he would have really liked this...', and that makes me really happy, because somebody else hasn't forgotten him, they're still thinking about him in the way that I do. In that sense he's not forgotten and that's really important, but I'm not sure I would have realised that beforehand, I would have been the one thinking I would upset them if I mention the name, that might be sad for them, they might not want that in public. So it's realising that it doesn't work like that. In some ways, I wish we did talk more, because I think it's healthier in lots of ways.
"There are one or two people who have, who've come and said to me, 'Oh, I was thinking about John the other day and I was just thinking he would have really liked this…', and that makes me really happy, because somebody else hasn't forgotten him, they're still thinking about him in the way that I do. In that sense he's not forgotten and that's really important, but I'm not sure I would have realised that beforehand, I would have been the one thinking I would upset them if I mention the name, that might be sad for them, they might not want that in public."
A lot of people that I've met through the project, their worldview changes in the midst of their loss, and they end up changing tack with their profession, how they spend their time and thinking about other people a lot more, having a greater sense of consideration for those around them. It's a horrible way to get to that point, but you do start seeing things in a different way.
You do, and it's a small thing, but I think I'm much more inclined, if somebody's had something difficult, I know that something unpleasant has happened to them, that I'm much more likely to go to them and say something or do something, because I know that those people who did that really early on when we were having a difficult time, it meant a lot. So I'm much bolder about doing that, rather than thinking and not being sure. That feels like a good thing, a better way of being, but then that's hard because ultimately, I wish he was still here, this idea that every cloud has a silver lining, it just doesn't feel appropriate in terms of the situation. Given the choice, I'd rather my children still had their dad and I had my husband here, but it does change you and how you see things. I probably also care less about the little things now, they don't matter so much. There are some things that are really important in life and others that you can just say never mind.
Yeah, I can relate to that! I'm interested that it surprised you who came to reach out to you in that moment of need?√
Yes and no. We were very lucky in that sense in that largely we had a very positive experience, people were very supportive and thoughtful and did reach out, did things and showed that they care. I've spoken with other people who have had very negative experiences. I would say there were very few people who didn't stand up and acknowledge it. The children were very young, it looks like an awful situation, maybe that makes people more inclined to do something when perhaps they wouldn't if it had just been me, maybe it would have been different.
"I think I'm much more inclined, if somebody's had something difficult, I know that something unpleasant has happened to them, that I'm much more likely to go to them and say something or do something, because I know that those people who did that really early on when we were having a difficult time, it meant a lot. So I'm much bolder about doing that, rather than thinking and not being sure. That feels like a good thing, a better way of being, but then that's hard because ultimately, I wish he was still here, this idea that every cloud has a silver lining, it just doesn't feel appropriate in terms of the situation."
I wanted to ask you about finding a photograph for the project, how did you go about that? You've already said that John was the photographer...
No, there weren't lots of photos to choose from. He had a digital camera, so we have most of the photos on the computer and it's very difficult finding photos that have him in, even more so photos that have the two of us in. I occasionally would borrow the camera and take a picture that was never as good as the ones he'd taken of the rest of us, but to find one with the two of us was really difficult. Then to find one in a suitable place was even harder! Really, the only reason I was able to do it was thanks to my mum because when John was ill, my mum and John had had a conversation. She'd always taken the photos in our family and they'd had a conversation about the fact that there weren't many photos of him and so they agreed that she would gather up all the pictures that she could find of him. So, in fact, when I was looking on the computer, I finally came to this selection of photos that my mum had obviously uploaded, which spanned the whole of our time together. So I went through those to find ones that had the two of us in that would be suitable. As I say, yes, in some ways, not having lots of pictures of him has been difficult, but then at the same time, having lots of pictures that he took is also special in it's own way.
That's such an amazingly beautiful but simple thing that your mum did. Obviously with John instigating it, but for you to have that and know that its there is special. How did it feel going back today and re-taking it?
I suppose the park is now so familiar to us that going there doesn't feel strange, and again, in terms of what we talked about in terms of maintaining that connection, one of the things that I did early on was to go to places that we'd been. Places weren't off limits because they might feel difficult, we tried to go back to the places where we went together, so that I could still take the children there, that felt quite important. Sometimes going back the first time was hard, and sometimes I made sure that a friend was with us so that it wasn't just me and the children going back to certain places. But the park, we've been back so often that it doesn't feel odd.
I suppose I was taken back to that feeling of having a new baby and embarking on something together, feeling slightly out of my depth probably, but that sense of doing it together and each day is a little triumph! I suppose I was thinking more of that, how I felt at that moment, than necessarily of him not being around if that makes sense.
That notion, one of the reasons I worked on the project in the first place, is that without that photograph, you might not have been able to revisit that feeling and the fact that you were doing it together and to have a photograph to keep that memory present is important.
Yes, and that works, as I say, we have lots of photos because he took lots of photos and in looking through them you remember certain places and they evoke a whole series of memories of that place, not just that which is captured in the photograph. It's really important.
I wondered whether you have anniversaries or routines that help you remember John, to think back and remember?
Yes. I suppose we make something of his birthday every year, the children will have his favourite meal for dinner and we'll make the cake that he liked. We have a bench at Tynemouth Priory, near here, which was something he wanted, that was something that he talked about and so that was very important for me to sort that out, to do that because it was something that he wanted. So we'll often, on those kind of occasions, go there, it's a nice beautiful place, there are happy memories there. So while in some ways it's quite poignant and sometimes it can be upsetting for me going there, the fact that there are those happier memories there and I can plug into those is really helpful. So we'll often do that.
His birthday is relatively easy, the ones I find hard is the anniversary of when he died, because that always brings back all of those memories from that time. But I also find it very hard on our wedding anniversary, because that feels like one that I don't share with anybody else, there's only me. So that one's always particularly hard for me. I suppose in a sense, I feel those, as hard as they might be, it's quite important to mark those occasions and to remember. On the wedding anniversary I might look at some of the photos of the wedding, I might go to the bench, and although it is a difficult day, it feels as though that's important again. I don't know, I suppose I keep coming back to this idea that those memories are really important. To be able to keep having them, to be able to keep revisiting them actually matters a lot, and that's where the importance of the photos comes in, they help you to be able to do that, they help facilitate that process.
Being able to acknowledge him in a very intentional way on specific days, it's not always a nice feeling, but do you feel like you're doing the right thing?
I think about him every day, that's just how it is, it's not like it only suddenly crops up on these occasions but yeah, there is something about it, life is busy, two children, a job, things are busy, but there is something about taking a moment to pause and just reflect on that.
I wondered how you felt about the future? You're writing the book, the kids are growing up, have you thought much about that?
It's difficult. I'm conscious, dealing with the book first, that letting go of that is going to be hard, because that's been an important connection and so not having that is going to be quite difficult. With the children I suppose I feel, it's been more than 3 years now, I think we've found a way of being that works for us. We work as a team now. Initially you feel as though one wheel is missing or something, whereas I feel now, not that we've forgotten or don't miss him or don't wish he was here or anything like that, but we've found our way of working together. The kids, inevitably, moving into the future, you kind of can't do anything else! I guess I don't like to think about the point when they come to leave home, and that's far enough off at the moment, I guess as I get nearer to that, we'll find ways of managing that too, but for the minute, just one thing at a time.