Will & John
Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire
Could you tell me about the original photograph?
My name is Will Navaie. The photo that I've chosen is of me with my Dad, and I was probably about two and a half. The photo is special to me because it sums up a time when me and my dad had a really good relationship and was taken in a place that he cared very much about and I've come to care very much about, so it seems like the most relevant photo that I could think of that would suit the concept of the project. It sprung to mind immediately, there wasn't any question, when I saw the project, that photo came in to my head.
Could you tell me anything more about the day that it was taken?
I think in terms of it being a typical day, the fact that it's probably in the middle of the day, Dad's out with me and not working, is probably quite typical. So it wasn't anything special, it was just a normal day, but there is an ice cream there, so it was a slightly special day and it was sunny!
"I had a call from his number, but on the end of the phone was somebody who was just absolutely hysterical, completely losing it, somebody in shock, couldn't breathe, couldn't talk very well and they just kept saying, "He's dead, he's dead". I knew it wasn't my dad because it wasn't his voice, but I needed to know what was going on, so I asked the person on the phone to pass me onto someone else and they passed me onto a paramedic who said, "Are you the next of kin", and I didn't really know what to think."
Could you describe the picture for me.
There's a toddler, who is me, in a very fetching romper suit and long socks, which is a strong look! My dad is sitting on what seems to be a stone coffin, which thinking about what the project is about is a bit weird, because it's a picture of my dead dad sitting on someone else's coffin in a graveyard where he's not buried, so that in itself is a bit bizarre and not something I'd thought about, but that was the photo that came to mind, so it seemed natural to want to recreate that.
It's outside Malmesbury Abbey, and Malmesbury is a special place to our family because my dad was born here and never left. I was born here, then moved away and since my daughter's been born, me and my family have moved back to Malmesbury because I had an idyllic childhood and I would like my daughter to have an idyllic childhood.
In that sense, it's a special place.
Does it hold a lot of significance?
Absolutely, it holds more significance than I think I'd realised before and coming back to a place that has such a strong community, which my dad was a massive part of, yeah, it holds a particular significance that I hadn't appreciated. I think in terms of my rosy childhood, it was even rosier than I'd given it credit for. The community here's amazing, everyone's really special, everybody remembers my dad and that's really nice in itself, because it's like he's still alive to a certain degree, in terms of being in people's memory.
"I had no idea what to do, so I just stood there for, I don't know how long, thinking about whether it was real, was I awake, was this actually a real thing."
Do you think that helps you in terms of your sense of belonging, and also holding onto the memory of your dad and who he was, by being in the place where he lived and worked?
Absolutely. On a daily basis I talk about my dad, which is really nice, because it's been eight years since he died and for seven and a half of those I lived in London, so I thought about my dad, but I didn't think or talk about him every day. So in the last 6 months I've talked about my dad more, a lot more, than I have for a very long time, which is really nice. People always have nice things to say, which is great, and people are very friendly and have been very welcoming to us since we moved back.
You mentioned your dad's contribution to the community, could you tell me a bit more about that?
My dad was so passionate about the place that he was born that he researched the history of it and wrote a book about it. He'd get very angry about things not being the way they should. If he thought something was wrong, he'd go out of his way to try and fix that, but instead of being obstructive, he knew how the systems worked, so he became a councillor, he was on lots of committees and he was mayor of Malmesbury twice. He was an active member of the community when they bulldozed the hospital, he made sure they got publicity around the fact that it was an asset to the community that was being removed, and campaigned a lot to make sure something was put there in it's place. I think that, to me, in terms of any legacy above him being a character and well known in the town and writing a book and producing loads of paintings and everyone having a story about him, to me the legacy is the fact that we still have a health centre here, because if it wasn't for him and the people he had around him, it wouldn't have happened.
In that sense, does his legacy and the things he's left behind help you connect with him?
I think so, because as with any relationship I guess, it's not always happy days, and our relationship had been on and off. Luckily it was 'on' when he died. We're both really opinionated and emotional people and sometimes our opinions didn't necessarily meet and sometimes we didn't speak to each other for a long time. He really upset a lot of people while he was here, because his opinions were so strong. I am a little wary when talking about my dad to the community here because I thought he might have upset some people and they might assume that I have the same opinions, but I'm not my dad, my dad is part of me, but I'm not my dad. People have generally just been really lovely and said how much they miss him and how much of an asset he was, so it's all really positive. They even named the art gallery in the town hall after him which I know he'd be really proud of cause he never really rated himself as an artist. It's almost like the memories that I'm being reminded of now are the guy that I wish he was the whole time. In death sometimes people become superheroes, in terms of looking at someone like Lady Diana, she's some sort of idol and of course, yeah, she did some really good things, but the way that people have idolised her since she's died is intriguing to me and how in people's minds the memories of someone is completely different to the actuality of that person. For me personally, it's working in my favour that people keep talking about the good stuff all the time.
"I realised the enormity of the situation and so phoned my brother and literally said, "Dad's died, I don't know what to say", and just hung up. I spoke to mum and told her to pull over in the car and she told me that that was stupid and I said that she had to pull over and I told her and she just said "NO" in a way that basically broke my heart completely. It's like a tattoo, the way that she said that will always stay with me."
He's evidently left a gap in the community, but I wondered if you could describe YOUR loss, what's it's been like for you, experiencing that loss and having that space in your life?
From my perspective, having the loss of my dad affected me in a number of different ways, in terms of how I am as a person and I think that off the back of it, I've come out as a much better person. Reflecting back on good things, bad things, my disappointment of behaviour in certain instances, not sharing things that he should have done because he assumed I would think something of him, it has made me a much stronger person, it's made me a nicer person, that's for sure. It's made me a lot more empathetic.
In terms of the gap in the community and me coming back here and how that might have affected me, I suppose when I first moved back I was worried that people would assume that I would try and fill the gap that he might have left, but to be honest I think that gap has become a lot smaller because of the time that's passed. One thing I am keen to do is make it clear that I'm not my dad, in terms of my identity and role in the community. I'm very acutely aware of what others expectations might be and I don't want to fulfil their expectations, I want to manage their expectations to make sure that they understand that I'm here to have my family life here as part of the community, not to relive my dad's part of the community or to fill the void that dad might have left.
"After the autopsy is when they laid out the body and I went and I realised it wasn't a joke and then the grieving started and I started to come to terms with it. If you look at the grief curve, it's a thing, it really is! It's funny how you can actually draw it out. I was in absolute denial until I saw the body. Completely. I was going through the motions. All of the things that happen when someone dies happened to me."
Could you describe who your dad was, who was he to you?
My dad was an incredibly talented man, an incredibly caring man. He was also quite uncaring sometimes as well, and also not the best at being necessarily empathetic or sympathetic to others. My dad was physically a big man and his personality was huge as well, he was incredibly charming, funny, good company, but he also got bored easily, so in terms of friendships, there have been quite a few where it's been really intense and then those people just disappeared and we didn't see them again. He was very all or nothing, which I see myself as as well, but also because I don't want to end up losing friends like dad did, I am very aware that I'm like that, so I try not to be hot and cold, I try to be more consistent. The things that he did that I see as negative, I try to learn from those. I do feel like I'm very similar in terms of personality to him, but try to remember the affects that those quite strong opinions and emotions can have on people.
My dad was an amazing entertainer, he was always feeding people, giving people far too much to drink (although not drinking himself). He was an immensely productive man. He was an author, a painter, a photographer, a dress designer, a milliner, he put on parties for people. He was one of those people that if he turned his hand to something, he could do it really well, or practice until he was really good at it. He enjoyed being good at things.
Are there any traits or characteristics that you've inherited or would like to inherit?
I like to think that he's given me this confidence, that borders on arrogance to be honest, that I can do things to a high degree. I kind of like that because I'll give it a go. Unlike dad, I'll follow it through, so dad got bored easily, or wouldn't take part in something unless he'd win, so I'm not like that, I mean, I'm competitive, but not to the extent that I wouldn't enter something unless I knew I was going to win. I have a lot more patience with things and sometimes I give up on them because I'm not enjoying it or getting anything out of it or it's not benefitting anyone, but in terms of being able to at least give something a go and give it the concentration it needs to learn new skills and produce things.
I think that one thing that I found really cathartic when clearing out the house was that he produced so much stuff! Besides the hoarding, there are hundreds of paintings, hundreds of garments that he'd made, I'll go round people's houses and they'll have one of dad's paintings hanging up and it's really nice that he's produced so much, it's that whole leaving a bit of yourself behind. That's one thing that i've inherited, I'd much rather make someone a birthday card and give it to them because it means a lot more and it's as if you're giving a bit of yourself to someone. Things like, I'm not going to pay £140 for a hat if I could make it myself, so there's that aspect as well.
"My brain didn't know how to process what was happening...I had no idea what to do, so I just stood there for, I don't know how long, thinking about whether it was real, was I awake?"
I wondered if you could share the experience of losing your dad?
It was an absolutely normal day, my relationship with my dad was at a good point, we used to speak a couple of times a week. We didn't see each other as much as we should, but he was in Malmesbury and I was in London, I was busy and he said he was busy, but we'd speak on the phone. One day, I gave him a call to chat and he was driving, so he said he'd call me back. He'd gone out to do some painting with a friend and he said he'd call me back afterwards. I was just getting on with the rest of my day but the phone call didn't come. Then I had a call from his number, but on the end of the phone was somebody who was just absolutely hysterical, completely losing it, somebody in shock, couldn't breathe, couldn't talk very well and they just kept saying, "He's dead, he's dead". I knew it wasn't my dad because it wasn't his voice, but I needed to know what was going on, so I asked the person on the phone to pass me onto someone else and they passed me onto a paramedic who said, "Are you the next of kin", and I didn't really know what to think. I asked what the situation was and they said they'd been called out to a man who'd collapsed and that when they'd got there he'd died, and that's how I found out about it, which was horrific to be honest.
There's no good way of finding out, but, yeah, I think the way that I had someone that was hysterical and then someone that was coldly factual, my brain didn't know how to process what was happening and I don't think it would have been able to process the situation anyway, but I had no idea what to do, so I just stood there for, I don't know how long, thinking about whether it was real, was I awake, was this actually a real thing, was it someone taking the piss out of me, some sick joke that somebody was making.
Once I'd processed that, I realised the enormity of the situation and so phoned my brother and literally said, "Dad's died, I don't know what to say", and just hung up. I spoke to mum and told her to pull over in the car and she told me that that was stupid and I said that she had to pull over and I told her and she just said "No" in a way that basically broke my heart completely. It's like a tattoo, the way that she said that will always stay with me. Even though they'd got divorced five years before, it's the father of her children, they still loved each other, definitely, they just couldn't be together. It was just all horrible.
I honestly can't imagine a scenario much worse, there aren't many scenarios in which life can get much tougher.
I don't think that there's a good way of finding out and the reason why this project is so important, and why I find it so important is that it gives people an understanding of what it's like and that there isn't one way of doing it and there isn't some form of hierarchy. Earlier on when you were talking about your dad and being at his bedside when he passed away, that broke me, to me, that's even worse, so it's odd that you've said that it seems worse this way around, because to me, it seems like it would have been harder to see someone's demise.
The way I look at it is that my dad was with his best mate at a beauty spot and had a massive coronary, so he probably didn't feel anything anyway, so if you've got to go any way at all, then that's pretty good actually. I mean, the fallout, the impact on everybody is shit, but for him personally, no-one needed to worry about him, he didn't need to see an affect that he was having on other people. That's one thing that I think must be awful for people, is to feel a burden on their family and to see that they are potentially being a burden on them. I think it's very difficult to try and compare the severity of something when there isn't one that's worse than the other, you just can't ever prepare yourself for it.
Really though, I just wanted a hug, and I couldn't have a hug. That just broke me, absolutely. Seeing my dad as an object was really weird. The person was gone. The person, from an existential point of view, only existed in everyone else's mind. He'd gone.
How did you respond, over the coming days, weeks, months, years?
Dying causes the world's shitiest amount of paperwork, it's just ridiculous. The amount of admin that dying creates is ridiculous, so I was next of kin, my parents were divorced and I have a little brother, and I felt that I needed to do it all. It turns out I didn't need to do it all, but I was trying to protect everybody, which didn't really help and it wasn't required, but that's what I felt I needed to do. It's this weird thing about now being the head of the family, or the oldest male, which is joke, because my mum basically brought us up and she was the one that earn't the money and dad kind of got bored of us and swanned around doing lovely things whilst mum was working her arse of so they we could pay the bills and bringing up the kids.
The weeks afterwards were filled with phone calls, filling out paperwork, telling people that he'd died, but in my mind this was just some sick joke that someone was having on me, thinking he's going to walk in through the front door and I'd tell say 'oh, you idiot', but it wasn't some sick joke. It wasn't until after the autopsy, because he died in unknown circumstances and he wasn't technically ill, so after the autopsy is when they laid out the body and I went and I realised it wasn't a joke and then the grieving started and I started to come to terms with it. If you look at the grief curve, it's a thing, it really is! It's funny how you can actually draw it out. I was in absolute denial until I saw the body. Completely. I was going through the motions. All of the things that happen when someone dies happened to me. I'm getting phone calls from the police asking about moving the car and the funeral directions asking about making arrangements, so the motions are happening for me to understand that my dad's died, but it wasn't until I saw him laid out that I had understanding that he'd died.
"Really though, I just wanted a hug, and I couldn't have a hug."
When we went there, I almost forced my brother to go, persuaded him quite strongly that he needed to go and he didn't want to, but I thought it would be good for him, and it turns out it was good for him, which is probably lucky rather than anything else. I did feel so strongly about the denial thing, that I assumed that he'd be feeling the same way, but in terms of how it felt when we were in there, I know that I can't compare my feelings to his, because he hadn't spoken to dad for five years. So he must have been having a very different experience to me. If the first time you've seen you dad is when he's laid out in front of you, cold, that must be awful. I think it helped us both in the fact that it strengthens your bond, it's a great leveller. Our dad just died, so even though we're having unique ways of dealing with the situation, we both have the same baseline.
When he was there, there's lots of weird stuff, like how do you dress him? How do you dress a man who 1. Can't fit in any of his clothes, but also 2. Made clothes for lots of people and was very particular about what he wore, it's quite hard. Really though, I just wanted a hug, and I couldn't have a hug. That just broke me, absolutely. Seeing my dad as an object was really weird. The person was gone. The person, from an existential point of view, only existed in everyone else's mind. He'd gone. There was just this object that was my cold dead dad. I don't know, it's not a regret hugging him, but the feeling of his skin. Your hair grows after you die, so he had stubble, which I didn't really understand because they said they'd shaved him and his beard was all neat, but the feeling on my face will stayed with me for weeks and weeks afterwards. It just wouldn't go away. I don't regret it, I've done it, it happened and it was part of the grieving process. After that, things became much, well, easier isn't the right word, but when you come to an acceptance that something's happen you then get into a position where you can deal with it. Some people go back to work straight away, I couldn't face doing anything, so I basically destroyed the house. I needed something to do, so I started doing all this DIY that had needed to be done for about 20 years, so ripping down the ceiling, all the plaster off the walls, took up the floor boards and the radiators and then after about 3 months sat on the floor and was like, 'What have I done? What have I done?', because I'd just made my situation a bit worse! You've got all this stuff to deal with and now your house is a building site! You're not thinking straight.
I got really nihilistic, just asking myself what's the point. I started really disliking the affect that I was having on other people, so you'd go to the pub and no-one talks to you, or they don't want to go to the pub with you because your dad's died, and all you want to do is talk about it and it makes people feel really weird. The only people you can talk to really are you family, who are all in crisis as well. So I just got to the point where I couldn't see the point in anything really, so I ended up being pretty horrible to people.
What were the things that helped you out of that place?
The thing that really got me out of it was my friend Ollie, who asked me to help him out with something, he had this art installation at the Big Chill festival and he asked me if I wanted to come and along to work. He treated me completely normally, and that was the thing that got me, someone was just saying, 'Come on mate, lets do this, it'll be fun, I need some help, will you help me?', and that's what started getting me back to normal, it was realising that it was me being the idiot, not everyone, that people were nice. It was more that he wasn't all 'Oh, there there', it was just, come on, let's do it, let's have fun, and that got me back on track. People don't know what you to say, and actually I'd like them to just not say anything, because there's nothing you can say. I don't have any advice to anybody at all about what to say. I think all you can say is, 'I'm here for you, I'm ready, I'm here'. I don't think there's a right way.
"Some people go back to work straight away, I couldn't face doing anything, so I basically destroyed the house. I needed something to do, so I started doing all this DIY that had needed to be done for about 20 years, so ripping down the ceiling, all the plaster off the walls, took up the floor boards and the radiators and then after about 3 months sat on the floor and was like, 'What have I done? What have I done?', because I'd just made my situation a bit worse! You've got all this stuff to deal with and now your house is a building site!"
What was it like when I asked you to find a photograph?
There aren't many photos of my dad, they're all in one album. He hated having his photograph taken, so there weren't that many to choose from, but in terms of understanding what the project was, there was only one that really sprung to mind because it was of a happy time in a special place, so it wasn't that difficult.
The other thing is that my dad was one of those people who would run away from cameras, which is why he's not in any photos, so this one's completely natural, it's not posed or staged, neither of us are looking at the camera, we don't know that the camera is there, so it's a really nice snapshot in time.
What was it like re-taking the photo today? How did that feel?
It's been really good, it's been nice to think and talk about him more, and thinking about why that was the right choice of photo. Going there (to the abbey) with you and almost felt a sense of pride because of how nice it was there too, it was nice to share the experience with you and I really enjoyed being able to wallow in memories as well. I haven't done it in a while, so it was nice to think about him. Today has been really nice, it hasn't felt forced or uncomfortable in any way, so in terms of representing the grieving process and how it feels, today's been a really good way of me sharing with you and I think your project is a really good opportunity to do that, and I hope others can see it as a conversation starter or a forum to talk about things that people don't want to talk about, because actually, if we talked about it, it might be easier to cope with afterwards.
When my mum dies, that's gong to be awful, and I know I'm in a better position to deal with paperwork, but it'll be different and I don't know if it puts you in a more prepared way, I'm not sure.
"I got really nihilistic, just asking myself what's the point. I started really disliking the affect that I was having on other people, so you'd go to the pub and no-one talks to you, or they don't want to go to the pub with you because your dad's died, and all you want to do is talk about it. The only people you can talk to really are you family, who are all in crisis as well. "
Is there anything else you wanted to share?
I would like our society to change a little bit in how we view death. As much as we say funerals are a celebration of life, a lot of them aren't and a lot of them are very sombre affairs. I just think if we were to talk about it more and it wasn't such a taboo subject, I mean, we all talk about other personal things, people share their medical conditions all the time, people are prepared to share something about their feet rotting off because of their diabetes, but not talk to me about dying, but I wish people would talk about it more, because it's going to happen, you may as well have a plan to share with your family about what you'd like, because then they don't have to second guess. That's tough in itself, the not knowing, did I make the right decision and then never knowing if you made the right decision.