coming out of darkness

I’ve never neglected my blog for such a long time – although I continue to chatter on Twitter – but the last quarter of 2009 has been a period of stressful work deadlines followed by a string of difficulties that rendered me mute. I should note that it was not terrible all the time, because to indicate otherwise would be to present a one-sided picture of recent months.

Life is a mixture of good and bad moments, although we tend to under-appreciate the good and over-emphasise the bad.

So, I’m bidding 2009 farewell with a grateful heart that I’ve survived its tests, and with an appreciation of those friends and family who helped me endure the trials.

I don’t want to end this post on a down note, but equally I must mention that my greatest shock this year was the death of my friend Rob Holdstock at the end of November.

I’ve known Rob for about fourteen years, and since 2001 I’ve maintained his web site. I offered to set it up and run it because I thought a writer of his stature should not be without a presence on the Internet, and I knew Rob found technological issues a bit of a frustration and struggle.

I valued our rambling phone calls very much, even when I had to nicely berate him for not sending me information often enough. This year I’d completely redesigned his site so it would be easier for him to post his own entries without too much intervention from me. He was delighted by this facility, and the first post in which he braved the technological challenge turned out to be his last. I had spoken to him a week or so before he was suddenly struck down and hospitalised.

My own life was in chaos at that point because of unprecedented flooding in the West of Ireland. I’d had to abandon my house because the only accessible road to my home was rapidly flooding out. I was receiving daily updates on Rob’s condition while I stayed with my Mother-in-Law, during a weekend in which I was supposed to be attending WexWorlds – a new fantasy / science fiction festival aimed at young people – but had to cancel due to the lack of any viable route.

Despite Rob’s grim condition I never imagined he would die. He was a man who was in love with life, and liked nothing better than inviting it around to a table heaving with food and drink and the company of good friends.

I associate Rob with laughter, long conversations about music, literature, travel, food and poetry, and always laughter. He was not a saint – none of us are – but his flaws were always forgotten once you were in his generous and upbeat presence.

And in the same moment I think of Rob I always think of Sarah, his partner: a wonderful pair, complementing each other, both caring and good-natured.

The news of his death seemed impossible; a hammer blow that set the world off its axis. It could not be right that he was gone.

And yet, there was work to be done: a notice for his web site (which crashed due to the massive spike in traffic, and had to be fixed), liasing with Sarah and Rob’s good friend Roy on further updates, and monitoring and approving the comments on the web site, which were under moderation.

Due to another problem that arose – my dog injured both legs in a short period of time and had to have surgery – I was housebound and unable to travel to London for his service, which was a different sorrow.

Yesterday, I finally updated his biography on this web site to indicate this death. This was something I found impossible to do initially. I’ve added a Tributes section, in which the lovely memories and reminiscences of his family and friends – prepared for his service in December – are collected for prosperity. A Memorial Fund has been set up with the Woodland Trust, and I can’t think of a better way to mark his life and work by celebrating his abiding love of the woods. It’s already accrued over £1,000 and hopefully it will reach the point where it will be enough to dedicate an acre of woodland to him.

In the days after his death I was seized by an impulse to write a poem for him that reflected him and evoked his work. Rob and I discussed poetry a lot, which was great since I knew few other writers who were receptive to it. I remember his wonderful enthusiasm for one of my published short stories I was bold enough to send him, and his praise for a poem that had been published online. He was unfailing supportive of my writing.

There is a reason it has taken me so long to write this: it is painful to think of him in the past.

Here is the poem I wrote. I think Rob would have liked it, and perhaps it is through the realm of the creative work that we can connect again.

For Rob

Not Ryhope or England
but these ancient woods
record history.
They delve deep,
roots spearing ribs
of farmers, kings and mystics
to absorb magic and folly.
Their weighty boughs
are Nature’s styluses;
sometimes they skip grooves
as the breeze shakes
the oak and rowan,
to carry…
     the chant of old songs;
     the sigh of lovers’ lies;
     the bright clang of battle.

I struggle through
soaked foliage,
thick, soupy earth –
wet from winter’s deluge –
chasing a ghost.

A splash; a horse’s neigh.
A woman –
her face masked,
her eyes pitiless with mercy –
knees her horse toward me
through tendrils of ivy.

“Where is he?” I ask

Her tanned, calloused hand
chops to the gateway
between pillars of stone,
beyond a still, silvered pool.

The trees sway.
They fan the echo of a hearty laugh,
as familiar as breath.

I surge forward,
but she urges her horse
between me
and the way.
I glare threats;
she, implacable,
flicks mud from her thigh.

Above, a hawk shrieks,
and we both squint up
at its shadow crossing the sun,
ecstatic with prey.

The Rider salutes, turns,
crests through the gate,
and a mist gathers after.

When it thins out
from the promise of sunlight,
the passage is gone.

I sit and listen.
The branches sweep
and play the past.

In the woods
I will remember him,
until the Rider returns.

In memoriam: Rob Holdstock (1948 – 2009)