Monday, 6 December 2010

“Our Billie” by IAN CLAYTON. A Review Of The Book Published By Penguin In 2010.

"…To Us He Gives The Keeping…"

When I read Ian Clayton’s “Bringing It All Back Home”, I was quietly blown away. Ballbreakingly funny, incisively articulate and bursting to the gills with gloriously recalled memories of music and its effect on his life – I loved every noun-filled page of it. But there was an expected hammerblow at the end of his debut. A huge and terrible personal tragedy had befallen him, his wife Heather and their twin son Edward and “Our Billie” is his reaction to that loss – the drowning of their 9-year old daughter in a freak boating accident in 2006.

His wife Heather (and Billie's mother) wittily characterises her hubby as a "...a working class tough guy who knows a lot of big words..." Freelance writer and broadcaster for 25 years, widely travelled in the USA, Europe and even Russia, Clayton is a stoical Yorkshireman whose led writer's workshops in Prisons, Hospitals, Schools and Art Centres. He has a self-deprecating style that suits his down-to-earth honesty. You can 'feel' the warmth of the man and the strength of his family.

So why did he write this book? As the father of a 19-year old Autistic son myself, I know so well his all-abiding need to make her life matter - for her not to be just another statistic on an ignored Government list somewhere. Clayton wants his Billie to be remembered. She was a real person who once laughed and had hopes and dreams like the rest of us. And in this book, he needed to get across a lot of information that is difficult to say and painful to revisit. Losing her in this manner was so cruel and yet life must go on. It's like a loss you get no closure on and he's managed to dig deep and chronicle it all with courage and an almost unbearable poignancy.

Reading “Our Billie” (named after Billie Holiday), you also get the sense of how much the grieving process distorts everything – days become detached and unreal – the intense missing of her comes on him in waves. It abates of course with time, but it never goes away – nor in many ways would he want it to. A downside however (if you could call it that) is that there are frustrating chapters that seem to break the flow – stuff on the Miner’s Strike – on his unfathomable father – on Sarajevo - subjects that seem strangely at odds with the title of the book. But then as you read between the lines, you realise that what you’re really getting is his anger and mounting rage coming out ‘sideways’ (there was also an ugly court case regarding the hire company’s reckless endangerment of life). I suppose we all use subtle defence mechanisms when real hurt is involved.

But then just as the heartache threatens to swallow everything whole – he hits you with wonderfully recalled memories that bring the beautifully photogenic child on the front cover to life…that realize her spirit. When Billie picked up a stranded worm after a rainstorm and placed it in the grass again so that it could wriggle its way back to its family – when she giggled with pleasure at her no-nonsense 90-year old Aunt Alice who complained about the hardness of the carrots on her plate in a posh restaurant - feeding her army of 30 Teddy Bears and Dolls in her bedroom with cough syrup lest any of them get sick – standing at a wall overlooking a stream in Whitby when a kingfisher zipped by… This was a girl who had a teeshirt that said "Be Happy" (she was laid to rest in it).

The aftermath for the Clayton family is spoken about in shockingly candid detail too – coping with it, not coping with it. His own helplessness on the day as the river’s current physically beat him and the sweating water nightmares that followed for months - hearing the lyrics to "Tom Traubert’s Blues" by Tom Waits where the beaten soldier ruminates that "…everything’s broken…" - crossing a field and remembering a fence he once leapfrogged just to hear her laugh - their son Edward sobbing as Jon Voight tries to wake Dustin Hoffman on the bus into Miami at the end of “Midnight Cowboy” - his wife not being able to look at the last school photograph of her on her bedroom wall - the awkward silence of friends in local pubs who just don’t know what to say except to offer him a pint…

This is a father who has lost his daughter – a once living breathing hopeful creature who enchanted everyone she ever met – and he 'needs' to make her loss matter. "Our Billie" is not an easy read for sure, but it is a moving one. And as I look at her photograph – I wish I’d met her – shook her hand and told her how utterly brill she was.

Off the coast of Cleveland in the USA, a boat was shipwrecked on a stormy night for want of 'lower lights' from the town on the shore to guide it into safety. In 1871 a moved Phillip Bliss published a hymn about the avoidable tragedy called "Keep The Lower Lights Burning". It's subsequently become known as the 'Lighthouse Hymn' and the author sings it to himself sometimes when he’s out walking where his daughter walked.

A lyric from it titles this review.

"Keep The Lower Lights Burning" - A Hymn

1. Brightly beams our Father’s mercy,
From His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.

Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor struggling, fainting seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

2. Dark the night of sin has settled,
Loud the angry billows roar;
Eager eyes are watching, longing,
For the lights along the shore.


3. Trim your feeble lamp, my brother;
Some poor sailor, tempest-tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor,
In the darkness may be lost.


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